Lessons From the Road: How to Deal with Weather Delays and Cancellations the Best You Can

I’m not sure how interesting this story is, but a couple of folks asked me to share it on Twitter. I think the idea is that sharing how I think about dealing with travel as it happens (and as it goes wrong) could be interesting and useful.

There’s rarely going to be a ‘right way’ to approach irregular operations. Bad weather especially, lots of things going wrong, you’re playing percentages and also playing hunches based – hopefully – on years of experience in travel.

Yesterday was a bad weather day for an American Airlines flyer, especially one transiting Dallas but really across much of the system because delays and cancellations in a major hub cascade across the whole system. A flight cancelled out of Dallas doesn’t make its next city, and can effect wherever the aircraft was supposed to go next. You might have been heading nowhere near Texas, yet you find your flight cancelled due to weather (and it’s clear outside!). That’s just how it works.

I was on the 3pm flight from DC to Dallas. My connecting flight cancelled around 10am Eastern, and I rang up American to find a telephone wait time of at least 50 minutes, and that’s calling in as an Executive Platinum (100,000 mile flyer). I’ve never waited more than three or four minutes even during bad storms.

Instead of having them give me an automated callback, I opted to wait on the line. About forty minutes in I dropped the call. I should have chosen the callback. I always worried I might miss the call, but it turns out American’s systems will try you back a few minutes later if you don’t pick up when they call you.

In the meantime, I was auto-rebooked on a flight that would have gotten me into my destination an hour earlier than planned. I originally booked a two hour connection because it was cheapest. I was put onto a one hour connection. Perfect!

I was far from confident things would work out, and indeed my inbound aircraft for my flight to Dallas was delayed so my hour connection was starting to look like 25 minutes with a change of terminals.

Right as we were about to board for Dallas, my connecting flight cancelled. I quickly got a club agent to rebook me onto a later flight.

Heading to the gate I called Hyatt. I have an expiring credit card annual free night, and figured that I would burn it for a room at the airport if it was available. This is the point at which you need to make a speculative bet: at 3:30pm in the afternoon there are still airport rooms left. Do you want one? You may not need it, but you won’t know until it’s too late to cancel, and you’ll be on the hook to pay.

I really do prefer the Grand Hyatt DFW, attached to the terminal. I’d have happily given up my free night certificate on the chance I would need a room there. The agent told me it wasn’t available — all they could offer is a “Business Plan” room for $351. That was too rich for me to book speculatively! The Hyatt Regency wasn’t available as an award either.

We boarded and I resolved to check other airport hotels online once in the air. I could have booked a Starwood award online, for instance. (The Hyatt credit card night had to be booked over the phone which is why I wanted to check on it before takeoff.)

But inflight Gogo wireless internet was slower than I’ve experienced in a year. It was virtually unusable. And things were looking good for my later flight. So I didn’t worry too much about the hotel.

Upon landing in Dallas (delayed) I now had a 2.5 hour connection so I headed over to the American Express Centurion lounge. Funny thing, I’m not exactly famous but I’m famous in airports and especially in lounges. It’s hard to visit a lounge without running into a blog reader who recognizes me! That’s really fun.

The flight continued to show ontime, so I headed to the gate for boarding. We boarded just a few minutes behind, and once boarding was complete the captain came on to let us know we’d be sitting “for about a half an hour” before heading to the other end of the airport for de-icing. I knew we’d be de-iced, and the wait didn’t surprise me one bit. Freezing rain was coming down.

After half an hour when it was clear we weren’t going anywhere, the aircraft doors were opened to allow passengers to get off. That resets the clock on the three hour tarmac delay rule. You never like to see an airline proactively ‘resetting the clock’ on a potential three hour tarmac delay!

Another half hour goes by and someone from first class gets off. I had been upgraded on my original flight, but was now in coach. An agent came on board to move me up.

I sat up front for about 45 minutes, when passengers began getting e-mail updates from American that the flight had cancelled. As is often the case, we knew before the pilot.

At this point all of the airport hotels were fully booked (with the possible exception of a couple of low end places without real-time online availability). What’s more, an accident was apparently preventing cabs from getting through. No hotel rooms, no cabs, and no hotel shuttles either. This was going to be ugly.

The first step was to find a ride out of the airport, I knew it would take awhile so I ordered up a driver via Uber. They called to say it would be half an hour. That was fine — in 30 minutes only 3 or 4 cabs made it through and baggage claim was stuffed wall to wall with people.

While doing that I booked the Sheraton out by the Galleria, 4000 points, done. The check-in clerk said they had been getting calls all night, they had rooms, but no one was booking because they couldn’t come pick up folks. It wasn’t a cheap ride (about $80) but I feel it was worth it.

