Top 10 Tips To Deal With Winter Flights Delays and Cancellations

Jan 7, 2014

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With the nefarious-sounding “arctic vortex” swirling catastrophe upon the country and airline delays and cancellations mounting into the tens of thousands, I thought today would be a good time for a primer on tactics you can use to avoid waiting hours (or days) in an airport or on hold and spending hundreds of dollars in unnecessary fees while trying to work out your travel plans and get them back on track. So here are my top 10 tips for dealing with flight cancellations and delays.

Delta is among the airlines that will let you cancel for free within 24 hours.
Delta is among the airlines that will let you cancel for free within 24 hours.

1. Proactively book yourself on other flights using free reservation hold times. Most of the major airlines will let you cancel a reservation for free if you do so within 24 hours of booking. That way, if you see trouble coming down the pike, you can make a back-up reservation and then cancel it if your original plans work out, or see if your original flights are delayed or canceled and take advantage of your new booking. Of the airlines that have free 24-hour risk free cancellation periods, you can fly Air Canada, Alaska, American (free hold period), Delta, United, US Airways, JetBlue, Southwest and Virgin America. By being proactive, I also mean that you should not depend on an airline agent to have all your options at their fingertips. When calling, it pays to have alternative flight options with open space mapped out for them so you can feed them the information and have them book it. Not only will it save you time and aggravation, but you’re much likelier to get the options you need.

2. Use frequent-flyer miles to rebook yourself. I always say miles are the best insurance policy for last-minute travel emergencies. That’s because though airfares can shoot up drastically in the last few days before a flight, that’s also often the time that award space opens up – and they’ve come to the rescue for me personally in many instances recently. So if your flight is canceled and you can get a refund, your best option might be to use miles on another airline to book an alternative ticket, and pocket your original airfare. The one thing to look out for is that most airlines charge a close-in booking fee for award reservations made within 21 days, so that can add to your expense. These are usually discounted or waived for elites. Here’s a list of the major domestic airlines’ policies:

Air Canada: $0
Alaska: $0
American: $75 for tickets booked within 21 days of departure: waived for all AA elites)
Delta: $0
JetBlue: $0
Southwest: $0
United: $75 for non-elites, $50 for Silver, $25 for Gold, $0 for 1k, Global Services, Platinum
US Airways: $75, waived for Gold, Platinum and Chairman’s Preferred members.
Virgin America: $0

Paying attention to an airline's travel alerts can mean you're among the first to rebook without penalties.
Paying attention to an airline’s travel alerts can mean you’re among the first to rebook without penalties.

3. Using weather waivers to get around cancellations. As I mentioned in my post last Friday about the winter storm delays and cancellations, when massive weather events like this take place, airlines often proactively (well, at least actively) issue weather waivers allowing customers to rebook their travel at a later date with no cancellation, change or ticket fare difference fees if they rebook within certain time windows. Keeping up-to-date on the policy of the airline you’re flying will mean you know exactly when a weather waiver is issued and can be among the first to rebook at a later date when the traffic congestion is likely to have cleared up a bit. Not only that, but this could be a good strategy if you know your travel plans are going to change anyway. For example, my own mother had travel plans this week that she realized she would need to cancel for personal reasons a few days ago. Rather than canceling right at the time and incurring change fees and being issued credit with the airline, she waited a few days to see if the winter weather would affect her travel dates, and sure enough, they did and the airline issued a weather waiver so that she could cancel her ticket and get a full refund. It ended up saving her about $600. So if your travel plans are during times that there are likely to be weather issues, it could pay to take a little gamble and wait to see if weather affects the schedule and a waiver is issued.

Think outside the airport and consider taking a train to a nearby alternative if it means catching an operating flight.
Think outside the airport and consider taking a train to a nearby alternative if it means catching an operating flight.

