When Your Flight Cancels and the Agent Tells You Nothing’s Available, Just Say This

Basic principles:

  • Non-stop flights are better than connections. More flights mean more chances for something to go wrong.
  • Airlines don’t tell you what’s really wrong. During delays, posted flight times are just as likely made up as they are real projections.
  • You want to get out of bad weather as quickly as possible. Fly away from the weather, not into it.

On Friday I was scheduled to fly Washington Dulles – Austin on United. I was happy to get out ahead of a storm and doubly thrilled the aircraft I’d be on was flying in from nowhere near the weather. It would fly Austin – Houston – Nashville – Washington Dulles – Austin.

Unfortunately the plane went mechanical in Nashville, a rolling delay that stood at 8 hours last I checked. And that’s how it operated:

My 5:40pm flight was delayed so I switched over to the earlier delayed DC – Chicago flight that was continuing with same aircraft to Austin. Before boarding though I checked again and the Chicago – Austin segment was given a new aircraft.

  1. I’d be flying into a misconnect and an overnight in Chicago
  2. Where it was snowing (modestly)

So I moved myself back to the non-stop — while I was reticketed onto the new flight, my original flight was still in the reservation and at that point it still had a chance to get me home that night.

I started to doubt though that even if my inbound aircraft took off from Nashville that there would be a legal crew available, so I started looking at options.

  • There was a 10 pm Houston flight where I could overnight or even drive, but it was oversold by two and I was only fourth on the wait list. Not promising.

  • I got backed up on a 1:40 pm flight the next day through Houston, after the bad weather coming through DC would in theory have passed. But that could certainly get snarled in delays and I really didn’t want to put off getting home by a day (or two).

  • The goal became just to get out of the bad weather. An agent offered Detroit and an overnight there, but the forecast was snow. I didn’t want that bet. I wasn’t going to head to Chicago, either.

As I tweeted,

My Austin flight eventually cancelled but before that I came up with something that would be pretty undesirable to most people but that would ensure I got home before noon the next day – it would ensure I wouldn’t get stuck in DC due to snow, or face another day of rolling delays caused by weather.

When they told me nothing is available, I simply replied “Nothing? Or nothing that any sane person would want?” You see, there is a difference! I suggested the following:

  • Washington Dulles – Jacksonville at 10 pm.
  • Overnight at the Jacksonville airport Aloft
  • Then Jacksonville – Houston – Austin starting at 6:45 in the morning

Half the Austin flight was in the club lounge, everyone was told nothing is available. Whenever you’re rebooking during irregular operations, especially with bad weather at play, you’re playing odds. I wasn’t sure forcing a misconnect in Chicago that night was a bad idea, I’d have gotten more sleep and might have made it home with only one flight instead of two.

I was lucky to get on the Jacksonville flight when I did, because it filled up:

But as time crept on and it was more and more likely things were headed south, I wanted to get away from the weather. That meant getting out of Washington DC that night, and heading South. I wanted the only seat I could get to some place warm.

I’d catch a few hours of sleep, clock in my 100th Starwood night of the year at a 3000 point airport Aloft.

I considered paying cash and turning the claim over to my credit card company, but again – playing the odds – I thought that a hotel in Florida when my cancellation was in DC might pose headaches getting the claim processed. It’s all about playing the odds and I decided to play it safe.

Even though that meant saying “Nothing’s available? Or nothing any sane person would want?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If the flight went mechanical in Nashville wouldn’t it mean you get free accommodation till the flight is available?

    Why would you do all the jujitsu?

  2. Credit: I believe he wanted to get home and didn’t want to be stuck in DC or Chicago

    Gary: Follow up on Credit’s question. Since it was a mechanical issue AND you have status on AA, did they cover your hotel in JAX?

  3. First, Washington Dulles – Austin is United. I’m just a silver.

    Second, United had claimed throughout that the issue was weather (that’s what the computer said) but it was a mechanical delay. When they finally cancelled the flight it did show mechanical. United would have covered my hotel in DC had I stayed there.

    However they weren’t going to cover my hotel in JAX. For 3000 Starpoints or the ability to submit to my credit card company I wasn’t going to worry about that.

