Keep Calm

How to Deal With Flight Delays

Feeling stranded? Remember these seven tips.

By Bill Wiatrak July 17, 2018

Some of my friends think that I live the Life of Reilly when it comes to travel. They see my Instagram photos and read the highlights of my adventures and because I focus on my positive experiences, it might seem that everything goes according to plan. Nope. In fact, I probably have more travel setbacks than the average person because I'm traveling all the time. However, I’ve developed ways of dealing with issues that have more positive outcomes than what less-experienced travelers might have.

Because my schedule is usually flexible enough to allow for delayed flights, an extra couple of hours somewhere usually doesn’t hurt. I always have things to keep me busy, and I don’t mind spending an unexpected night in an interesting city if the change doesn’t affect the rest of my travel negatively. But sometimes a weather delay doesn’t just cost time—being stuck somewhere because of delays can make a person miss work, forfeit prepaid hotels, and might ultimately cost more because of last-minute, limited transportation and lodging options.

I was in Chicago recently and the weather didn’t seem particularly terrible, but a flight I had with Spirit got delayed an hour. Then, after I arrived at the airport and turned in my rental car, I discovered that the flight was completely canceled due to bad weather. I was told they could put me on another flight four days later. Four days? Was that a joke? The line to talk to someone at the counter was beyond ridiculous. People were upset. Things were heading south quickly. What could I do? I’m happy to say that almost every travel problem has a happy ending.

I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned that can save you time and money. Here are some tips for dealing with delays:

Call the airlines directly

The customer help line can often help you faster than ground staff. They have less distractions, and since they’re not being yelled at by irate customers, they’re calmer. I’ve had them fix everything while I was waiting in line to talk to someone at the counter.

In Chicago I was told that since there was weather issues, there was no hotel being offered or an alternative flight. I could travel Saturday morning, four days later, or I was entitled to a refund. Since I usually buy tickets on Spirit when they’re at their lowest, the refund would have been less than $50. Flying last minute with the next cheapest carrier was over $300 one way. Another alternative, staying in Chicago, renting a car and paying for hotels would be even more. I even figured out the cost and time of driving a rental car and dropping it off in Houston. That was pricier than the other options. I was in a conundrum. So I asked for a supervisor.

Ask for a supervisor

Quite often the first string of employees who answer the phones are not decision makers and have no authority to make changes. They might be outsourced by the airlines in another country. You might reach someone who just repeats what you’ve said, spends a lot of time typing things in their computers that don’t help you at all, and are completely unable to understand your situation because they may have never been in a plane themselves or even an airport for that matter. If it seems that you’d be better off talking to Alexa, escalate your call to a supervisor right away.

Before I talked to a supervisor, I had three choices: Stay in Chicago until Saturday, get a refund and book with another carrier, or drive 16 hours in a rental car. All options were expensive compared to the original plan. That’s where the supervisor came in. Once I had someone on the phone with some sway, I could look at the fourth alternative: The airline wanted to get me home without spending more money than they had collected and the only win-win solution for both of us was to reroute.

Reroute your trip

Spirit was prepared to put me on any flight that wasn’t full or made them lose money. I could have asked them to send me to Costa Rica and they might have done it just to get me out of flight limbo. I picked a flight going to Las Vegas within the hour and then a flight to Houston the next evening. It didn’t cost anything extra to do this. It was a couple extra hours of flying the opposite direction, but I got a free day in Vegas. So why Vegas?

Look at the route map

Hub cities are where you want to be because you have options. There are more flights to places like Vegas, Atlanta and New York daily and your chances of getting where you need to be increases exponentially. Pull up the route map of the carrier and see if you can’t find a place where you have friends, and/or better options to get to where you’re going. Las Vegas has flights to Houston all day long. Fortunately, my flight was during the week and hotels were cheap. I stayed at the Luxor for $40. Win-win.

Get out of the small airports

I was in Traverse City, Michigan a couple weeks ago and my flight was delayed by hours. The late flight was going to make me miss my connection to Houston and I’d be stuck in Detroit overnight. I had appointments in Houston the next morning, so a Detroit stay was not an option. The Traverse City airport only has a few gates and the Delta employees were so busy dealing with the changes, no one would even talk to me. I waited at the counter and watched stressed employees running back and forth from the skyway doing their best not to look at the irritated passengers.

I called the airline, got a supervisor who knew what she was doing (after getting past the call center) and she got me on a United flight to Chicago with a Houston connection that landed me there 15 minutes before my original flight was scheduled. Chicago is a great hub and you can usually get almost anywhere from there. Traverse City? Not so much.

Know your rights

If you do get stuck, and it’s the airline’s fault—this does not include bad weather—and you might be entitled to some compensation, hotel and even meals depending on the amount of time you’re delayed. In terms of bad weather, the best you can hope for is “distressed passenger” pricing on a local hotel. The last time I did this they were sold out, leaving me more "distressed," but there's always a chance you can get a better deal on a nearby hotel by requesting the coupon, so it's worth a shot. Visit the airline’s website if you anticipate a delay so that you’re better prepared to look at your options. What do you do if you get stuck anyway?

Have a backup plan

If you end up having to spend the night in a city you weren’t anticipating, make the most of it. You could stay in the airport and be miserable or you could go do something fun. Most hotel apps have an option for “near me” that will help keep you close if you have an early flight. If you’ve got more than a night or a few hours, consider renting a car and visiting some local attractions. Sometimes even a post on Facebook might yield a message from a long-lost friend that you forgot lived in the city you’re in. You might as well have some fun. It’s all part of travel.

Remember, delays happen. How you handle them makes the difference.

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