This winter, the twin calamities of bad weather and the COVID-19 omicron surge have caused hundreds or even thousands of flights to be canceled almost daily. Flight Aware, an airline tracking service, is reporting a daily average of more than 800 midweek U.S. flight cancellations in January, plus at least 3,000 additional flights with delayed departures.
So what’s a traveler to do when faced with this growing likelihood that his or her flight won't leave on time — or at all? Here are a few tips that can help make air travel during these chaotic times as smooth as possible.
Before your trip
1. Reduce or optimize connections. The more connections you have, the more chances there are for cancellation or delay. If it makes financial sense, book direct flights whenever possible — those extra dollars you spend may end up saving you a lot of hassle. And if your itinerary choices include different connection airport options, choose those in warm-weather cities that are less susceptible to winter mishaps.
2. Book flights earlier in the day, with a direct carrier. Zach Griff, senior airline reporter at The Points Guy website, recommends travelers book earlier flights because “once a few cancellations happen, the domino effect means a higher percentage of later flights will be delayed or canceled.” He also suggests booking with a direct carrier (such as United and American) rather than a regional partner (United Express or American Eagle, for example). The parent airlines tend to get priority for staffing and airport access.
3. Avoid checking luggage. Changing a flight at the last minute will sometimes mean checked baggage will be left behind, trailing your new itinerary. Bringing just a roller bag small enough to use as a carry-on item makes you more nimble to grab a replacement flight, not to mention providing a change of clothes should you get stuck somewhere.
4. Use travel tools. Staying up to date on flight and weather information can help you predict and manage delays and cancellations. Limor Decter, travel adviser at the Embark Beyond agency, says: “We encourage our clients to download their airline’s phone app and make sure their contact information is updated and notifications turned on. Check on flight status and weather and news, and where the flight originates a day or two prior to departure.”
5. Consider using a travel agent. Should things go wrong, you can use your travel agency for support. “Agencies have direct access and clout with airlines,” Decter says. “We can connect with the right people to rebook a flight that’s canceled.”
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At the airport
Every traveler dreads their flight getting canceled or delayed, but handling the disruption is much less upsetting if you know your rights as a passenger and resources for rebooking. Also important is persistence, as well as “being flexible, prepared and patient — now more than ever with the current travel landscape,” Embark’s Decter says. Here's some more advice.
1. Be polite to airline customer service reps. Being polite, either in person or on the phone, is not only the nice thing to do — given the amount of stress airport and airline employees face — it may inspire them to take that extra step to help rescue your travel plans.
2. Know your rights. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to give a full refund to passengers if a flight gets canceled for any reason. Many airlines will try to offer travel vouchers for future trips, but you do not have to accept credit in lieu of cash (or a refund of frequent flier points plus taxes paid). If you choose to be rebooked, airlines “have to accommodate on the next available flight — even with a competitor airline,” says The Points Guy’s Griff, “But sometimes these options are only available in person at the airport with a customer service center or with a gate agent.”
3. Ask your airline for help in case of delay, but be prepared for little or no compensation. The DOT rule is that passengers are “entitled to a refund or compensation if the airline made a significant schedule change.” But what exactly constitutes “significant” has not been defined and varies widely between airlines. Airlines will typically offer meal and hotel vouchers if a flight is delayed or canceled due to staffing or mechanical issues, but they often won’t do so if they claim the delay is due to weather — even if the weather is on the other side of the country. “But it can’t hurt to ask” for more assistance, Griff says.
4. Explore all options if you need to rebook. Given the vast number of cancellations and delays in the past few weeks, it pays for passengers to be proactive in their rebooking. As anyone who has recently tried to change an itinerary knows, airline customer-service phone wait times have been horrendous — sometimes measuring in hours. So try a multipronged approach to rebooking: Contact your travel agent if you used one, check your airline’s website and app, and try to talk to in-person representatives at the airport customer service center and to gate agents. If you have airline lounge privileges, talk to a customer service rep at a lounge, where the line is likely to be shorter.
5. Propose a solid plan B. Griff suggests researching a replacement itinerary to propose to the representative. “It’s better than just asking for help,” he says, because “it can speed up the process and give you an option you actually want.”
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer who has covered cultural travel for Lonely Planet, Frommer's, the San Francisco Chronicle and many other outlets.