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Travel tips: Dealing with airline delays or cancellations

Posted: Monday, March 19, 2012

Sometimes the biggest adventure in adventure travel is getting there! Everyone knows that airplane travel isn't as fun as it used to be and having your plane cancelled or delayed has always been an inconvenience. But with the cutbacks in service it can be a nightmare these days. Yes, airlines are required to rebook you on the next available flight, but that doesn't mean you're going to get there anytime soon. So here are some tips first for prevention, then preparation, and then and then for how to deal with delays or cancellations if they occur.

Prevention: you can minimize your risk of delays and cancellations by:

  1. Fly first thing in the morning. Delays often ripple through the system (i.e. the first 15 minute delay causes a 30 minute delay on the return which then causes an hour delay etc.) and the later you fly, the more likely you are to be delayed.
  2. Try to fly nonstop. The more times you have to takeoff and land, the more likely you are to run into problems. Just because your flight number doesn't change, doesn't mean it's nonstop - so be sure to look at the actual number of stops.
  3. If you can't fly nonstop, try to avoid congested airports or airports that are known to have trouble dealing with bad weather (Chigago's O'Hare and Philadelphia airports come to mind)
  4. Consider going a day early if you can. That will give you lots more options if your flight is delayed.

But preventive strategies only take you so far and sometimes you're just stuck. So how can you prepare?

  1. Know your airlines Contract of Carriage. It may be surprising to learn that airlines aren't required to do anything but book you on the next available seat - they aren't required to put you up in a hotel or give you food coupons or financial compensation. What airlines will do is individual and spelled out in their Contract of Carriage, so this is a good thing to know before your flight. You can see links to all the airlines' contracts here. Don't count on the gate agent to know what your rights are.
  2. Sign up to get alerts from the airline- emails, phone calls or text messages if there is a problem so you, or a friend, can get right on it.
  3. Look up the number of your airlines' reservation center and carry it with you.

Realizing that lots of other people are in your same boat and will also be trying to get new flights, here are the strategies to employ once your flight has been cancelled (or significantly delayed).

  1. In the section above I suggested carrying the phone number of your airline. If your flight is cancelled, you have a better chance of getting rebooked if you call the airlines' reservation system than if you stand in a long line. When I did this once, the person at the reservation center told me to make my rebooking at the airport. I politely explained that there was a long line, I desperately needed to get on the next possible flight, and I would appreciate her help - which she gave me.
  2. Airlines are not required by law to book you on a competitor's flight, but some of them will - especially if you can tell them what flight. One Saturday one of our guides was coming back from a trip when her flight was cancelled. We received an email alert, looked at the options on other airlines, and called the guide with the information. She was able to convince the reservation agent at the airport to rebook her that day.
  3. If you are trying to rebook by phone, lots of other people may be too and you may get put on hold forever. Call back and choose the option for speaking with someone who speaks Spanish. They are all bilingual and you will get through much faster.

And once you've done everything you can, relax. At this point the only thing you have any control over is your attitude. Sitting there uptight and fretting won't get you there sooner so you might as well read a good book or magazine.

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