American protected me on the 8am flight. Since I was going to miss a morning meeting regardless, I decided not to start off so early. Weather was still going to be bad. So despite my rule of thumb to get to the airport and take the earliest flight possible, I opted to try to swap flights.

The first American agent told me flat-out no — this was the flight I was protected on, they put you on the next available flight, so anything else would be a voluntary change. Seriosuly? I had three cancelled flights, I wanted to get some sleep before trying again.

So hang up, call back. The next agent happily set up a later flight for me. But driving out to the hotel I decided to check the status of things and it appeared that I was back on the 8am! A call to American confirmed that the first agent made notes in the reservation not to allow me to switch flights! I pushed back hard, the agent rebooked me again and this time it stuck.

I slept hard. Woke up in the morning and the 8am had cancelled anyway. As I was about to head to the airport my flight cancelled too. American’s systems wouldn’t accept calls, and then wouldn’t validate status so were dumping me into the standard queue and informing of wait times “over 2 hours.”

Then American sent me a re-booking email, about the best of what was available, so I headed to the airport and back to the Centurion lounge. While most flights today are cancelled, later ones are looking good.

  • Status matters, if only for jumping phone queues and getting better access to inventory whether through proactive agent help or automatic rebooking.

  • Play the odds but at some point get a hotel speculatively. Most hotels are sold out tonight already. I decided I didn’t want to leave the airport area tonight if I wound up stuck again, so I have a speculative booking on points. If I don’t need it I waste points — but that’s ok, on balance I’m coming out ahead because it means I’m getting where I’m going.

  • Act quickly and decisively, and budget with the assumption that you’ll incur some unexpected costs. I realize that’s a tough thing to say, and for many it can be a hard thing to do. But I was happy to order up a car and get a hotel on my own dime and simply head out there. I’m fresh today, fully able to work, an reasonably comfortable.

  • Plan to work, be comfortable, or entertained no matter what happens. Assume you need power sources and whatever other supplies to make the most of a situation. I’m fortunate that I can pretty much be productive anywhere, as long as I have a laptop and a phone, an internet connection, and a power source.

  • At the airport you’re better off getting help inside security than in the lines outside. You’re better off getting help in the club than the main terminal. And you’re best off getting help from everyone you can. Multitask. Get on the phone while standing in line, if one person doesn’t help you move onto the next.

  • Check everything. When someone tells you that you’re set, it pays to ensure everything is re-issued properly. The more lead time you have to know any problems the better you’ll be able to adjust and correct.

And you can do everything right — and still wind up stuck. Because in the end all you’re doing is playing the odds, not betting on a sure thing. But you’ll be more comfortable and more productive wherever you are at least.

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. […] Now the scene is present-day 2013. The kids and I planned a last-minute trip to Florida to catch a cruise with my family who were celebrating my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary. Since Spirit does not fly into Miami my plan was to fly in and out of other Florida airports and rent a car one-way to get us to and from the airports and the port of Miami. The flight home was the same cost out of Fort Lauderdale as it was out of Orlando so I choose to fly out of Orlando so I could spend a little more time with my family and “just in case” something happened and we needed to overnight at my parent’s house. That “something” came in the form of a major ice storm that left the roads with 3-4 inches of ice on them and several thousand people stranded at DFW. […]

  2. […] Coach is a bit dangerous for me, so I’m glad it is in Dulles.  I fly out of Reagan usually.  I don’t usually visit airport shops, but definitely swing by on extended delays when I’m bored.  The Body Shop in Dallas has gotten my business prior to the Centurion club (and I’ve oddly never been stuck extendly in Dallas post-Centurion Club opening, but View from the Wing has!) […]


  1. If you travel for business, and they shut down an airport, and everybody is desperate for a hotel room, go first for the most expensive rooms. I have been at LHR and FRA when they shut down and it is pure chaos. It doesn’t take much snow to cancel all flights. Every room gets booked very quickly, so start with a bit more expensive hotel/room and you may not have to sleep in the terminal.

  2. I hope it goes better for you this afternoon. I am going through there tomorrow to catch a flight to London. We will see how that goes….. And as I write this, I just received an email stating that my flight to DFW has been cancelled… Let the games begin!

  3. Gary, if you ever run into the same situation again, please let me know, I live in Dallas and am happy to swing by and give you a lift.

  4. Good luck today. Also remember to see if the credit card you booked w might cover some expenses from the delay.

  5. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to book a rental car instead of Uber/taxi, knowing that you will be driving regardless?

  6. @ptahcha I thought the same thing but he might be expensing the whole trip and may not feel comfortable driving in terrible weather conditions.

