How to Handle Travel When Things Go Wrong

If your flight is delayed or cancelled, don’t be a wallflower, don’t be at the airline’s mercy. There are things you can do to proactive solve problems that come your way, and ways to handle travel stress effectively.

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 and for predicting delays and tracking where your aircraft is coming from is (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.

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, 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. Great article, Gary! I am going to link to it on the transportation thread of the Disney boards (DISBoards). This is stuff others, especially less focused travelers, need to know.

  2. If there’s a kiosk nearby, try that as well, especially with flight cancellations.

    Good tip about using the lounge agents, as they tend to be less busy. However, if one does not access, also think about leaving the secured area and use the agents at the counter. If there are multiple airports at your departure point (JFK/LGA/EWR and LAX/BUR/ONT as an example), ask for reroute from other departure points as an alternative.

  3. Will you do an article on how to handle it for an award travel? Will recouping the cost be the same? For an award travel, especially with a partner airline, is it worth it to buy trip insurance (what will or will not covered)?

  4. Good advice from ptahcha — leave security and talk to the folks out front. One group that is always forgotten about in these situations are baggage desk agents. Baggage agents are typically fully authorized ticket agents who can process rebookings and issue meal/hotel vouchers. They’re usually the last agents to leave the airport, too, so this is the only way to take care of things like vouchers at the end of the night when all of the other agents have gone home.

  5. Had an issue with LH’s cancellations last week – the phone line was off the hook (Most of which were “We’re sorry, all lines are busy. Please try your call again later. *click*” and the one that got through disconnected me after 90+ minutes on hold).

    I ended up going to the airport right when the check in desk opened and had an agent helpfully rebook me to BA flights leaving/arriving around a similar time.

    Moral of the story – as Gary says, the phone line is *usually* better than the airport ticket counter, but don’t discount the ticket counter, especially when that city is not a main hub for the affected airline.

  6. Sometimes nothing works.

    6 pm LX flight JFK to Zurich. Flight is cancelled because the captain ate something bad and can’t fly the plane. Check-in agent directs me to a long line at the ticketing desk for rebooking. I call LX and in 5 minutes I have LH flights. I go to the LH counter to check in (in a different terminal), but something’s wrong with the ticket. So I end up having to stand in line for an hour anyway (at the LH desk).

    But actually calling first did help: the line at the LH desk continued to grow behind me with displaced LX passengers who also couldn’t check in to their LH flight.

  7. It also helps to know the rules. A few months ago, I was stranded in Beijing when my Air China domestic flight mis-connected with my flight back to the US (delayed arriving in Beijing due to congestion/flow control). The first agent I spoke with told me that, since I was traveling on a US Airways award ticket, I had to call US Airways for help, which I knew was wrong and useless. By being polite but persistent, I found someone who knew the rules (the operating carrier has to fix this type of situation), and got me on the flight the next day.

  8. Love it that now AA will automatically start the reaccommodation process as soon as your flight is cancelled. You don’t even have to call.

  9. Gary what are your rights with regards to having them put you on a competitor’s airline. For example, Alaska Airlines was having a system malfunction about a year and a half ago (October 2012) and my flight would be arriving at least 6 hours late which would make me miss my connecting Alaska flight that day too. I asked them to put me on the United Airlines flight, connecting to an Air Canada flight to get me to my destination that same day. I confirmed on expert flyer that there was indeed space. Alaska Airlines refused to even try.

  10. Great article. One big missed item though: Call foreign call center #’s of your airline or try them if they have a Skype account. Foreign numbers often have way less hold times, they aren’t “harried” from being overloaded if it’s a systemwide weather issue in the USA, and often they are more flexible in allowing changes for whatever reason.

  11. Gary, I wish I could read this post earlier lol. I had a flight cancellation due to the bad weather in the nw U.S early this year on AA. I headed to the airport by Uber as soon as I know my flight was cancelled. Without any status with AA, I waited in a queue for about 90 mins, and the agent rerouted me to DFW with a connecting flight on the next day. I booked my room with a Marriott Cat 4 certificate right in front of the agent counter. The question is how does the credit card company reimburse a reward night? Will they reimburse me based on the bar rate of the hotel?

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