Thursday, September 27, 2007


I travel a lot. A whole lot. I've been traveling, for work, off and on since 1999. There are hotels where the staff know me by sight. This is not boasting; I'm just establishing my cred on the subject of travel.

I'm writing this from just outside Gate 44 at Reagan National Airport; for the last ten minutes or so, I've been watching people freaking out in the wake of a canceled flight. Here are some tips for what to do when your flight is canceled (or delayed to where you'll miss your connection).

  • Don't panic. You're stressed, the people you're with are stressed, (both in your party, if applicable, and your fellow travelers, too), and the airline employees are stressed. I'm not saying not to worry, but...
  • Figure out *what* to worry about. There are things that are in your control, and things that are not. Figure out what fits where, and what you can do to improve your situation. Don't worry about the things you can't control, just try to figure out what your viable options are.
  • As quickly and efficiently as possible, GET IN LINE with pen and paper. There will either be a line at the gate where your flight was supposed to leave, or one at the Special Services desk. Get into it.
  • Consider your options, their cost, and the value of speed (would two hours' difference mean getting home before House comes on, or making it to your sister's wedding?) Remember to be creative; sometimes renting a car and driving can be the best solution; sometimes it's a horrible idea.
  • Call the airline while you wait. If it's an isolated incident (like a broken airplane, not something like storms all over the East Coast), the hold times shouldn't be bad, and you should be able to get through to someone fairly quickly; in fact, you might get someone on the phone before you get to the front of the line. Keep in mind, though, that the people on the phone have access to fewer options than the people at the gate. If you just need to get moved from a 7pm flight to a 9:30, they can probably help you. If you have a complex itinerary, you might just need to talk to someone on the ground. Hey, worst case, you have something to do while you wait in line. If you are able to get something reserved, get all the information you can and jot it down (flight numbers, confirmation numbers, etc.). They may tell you you've been automatically rebooked on another itinerary.
  • If you do get someone on the phone, EVEN IF YOU GET AN ALTERNATE BOOKING, STAY IN LINE [Unless you have to, at that point, run to get the flight they just put you on. If that's the case, go ahead and go.]. When you get to the front of the line, say that you've been booked on something else, and tell the agent the details. They should be able to print the boarding pass/transfer ticket you need.
  • When possible, try to stay with your original carrier. I've had problems going from USAir to American; I presume that these are just general problems that happen when you go between carriers. Specifically: If you do change carriers, you will usually need to give the other carrier a paper ticket for your original flight, which they will staple to their ticket. It's a weird little ritual, but let them do it. In any case, if they have you on another flight, DO NOT leave the counter without either a boarding pass or a paper ticket in your hand.
  • If the cancellation was due to a mechanical failure, they should put you up in a hotel if you need one. If it was due to weather, you're on your own. If you're going to be stuck in the airport for a while, they should give you food vouchers, regardless.
  • Generally, they won't give you a voucher for a rental car, but they may give you a travel voucher for the airline.
  • Never, ever, EVER get hostile with the airline employees. There are some great gate agents out there, and there are some who aren't so hot. But getting red in the face and yelling about the importance of your trip will accomplish nothing productive. If you feel that the airline has treated you poorly, try to record as much specific information as possible.(who you talked to, what you were promised, and so forth)
The most likely result of the cancellation or delay is that your plans will be pushed back a few hours, and you'll be stuck in the airport for a while. If you are stuck, consider getting something to eat. There are surprisingly good places to eat in airports these days, you just have to find them. Reagan National Airport in DC is full of good food - just outside security (security lines are usually quite short, under 20 minutes, and frequently under 5, so you can usually pop out and back in without a problem) there's a Legal Seafood and a sushi restaurant; in the North Pier of Terminal C, there's a Five Guys Burgers and a Gordon Biersch brewery. At DFW, check out Cool River, it's an upscale restaurant in the international (D) terminal. I recommend the Sirloin Bruschetta. Also, if you have a laptop and/or cell phone, take this time to charge them. Travel problems can have a ripple effect, and you'll want some talk time on your cell if something else goes wrong.
Handy tip: There are frequently outlets under banks of pay phones and near the gates. Some airports -- I'm looking at you, Chicago -- have put in special plugs to deter travelers from stealing their electricity. A determined traveler can usually find a normal outlet where other appliances (say, a vendor's cart) are plugged in.

Other than that, relax. If you had people coming to meet you at the airport, call them and explain what's going on. Most people have been in this situation and will understand. If you're outbound, call your travel agent (if applicable) and/or contact any rental car company/hotel you'll need to change. Generally, hotels and car companies are pretty understanding about changes due to flight cancellations.

One more thing: Before you leave, consider collecting and bringing with you:
  • Phone numbers and contact information for all of the travel providers you'll be using (car rental, airlines, hotels, etc), and all the people you'll be meeting/working with while you're away.
  • Every confirmation number for every piece of travel you're doing.


Brent Bitz said...

Great info! Thanks.

Lesley Ann said...

