What is going on with air travel lately? Can we get through a week without disaster and disruption?
“They do undermine and lower the confidence travelers have in our infrastructure, which is just unacceptable,” says Dan Gellert, chief operating officer of the flight-deal website Skiplagged.
When the first signs of trouble emerge, experts recommend setting a backup plan in motion to salvage your travel day. But with the latest chaos, should we be making backup plans even earlier?
Here’s when — and how — to make a Plan B in the wake of recent meltdowns.
When should you start making a backup plan?
Before Southwest’s cataclysmic system flop, there were signs of trouble: A giant storm was imminent. Airlines started waiving change fees and fare differences for travelers who wanted to get ahead of the bad weather.
This is the perfect scenario for a backup plan. With such a forecast, “I always recommend altering your travel, so you can go a day early or leave a day later,” says John Rose, chief risk and security officer of the travel agency Altour.
You should think beyond snow. Angela Hughes, owner of Trips & Ships Luxury Travel, says it can be worth having a backup plan for both winter and summer trips, because we’ve been seeing more unprecedented storms during those seasons.
In addition to weather, watch for labor issues — such as strikes, which are usually announced ahead of time — and civil unrest. Basically, the week before you travel, do your homework. Rose says he appreciates when people are “a little bit paranoid, … where they have a plan and they’re watching everything.”
When should you book an alternate flight?
For your standard trip, booking a backup flight might be overkill — and expensive. On average, the majority of U.S. flights get where they’re going on schedule or close to it. In 2022, just 2.57 percent of major airlines’ flights were canceled, while 77 percent were on time, according to Transportation Department statistics.
However, that 2.57 percent equates to 144,515 canceled flights and maybe equally as many ruined plans.
With that in mind, Gellert says, booking a backup flight is a good idea under certain circumstances, such as for trips you cannot afford to miss, such as a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, a major life event for you or a loved one, or a critical business meeting.
Beware of the risks of booking a backup
Booking a backup flight may give you peace of mind, but it’s an “intermediate tactic,” says Scott Keyes, founder of Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights), for a few reasons.
First, unless you enjoy lighting your money on fire, you need to be sure you know the airline’s refund or change policy before you book, and be vigilant about canceling the backup ticket if you no longer need it to get a flight credit or refund.
Second, unless your ticket is eligible for a cash refund, you should book your backup on an airline you’d fly on in the future, so you don’t end up with a credit you’ll never use.
If you want to book a backup using the 24-hour free cancellation requirement — where you can cancel or change a flight within 24 hours of booking at no cost — remember that this rule only applies to domestic and foreign carriers on flights that start or finish in the United States, and the trip has to be booked at least seven days in advance. That means you can’t book a backup the day of, cancel it and expect to get your money back through this specific loophole. (In the same vein, you could consider paying a small fee to put a fare on hold instead and book only if you end up needing it. More on that here.)
Despite the risks, Keyes has seen an uptick in travelers buying backup flights, because many airlines got rid of change fees during the pandemic.
Other backups to book when flying falls through
The last time travel preparedness consultant and meteorologist Cheryl Nelson was trying to fly from El Paso to Dallas, her flight was delayed an hour. Then another hour. And another. Fearing the delays would get worse, she booked an in-case-of-emergency rental car while sitting at her gate. Six hours later, Nelson’s flight was canceled, and the airline couldn’t rebook her for two days. She ended up driving through the night. (Not an ideal fix, but it got her to her morning meeting in time.)
If you can theoretically drive to your destination, follow Nelson’s lead and make a refundable rental car reservation.
And if you’re worried you may end up stuck without a flight or an intention to try driving, a refundable hotel booking might be a good idea, too.
Instead of booking backup plans, buy travel insurance
Interest in travel insurance spiked during the pandemic, as travel became increasingly confusing and uncertain. But although more people might be familiar with benefits that let you cancel because of the coronavirus, they might not realize that it can help with issues such as the Southwest or Federal Aviation Administration meltdowns. It’s also helpful to know you can purchase coverage as late as 24 hours before your trip starts.
Megan Moncrief, chief marketing officer for the travel insurance marketplace Squaremouth, says the vast majority of travel insurance plans will cover unexpected costs from flight delays or missed connections. You can find policies that cover just about any unfortunate travel scenario: weather, strikes, staffing shortages.
Another perk: “Every policy comes with 24-hour emergency assistance,” Moncrief says. As soon as you get a sinking feeling, you can call to get real-time advice on what to do and what you can spend.
Before you book a policy, check to see whether your credit card offers travel insurance perks; many cover costs associated with lost luggage, travel delays and weather cancellations. Then you can buy any additional coverage you may need. Note that travel insurance policies often have time limits on when they’ll start covering costs. Moncrief says that, in most cases, you’ll start qualifying after three hours. Call the insurance company to clear up such details, or figure out which policy would best suit your trip.
Keep every last receipt as you start traveling, Nelson says. You’ll need the paper trail if you want to get reimbursed.
Hire a travel professional
Instead of figuring out a backup plan yourself, you could hire a travel adviser (or, as we used to call them, travel agents). Just like travel insurance, travel advisers made a big comeback during the pandemic, thanks to their ability to sort travel restrictions, chase down refunds and help with emergency services.
Skip waiting hours on the phone for airline customer service and have a travel adviser solve your problems for you — whether that’s getting your money back or getting you on a different flight.
More winter travel tips
Flying: Manage airport disasters | Fly like a decent human being | How to set airfare price alerts | How to get a refund for a canceled flight | PreCheck vs. Global Entry vs. CLEAR | Can I fly with weed? | AirTag your luggage | Airport parking 101 | Deal with airport crowds
In case of emergency: Your flight is canceled | How to get a human on the phone | What to do if your car gets stuck | Find your lost luggage | How to get a refund for a canceled flight | Deal with a bad hotel room | When you’re bumped off your flight | If you get rebooked without your family