Every week, the Travel section receives dozens of emails from readers asking for help with trips gone bad. Cara Lanza's tale of woe stood out.
Every week, the Travel section receives dozens of emails from readers asking for help with trips gone bad. Cara Lanza's tale of woe stood out.
Steve McCracken -- For The Washington Post

Dear CoGo,

I wanted to let you know about a very unfortunate trip I had . . .

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2007; Page P06

A series of unfortunate events soured Cara Lanza's dream vacation. None of the events is rare, but like the orphaned children in Lemony Snicket's books, Lanza experienced more than her share of unpleasant surprises. The story of her experience, and what she did or should have done at each step along the way, is instructive for us all.

Missed Connection

1.THE PROBLEM: Lanza's Continental flight from Reagan National to Newark on June 28 was slated to arrive at 8:21 p.m., and she was booked on the carrier's 10:10 p.m. flight from Newark to Rome. But bad weather left her sitting on the tarmac at Reagan National for three hours. As she was about to land at Newark, her flight to Rome was taking off.

WHY IT HAPPENED: In theory, nearly two hours should be enough time to make a connection. But consider this: More than 25 percent of domestic flights arrived more than 15 minutes late between January and August of this year -- the worst record since the Department of Transportation began keeping comparable stats in 1985.

STRATEGIES : When planning itineraries with connections, take into account the likelihood of snafus.

* Know the odds of your flight's leaving and arriving on time.

Some flights are almost always on time; others rarely are. Consider this: 26 flights were found to be late more than 70 percent of the time in a DOT investigation of deceptive business practices. (The initial investigation ran from May until recently. If the pattern continues, the agency says, it will fine the airlines that operate those flights.)

Lanza's Continental Flight 1114 from D.C. to Newark was late 56 percent of the time during the first four months of 2007 and was canceled 20 percent of the time, according to DOT records. Thus her chances of an on-time arrival were about 24 percent, or worse if you consider she was flying during a holiday period. (On-time records vary from month to month. Although a flight's record over a longer period won't be a perfect predictor for the month you are flying, it's a good indicator of what to expect.)

You can check a flight's on-time arrival record at the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' Web site ( http://www.bts.gov) or at a site such as FlightStats.com or FlightAware.com.

* Know the record of the airport you're flying to. The three New York airports are so congested that federal regulators are threatening to force the airlines to reduce flights during peak travel times and to charge extra for peak flights that remain. At Newark, 42 percent of flights arrived late in the first nine months of this year. During peak travel times, performance worsens -- a fact at all major airports. Peak travel times correspond roughly to highway rush hours, although airport rush hours tend to start a little earlier. Airport evening rush hours tend to be worse than morning because backups build as the day wears on. The Web sites mentioned above detail average delays at given airports and at given times.

* Consider the weather . Keep storms in mind when deciding how much time to allow for making a connection or when planning to be somewhere at a given time. Late-afternoon thunderstorms are a major factor in summer. Because winter snowstorms don't have a time-of-day pattern, they're harder to avoid.

If bad weather is suddenly predicted, ask your airline if you can depart earlier that day. Many will allow you to make a same-day switch to an earlier flight for $25 or so, even with a nonrefundable ticket, or might even allow it for free. Changing to another day probably will mean a higher fee; a $100 charge is common.

BONUS TIP: If you are concerned about making connections, book your ticket with an overnight stay in your connecting city. It's a good strategy if you have an important morning flight, and many airlines allow it. Sometimes you can arrange it online; sometimes you must call the airline. Most airlines charge about $15 per ticket for booking with a human.

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