Airline travel tips: delays, cancellations, & lost flight attendants

by Jul 3, 2023Planning

Airport Flight Delay Cancelation Tips

Flight delays and cancellations are no fun. But the travel pain can be minimized if you are properly prepared. Our practical airline travel tips will help you successfully manage flight cancellations, delays — and even airlines that manage to lose flight attendants.

Our flight couldn’t begin boarding because United had lost a flight attendant. How does an airline do that, exactly? Lose a flight attendant. Two pilots and three flight attendants were on the plane. My United app confirmed my luggage was on the plane. But since United had somehow misplaced the fourth flight attendant, our flight was now delayed and in danger of being canceled.

“We are trying to locate her right now,” the gate agent told those of us waiting to board. We were also informed that gate agents were standing by to help passengers rebook if needed – never a good sign.

Fifty minutes later, unable to discover where they’d placed their flight attendant, United canceled the flight. Passengers were told to go back to the ticket counter to retrieve luggage and to get vouchers for hotels if needed. The resulting chaos — passengers from a canceled flight laying siege to United agents also trying to check-in customers — was epic. Fortunately, I had a plan that would minimize my pain.

In the spirit of sharing, here are practical airline travel tips to help you successfully manage flight cancellations, delays, and airlines that manage to lose flight attendants.

Know your rights before you fly

Flight disruption meltdowns can happen to any airline, as evidenced in 2022 by American, then more recently by Southwest, and finally this year by United. All it takes is a perfect storm of computer glitches, bad weather, FAA-mandated flight holds, and poor scheduling management to create disaster for traveling customers. In my case, I was supposed to fly home on a Tuesday afternoon with United but experienced a cascading series of rebooking and subsequent cancelations over the course of three days. I finally decided enough was enough and booked a backup just-in case flight with Delta for the following Friday, or four days after my intended flight – and it came in handy.

As I was standing at the ticket counter following my final United cancelation, there was a young woman who was desperate to get to Denver. Fighting back tears, she was pleading with the agent. She would take any flight, any number of connections. The agent kept insisting there was nothing she or United could do since all available United flights were full until three days later. That was until I suggested to her that United can and, given the circumstances, should rebook her on another airline if available as per its “contract of carriage.” Armed with this knowledge the woman pressed the agent who relented and told her United might be able to get her on another flight with another airline.

Knowing your rights before you fly is essential to coping with flight cancelations and delays. Armed with knowledge, you will be surprised what you can ask for and insist upon — always politely but firmly — from airline customer service staff.

While it may surprise you to hear, no airline in the United States is required to financially compensate passengers for delays, although this is something in 2023 the U.S. Department of Transportation has recommended airlines be forced to do – the recommended rule change had not gone into effect as of this writing. In Europe, all airlines — even U.S. carriers if the flight originates in Europe — are required to compensate passengers financially (as much as 600 euro per passenger) for delays that exceed a certain timeframe and for cancelations that affect travel plans. And they won’t usually offer this; you must ask.

In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Transportation has created an airline cancelation and delay dashboard that will inform you what the airline you have chosen states it will commit to in terms of vouchers, refunds, hotel accommodations, rebooking and more. From this dashboard, there are also direct links to each of the major U.S. airlines customer service “plans,” as they are called. These plans provide more detail on exactly what you can or cannot expect in the event of a delay or cancelation that is the fault of the airline or simply the result of weather.

Know how to use the various airline tools available to you

Always download to your phone the app of the airline or airlines you will be flying with. From an airline’s app, you can often view, in nearly real time, what is going on with your booked flight and – bonus! — your luggage. Delays and cancelations often pop up on an app before they are announced at the gate or conveyed to you by email or text.

United has a particularly good app in terms of rebooking options and viewing the status of your current flight. From the app, when a delay or cancelation notification pops up, you are immediately given options to rebook your flight and shown what flights and connections are available to your planned destination – you can choose alternative days, and even alternative airports. When United kept canceling my flights between June 26 and June 29, I was able to quickly rebook myself on another flight each time, including selecting new seats – much easier than waiting in line at a counter or on an interminably long phone hold trying to get through to customer service. Of course, that didn’t mean my new flights were going either.

Flight Cancelation Flight Delay Tips

The moving target of messaging delays and cancelations. This was my Milwaukee-to-Denver flight. I always take screenshots of my alerts, especially those that pop up on my app with specific details regarding the reason for delays or cancelations in case I need to prove something later.. The first alert announcing  that the boarding delay was due to waiting for the crew to arrive came by text. The next alert appeared on my app, with a bit more detail. Finally, the alert of cancelation came by text and, as you can see, glossed over the real reason — United could not find its fourth flight attendant.

