When Travel Goes Sideways, Don’t Rely On Airlines To Help. Take Matters Into Your Own Hands.

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.

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.

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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Comments

  1. good advice – two times in the last year when our flights have been cancelled or delayed we immediately booked another airline on points and got home either earlier or about the same time.
    We also didn’t have much added cost even one time spending fewer net points than we would have originally.

  2. Also:

    Be nice, very nice, to the gate agent. They get abuse hurled at them. For example, we were flying to St. Louis from D.C. For those who don’t know: You can’t get there from here.

    Getting to St. Louis from D.C. is a routing nightmare. I selected a route via Atlanta. We got on the plane.

    One engine wouldn’t start. They pulled out the jump gear and tried to jump it. Nope. Turned out that metal fatigue had caused the starter motor to disintegrate. Inside the engine. That plane was going nowhere. It was fully booked.

    Delta had planes every hour to Atlanta. They were all fully booked.

    I tried calling to rebook, but because we had bought one ticket cash and the other miles (pro tip, don’t do this), the computer would not link our bookings. It kept trying to put us on different flights.

    So back to the poor, harried gate agent. Who was at the absolute end of her tether at this point. She was telling a family with a young kid that their best option was to transfer from DCA to BWI…which are not that close together. I sighed and said to my husband, “You watch. We’re going to Baltimore.”

    When we got to the front of the line, the first words out of my mouth were, “I have good news for you. We are not trying to get to Atlanta.” And I smiled.

    And she just visibly relaxed. When I added. “And we don’t mind going to BWI” it was clear that all she needed at that point was a pax who understood the situation we were in and that she had the seats she could find, which might not be the seats people wanted. She said “I can do Baltimore to Minneapolis to St. Louis.”

    “That’s great. Thank you.”

    (Minneapolis is a preferred routing for us on the rare occasions we can find it because we have friends there with a very nice spare bedroom who would absolutely rescue us if we got stranded at MSP).

    Her expression when we said that’s great… We also hadn’t exactly heard many thank yous in her direction. You’d think she’d personally broken the plane.

    They transferred us to BWI in a shared van, which we shared with another passenger who knew aviation and was going on about how lucky we were it hadn’t managed to take off because “The one engine performance of the MD-80 sucks.” Routed us through Minneapolis. Got us to St. Louis many hours late, but it was the same day, at least.

    Oh, and guess what she also did for us?

    Got our luggage off the dead plane. We were sure we weren’t seeing that for at least a day or two.

    (We are not carry-on only travelers unless we can fit everything into a backpack. I hate being gate checked and I *hate* dragging luggage through the airport).

    I have a feeling that our luggage would not have materialized if we hadn’t been proactive about giving the gate agent the freedom to do her job. I felt SO sorry for the poor woman.

  3. Good Points and Jennifer got it right. Be Nice. I occasionally get frustrated, but with 20+ years of traveling the world, I’m realistic, things don’t always go right and you roll with the punches.
    When I sense things may be going sideways with a filght, the first call is to the airline to get backed up on something and a heads up call to one of the local hotels asking them to hold a room for an hour or so and then be sure to call back if I’m not going to need it.

    I live in Central Fl. Most of the rental car companies have no drop charges between any of the airports in the area. I can reroute as needed coming home.

    The best advice is know what your realistic options are.

    One evening delay, I asked the gate agent in ATL for one of the close Marriotts. He told me to wait a few minutes until he had booked out all the lower rate properties and then he would book me. The agent’s computer system often doesn’t allow immediate flexibility. Roll with the flow.

    The bad part now is flights are running at capacity. Any flight or system delay cascades. Sometimes, there aren’t any good options. Stay positive and do the best you can.

  4. @Jennifer P

    You mean you can’t fly direct*on Delta* from DC to St. Louis… American flies direct from DCA, Southwest serves St. Louis direct from DCA and BWI, and United flies direct from IAD.

  5. Better advice: Buy travel insurance on an annual premium. You choose the contract rather than putting up with the credit card company’s bargained-down offerings.

  6. @Adam L Huh. The options appear to have improved while I wasn’t looking. I’d certainly have taken a direct from DCA on American if one had existed at that time. We are talking, oh, ten years ago, if not more.