  7. Thanks for posting. What experience have you had with business travel insurance. I believe mine covers me for up to $750 for out of pocket expenses if stuck by whether. Not tried it yet. Have you found it to work effectively? If so, why not just book a good room rather than using miles?

  8. Good luck out there!

    Just trying to learn, and I don’t know what your final destination was…but with this being foreseen while you were still in DC, was there any thought or possibility of changing the routing altogether (such as through ORD or LAX)? When do you abandon a routing altogether and try to get really creative?

  9. @ptahcha frankly the roads were pretty bad and i was not comfortable driving. cheaper, yes, though i did not verify availability of rental cars. That was the next option on my list but i wasn’t keen on it.

  10. @stvr – indeed this is a business expense, and no doubt it makes things easier when you’re talking about coming out of pocket, but i think the overall lesson that things happen in travel and sometimes you bear expenses and can cut off your nose to spite your face saving cash in such situations applies either way

    @mommy points – indeed, i mention credit card coverage in my pre-thanksgiving post on dealing with travel delays and disruptions. Ultimately I will spend less than if I had completed the trip oddly enough but that doesn’t mean i won’t submit a claim for the things i would not have spent on otherwise.

  11. @Levy even though it was being expensed the prices were pretty high and points price pretty low and i decided not eat that rather than explaining the cost, personal choice

  12. @CW I didn’t mention destination since I’m still on the trip, and there are a lot of folks out there on the internet who like messing with folks’ reservations.

    Alternate routings were booked up, it looked at the time like I would make it, it’s never possible to know exactly what will happen and i rolled the dice and lost. With perfect information I’d have just bagged the trip!

  13. Sorry you are having such a hard time, I saw the tweeting going on. I was in Dallas yesterday and my flight home to RDU was cancelled and they put me on the flight leaving this morning. I knew the ice storm was coming in and that there was no chance the flight would leave today so I just went to the airport and switched to whatever flight I could get on. They allowed a free change to within 300 miles of my original destination so I managed to jump on a flight to Baltimore. No doubt that was a crapshoot as if that one got canceled, I was most likely stuck. But it got out, and I managed to get a cheap Southwest hop back to RDU this morning. When I got there I checked and of course every single flight from DFW to RDU is canceled today. Definitely when there is trouble in one particular airport just getting as far away from that airport as you can help

  14. @MilesAbound – agreed… flying out of South Florida when a hurricane intervened, I was supposed to fly home to DC but could only get to Charlotte and onto Raleigh so I was good with that much from US Airways and managed to pair it with a seat on American’s Raleigh – DC flight. Three flights instead of one, and a really long layover in Raleigh (I grabbed a roomo at the Four Points) but you do whatcha got to do!

  15. @Gary – I tried the automated (now 2 hour) call back (I’m EXP), but they are now overdue….. Tough day for AA today – and a lot of travelers.

  16. @Jim L @Gary -Explat desk took over 2 hour wait for me also. But they some how came through and got me a seat on a sold out flight.

  17. It took almost 3 hrs, but the automated call back worked and they had already rebooked me. Hopefully it holds and hopefully you are on your way home.

  18. If you don’t have some points or free nights you’re willing to throw away on a speculative hotel room, another good option is the Hotel Tonight app. Anytime after noon you can book a discounted room at a nice hotel with one click. I’ve done this several times. At the discounted rates, it’s less painful if you don’t end up using the room.

  19. Hyatt Credit card nights do not have to be booked on the phone. Find it under “My Awards” similar to where diamond upgrades show up. Then search for availability and you will have no issue booking it.

  20. I have been hesitant to speculatively book hotels with points. I thought that the rules said you would be charged the rack rate to your credit card if a no show

    Is that incorrect?

  21. Gary, knowing that things had the potential to get ugly at DFW yeterday when you were still in DC, couldn’t you have had AA proactively reroute you through ORD, for example, to avoid DFW altogether?

  22. Great advice, Gary!

    Perhaps you can do a post that focuses on delays and cancellations while traveling on an award ticket that’s on a carrier that you don’t have status with. I think a lot of us would appreciate that! Especially when there are connections to different carriers.

  23. @Gary – looks like the flight they put me on in the morning is cancelled already.

    Do you know what criteria they use to put someone on another airline’s flights? Trying to them to do that for me now.

  24. @Jason L – they were willing to put me on another airline though i do not know if status or luck of the draw agent was the driver there.

  25. @Peter – this varies by program, eg Starwood you get to choose so can have the points deducted instead. And I’m not just talking about points bookings that are speculative, but revenue also where I’ll be out cash.

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