How to Be a Travel Hero: How to Handle Yourself When Flight Schedules Melt Down

After several tough travel weeks for the nation’s air transport system, Joe Brancatelli runs a column on tactics for dealing with air travel meltdowns.

He suggests:

  • Assume the worst will happen
  • Don’t check your bags
  • Avoid regional airlines
  • Have access to airport lounges
  • Get yourself an airport hotel

He’s got more suggestions, so read the whole thing.

Here’s my advice for when flight schedules melt down. 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 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. If you don’t have access to elite lines, or even those wait times are long, try calling an airline’s overseas customer service numbers which are often staffed independently.

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 waiting for them to make suggestions. They may not be as creative — or as desperate — 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 driveable 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. Gary–

    I can never find this out: is there a particular card that has trip delay/cancellation insurance as well as lost luggage benefits when the card is used to pay taxes on award travel?


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