4. Consider different cities and think outside the airport. All three New York City area airports – JFK, La Guardia and Newark – have been experiencing huge delays and tons of cancellations, and rebooking has been made worse by the fact that people supposed to fly in or out of any of the three have been trying to rebook at either their original airport or one of the other two, wreaking havoc on reservations systems. Instead, folks could consider flying into Philadelphia or Hartford, for example and taking the Amtrak train to New York from there. Obviously check on the flight situation at the alternative airport or airports you’re considering, but if they are clearer than your home airport, it pays to think outside the box and examine options that might involve a train, bus or car if they get you out closer to your planned time of departure.

Set up Expert Flyer seat alerts.
Use ExpertFlyer to find available seats.

5. Use ExpertFlyer to find available space. This goes hand-in-hand with being proactive. In my experience, it’s never a good idea to call an airline up asking for help and expect them to have tons of options on hand for you – especially since they’re bound to be stressed and overworked in a situation like this and they often make mistakes, especially when looking at other airlines’ inventory. What I like to do is fire up ExpertFlyer and instead of using it to find award space like I usually talk about, you can actually use it to find open seats on various airlines’ flights in all fare classes – award and paid – so when you do call up your airline, you can have the exact flight details ready to go for them to rebook you.

6. Leverage your elite status. Having elite status can mean the difference between spending days on end at the airport and getting booked on a new flight immediately when there are systemwide travel delays and flight cancellations, so if you have elite status, be sure to call your dedicated service desk where wait times are usually much shorter and they’ll have all your information loaded in. Even if you don’t have elite status yourself, if you know a flyer with mid- or top-tier elite status on the airline you’re flying who is willing to help you, have them call the dedicated elite desk of your airline. Hold times are usually much shorter, and agents on those lines are usually willing to do a lot more for a valuable elite member than just your average flyer.

7. Leverage social media. With long phone hold times only getting longer as more flights are canceled., social media – especially Twitter – can be faster way to get in touch with airline reps, and every second counts when flights are getting booked up fast. Among the airlines that respond fastest to Tweets are American and Delta and in my experience, Alaska and United are getting better too. Here’s a handy list of airline Twitter handles to have on hand:

Why camp out on the floor when you can wait in the lounge?
Why camp out on the floor when you can wait in the lounge?

8. Leverage lounge access. While other flyers are stuck waiting in the terminal in serpentine lines snaking away from customer service desks, you could be sitting pretty in an airline lounge, where desk agents are often empowered to make fast, last-minute reservations changes and there are likely to be far fewer people ahead of you in the queue – an important consideration when time is of the essence.  At the very least, you can take advantage of the free snacks (or booze!) and WiFi while you wait. That’s why it pays to have a credit card that includes lounge access like the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, the Delta Reserve, the United Club card or the Platinum Card from American Express.

Airline hold
Don’t spend your time on hold with overwhelmed US call centers when you can Skype an international desk for faster service!

9. Call an airline’s international line. While the US numbers of the major airlines will be jammed with passengers scrambling to change their plans at the last minute, many airlines’ international customer service lines will only have their usually moderate wait times. Before you worry about the cost of calling Australia or Asia and being put on hold for several minutes, keep in mind that many international customer service lines accept free Skype calls, so if you have a Skype account and a WiFi connection, you’re golden.

Here are the links to major airlines and their international call centers.
Air Canada Aeroplan
US Airways
Virgin America

10. It never hurts to ask! Yes, this is my travel mantra that I repeat all the time…because it works! We’ve all had terrible customer service experiences with airline reps, but in my experience, when I get a sympathetic rep and I’m nice, they’ll do everything they can to help me out, and I am grateful. If you get a nice rep, it never hurts to ask them for what you need. Many will say they cannot rebook you on another carrier, but they can, and if that’s your plan, be as sweet and encouraging as possible until they agree to look into partner airline options for you. Also, listen to them – they might have ideas or inside knowledge that you don’t, and they’ll have up-to-date information on flight cancellations, so use them as a resource.

For more information, see my recent post on Rebooking Tips.

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