Also know your airline’s social media accounts, especially X formerly known as Twitter. Despite what you think of X these days — and I personally don’t think much of it — X remains a viable tool for getting in touch with airline customer service staff who can assist with rebooking flights and other time-sensitive issues. Another help can be sending messages through Facebook messenger, which often get answered more quickly than emails or calls.

Many airlines also offer online chat options that are typically far more expedient than waiting on hold for hours to reach a customer service agent at a call center.

Always have a backup plan before your flight gets delayed or canceled

My business partner and wife, Therese Iknoian, and I always have a backup plan when we travel, and you should too. I can’t count the number of times we have preemptively checked on nearby hotel availability and then been able to quickly book a room online when it is clear a flight is going to be canceled. Sometimes you can even book a just-in-case room with a full cancelation policy. While airlines will often provide vouchers for hotels, that means standing in long lines and often getting sent to less than desirable lodging. Booking your own room, if it is a reasonable expense and not a luxury accommodation, is typically reimbursable by the airline IF the cancelation is due to something within the airlines control – like United losing the previously mentioned flight attendant.

On my trip where flight after flight was getting canceled by United, I already knew which airlines flew from the various airports near me back to my home airport in Sacramento. And I was checking seat availability frequently – very easy if you have apps of all the airlines. So, when I decided United might keep failing me, I booked a fully refundable Delta flight I knew was available — just in case. If worst came to worst, I knew I could always cancel my United flight and get home on Delta. Airlines may be willing to offer a partial to full reimbursement should you need to book with another airline as long as the expense is reasonable (no, you can’t book a premium class if you were flying economy) — although this is not always true and likely only if you have status on the airline. It is important to remember that while airlines are not required to provide you with financial compensation for significant delays or cancelations, they are required to refund all of your money for a canceled flight if you choose — and that does not mean a flight credit.

Also, when booking a flight, and especially if you are rebooking, do your best to avoid airports where summer or winter weather is known to cause severe flight disruptions. Thunderstorms, hurricanes, snow, and ice all lead to delays and cancelations that can create a spiraling effect leaving hundreds and even many thousands of passengers stranded – try not to be one of those passengers. IF you do have to book a flight through an airport where weather disruptions are typical, then at the very least book the earliest flight in the day you can. Since delays and cancelations have a domino effect that just gets worse as the day progresses, getting on the earliest flight minimizes the chance of delay or cancelation. And, at the very least, if the worst happens, gives you more flight rebooking options later that day.

Finally, when you are initially booking your travel plans, build a little extra time into your travel itinerary. We always add sufficient buffer so that if we get caught up in flight delays, cancelations and missed connections, we aren’t stressing over missing the start of a tour, a connection to an international flight, or the departure of a cruise. That said, nothing will help if cancelations leave you stuck for several days in an airport hotel waiting for the next available flight. If that happens, you will need very good travel insurance.

Never ever fly without travel insurance

If I have learned anything after years of travel and the times when plans go awry due to flight delays and cancelations, it is that good travel insurance makes everything easier and better. A friend found out recently his flight that would connect to an international leg was to be delayed by many hours, forcing him to miss the trans-Atlantic leg. He was unhappy, but noted he always buys travel insurance, so the sting wasn’t as bad.

Two other men standing at the United counter in Milwaukee after United canceled my flight were beside themselves: It looked like they were not going to get to their destination and were now on the hook for a resort reservation that was non-refundable. To be fair, they told me when they booked their flights, they had planned an appropriate buffer to account for a reasonable travel delay or even a cancelation – they were already on their second cancelation of the trip. Now, their buffer was gone, and here they were, in Milwaukee with no way to get to the resort on time. And, sadly, they did not have travel insurance. Like many, they’d booked with an airline consolidator, like an Expedia, and didn’t even use a credit card with travel insurance coverage built in – like the American Express Platinum or Chase Sapphire we rely on.

This is why we never travel without travel insurance – either as part of a credit card benefit or purchased separately. Last year on a trip to Panama a severe thunderstorm forced my flight from Sacramento to Houston to divert to Austin and wait out the bad weather. When we finally were cleared to continue to Houston, I had missed my connection to Panama so I would have to spend the night. While United immediately rebooked me on a flight to Panama the following morning, the expense of a hotel, meal, and a few toiletries I would need (often luggage is not retrievable as airlines simply check it through to your next leg) was on me. Thankfully, since I had paid for my trip with my Chase Sapphire, my expenses were fully covered by the card’s built-in travel insurance protections, and I was immediately reimbursed after I submitted an online form with receipts attached.

