How to Take Charge of the Situation During Flight Delays and Cancellations

A piece on the hassles of travel quotes me extensively on how to handle the inevitable frustrations and bumps along the way.

That’s why air travel expert Gary Leff, of, tells people to take earlier flights when possible and avoid connection times of less than 30 minutes.

Most of the time I like to travel early in the day, knowing that delays tend to stack up across the system as the day progresses. Much of the time an early delay will push back each flight that the delayed across was going to operate. And delayed crews are the ones who tend to time out later in the day as well. Additionally, in the Northeast summer thunderstorms tend to wreak havoc in the evenings. Plus the earlier in the day you travel, the more chances there are to take alternate flights to get to your destination same-day. There are exceptions to the rule, such as San Francisco where morning fog tends to cause early delays but clears up once the fog burns off. But on the whole it tends to hold.

And I look at how important a given meeting or trip purpose is and use that to guide how early I travel to my destination. Some trips make sense as a quick in-and-out, and if something throws a curve ball along the way and I miss a meeting I can make it up later. But if a meeting is crucial to ‘make my year’ (or some similar importance) then I might fly in the day before to make sure I have plenty of time to pre-position myself.

The savviest passengers also come armed with knowledge of alternate routes, Leff says. If you know other ways to get to your destination not only on your current airline but also on its partners and competitors, you’ll have a better chance of convincing an agent to get you on the flight you want, he says. Apps and sites such as can help you find open seats.

When something does creep up and cancels or delays me, I find it’s important to think more creatively than the agents who you’re working with.

If I’m already at the airport I get on my cell phone to talk to reservations while I make a beeline for the airport lounge, lounge agents tend to be more helpful than the folks at the customer service line. But if forced to deal with the airport customer service agents, recognize that they are dealing with nothing but unhappy customers. You want them on your side. Empathize with them. Make light of the frustrations of previous passengers, if you hear unreasonable requests. Sympathize with what they must be going through. Sure, your travels are delayed, but if you can be sympathetic to them they may be more inclined to go to extra lengths to help you.

Their computers won’t always prompt them with every possibility to get you where you’re going. They may be tired and not especially creative. And they may offer you the sorts of things they offer to everyone else, but you may be more desperate to get where you’re going than anyone else — I once made a booking from DC to San Francisco during a snowstorm that involved regional jets and a forced overnight in Kansas City. United said nothing was available. When what they meant, presumably, was nothing any sane person would want. But it was possible to get out and into San Francisco in time for an event.

Use tools like Expertflyer and to look up possible airlines and routes that have seats which will get you where you need to go, be friendly, and offer up suggestions. Once an agent is on your side, if you’re able to help them do their job and move onto the next customer then they may be happy to do so.

If you’ve paid for a seat upgrade, such as Economy Plus, and you don’t get it, you’re entitled to a refund, says Leff of And always check in online the night before, so you can anticipate any seating problems and get your boarding pass before you arrive at the airport, he says.

Especially with complicated tickets, such as airline awards on partners, I like checking in online as early as possible to get advance indication of any problems. The more time you have to fix a glitch the better. (Of course on such tickets I also advise calling the operating airline directly, getting seats assignments through them, having your record locator for the operating carrier and not just the airline whose mileage program issued the ticket — and making sure the operating carrier sees the ticket number for your reservation to ensure everything was issued properly.)

Some travelers become so concerned with saving money that they get upset and try to negotiate, wasting time that could have been better spent buying their own hotel room and getting the sleep that they need, Leff says.

“Build in the assumption when you travel that there are additional costs along the way,” he says. “I do see people arguing for what they believe is right and making themselves worse off in the process.”

“You can’t always rely on the airlines to solve things for you the way that you want,” Leff adds. “But you can take it upon yourself to improve the odds in (your) favor.”

When you travel, most of the time you’re on your own. And you need to rely on yourself to meet your needs, don’t just rely on the airline you’re traveling (even intra-Europe where there’s a “duty of care” established in law).

Sure, you may have to spend money or points for an airport hotel — but do that quickly before the hotels book up solid during major weather events. You’ll come out of pocket, but you’ll be in bed while others are still waiting for a voucher for a lesser property and for a bus promising transportation which may never come.

If you’re unhappy with the service and reimbursement you received after a cancellation, send a “polite but firm” email to the airline after the trip, Leff suggests. Most airlines will throw you some sort of goodwill gesture, such as frequent-flier miles or money toward your next trip, he says.

Your first order of business is to solve the problem, get where you’re going, and worry about justice later. But once the trip is over, it’s “later.” And then fire off a complaint email to your airline’s customer service where you may get some compensation to keep you as a customer.

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. I once had to change airports in Dallas while connecting during an Xmas ice storm. Cost me a few bucks, but Love Field was open and DFW was not and AA was no help. Actually split a taxi with a guy going to his house. And this was pre- cell phone, pre-internet.

  2. Gary a few things to also mention.
    Gary, I did not think that airlines have a contract to get you to your destination in a timely manner in North America. I know with weather delays, they really don’t have to offer anything. Even if flights are mechanical, they do not have to offer you anything even for a 12 hour delay. I believe overnight accommodation is a requirement though?? I find this very frustrating as my employer dings me upwards of $400 if I arrive more than 3 hours late. In fact just yesterday I was stuck with Alaska’s communication outage. There website said flights were on time, when I arrived at the airport they told me they could not get me home until almost 24 hours later. They did offer me a meal voucher which almost paid for a salad and drink at Wendy’s
    With so many flights being 100% full these days, delays are even further impacted as you cannot even ask to have your ticket endorsed on another carrier as their flights are full.

  3. If you do end up taking a hotel paid for by the airline, ask them what properties are available. I have fund that they run the gamut from low end to much nicer. This worked for me last March when the first one mentioned was Red Roof Inn. Instead, I was able to stay at the Embassy Suites just outside the DFW entrance. Since I was on an 11 AM flight the next day I knew I could take advantage of the included full breakfast at the hotel.

  4. I agree Gary that Lounge Agents are usually very helpful. Once enroute from Texas to DC on a busy Thu evening, I was stuck at Memphis due to a missed connection and the agent at the old NWA World Club went really out of her way to try and get me on a flight home. Even if her computer said a particular flight had departed she called the gate agent to confirm if the aircraft had indeed pushed back or if she could still get me on it. I have never experienced service like that!!!

  5. Gary, re award tickets on partner airlines, I’ve found that when I make changes with UA, the changes do not always show up correctly in the partner reservation. I strongly recommend getting the partner record locators from the ticketing carrier, then check directly with the partner, well in advance of your flights. If there are problems, call the ticketing carrier and ask them to fix.

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