Last Friday, we found ourselves in a predicament. Bob and I were at O’Hare airport – excited for a three-day weekend with friends. We sat in the United Club and watched a steady stream of snowflakes accumulate on the tarmac. Mind you, this wasn’t the “cutesy” snow globe type, but rather the kind of snowfall that elicits a push notification from your weather app.
For more than a year, my dear friend Megan and I have been talking about visiting one another. After group trips together to Finland, Switzerland, and the Maldives (as well as to LA for the Veuve Clicquot Polo Classic the past few years), we’d been planning to coordinate a fun weekend in her home state of South Carolina. Years ago, she and her husband John (along with McKenna) spent a few days in Chicago, and it was so fun to meet up with them while they were in town. As such, it was high time for Bob and I to head to Greenville. The plan was to enjoy time at The Lovely Cottage and then drive together to Charleston for a night or two.
A Change in Plans
Back at O’Hare… we were lined up to board our flight when the gate agent picked up the PA to announce the flight was canceled. All around us, customers’ reactions varied: one guy pounded his fist atop his luggage, another let out a loud groan, and a family across the aisle began to freak out and bicker with each other. As for Bob and I, we just chuckled in disbelief. Were we devastated? YES. Would acting out and displaying our frustration fix the issue? No.
Over time, we’ve learned that action not reaction is the best solution when travel plans go awry. Plus, we’ve experienced enough unexpected travel hiccups to have learned to expect the unexpected. According to the FAA, each day, they manage more than 44,000 flights. When you really think of it, changes are inevitable: delays, cancellations, gate changes, and more. As such, I thought it might be helpful to share some advice on what to do when you find yourself in a similar scenario.
What to Do When Your Flight is Canceled
First, and most importantly, don’t freak out. The stress and panic is not worth your time and energy. It’s always the airline’s goal to get you to your final destination, and the last thing they want is to lose customers or money. More importantly, they need to do so as safely as possible. The FAA has far more experience than we do when making a call on weather and travel conditions. Lastly, when your flight is canceled or delayed, it ends up creating major headaches for the airline, so it’s definitely not something they take lightly!
Believe me, I’m plenty aware that no airline, business, nor person is perfect. I just feel that it can be helpful to remember all sides of a given situation.
Your next step is to connect with your airline’s customer service representative. More often than not, I’ve found that calling the airline is more efficient than waiting in a long line to see someone at the airport counter. Regardless, it simply “feels” like your taking more deliberate action by trying to see someone in person, so it makes sense to still try. My recommendation is to multitask: head to the service counter line and call the airline’s customer number at the same time. They’re all using at the exact same booking software, so it’s not as though the person at the airport has some sort of super-secret access to otherwise unavailable flights.
There are some alternative options to calling and/or waiting in line. Many airlines have incredibly user-friendly apps that can show you all of the options and allow you to choose an alternative flight through a few taps on your phone. Moreover, some also have special kiosks in the customer service area which allow you to book new travel options. No matter if you’re loyal to one airline or you book everything though Kayak and Expedia, it’s definitely worth your time to have the airline’s app downloaded to your phone. Many allow you to steam movies and TV during your flight (but only if you’ve downloaded the app prior to takeoff).
What about Hotels, Food, and other Costs?
When your flight is canceled, airlines have to maintain policies. These differ based issues due to weather, mechanical issues, or any other cause for a change. If it’s weather, the airline has much less leeway to cover additional expenses (hotel, food, etc.). Technically, the blizzard that messed up your travel plans isn’t their fault. Now, if it’s due to a mechanical issue, the airline will typically take additional steps to support their customers.
As such, if you’re evening flight’s been delayed/canceled while you’re out of town (and it’s due to weather) I recommend you immediately search for a hotel option. Don’t hold your breath that an airline will comp accommodations for you when Mother Nature is at fault. Also, we’ve learned the hard way that even if they are able to get you a hotel, it might not be somewhere you’d book for yourself. Back in the day, we had major technical issues on a Delta flight, and they gave us vouchers to stay at a hotel near JFK airport. After checking TripAdvisor, we found it had a terrible rating and horrific reviews about security and bedbugs – yikes! Needless to say, we paid out of pocket for a different option.
Also, if space allows, bring a travel pillow on all your trips. If you’re ever stuck at an out-of-town airport, you’ll be so thankful to have one. This one is my favorite, because it converts from a neck pillow to a lay-flat one – genius!
Unfortunately, this means you should stand in line for the customer service desk while calling the customer service line AND using your smart phone to look at overnight accommodations via Hotel Tonight or another trusted booking app.
Everyone has Baggage
OK, this one can be tricky. In an ideal world, we’re able fit all our necessities into a modest carry-on. (In my ideal world, that luggage was custom made by Hermès or Chanel, but I digress, lol.) I have close friends who can always get by with a carry-on, and I simply can’t relate. I don’t know about you, but I have the hardest time figuring out the liquid restrictions. Sadly, I just can’t seem to make it work – ugh! As such, Bob and I had both checked and carry-on luggage for the flight.
When your flight is canceled or delayed, nine times out of ten, your baggage stays the course. Even though we were no longer flying to Greenville, our checked bags were slated to be sent down on the next flight. At first we were both confused as to why. However, since most people re-book or their destination is home, it makes more sense for airlines to make the effort to send the bags regardless.
First, we went to the baggage services office at O’Hare. We did so after grabbing a bite to eat (more on that later), and the line was a lot calmer. They said they’d try to manually override everything and physically retrieve the bags, but it would take a little bit of time.
This brings me to a huge point of advice: always keep your baggage claim stickers. Even though it’s 2020, and everything is on an app nowadays, I still make sure to print a physical boarding pass at check-in. Then, I adhere the baggage sticker to the back. Moreover, I don’t throw them away until I’m back home and completely unpacked. Trust me on this one!
Airline Loyalty and Airport Lounges
Remaining loyal and accruing status with one single airline can make all the difference when your flight is canceled. I’ve shared before, but I travel a lot for both work and the blog. As a result, I’ve been a MileagePlus Premier 1K member for the past few years. One of many benefits of having a high level of status with an airline is having access to a specialty help line. When I called to check on other flight options, I was on hold for less than two minutes! Even when minor flight or booking issues happen, I am able to speak with someone almost immediately when I call the Premier 1K line from my phone.
If you’re a frequent traveler, I also highly recommend paying for a yearly membership to your airline’s lounge. In my opinion, being able to spend time in the United Club makes traveling that much more enjoyable. Plus, when your flight is canceled, it’s helpful to have a place to go with free wi-fi and a dedicated customer service desk for additional assistance. Plus, a plate of food and free class of wine always helps in these situations!
It’s never fun when your flight is canceled or delayed. In the end, the experience will always be smoother if you keep a level head and keep a methodical mindset. Lastly, I heard a phrase that always stuck with me, and I think about it when travel issues arise: “it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air rather than being in air and wishing your were on the ground.”
What are your best tips and ideas on what to do when your flight is canceled? Let me know in the comments section below!
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