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10 tips to best protect your holiday flights from getting derailed

Nov. 03, 2021
7 min read
A man, woman, and young child, all wearing masks, wheel luggage through an airport.
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If the last few weeks are any indication, it’s shaping up to be a rough holiday season for air travel.

Sure, the airlines have reassured us that they'll be appropriately staffed up to handle any irregular operations in the coming weeks, but it'll nonetheless pay to protect yourself from what could be a ruined vacation or family get-together.

From making sure you have a backup travel plan to packing an extra set of clothes, here are 10 handy tips to reduce the chances that your holiday plans get derailed.

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Book using a card with built-in protection

To start, be sure to book your trip on a credit card that offers trip interruption and cancellation protection. This way, if things go wrong, you can take some matters into your own hands without waiting for an airline’s customer service department to rebook your flight and issue you a hotel or meal voucher, if applicable.

Several of our top recommended credit cards include these benefits for no additional cost — if your trip is canceled or significantly delayed by the airline, these coverages can kick in to reimburse your eligible trip expenses, such as an extra hotel night while you wait for a new flight home, additional meals, ground transportation, etc.

Create a backup plan

Whenever I book a flight to an important meeting or event, I’ll always make sure to have a backup plan in case the original itinerary gets disrupted. This can include connecting through a different hub, flying on another airline or departing from a nearby airport.

The same logic should apply to holiday flights: iIf you must get to your final destination by a certain time, be sure to create at least a mental backup plan. It’ll save you lots of last-minute, stressful research if something goes wrong.

Lock in an alternative with points

Along the lines of creating a backup plan, it could pay to actually book an alternative option if you’re really worried about flight delays or cancellations.

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At TPG, we often write about the many perks of using points and miles to book flights. One of the most overlooked benefits is that you can usually make changes and cancellations with little to no fee until just minutes before departure with some programs. (The same applies to refundable fares, but those can often be much more expensive than award flights.)

Whatever you do, just be sure to redeposit your award before takeoff — you don’t want to forget, and then lose your points.

Know your rights

Always remember your rights: You’re eligible for a full refund when your flight is canceled or significantly delayed — regardless of the reason.

That’s thanks to the Department of Transportation’s policy which requires airlines operating flights to, from or within the U.S. to refund your ticket during irregular operations.

(Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images)

Though you may be offered a voucher or future flight credit, kindly remind the agent that you’re eligible for a full refund when flights are canceled or significantly delayed. (Unfortunately, the DOT doesn’t define what qualifies as “significantly delayed,” and each airline has its own interpretation.)

Knowing that you’ll be refunded for a canceled flight should make it easier to rebook on another airline if that’s your only option.

Arrive early

On the day of your flight, be sure to arrive early.

Airlines, airports and the TSA are dealing with staffing shortages, which have led to longer lines at check-in counters and security checkpoints nationwide during peak periods. In fact, during a recent weekend trip, I waited more than 30 minutes for the TSA Precheck line at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

During the Labor Day weekend, TPG's Summer Hull could barely even find the beginning of the security screening line at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Track your aircraft

Of the U.S. carriers, United offers one of the most robust flight status trackers. It displays the status of your incoming aircraft and, if needed, includes a paragraph-long explanation as to why your flight is disrupted.

If you are flying with an airline that doesn't make that process as simple, you can still take matters into your own hands. FlightAware and FlightRadar24 are two great apps for tracking your flight status and locating your inbound plane.

This way, you’ll get a better sense of whether your flight will operate on schedule, well before an airline might post a status update.

Book a manageable connection

If you’re traveling as a family or otherwise don't want to cut things too close, be mindful of flight connections.

While airlines are incentivized to minimize the total travel time from point A to point B to appear higher in search results, the shortest itinerary might not be manageable.

Dallas/Fort Worth Airport (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

For instance, American Airlines is generally allowed to sell 40-minute-long domestic connections in its Dallas/Fort Worth mega-hub. But if you’re traveling between terminals, you’ll need to use the Skylink, which requires navigating up and down multiple levels with lots of walking.

With young kids, especially infants in strollers or preschoolers who still aren't the fastest walkers, a longer connection might be better.

Strategically choose your flight

As much as it might ruin your night of sleep, it could make sense to book that 6 a.m. flight.

In most cases, that first flight of the day is operated by a plane that sat at the airport overnight — you won’t need to wait for it to arrive from another destination. Plus, these planes are usually deep cleaned and maintained overnight too, minimizing the chances of something going wrong.

Similarly, if faced with the choice, try to book a flight on a mainline jet — like a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 — as opposed to one operated by a regional affiliate airline, usually marked as an “Express” or “Regional” connection, which often have shorter turnaround times and are more prone to delays.

Pack carry-on bags

Whenever you can, avoid the checked baggage issue entirely by exclusively packing carry-ons. When flights get canceled, the last thing you’ll want to deal with is retrieving checked luggage. Additionally, if the airport is busy upon arrival that's one less line for you to have to wait through.

Whether you’re re-accommodated on another flight or you’re forced to spend the night on the road, it’s always a hassle trying to get your checked bags.

Bring extra clothing

If all else fails and you're stuck in a situation with mass cancellations and no good options, you’ll likely need to spend the night somewhere on your way to your destination. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just remove yourself from the airport chaos and try again another day.

To prepare for the worst possible outcome, be sure to pack some extra clothes, emergency toiletries and some extra snacks in your carry-on bag, especially if you're traveling with kids.

Bottom line

No one likes flight delays and cancellations. Armed with the appropriate strategies, navigating travel disruptions will be much easier -- and you might be able to avoid them entirely.

Whether it’s strategically choosing your flight or booking on a protected credit card, bookmark this guide to save you from a longer or more expensive than needed travel day this holiday season.

Featured image by MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Terms Apply.
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Apply for American Express® Gold Card
at American Express's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for the well-traveled foodie
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
4XEarn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
3XEarn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.

    60,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $250
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent/Good

Why We Chose It

There's a lot to love about the Amex Gold card. It's been a fan favorite during the pandemic because of its fantastic rewards rate on restaurants (that includes takeout and delivery in the U.S.!) and U.S. supermarkets. If you're hitting the skies soon, you'll also earn bonus points on travel. Paired with up to $120 in Uber Cash (for U.S. Uber rides or Uber Eats orders) and up to $120 in annual dining statement credits at eligible partners, there's no reason that the foodie shouldn't add this card to their wallet. Enrollment required.

Pros

  • 4x on dining at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets (on the first $25,000 in purchases per calendar year; then 1x)
  • 3x on flights booked directly with the airline or with Amex Travel
  • Welcome bonus of 60,000 points after spending $4,000 in the first six months

Cons

  • Weak on travel outside of flights and everyday spending bonus categories
  • Not as useful for those living outside the U.S.
  • Some may have trouble using Uber/food credits
  • Few travel perks and protections
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
  • Earn 4X Membership Rewards® Points at Restaurants, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S., and earn 4X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per calendar year in purchases, then 1X).
  • Earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com.
  • $120 Uber Cash on Gold: Add your Gold Card to your Uber account and each month automatically get $10 in Uber Cash for Uber Eats orders or Uber rides in the U.S., totaling up to $120 per year.
  • $120 Dining Credit: Satisfy your cravings and earn up to $10 in statement credits monthly when you pay with the American Express® Gold Card at Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, Goldbelly, Wine.com, Milk Bar and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment required.
  • Choose the color that suits your style. Gold or Rose Gold.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • Annual Fee is $250.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees