7 tips to avoid getting stranded by airlines when things go wrong
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It’s shaping up to be a “sold-out summer.”
With record numbers of travelers expected to take to the skies, experts warn of full flights, crowded hotels and packed tours once you’re finally at your destination.
While the increased demand is undoubtedly good news for airlines’ bottom lines, considerable headwinds are facing the industry.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether the carriers can operate a full, pre-pandemic schedule, something that hasn’t been done since 2019 when staffing issues weren’t as much of a problem.
Air travel “meltdowns” have occurred with increased frequency throughout the pandemic, especially during busy holiday weekends. All it seemingly takes is a single weather event or disruption somewhere in the country to cause a domino effect of disruptions across an entire network.
If Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate this summer, it could take days to get reaccommodated on a new flight.
Here are TPG’s top seven tips to avoid getting stranded by airlines when things go wrong.
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Book the earliest flight
If you absolutely need to be somewhere on time, it usually pays to take the first flight of the day.
For one, the aircraft operating the first flight in the morning usually spends the night at the departure airport. This means you typically won’t need to wait for a (delayed) inbound aircraft or worry about air-traffic control delaying the arrival of your plane.
Plus, thunderstorms — a leading cause of delays in the summer — typically begin developing later in the day. Departing before any possible weather disrupts an airline schedule should improve your chances of landing on time.
Master your backup plan
These days, it’s become incredibly important to travel with a backup plan.
If your flight gets delayed or canceled, you’ll want to figure out an alternative option. You might get rebooked automatically by your airline, but the replacement itinerary may not necessarily work for your schedule.
Once irregular operations strike, you should be able to request any other available itinerary, so long as there are available seats in your originally ticketed cabin. You can ask an airline representative for a different routing or even inquire about departing or arriving at nearby airports.
Google Flights is a great place to start your search for a backup plan. Savvy travelers may want to check flight loads using ExpertFlyer, a pro-level tool that can help you drill down into the fare class availability on any given flight. (Note that ExpertFlyer is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures).
Fly a network carrier
The Big 3 U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — have much more schedule redundancy than the budget carriers.
This means that if something goes wrong with your flight, finding a replacement itinerary should be easier with one of the network airlines. Instead of connecting through Charlotte with American, you could instead search for options through Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago or Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, if you’re booked on Spirit or Frontier, it’s possible that there are just one or two flights a day in a given market. Plus, these carriers are focused on point-to-point connectivity, so you likely won’t even find connecting options.
Generally speaking, with many sold-out flights, the odds of getting quickly reaccomodated on an ultra-low-cost carrier are much lower than if you’re traveling with American, Delta or United.
Know your rights
If you’re stuck with a significant flight delay or cancellation, it pays to know your rights.
For one, you’re entitled to a full refund back to the original form of payment should your flight get disrupted. This is a no-questions-asked policy that’s mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation for flights operating to, from or within the U.S. If you’d prefer to just throw in the towel, ask your airline for a full refund — they’re obliged to comply with your request.
Another option is to collect a refund and rebook your trip at the last minute with another airline.
The major U.S. airlines all have interline agreements that allow you to get rebooked on a different partner carrier, pending availability. It’ll definitely take the help of an experienced airport agent to reaccomodate you on a different airline, but know that it’s generally possible.
However, the low-cost carriers don’t typically have such agreements, and in some cases, it pays to just collect a refund and rebook your trip on your own.
Finally, always be sure to check what trip delay and cancellation insurance coverage you might be entitled to from your premium credit card. In some cases, the card issuer might cover your out-of-pocket expenses during a delay.
Head to the lounge
When flight issues arise, getting in touch with a competent airline agent is essential. The sooner you find someone, the better odds you have of scoring one of the remaining seats on another flight.
We’ve all heard stories and seen images of customer service lines that wrap around the terminal. Plus, airline phone hold times can creep up to hours during the busiest travel days.
In that case, your best bet is typically to head directly into the lounge, if you have access. There are usually agents on hand to help with flight inquiries, and there’s usually less of a line in the lounge than in the general terminal.
Take advantage of waivers
When airlines expect inclement weather or other issues to disrupt their operations, the carriers will post travel alert waivers on their websites.
These waivers offer additional flexibility even before something goes wrong with your flight. If you’re covered under the waiver, you’ll generally be able to switch your flight at no cost (with a waiver change fee and fare difference) to any other flight within the waiver parameters.
If your flight is covered by a waiver, it could make sense to proactively make a switch well before your scheduled departure time.
Flexibility is the name of the game
More than ever, it’s important to remain flexible.
With very few unsold seats available, getting reaccomodated during irregular options will likely be a big challenge this summer. Bringing the right mindset and recognizing that disruptions are bound to happen should make it easier to handle them when they arise.
Be sure to pack your patience (and a backup plan) if you’re headed on the road or hitting the skies this summer.
Featured photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images.
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