While every traveler hopes these problems won’t happen to them, they are unpredictable. To help prepare you for the worst-case scenarios, we gathered advice from travelers who recently faced airline obstacles.
For a big event, book a flight time with some room for error.
Briana Desch was looking forward to traveling to her cousin’s wedding in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, until she got a notification from Alaska Airlines that her flight had been canceled. The company was unable to rebook her for another flight until the following day, well after the wedding ceremony was over.
“I never thought I’d kill to go to Idaho before this,” she said.
As flying remains less than dependable, add some buffer time into your travel schedule should delays and cancellations throw off your arrival time.
Get a direct flight.
Sarah Norise normally avoids American Airlines (they lost her luggage five years ago), but the carrier had a well-priced, perfectly timed option for her Thursday through Sunday trip from Chicago to New York. So she gave them another chance.
After boarding the first of her two flights, the pilot announced that the plane had been over-fueled and that they would have to deplane and get on a new aircraft.
Norise was worried she would miss her connecting flight in D.C., but there were 20 other people on her flight with the same itinerary. They asked if the airline would hold the plane for them, but they didn’t get a straight answer. Norise was told to call American’s reservations line to figure out a solution. The wait time to speak with a customer service agent was more than nine hours.
Once Norise boarded the new properly fueled plane, the passengers were told that the flight had been delayed again because of weather. As she sat waiting in her seat, an email popped into her inbox: Her connecting flight had been rescheduled to the following day. Already stuck on board, she flew to D.C., then scrambled to find another way to get to New York.
American Airlines told her she could compete with 30 other passengers to fly standby at 9 p.m.
“At this point, I asked if there was any flight for any amount of money on any airline that would get me to New York tonight,” she said. “They checked and said no; my best bet was the Amtrak.”
Norise’s friend looked online for another option and immediately spotted a Delta flight that would get her to her destination that evening. She booked it for $300 and got to New York by midnight.
The following day, Norise waited 10 hours on the American Airlines customer service chat app, but she was disconnected before someone could help her. She finally got a call back from the customer service line, and she was told she could get a refund only from the canceled connecting flight — “all $42 of it.”
Norise’s advice to other travelers: Avoid connecting flights at all costs.
Don’t check a bag.
Avoiding checking your luggage has long been a badge of honor for frequent fliers. But now it is more than a bragging right; it may be a way to salvage a travel disaster.
Shelley Carlin and her husband were stuck at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport for hours after being told that their Southwest flight had been canceled because it didn’t have a pilot.
The couple rebooked on Delta to get to Salt Lake City, but first they had to retrieve their checked luggage. Southwest couldn’t tell them where their bags were or how to get them back. Carlin said they stood in the baggage office line for hours before they spoke with someone.
Carlin had to get a supervisor involved; several more hours passed before they were able to get two of their three bags (one was inexplicably soaking wet). The last turned out to be on a flight to Salt Lake City. The next day when they landed, they were able to get the final bag.
Hustle for an alternative flight.
Ken Walczak and his wife, Adrienne Moon, decided to take a last-minute trip to Alaska. The plan was simple: fly from San Francisco at 5:45 p.m., have a short layover in Seattle, then arrive in Juneau around 11 p.m.
How they actually got to Alaska was more complicated.
The night before the trip, Delta notified Walczak via text that the flight the next evening was delayed two hours, causing them to miss their Seattle connection. To solve that problem, Delta rebooked them on a 6:30 a.m. flight, more than 11 hours earlier than their original plan.
Walczak looked for other flight options but came up empty-handed. The couple took their daybreak flight and landed in Seattle at 8 a.m. Walczak spent hours running back and forth between club lounges, airport trams and customer service counters to find a way to get to Juneau earlier. He was able to get confirmation that his Delta flight had initially been changed because of mechanical issues, and he was allowed to transfer to a different airline.
That’s when he found out about Alaska Airlines’ “milk run” flight, which stops in multiple towns along the coast of Southeast Alaska. Instead of getting from Seattle to Juneau in 2½ hours, the extra stops meant it would take the couple five hours. They booked it and waited anxiously as other flights around them were canceled. A flight attendant told Walczak that the airline was facing rolling cancellations because they couldn’t staff their scheduled flights.
The milk run flight was delayed, then held on the tarmac with passengers on board for nearly an hour. It ultimately took the Walczaks more than 16 hours to get to Juneau from San Francisco. They could have flown to Asia faster.
Avoid having to fight in a hangry crowd by packing your own food, just in case you’re stuck at the airport for hours like Diana Hubbell.
The morning of her trip home to New York City from New Orleans, she was notified that her 5:51 p.m. JetBlue flight was delayed two hours, but the airline asked her to come to the airport at the same time regardless. Bad weather in Jamaica had interrupted the delivery of the plane.
While she waited at the gate, she kept receiving emails that her flight was being delayed longer and longer. Customers asked if they could take different flights, get refunds or be reimbursed for a meal at the airport. They were denied.
The crowd, which included families with young children, grew more tense. The airport food options had all closed, and all JetBlue had for the waiting customers were some snack boxes, small bags of gummy bears and Cheez-Its. Arguments broke out.
“People would just pounce on them like hyenas — it was like the saddest thing I’ve ever seen,” Hubbell said. “It was getting pretty Fyre Festival at three in the morning.”
JetBlue finally wrangled a different plane for their trip and got the travelers on board at 4 a.m. and to New York by 8 a.m.
Find out why your flight was canceled or delayed.
Richard Palin’s round trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans for a friend’s bachelor party was a disaster.
His first flight with American Airlines was canceled a week in advance. He rebooked with Frontier Airlines, only to find out at the airport that his flight was canceled without notice. Palin found another American Airlines flight the next morning. Although it was delayed two hours, it did eventually get him to the bachelor party.
On his way home to Los Angeles, Palin arrived at the New Orleans airport two hours before departure. En route, he got a notification that his American Airlines flight was delayed 30 minutes.
“I should have changed my reservations given the news,” Palin said.
At the airport, his flight was delayed again and again, ruining Palin’s chance of making his connecting flight in Dallas. A gate agent rebooked him on a slightly different connection, insisting that Palin would make it. Instead, Palin was delayed once more, and with no other flight options that evening, he was faced with an overnight layover.
“As our flight is landing, the flight attendant said that since the plane was initially delayed due to maintenance, we are entitled to a hotel room for the night from the airline,” Palin said.
At 9:30 p.m., he waited 30 minutes at the customer service desk before being told he did not qualify for complimentary overnight accommodations because the flight was delayed due to weather.
Palin insisted the initial delay was caused by mechanical issues. Finally, Palin was given a hotel voucher, a voucher for a taxi to and from the hotel, and a $12 meal voucher.
If a flight attendant hadn’t told Palin he was entitled to that hotel stay, he might have ended up sleeping in the airport or spending his own money on a hotel.
While Palin’s meal voucher was unusable when he arrived at the airport at 4:30 a.m., his 6 a.m. flight to Salt Lake City took off on time. Upon landing, he learned his next flight to Los Angeles was delayed more than two hours, making his layover 5.5 hours.
Now at home, Palin is still waiting to hear back from Frontier about his refund request.