I've also had good luck quietly asking for a 1 day passto the airline's lounge. Considering that most everyone is yelling at and abusing the airline counter staff, a good attitude with them will encourage their offers of freebees, and when they do offer meal vouchers, you can then lean across the counter and quietly say, "What I'd really appreciate is a pass to your lounge." Because you've been so nice to them, they rarely refuse.

james said...

Also it helps to know alternate airlines routings, so when you do take advantage of rule 240 you KNOW what flights are available and more likely to be open and can direct the the agent to put you on those flights.

In Denver when I fly United I'll look at the board and online to see what other UAL flights are available, and also check Frontier Airlines which has 2-4 flights a day to major cities.

Similarly I might print out the canceled airlines other flights before leaving. I want to know if the gate agent is trying to put me on a 3pm 737, which will be packed with other cx'd pax, or if there's a 757 or 777 flying at 3:15 on the other side of the concourse which might be more open. The gate agents would seem to have this, but often they just put you on "next standby."

Also ask for odd routings. I had a canceled flight in L.A. - Denver recently, and I knew that there were flights to Vegas (and Vegas to Denver) For some reason that routing doesn't show up as an available connection, but connections through S.F. and San Diego did! After some polite pestering the agent routed me through Vegas, which I BELIEVE is somehow more complicated on their end, but was easy and most direct for me. (Someone explain that to me)


Sarah said...

Great guide! I followed exactly this plan when my Holiday-time flight was cancelled due to mechanical problems, and I was one of the few people to fly out that night.

Not only should you not get hostile with the gate agents, you should make every attempt to genuinely smile at them, empathise with how hard their job is, and try to make it easier on them. In my case, I got my reservation changed by an agent on the phone, but she warned me that the first leg was a bit late, and that I might miss my new connecting flight. However, when I got up to the desk, the gate agent was kind enough to take a few seconds to determine that my connecting flight was running late, too. I'm sure that if I had been pissy and angry like some of the other passengers, he would not have taken the time to do so.

Jan said...

Excellent! Thanks...will have this in the bag for a trip soon.

James said...

Glad to help!

Lesley, I did try exactly what you described: I was on a 6:30AM flight, and was delayed to an 11:50AM. I couldn't go home, I just had ...well, about three hours to kill at the airport. I asked a gate agent; they directed me to the ticket counter. I went to the ticket counter; the agent ther asked me if I was Chairman's Preferred (at the time, I wasn't). She offered to *sell* me a day pass for fifty bucks, but other than that, no dice. I was polite and nice and smiled and .... nothing.

But then I wrote US Airways a letter and they sent me a $75 travel voucher. So I guess your mileage may vary :)

Neutronic said...

This is an excellent article. You might also want to check out this article at It provides some good info on Rule 240. is also a great resource for finding airfare deals from your home city. I have found that they have the best deals around, and they offer an email alert service. I've gotten in on some amazing deals not found elsewhere.

Worth checking out...

Mike Martin

Jeff said...

Another thing I've done is to bring a small power strip with me. That way if you can't find an unoccupied electrical outlet, you can usually get someone to share with you. Besides the fact you can can get charged up as well, you've also made some fast friends with some fellow travelers.

james said...

Jeff that's a good idea (re: power strip). Although I've read many airports are now starting to lock their outlets to keep you in the business centers

saramwrap said...

I think the biggest rule is BE CONSIDERATE.

Be considerate of the gate agents and other airline staff, who haven't done this to you intentionally. You're having a bad day, and they're having a bad day, too. Their job is to help you, and being friendly and patient will help them help you.

But also, be considerate of your fellow stranded passengers. I am always horrified by how many people blow up at random strangers, make outrageous demands of everyone, and hold up every line. There are dozens of people in the same boat, with many of the same needs and concerns. Not only will you piss off the staff with rude behavior... but now you've pissed off dozens of potential seatmates on your new flight.

Basically, be cool. Be friendly, stay patient, don't expect miracles (or a ridiculous level of compensation) but do make sure you get whatever you should be getting (new flight, vouchers, whatever). DON'T PANIC.

takeone said...

I'll second the power strip idea... I'd pass on the $5 Wal-Mart variety though. They are pretty bulky + I've had trouble with TSA security when carrying them (no biggie- just secondary inspection). There are some low-pro ones out there designed for business travelers, but they are not yet common and can be pricey (Monster makes a cool one called "Outlets To Go" though).

The easiest, cheapest, lightest, solution I've found is a $2 "one to three" plug. I recommend the orange or yellow variety that Home Depot carries- they have one plug on the face and one each end rather than a strip of three in a row- which comes in pretty handy when you need to use an AC adapter.

I also carry around one of those gray devices to change from a tree prong grounding plug to a two prong. You will probably never use it for its intended purpose, but it can get you some clearance to plug in additional walwarts on the side outlets of your 1 to 3 plug.

A one foot extension cord comes in real handy too- they are sold under names like "Outlet Saver" and "Power Strip Liberators"

Word to the wise: carry two "1 to 3" plugs. You'll never see someone as heartbroken as a fellow traveler who you have to un-plug so as to catch your plane.