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The completely correct guide to a canceled flight

Resist the urge (for now) to wallow at the airport bar. Focus, and fix that itinerary.

(Illustration by Drew Lytle for The Washington Post)

It was the best of times and the worst of times — meaning you were planning on getting on an airplane to head off on vacation or reunite with loved ones you hadn’t seen in months, but instead you’re standing in an airport wondering why your flight has been canceled.

Pray tell, what do you do next?

The obvious choice would be to wallow in despair, but no: It’s time to jump into action. With every moment that passes, you’re burning precious opportunities to fix your cursed situation. You will have plenty of time for weeping, screaming or pouting later, but the show must go on.

How exactly? I’ll tell you how, because I was in this very position a week ago.

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Figure out how your canceled flight is going to impact your itinerary

Once you discover your day will be miserable, whatever you do, do not go to the airport sports bar. Do not order a Moscow mule and a mediocre burger, and do not end up eavesdropping on the conversations around you. These are going to distract you from the task at hand. Yes, it’s very interesting to hear two strangers bonding over the fact that they’ve both lived in San Antonio. Yes, you want to see if they’ll keep taking shots. No, it’s not worth it. Get to your mission: resuscitating your travel plan.

Start by finding out why your flight plans were obliterated. See if you can get an airline employee to tell you the reason; the answer will impact your next moves.

If the flight was significantly delayed or canceled because of something the airline was responsible for (e.g., mechanical issues), you should qualify for complimentary overnight accommodations, a taxi or meal vouchers, should you need or want them. If the problem was because of weather, no dice.

No matter why it happened, a significant delay or cancellation will entitle you to a refund (if you ask for one), per Department of Transportation regulations. But each airline has a different definition of “significantly” delayed, so check with your carrier to find out if you are eligible.

Next, you need to figure out how to get to your destination. Are there alternative flights later that day? Would booking a flight with another airline be easier? Do you need to cancel your trip completely? Having a game plan is a better move than waiting to see what the airline’s computer system does to reaccommodate you.

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Stand in line with other disgruntled passengers

Don’t fester at the gate; get in line to talk to someone at the customer service desk (if it’s staffed). Hopefully you’re wearing comfortable shoes because these lines do not move quickly.

While you’re standing in line, eavesdrop on the action up front. No, not the stranded family of four sitting on the ground while the youngest keeps standing up to practice karate kicks. The people who are being helped. Are they getting vouchers for things you might like, too? Are they getting put on a flight that would also make sense for your needs?

You may be able to glean some useful information, or it could just make you wonder why you ever leave your house in the first place. Why is that couple discussing their rebooking options back and forth from 15 feet apart? Why is that other couple heckling a gate agent going on his break? What is wrong with these people?

You turn around and see an adult man crying at the airport bar and can relate wholeheartedly.

Call customer service and get in the hours-long callback queue

Hedge your bets! It can’t hurt to get more irons in the fire, so look for help in multiple ways. While you’re physically standing in line, you need to virtually get in line for a callback from a customer service agent.

Calling your airline’s customer service may not yield results faster. Lately, even if you’re a high-status, loyal frequent flier with the airline, you can expect a long wait.

To improve your odds of getting help on the horn, read this. You’ve got time.

You also have time to become incredibly invested in the group of 30 teenagers on their way home from a school trip to D.C. They are having an awards ceremony to pass the time, and you’re genuinely thrilled that a kid apparently called Lemon has won the “Strongman” trophy despite being the scrawniest of the bunch.

You asked: The airline rescheduled our flight. What can we do?

Pull up your airline’s app and start chatting with a robot

The line’s moving — albeit slowly — at the airport. You are scheduled for a callback from the airline customer service in 673 minutes. You’re still looking to untangle your disaster as fast as possible, so your next move is to open up the airline’s mobile app — you know, the fun stuff.

But this is not the fun stuff. This is every traveler’s dread. Nonetheless, open up the app, locate whatever “contact us” portal is available and then the “chat with us” option.

“Hello, my flight AA1114 was delayed and I am going to miss my connection to Las Vegas,” you can message the “us,” meaning the customer service robot behind the chat function. Because this is a robot, keep the language you use clear. “I need help” and “change my flight” will work more efficiently than “YOU CANCELED MY FLIGHT TO DENVER AND NOW I’M GOING TO MISS MY AUNT AND UNCLE RENEW THEIR VOWS.”

Once the robot figures out what you need, it can offer to connect you to a human agent to assist you further. Get your ticket number or record locator ready while you wait.

DM your airline via Twitter

There is something that feels desperate, embarrassing and uncool about begging for help via social media. But this is the age of the Internet.

You can publicly lament about your situation in a tagged tweet, or you can privately message the airline and hope you get a response. As with the chat function, you will need your ticket number or record locator for the poor social media employee to assist you. Service may move quicker or slower than your other avenues. It’s worth a shot. If anything, it can help you get more information about your alternatives.

Spend time on this endeavor, but not too much time. You’re running out of battery between the bot chatting, DM begging and flight Googling. To have your phone die now would only make your life worse. Kick yourself for not packing a portable battery; you knew how hard it was to find an electrical outlet in this godforsaken airport.

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Plead your case to the gate agent when it’s finally your turn in line

The moment of truth. If you haven’t already figured out your new plan via phone, app or social media, now you can hash it out with a human face to face.

Don’t lay into this person. It’s not their fault. Imagine being in their position, dealing with a long line of (justifiably) angry travelers. Take a deep breath, calm down, and be nice.

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Tell them if there’s a particular flight that would work for you or if you would like help figuring out a new plan. If there’s no suitable alternative with their airline, ask if they can rebook you on another airline. Maybe they get you to your destination without much more hassle. Maybe they get you a hotel voucher. Or maybe they can’t do anything to save the day and you go home in tears. It’s impossible to predict, so good luck.

Leave the line feeling smug about being the bigger person no matter the outcome. You weren’t one of those people screaming at the innocent. Pat yourself on the back for being decent.

Email your airline’s customer service because you’re still upset

Sure, you’ve rearranged your travel schedule and figured out how to get where you need to go — but at what cost? You’ve wasted your time and presumably some money, and while the gate agent may have been kind to you, you may still be flustered by the whole rigmarole.

Should that be the case, draft a professional but firm email detailing your experience and ask the airline to make amends. Do not expect a quick reply, and do not expect much in general. If your case is compelling and you’re lucky, you may end up with a response, an apology or trip credit as a sign of good will.


Now, now!, you can wallow. Remember that forbidden airport sports bar? This is a perfect place to fester, and that mediocre burger is still waiting for you.

The world conspired against you today, but you emerged. Unscathed? No. You’re a hardened, embittered version of your old self, but that’s how road warriors are made.

Vow never to fly again. Then book another trip immediately.