Updated: Aug 4
Weather and system outages can wreck havoc on air travel - and much of it is out of your control. However, if you know what to do ahead of travel and the steps to take when your plans are disrupted, you can lessen the chaos and potentially save your vacation.
Top 6 things to do before flying
Hire a Travel Advisor for your trip. A Travel Advisor will provide invaluable destination expertise, local connections and personal service. And if things go awry like cancelled flights that impact your vacation, your Advisor will be your problem-solver and shining light through the whole ordeal. Schedule a free consult here for your next trip!
Book flights directly with the airline where you will have the most flexibility and the best customer service. If you book through a third party like Expedia or a Costco package, when your flight is cancelled, the airline can't help you. You'll have to call the robot at the Costco 800 number, and wait on a live person to try to make changes.
Do NOT book the last flight out of the day, especially if you have a connection. Flights are more likely to be delayed as the day goes on, and if you miss your connection, you're stranded. Trust me, I know from experience.
Download the app for your airline to your phone. Use your record locator or confirmation number to add your flight to the app if it's not showing up. And make sure notifications are turned on!
Pack critical items in your carry-on bag in case you get stranded. Include charges, medicines, a change of clothes, necessary toiletries, and snacks.
Always buy trip protection. Travel insurance will protect your investment if your trip is delayed or cancelled. Plus, you can call 24x7 and they will provide guidance in any situation.
Steps to take when your flight is delayed or cancelled
Check the airline app to see if they have a solution for you.
IMMEDIATELY call the airline 800 number if the app doesn't have a solution that works for you. If you're at the airport, start walking to the nearest customer service desk. Call and wait in line at customer service. You want to be at the front of every queue you can get in! If you're traveling with others, have someone else call the airline's international number as those lines may be free when the domestic lines are crazy busy. Whoever gets a live person first wins!
Do some research while you're waiting so you have alternatives to suggest when you do reach a live person. Google Flights is the research tool I use. If you booked your trip with a Travel Advisor, they will help research the best solutions. When our flight was delayed from Orlando and it was clear we would likely miss our connection in Miami, Google Flights showed we could be stranded for days in Miami unless we got creative. You can't rely on the customer service to come up with creative solutions.
Ask to go standby on any flights that work even if they're sold out. But have a Plan B in case standby doesn't pan out.
Get to an airport hub that has multiple flights to your final destination.
Check other airports where you can rent a car and drive. When we were stranded, we overnighted in Miami, flew to Chicago early the next morning, and then drove home to Indianapolis.
Know your rights! The airlines are obligated by federal law to provide a full refund for canceled flights or "significant delays" - if the passenger chooses not to travel. This is true even if flights are canceled due to weather or reasons outside the airline's control. So if the alternatives don't work for you, you are entitled to a refund.
Flight delays are a little trickier as the delay period is not clearly defined. Airlines are NOT required to issue refunds if you decide not to fly due to delays. At least not yet. But it doesn't hurt to ask politely. Even when you're frazzled, be nice to the customer service agents as it is in their discretion as to what benefits to offer.
Airlines would much rather move you to another flight vs. issue a refund, so use that to your advantage.
Ask for compensation for your troubles - hotel/food vouchers, upgrades, free miles - although the airlines are not required to offer them if issues are outside their control. But it doesn't hurt to ask nicely!
Keep this link handy to the Department of Transportation's Airline Customer Service Dashboard
Do NOT leave the airport without resolution of your issue.
Department of Transportation Dashboard: Airline Commitments for CONTROLLABLE events
Last but certainly not least, stay calm and call your Travel Advisor. They will know how to help you. Together, you will find the best possible solution!
Heather Vergara is a frequent traveler who's had her fair share of flight delays and cancellations. The worst was getting stranded in Newark alone with two young kids late at night. But she survived, and now her lessons learned help her advise her clients.
After leaving the corporate world as a marketing executive with Pepsico, Heather started Show Them the World to share her passion for travel and adventure with others. In less than two years, Show Them the World has helped more than 100 families see the world - Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean, National Parks, and more to come!
Heather has an MBA in marketing from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids, and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.