How to Not Get Stuck During Airline Delays and Cancellations

Mar 16, 2019

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Even during a “good” week, flight delays and cancellations happen. Throw in a ‘bomb cyclone’ in the Midwest, a nationwide grounding of an aircraft type and the surge of spring break travel and you have aviation overload. Your travel plans can worsen with the slightest blip in a system already stretched to capacity.

Such was the case for me this week at Orlando International Airport (MCO) as I tried to get home to Houston facing severe delays, likely flight cancellations and limited options that were disappearing quickly. If, or rather when, you find yourself in a similar situation at the airport it is important to know your options and act on them quickly if you don’t want to find yourself living your own version of the Tom Hanks’ movie, The Terminal. 

Here’s how to decrease your chances of getting stuck during airline delays and cancellations and increase your chances of getting home faster.

Check the Airline Kiosks and App

If you realize your flight is likely to be delayed based on where it is coming from, keep a close eye on your flight’s status. If a delay becomes reality and you want an alternative to waiting it out, check the airline’s app or in-airport kiosk for rebooking options. You do not have to stand in line to talk to a real person as you can self-service rebooking options in many cases with major airlines. In fact, it may be faster to do it online or at a kiosk in the airport — and speed matters. You may have the option of not only new flight times, but new ‘nearby’ origin and destination cities.

However, as was the case for me, automated rebooking options are not always your best option. Facing hours of delay and potential cancellation on my scheduled flight, my only automated option on Thursday evening from Orlando to Houston was a flight that got me home Sunday morning at 12:10am via Cleveland or Dulles … roughly three days later.

Summer Hull

Find a Real Airline Employee

If you can’t find what you need online, you might need a human in uniform — but not just any uniform. You need an airline employee, who knows how to work the ticketing desk. Look at the uniforms and name tags so you can get a ticket agent, and not a baggage handler or similar. If you have airline club access at a United Club, Delta SkyClub or similar, you can head there for help with potentially shorter lines. Also, consider calling the airline or utilizing social media (such as messaging the airline on Twitter) if lines at the airport are long.

Image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy
Image by Zach Honig / The Points Guy

If you’re with an employee and there are no reasonable bookings options left with your carrier, ask if there are options on another airline. If the delay is weather-related, you are on a Basic Economy ticket or you are on a low-cost carrier, there might not be other airline option at your fingertips. Still, it is worth asking and presenting available options you have researched yourself.

In my case, an airline employee got me on the standby list for the last flight to Houston. Unfortunately, I missed by three people, so that didn’t help me get home faster. Elite status fliers will generally get preference on the standby list.

Shop for New Tickets

Knowing my guaranteed options were limited on United that day due to sold-out flights, I quickly looked to other airlines (I had folks at TPG helping check options, too). This wouldn’t be a free option, but I needed to get home after eight days away.

American Airlines had an award on a connecting itinerary available that night for 30,000 miles, and Southwest had a nonstop flight to Houston Hobby available for $463 — a lot of money, but the good news is the Southwest Business Select fare (all that was available) was refundable if I didn’t need it in the end. I’d be one of the first on the plane, earn 12 Rapid Rewards points per dollar spent and still get home that night. If I was spending points on the new ticket, that would cost about 32,000 Rapid Reward points.

Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy
Image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy

Both American and Southwest had only one ticket left on these flights, so we booked the Southwest flight quickly knowing we could refund it if I found a better deal. When shopping for new tickets, be sure and check the status of those flights to make sure they are running on-time, or close to it. Also factor in any new bag fees, seat assignment fees, etc. you may now be on the hook to pay.

Check Airport Hotels

While deciding the best course of action, I checked room rates at airport hotels — in this case the in-terminal Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport. If there are major delays and cancellations, rooms at airport hotels can get really expensive or disappear altogether. Sometimes it is best to pull the plug on getting home that day, get some good rest and try again in the morning. Airport hotels are generally pretty affordable on points, so don’t forget to check that option.

Even on Thursday night of spring break, Friday actually looked worse in terms of flight loads and getting home from Orlando, so I quickly passed on the idea of an overnight at the airport.

Make a Decision

My original flight (for which I still held a ticket) was stranded on the ground in Denver with a five-hour delay due to weather, so those odds didn’t seem great to me. When I didn’t clear standby on the other United flight to Houston from Orlando that night, I made a decision.

I left the terminal that United utilizes and headed to my new Southwest flight in another terminal (CLEAR and PreCheck helped with that quick transition).

PreCheck and CLEAR saved tons of time when changing terminals (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
PreCheck and CLEAR saved tons of time when changing terminals (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

If you are indecisive in the face of delays and cancellations, your options are likely to disappear as hundreds (or thousands) of other passengers will beat you to the (re)booking. Weigh the options and make a quick decision if you want to keep some control of your schedule

If you are OK getting stuck somewhere for a bit or taking a creative route, waiting for the airline to direct you is a feasible option. Just don’t stress about your decision once you make it. If you are stuck along your journey, your credit card’s built-in travel protections may cover unexpected expenses incurred along the way not covered by the airline (such as a hotel for an overnight weather delay). However, your credit card’s protections won’t generally pay for a new ticket home. Personally, I needed to go home and booked a second ticket to get there.

Ask for a Refund

If you decide not to fly your originally scheduled flight in light of major delays and cancellations, get your money back. You may have a cancel and refund option available to you online or in the airline’s app. If not, you can ask a real airline employee for assistance in-person or over the phone, but just be sure and cancel your original flight before its eventual departure so you can get the money or miles (hopefully) returned.

In my case, the last-minute Southwest ticket home was actually cheaper than the United ticket I canceled since I had been required to buy up to a relatively last-minute fare on that ticket. However, in most cases your new last-minute ticket will probably cost more than the one you are canceling unless you are able to scoop up some great last-minute saver award availability on your new ticket.

Bottom Line

According to FlightAware, on the day I was trying to fly home, there were 12,257 flight delays and 2,624 cancellations just within the United States. It was by no means just me having problems getting home that day due to several variables at work, but by acting quickly, researching options and making a decision I was able to get home to my family that night when I’m sure many other travelers had to be a little more patient with their journey.

Read on for more tips to deal with airline delays and cancellations:

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Featured image by Scott Olson/Getty Images

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