Always book directly with the airline

About those consolidators: I know, the promise of enormous savings and cheap airfares dangled by consolidators such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, CheapFlights.com, and others is tempting. That is until your flight is delayed or canceled, and you miss your connections. Your only alternative then is to try to get the company you originally booked your trip with to help. And good luck with that!

A woman on my canceled United flight from Milwaukee had booked her ticket through a consolidator. And when she was standing at the counter after braving a very long line, the agent looked at her reservation and told her she needed to contact the company who sold her the ticket to get it rebooked or refunded. Her anger at United at that moment, while palpable and understandable, was misdirected. The harsh truth is, she had only herself to blame for the situation she was now in because she chose to book her flight with a third party rather than directly with the airline.

By booking your flight directly with an airline, the airline will work with you to try and find solutions to help get you to where you need to be if a flight is delayed or canceled. (On the other hand, if the airline keeps losing flight attendants, all bets are off. But I digress.)

Pack a flight delay and cancelation travel kit

We also often pack small sleep kits in our carryons when we travel. Those can be immensely helpful during a long delay or, in the event of a cancelation, can help you have a more restful night in a less than ideal hotel not of your choosing. Don’t forget any necessary medications and absolutely pack some healthy snacks — dried fruit, energy bars, nuts — as they will be way better for you and your wallet than exorbitantly priced airport food if you have to suffer through long flight delays.

United Munich Flight Delay Denver Airport

This Denver delay last year was due to a “mechanical,” in airline terminology, and our flight came within minutes of having to be canceled because the crew would have “timed out” meaning the FAA would not allow the plane to take off until new crew could be found.

After three days of repeated cancelations of rebooked flights, the friend I was visiting in Madison drove me from there to Milwaukee to catch a flight I was quite sure would depart since it’s a larger airport. Alas, I never imagined a lost flight attendant scenario. As I mentioned above, I always have a backup plan and hedged my bets before we left for Milwaukee by booking a fully refundable flight home with Delta, departing Madison the next morning. So, I canceled my United return leg and then had to book a bus back to Madison. My day was turning out to be a very long one and I was especially grateful for my energy bars because I had not eaten lunch in anticipation of a meal on the flight. I was ravenous by the time I boarded the bus! Those snack bars and some nuts tided me over until I was back with my friends and enjoying a late dinner.

Since you will be on your phone a lot if your flight is delayed or canceled you need to pack an extra-long phone cable and a USB adapter plug for your phone — although finding an open electrical outlet or charging station in an airport dealing with mass cancelations can be challenging. Which is why we also pack a fully-charged power bank, just in case. Nothing worse than getting a red low-battery warning just when you are trying to rebook a flight, find a hotel room, or alert friends and family to your status.

I’d also recommend packing along a travel toothbrush, a travel-sized tube of toothpaste, travel-sized deodorant, and a travel-sized brush or comb. If your flight is canceled and the airline automatically rebooks you on a flight out the following day, you’ll be spending the night somewhere, often without your luggage. While good travel insurance will cover purchases of travel essentials like those above — and some hotels will actually have toiletry items like toothpaste, a toothbrush and even a razor, we much prefer to have those things handy.

Oh, and absolutely pack along reading material. Both Therese and I always have at least one if not more books to read loaded onto our Kindle apps on our phones and tablets. When there is nothing else to do except watch a clock as the minutes slowly tick by, having a wonderful distracting book to read can be salve for a troubled mind.

You can be firm and insistent, but always be kind and patient

Delays and flight cancelations are immensely frustrating. I will admit to feeling a bit beaten down after a fifth flight cancelation by United in less than 48 hours. Still, avoid getting angry. It just doesn’t help anyone – you or the poor agents standing in front of you or at the other end of a phone line who really have no control.

You can certainly be firm and insistent (assuming you fully understand your rights and what the airline has agreed it will and should do for you), but be sure you are kind and understanding at the same time. I can guarantee that the customer service staff will work so much harder to help you if you are simply kind and appreciative.

What happened to United in June 2023 and Southwest in December 2022 could happen to any airline in the future. The air travel landscape, for at least the near future, promises to be very unpredictable. All it will take is that perfect melting pot of FAA system failures, computer glitches, air control staffing shortages, bad weather, and archaic airline staff scheduling practices to stir up a nasty soup of flight delays and cancelations thousands of passengers will be forced to swallow.

If you take to heart the tips above, you will be as prepared as possible to minimize travel misery should your next flight be delayed or canceled. Oh, and if you see a lost flight attendant wandering around an airport somewhere, let United know. They may still be looking for her.

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