Flight cancelled. Those two simple words can send even the most zen traveler into a full-on panic. Just ask anyone who got stuck in Atlanta when an underground fire caused an 11-hour power outage and grounded 1,500 flights at Hartsfield Jackson airport—the world’s busiest airport—last year or those affected when 4,000 flights along the East Coast were canceled in the wake of January's “bomb cyclone."
Unfortunately, the show-stopping delays or cancellations don't stop in the warmer months, when hurricane season (spanning June 1 through November 30) and busy travel days threaten our well-laid travel plans.
Getting stuck at the airport isn't just annoying; it's expensive. UC Berkeley researchers once found that domestic flight delays cost passengers nearly $17 billion a year, a combo of lost time, missed connections, misplaced bags and the cost of food and accommodations.
So how can you manage them without blowing your budget (or your cool)?
Pack a change of clothes, travel-size toiletries, chargers, a device loaded with entertainment and healthy snacks in your carry on—all potential big money-savers in the land of overpriced airport travel kits and $15 salads. (And having clean clothes in your bag is a good precaution in the event your checked luggage arrives at your destination after you finally do.)
Frequent flyer and travel blogger Dana Zucker recommends downloading both your airline’s app and a flight-tracking app like Flightview. “If you’re signed up for alerts, you might find out your flight is going to be cancelled before [many other passengers are aware], giving you a head start on rebooking.”
If your flight is cancelled, airlines will typically rebook you for free on the next flight where space is available. But with many planes flying near capacity these days, there may only be a handful of free seats on the same day—meaning everybody on your current flight is your competition. That’s why you’ll need a multi-channel approach to rebooking.
If you have any special airline status, now’s the time to use it. Beeline to your airline’s airport lounge, if you have access, to see if agents can help you faster there than at the gate. Other options are calling the VIP number associated with your frequent flyer status or your credit card’s concierge service.
You can also tag the airline on social media in addition to calling, says Pavia Rosati, founder of Fathom, a travel site and boutique agency. “The more customer service reps who are trying to help you, the better.”
If you’re still not having much luck, ask if your airline will “endorse,” or transfer, your ticket on another carrier. They’re not obligated to do so, but often they’ll try to help.
Sometimes there’s no easy way around a long delay, so prepare to settle in.
Each airline has its own compensation policy for meals and overnight lodging, but they’re not required to do anything unless you’ve been involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight. (They typically won’t compensate passengers for situations outside their control, like severe weather or Air Traffic Control decisions.) But ask anyway—and be nice. Airline employees are usually given a lot of discretion to help. If all else fails, and you expect to be stuck for a while, check out an app like HotelTonight for discounted, last-minute bookings.
If you don’t have access to an airline lounge, consider snagging a day pass. Depending on how long you’re stranded, better WiFi, clean restrooms (maybe even a shower!), outlets and free food and drinks could be worth the price of admission of about $50. Zucker recommends downloading the LoungeBuddy app to find out where lounges are located and make a reservation from your phone.
Finally, airports are upgrading their amenities all the time, so check the information board to learn about any noteworthy ways to spend your free time, Rosati suggests. For example, San Francisco International Airport, for example, has a drop-in yoga room and Portland International has a mini-cinema.
This post was updated on July 2.