Re-booking Cancelled Flights During the Snowpocalypse

Wendy Perrin offers her lessons learned from a cancelled flight, the result of Snowpocalypse-induced cancellation of her flights to Hawaii.

She sums up — don’t wait for the airline to inform you of the cancellation, be proactive (if you wait, alternate flight options will be gone), suggest alternate routes to the agent when rebooking (don’t just accept that nothing’s available), and ask your hotel to waive cancellation penalties if you don’t make it there on the intended check-in day.

I did a major set of rebookings during the storm, it’s not really part of my job as such but I’m “the expert” and we had a major event on the West Coast with a large contingent traveling from DC across several days, myriad flights, and different airlines.

I echo Wendy’s remarks about rebooking early. The airlines were offering weather waivers. When it became clear that it was highly likely that the storm would hit during a particular timeframe, I was able to rebook a few people for the afternoon the day after the storm was supposed to be over. That still got them to the event in time.

Not everyone was willing to rebook proactively, and there were challenges.

One person called me at 7am for help, as soon as she saw her flight cancelled for the next day. She was early enough that I grabbed her the last seat open at the time on a non-stop that would get her to the event in time.

I say ‘last seat’ somewhat tentatively. It was the last open seat at the time I was re-booking. But availability changes dynamically. When weather waivers are in place, travelers can and do cancel flights. So inventory opens up all the time. And then it disappears as other people grab the seats. There were several times I saw open seats that were gone by the time an agent picked up the phone.

Elite status matters a great deal. In this case, the biggest benefit was a phone number to use with United, Delta, and American that allowed me to jump the queue. I had three and four minute hold times rather than 30 and 40 minute hold times. That’s crucial when trying to grab seats that open up with tons of folks trying to rebook and fighting over limited inventory.

Two folks were on a United flight that sent out a cancellation e-mail. During the confusion of a massive weather event, don’t assume your EasyUpdates are accurate! By the time I got on the phone with United, the flight was reinstated.

It turns out they then cancelled the next non-stop on the route instead (both operated by Airbus A319s). And that meant to different staff members needed rebooking. And by the time that happened there was nothing left.

To Wendy’s point about suggesting alternate routings and flights, when I had to called Delta to get someone rebooked (they were originally connecting through JFK!), Delta’s website had no suggestions and the agent on the phone said nothing was available. I fed them specific flights to Atlanta and hten on to the West Coast. Their system didn’t suggest it, it forced a 5 hour layover in Atlanta, but it got them there.

The craziest re-booking I made was when two seats opened up from Washington Dulles to Kansas City. On two different flights. I grabbed one staffer each those flights. They had a forced overnight in Kansas City and then the morning non-stop out West.

See, United said nothing was available. That was almost true. Nothing any sane person would want was available, but that’s different than nothing being available! One by one I tried each and every city in the middle of the country that I could think of which would have service from both Washington, DC and San Francisco. Denver, nothing. Dallas, nothing. Houston, nothing. Minneapolis, nothing. And so on. Finally I had hit on Kansas City, and the onward flight to San Francisco even had four seats open!

When you absolutely have to get there, you suck it up and overnight in Kansas City. United had to put me on hold for awhile and then document that we agreed they weren’t responsible for the enroute hotel night. No problem, $42 later per room and we had the airport Hilton on Priceline.

Not everything was so successful. The one person flying American was far harder. American doesn’t have nearly as much service as United out of DC, so fewer flight chances to rebook. I managed to find one seat to St. Louis. But with the service pulldown in St. Louis, from there we had to find a seat to Dallas, and then only from there to San Francisco. It wasn’t great, but it was an option.

Finally, there was one person I could not help — without the purchase of a brand new ticket. She was scheduled to fly on Virgin America. Virgin America’s limited service was completely booked for days. There just aren’t that many flights, so not many chances to rebook, and Virgin America wasn’t going to send her over to another carrier. We accepted a refund and she didn’t go, rather than spring for a new walkup ticket.

The lesson here is to avoid the small niche carriers when possible, and that there are huge benefits to elite status and significant service from an airport during irregular operations. United — with signfiicant nudging along — get everyone out that needed to get out, and in time for events and meetings in spite of the snow storm.

Fortunately I know routes, and how to check inventory. I use the KVS Tool, some folks use Expert Flyer, and these sorts of tools were a lifesaveer in finding flights that had inventory available.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I have a friend on twitter who was trying to get to Disney during the snowpocalypse and ended up taking the greyhound with two small children instead because AirTran couldn’t get her out in time. From the sounds of it, it went just as badly as one would expect a 17 hour greyhound trip to Florida to take.

    My MIL flew in to DCA that Monday after her Sunday flight was cancelled. She didn’t have any problems but Reagan was a hot mess.

  2. We were scheduled to fly DEN-IAH-IAD-MCO to see the shuttle launch (and get in a MR along the way). DEN-MCO didn’t have L same fare-class availability (L) but DEN-SFO-MCO did. The agent initially balked, but eventually got approval to book it.

    Funny that UA would rather grant exceptions for backward routings rather than exceptions to rebook in a higher fare class! (Yes, I’m sure that had we waited and gone to the airport we could have probably have gotten on DEN-MCO, at least standby, but what would have been been the fun in that????)

  3. Gary, did you use your own elite status lines to call the airlines, even on behalf of pax with lesser or no status? Do the agents ever say anything about that?

    As a lowly GLD elite on AA, I think I’d be annoyed getting queued behind a no-status pax as we both scrambled for the last seats, just because he had a PLT buddy calling for him. I’m curious what everyone else thinks about this.

  4. I was in ATL with a coworker on the day Snowpocalypse edged close to the DC area. I proactively rebooked us on a flight that left ATL in late morning as opposed to our afternoon flight. Lo and behold, our original flight was canceled about 2 hours after I opted to make the change. We arrived back at IAD right about the time the snow started falling steadily.

    The next day, co-worker had nothing but praise for me and couldn’t believe we didn’t get stranded.

    Always make the first move…never wait for an airline to offer help!

  5. @swag – yes, I used the phone #s for the airlines that are stored in my cell phone. I was calling and I identified myself. No one at any of the airlines in my many calls ever felt it was not appropriate for me to be calling on behalf of others, helping them.

  6. While in general I avoid LCC/niche carriers as well, VA actually saved the day for one of my colleagues stuck in IAD during the snopacolypse. (While I don’t run a paid service like you do, I informally provide flight assistance for many.) UA was canceling flights left and right out of IAD, and, as you can imagine, booked solid for days. She was going to spend the night in IAD, hope to get out standby the next morning, and, if not, catch the train to EWR where CO had seats. I managed to find a Virgin America flight IAD-LAX leaving within two hours with seats to sell, and a reasonable walk-up rate to boot! (UA of course wouldn’t interline, but refunded the unused segment, so net cost to the passenger was less than the hotel room would have been.) Lesson learned: not interlining can also be a benefit if you think to look!

Comments are closed.