    I didn’t want to stay in DC given the snow storm that was coming in. In fact, Washington Dulles was closed in the morning. But Friday night I didn’t know what to expect — rolling delays, cancellations, I was much more confident I’d get home (and before noon even) if I got out of DC than if I stayed. And the best I could do the next day was a 140pm connection through Houston in any case.

  4. With Citi Prestige, you would have been covered because your original flight was cancelled and as a result you had to take a series of connecting flights that required an overnight stay.

  5. Perhaps you were a little TOO clever in this instance — in retrospect? I can’t fault you however. I like the thought process, and you acted according to the available information!

  6. @Matt it was more about the claims hassle and likely back-and-forth to get what I was entitled to rather than doubt over whether I’d actually prevail. For 3k points I saved the headache.

  7. Well played sir… More pax should be as forward thinking and resolve issues themselves instead on relying on airline staff….

  8. That’s the beauty of SPG- it’s value is that the points price is usually really reasonable and you don’t have to think twice about using them.

  9. Creative, indeed. A few years ago I was on UA PHX-DEN, last flight of the day (I try to avoid those, but couldn’t this day), flight cancelled about 1 hour before boarding time with a reschedule of same aircraft and crew at 0800 next morning. Was a mechanical issue.

    I wanted to get home that night, Red Carpet Lounge line was long, so I called 800 number and got booked over to the PHX-SFO flight leaving in about an hour and then SFO-DEN arriving DEN around 2130 same night. My checked bag was moved with no problem as well.

    Slept in my own bed that night while most pax on that flight were in some hotel in PHX.

  10. Typical United response. They do the absolute minimum for their passengers.

    Don’t have that problem when flying AA. Last time I had an issue with connections the person in the Admirals club told me to have a drink and she would figure it out. And she did!

  11. @Ryan I believe those screen shots are from the new and improved flightaware.com. They revised the UI and added some detail.

  12. Sometimes it’s worthwhile to pay extra to get out in time. I was in Washington DC last January, when the “blizzard of the century” was approaching. I was scheduled to fly out several hours after the storm was expected to hit. I booked and paid for a flight the previous day, even though the airline had not yet issued a waiver. By the time the airline issued the waiver, all earlier flights were sold out. To me it was well worth paying an extra $200 not to be stranded for several days.

  13. The equation many ignore including in answers – is which two items have the highest value/ROI:
    Your Time vs. Your Money vs. Your Satisfaction

    In NJ – all gas stations are full service. Costco typically has the most economical prices but the line is extremely long and it feels like I wasted 20-25 minutes to save 4 cents per gallon and it is out of my way unless I planned to visit the store. I can go to the empty shop 1/2 mile away, it cost more but I’m in and out in probably 5 minutes. My Time & Satisfaction wins out.
    Sounds like the OP – Time & Satisfaction was more valueable vs. points and based on snow delays and sold out flights he made the absolute right decision as even with complimentary hotel accomodation you must check out by noon and most flights were cancelled/delayed until past 3pm last Saturday.

  14. Agreed, it pays to be creative, get out of the bad weather, and know where ground transportation can take you. I had a Friday-morning flight LGA-FLL canceled late Thursday night a couple years ago. They auto-rebooked me Saturday (through Milwaukee!), but I was determined. No Friday options from NYC, but I thought if I could spend the night traveling south I had a chance. Got them to rebook me Friday morning BWI-ATL-PBI and I hopped a midnight bus to Baltimore. Took the Tri-Rail to Ft. Lauderdale and lost only about 3 hours there compared with the original plan.

  15. Just to defend Costco, typically gives you an average savings of .30-.40cents/gallon if filling up a full tank (13-15gal) saves you $6 plus the 4%annual savings on fuel using your costco visa 😉

  16. Thanks to Gary Leff for submitting the great information on this site. I find it invaluable and appreciate even the information I don’t use. Keep it going Mr Leff!

  17. It’s also critical to know which airports are best situated to handle irregular operations and weather challenges. For instance, if you’re on DL and there’s winter weather in the Midwest, MSP is almost always a better option than DTW; not because the weather’s better, but because their routines for dealing with snow and ice are better in MSP. Similarly, on AA, if both ORD and DFW are facing winter storms, ORD is a better choice for connections than DFW, where ice can shut them down for days. On the other hand, in summer, that reverses, as thunderstorms can shut them both down and DFW usually recovers more quickly.

    The more you know, the better you can recover.

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