When Flights Delay or Cancel, Head to the Club or Get on the Phone

When readers shared their own travel tips and several really stood out as worth highlighting.

Alan said,

If your plane is delayed or cancelled, instead of waiting in line at the airport to talk to someone, simply call the airline and they will help you a lot faster.

I’ll expand on this a bit.

Whom to Seek Out for Help

The Customer Service counter at any airport is usually the least customer and service-focused place at the airport. The lines are long serving everyone that’s displaced. The agents deal only with unhappy passengers. No matter their disposition, after a day of getting yelled at it’s tough to be proactive and helpful. They’re beaten down and just want to get through the day.

While sometimes you’ll get stuck in this line, the first thing I do if there’s an airline club lounge I have access to is go there. The lines will generally be shorter and the agents less harried.

If there’s a line there, or if there’s no lounge, then I hop on the phone. During major weather events phone wait times can be long but I might as well wait on hold while I’m waiting in line. And elite phone numbers help here in jumping the queue.

I can often get rebooked before I’m near the front of the line, and that can make a difference in getting a seat on a flight that would be booked solid by the time I made it to the front of the customer service line, or it may mean finishing my day at the airport sooner and retreating elsewhere to relax and be productive.

Find Your Own Strategy — And Get the Help You Need

Whether dealing with a phone agent, an agent in the club, or an employee in the customer service line it helps to have a rebooking strategy of your own instead of wating for them to make suggestions. They may not be as creative — or as despearate — as you are.

They might look for space on the next flight that matches your current routing. Perhaps you’re willing to fly into an alternate airport? Or even overnight along the way if it means getting wherever you’re going faster?

Availability changes rapidly too so I have seen seats open up while on a phone call that wheren’t there when an agent first checked. I would love to say that mobile tools are as good as what I can do on my laptop but for me that isn’t the case.

I mostly use the KVS tool for this, and another pay service Expert Flyer but as long as you’re not flying American a good source for free availability information is FlightStats.com and for predicting delays and tracking where your aircraft is coming from is FlightAware.com (though inbound aircraft tracking isn’t available for all airlines).

The most important thing when dealing with agents is to be friendly, to be sympathetic not demanding. You can even listen in on the people in front of you in line, scanning for bad behavior, and use the abuse that agents are taking as a way of gaining their willingness to help you. Tell them you’re not having a great day but you’re sure it’s nothing compared to theirs, since they have to deal with everyone. And that you really appreciate them. That you’re going to be easy to work with, but that you really need their help for whatever important reason you have. Empathize with them and they’ll usually go to greater lengths to help you.

Elite Status Matters Most During Irregular Operations

Status comes in handy during these situations. It’s often the difference between getting out same day and not, since standing by you generally bump to the top of most waitlists. I wouldn’t mileage run from zero to get status, but having status helps and the higher the status level the better when looking to be re-accommodated. An incremental trip at the end of the year can be worthwhile.

Picking Your Best Bet

Picking what flights to try to get on, I want to make it as close to my destination as possible — ideally drivable but generally to the closest hub that has frequent flights to wherever I’m going.

If I’m on the West Coast heading East I’m happy to get to Chicago, even with a forced overnight, because i’s a lot easier and quicker to get home from there with plenty of flight options. If I’m headed West then Denver works fr United, and Dallas for American as long as those aren’t the cities I’m stuck in or that are primarily affected by cancellations.

Know When to Throw in the Towel and Try Again Later

When flights are cancelling because of a major weather (or other) event that’s affecting an airport and not just given flight, I’ll prepare to hunker down and get myself an airport hotel room right away.

Those are the circumstances where rooms at the airport tend to fill up and I’ll make a speculative booking — a same-day cancellable revenue or award booking ideally, but sometimes even an award night that I could wind up not using but that I’ll make sure I have to avoid getting stuck without a convenient and clean room.

Mostly I want a place to work and be productive, a more comfortable place to relax, even just a private bathroom and shower — not to mention access to a more relaxing restaurant (or room service). Timelines matter, getting where you’re going matters, but when that’s just not going to happen usually the best strategy is a second-best of finding a way to get as much done as you can.

Recouping Some of the Cost

Some delays and cancellations will trigger eligibility for trip delay coverage provided by the premium credit card used to buy airline tickets. I’ll worry about that part later, no harm in inquiring and opening up a claim. But mishaps happen during travel, if they happen to me only a couple of times a year then mentally I’ll divide the cost of the delay (hotel nights, incidentals) across all of my trips and the average cost isn’t too bad.

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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. Will a confirmed first class ticket help if you don’t have status with an airline (not obtained through complimentary upgrades)? Which is more valuable/useful to have: elite status or confirmed paid F class? I’m asking cause I make very few domestic trips and all of my international trips are in paid first class. However, my few domestic trips have always been in F obtained through award redemption.

  2. I was on an international award ticket in first recently. On my connection at ORD to DCA my flight was cancelled twice. A two hour layover turned into nine. I have no status with AA but was auto rebooked everytime there was a change/cancelation. Even on the phone each time I had already been rebooked for the next flight in First each time (it happened twice that day). I’d have taken coach just to get home but they did an excellent job.

  3. I flew yesterday and one my flights was delayed 7.5 hours (mechanical issue). Is there any type of recourse or compensation that should be expected from the airline (American) for delayed flights (other than rebooking & meal voucher)?

    And what specifically is “delay coverage provided by the premium credit card”? In your experience, what does this coverage entail?

  4. Back in November on a mileage run my COS-IAH flight was delayed by 30 minutes so I got on next IAH-LAX flight and later LAX-PHX-SFO flights, which I did at CS desk. 20 minutes later a 2 hour delay dropped, the line at the CS desk was 30 people long before I could get up. A quick call to UA reservations that started during final boarding on COS-ORD got me on that flight and the connection to SFO.

  5. @ JCB,

    Thanks for the clarification but I’m also wondering: if the flight is cancelled, would AA rebook you on another carrier? Instead of spending nine hours transiting in ORD when you could have connected on an earlier flight with another carrier at AA’s expense? When I was EXP with AA, if the flight was cancelled, they would re-accommodate me on UA, Jetblue US Air or whatever was available. The fact that I no longer have status on AA but am traveling in their premium cabin, would they still be obliged to do that on that cancelled flight?

  6. Trip delay coverage on premium credit cards. — does this coverage exist on any cards for award travel if one paid the taxes and fees on that card when one booked the ticket? If so, which cards?

  7. I am also curious as to which has more priority: first class (award or not) or elite status. Thanks

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