Hell? Or an opportunity?

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I got a panicked call the other day from a friend stuck in Mexico City. After getting delayed by customs and missed her connecting flight by just a few minutes, she was told that she would have to spend the night there and pay for a new ticket to Cabo the next day. Crying and ready to return to Houston because the only things she knows how to say in Spanish are dónde está el baño and una más cerveza, she was nervous about being stranded in Mexico City by herself.

When I told her to talk to the manager at the airline counter, she said she had already done that with no success. I know that sometimes she comes on a little strong, so I told her to try again without an attitude and appeal to them in the nicest way possible. She called me back an hour later, overjoyed that they had rebooked her on a later flight with no extra charges.

Delays happen. When, inevitably, it’s your turn, here’s my advice on how to deal with it:

Talk to the airlines

The truth is, most airlines really want you to go where you need to go. The representative at the counter would love to help you on your way and doesn’t get to keep any of your money if you’re penalized, so they’re only going to charge you if they have to. If you can present a case for why you didn’t cause a given problem, the airline often will try to fix it for free. If you messed up, then you might have to pay something. One thing’s for sure, though: how you treat the person at the counter can make all the difference in the world. Would you want to be nice to someone who is yelling at you?

Find out about freebies

You might not be able to get on the next flight out, but the airline usually will take some responsibility if they feel like they’ve made an error or there were circumstances beyond your control. You might be able to get a voucher for food, a hotel, an upgrade, transportation and/or a hang in the VIP lounge if you’re going to be delayed for some time. Any of these options is better than nothing. Sometimes the company might even ante up a voucher for a flight at a later date for your troubles. Asking for this kind of compensation is perfectly acceptable if you’ve been inconvenienced. Explaining your case in a nice way will always go further than being abrupt with the representative helping you.

Get a hotel

Sometimes you just get stuck. It’s not fun to spend the night at an airport. If you’re low on cash, you can always try to find a quiet spot and take a nap, but I’ve been saved from a miserable night on several occasions by using a great feature on one of my favorite travel apps. I was recently stranded in Istanbul after I missed a flight and couldn’t get another flight until early the next morning. I found a wi-fi spot at the terminal, pulled up the hotels.com app, and used the Hotels Near Me feature. Immediately I discovered a hotel less than a quarter-mile away. How could that be?

It turns out that the hotel was connected to the airport and inexpensive. I booked it in seconds, walked across the street to the lobby, checked in, had a great dinner and just chilled out in my room. It was actually better than getting to my destination in the middle of the night, and I was well rested when I arrived in Cyprus the next day. And remember: airlines usually have a relationship with a nearby hotel where flight attendants and stranded passengers can stay. If they’ve made a mistake, it’s not difficult for them to get you a voucher for a room there.

Turn lemons into margaritas

Often, the difference between a happy traveler and an unhappy one comes down to attitude. I had the misfortune of being in a New York airport the day the power grid went out. It was dark, there was no A/C, and no one really knew when any planes would be leaving. We found a restaurant serving dark beer (pun alert) and started our own impromptu party.

I’ll choose anything over moping around in the airport. I’ll rent a car, catch a train and find something to keep myself entertained. A five-hour stopover can be agonizing if you’re sitting in a chair watching the flight schedule. Get out of the terminal and go shopping. Check out TripAdvisor and see what fun things there are to do in the area.  

I was in Myanmar last month with a four-hour layover at the most boring airport in the world. The nearest city of Mandalay was an hour away. Most people wouldn’t think of leaving with such a small window of free time. I got a cheap taxi for four hours, and even with the long round-trip to Mandalay, had two great hours of exploring temples and palaces. Two hours can be a lot of time if you plan wisely.

Know how to occupy yourself anywhere

There are occasions when you’re stranded, there’s no way to get anywhere within the time you have, and there’s simply nothing interesting to do. I like crossword puzzles, so I have my phone loaded with hours of downloaded crossword fun. I travel with my computer so I can write articles or get online if I’m lucky enough to have internet. My carry-on has all the cords I need as well as a portable charger so that I won’t run out of electricity. Pack a book. Get some Sudoku puzzles. Find something interesting enough to you that you can escape into your own reality rather than get sucked into the misery around you.

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