Many travelers are at the mercy of airlines when things go wrong. They wait in line to be rebooked and curse at how bad their options are. They become, as my grandfather used to say, “farbissen” or mad at the world.
I write a lot about taking control over your own travel destiny. That means,
- Figuring out how to get help, for instance knowing the right number to dial (such as a foreign call center when U.S. lines are busy) or the right person to ask. It means asking in the right way, being empathetic to airline agents who are real people having rough days. And it means asking different people until you get the answer you want.
- Knowing what your options are, so you know what to ask for. An agent may not see everything that’s available, or come up with every creative routing. They may not on their own offer another airline. So search for what you want and ask for it, though it helps to know what you’re actually entitled to.
- Continually searching to improve your situation. Flight availability changes all the time, especially during irregular operations, as people move from one flight to another. So you take your best option at the time and then keep looking to improve it. That includes for seats, too.
But it also means not relying on the airline for your traveling conditions. And this is where it’s not just knowledge but privilege that comes into play.
If your flight is cancelled and it’s the airline’s fault and they’re willing to give you a hotel room, it might take hours for you to get one (even with new airline tools meant to digitize this) and it might mean staying in a hotel you’d never be willing to sleep in otherwise.
— Christopher Montgomery (@MontyTweets1212) July 6, 2023
Air Canada has sent a man and a woman, who didn’t know each other, to a hotel to share a room. And in China, Hainan Airlines put passengers up in an S&M-themed hotel.
If you’re able to, it’s much better to:
- Rely on your credit card coverage. Pay for your ticket with a credit card that offers trip delay coverage, book your own room and save receipts for it, along with ground transportation and meals. If the airline is offering you a room that could obviate coverage. But you’re assured the property you are comfortable staying in. You won’t wait. And you can look farther afield if need be. Sure, airport hotels might well all be booked. But if you aren’t spending an hour in line to get the room is a 20 minute drive away from the airport (also billed to trip delay coverage) so bad?
- Request a distressed passenger rate. If you don’t have credit card trip delay coverage, and you can’t find a good rate on your own that you’re willing to pay, one alternative to the long line may be the baggage office. Ask there about distressed passenger rates for hotels. If the line is long at your airline’s baggage office, or it isn’t staffed, be friendly and ask at another airline’s baggage office.
- Use points. Airline hotels often are great deals on points, with reward costs based on a hotel’s average daily rate which tends to be brought down by large airline contracts for housing crew. A few thousand points from your stash can get you a far better night’s sleep, more quickly, than relying on the airline.
Ideally you want to be able to go straight to a room, not stand in line. And you want to stay somewhere comfortable, relative to your normal standards.
Not everyone can do this. At a minimum it means being in a position to get a rewards credit card that offers coverage and front the money or at least charge the hotel night to the credit card, and then work through the claims process in hopes of recouping the charge. For some it means being willing to come out of pocket, believing that the extra rest, and reduced stress, are worth it even if not getting reimbursed.
Some parts of making travel better come down to savvy and grit. While other parts come down to a willingness to assume bad things are going to come to pass, and the ability to factor the cost of those things into the overall budget.