  7. Always have a plan B, know how the app works, and have access to an agent at a lounge and status or be in F if possible. Things don’t go sideways that often, but when they do, it can make the difference between getting there and not.

    However, I think a lot of people can’t be bothered.

  8. The point should be to be kind to people esp. those that serve others whether you get what you want and things go bad for you or not. People in western civilization have become far too aggressive toward each other and that is a big part of why companies quit trying to give decent customer service – because it is simply too costly to keep arguing w/ people that won’t be rational and simply demand that their needs be met.

    And the big reason why it is possible for some to immediately step out of line and take care of themselves is because they have the financial ability to absorb whatever is necessary to get themselves back on track.

    Business travelers can often pull out a corporate card or know they will get reimbursed and sort it all out after the fact but many leisure travelers cannot.

    The best guidance is to expect disruptions, have the financial means to extricate yourself from the situation if you aren’t satisfied w/ what, how and when the provider offers, and be kind to other people, esp. those that are trying to help you, even if you don’t think so.

  9. Something that has always confused me about booking your own hotel when one is technically entitled to you by the airline — does that not void the T&C of trip delay protections that only reimburse you for expenses not offered by the airline? Another question that Google hasn’t been able to answer for me is if the protections will kick in for my home airport. If I live over 30 minutes away from the airport, or about 20 miles, would I be able to get a hotel room next to the airport if I’m delayed until the next morning or would I be SOL on the hotel charge? I have the C1 Venture X. Thank you!

  10. Looks like everyone has the right idea, be kind, be patient, and be flexible. I try that even when phoning an agent, no matter what the company or topic. (And it goes both ways; an Air Force sergeant told me about a captain in their unit who was a screamer. You can guess how often his paperwork disappeared “in transit”.)

    But one thing I would add is to be proactive in a gentle way. When COVID hit I was stuck in Cape Town with canceled flights and the chaos we all remember too well. I worked with the Qatar agent for a rebooking the next day and that was okay (there to Doha to Chicago). But I also noticed many of the people off my cruise ship were standing around waiting for somebody to tell them what to do. Obviously that was going to go nowhere, but they just didn’t know where to start. For all I know they got stuck when things soon shut down for the duration.

  11. Yeah. Again, the point is to be nice to the front line staff. Be flexible. Let them do their job.

    In my case, their contractual obligation was to get me and my husband to St. Louis. They met it. By stepping back and not demanding anything beyond that, I gave the gate agent the flexibility to use whatever routing to St. Louis she could find that day.

    Not all of us have corporate credit cards with trip coverage…I sure don’t. But we can all be flexible, polite, and take some metaphorical chill pills. It’s not always *easy* to do that, but we *can* do it.

  12. Nice advice but try getting your checked luggage back if stranded, especially on a connecting flight.

  13. The be kind part is more important than lots of people realize. I can’t eat wood and sh*t a hotel room. But! Sometimes, I can pull a string or two and one just miraculously becomes available! Well! Lookie there! LOL! Now, it may not be a preferred location and you might need to get an Uber, but it’s doable.
    I’m pretty sure it’s the same way for airline agents.

  14. I am very seasoned traveler. ALWAYS use a carryon with meds and one days clothing. Been stranded many times any airline. Had to to wear a hand towel to bed at hotel without a carryon. Learned my lesson.

  15. @FGCUFlyer
    There are other search engines besides Google. You may be used to using it all the time, but Bing, Opera, Bravo, Safari are sometimes more helpful.

    No search engine is perfect, but as one who must use search engines most of the day for the information I need, I’ve had to learn the plusses and minuses of many.

  16. Absolutely blows my mind how many people travel with no buffer whatsoever in terms of time or funds. Not talking about the necessary travel for family emergency or whatever. I mean the tourist travel. If you can’t afford at least 150% of the trip cost, then you can’t afford the trip.
    As for being nice to airline staff, hotel staff, etc. This is great advice, unless they are being rude or dismissive to you. Then it’s time to calmly, but very firmly not take no for an answer, at all. Usually it doesn’t come to this, because being nice works wonders. But if you’ve ever dealt with KLM ground staff at Schiphol, then you know it’s pointless.

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