Airport lockdown, Flights cancellation on time table
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Your Flight Is Canceled or Delayed: What Can You Do?

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Southwest Airlines
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Up in the Air

If you're planning to travel now, you should also plan to have your plans disrupted — as this weekend's cancellation of 1,900 Southwest flights shows all too well. With the end-of-the-year travel glut, unpredictable weather, and COVID-19 variants, travelers face an especially challenging time getting to and from their destinations. While no one wants to research worst-case scenarios as part of their holiday to-do list, having the information helps immensely if you have to pivot your travel plans. And by knowing what to do, you’ll get ahead of the crowd and hopefully spend less time re-organizing your trip. 

 

Related: What Flight Attendants Want You To Know About Flying Now

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Get Ahead of a Potential Problem

This might be overkill for some, but before booking a flight, cross-check with a flight tracker service like FlightAware (limited to the U.S. and Canada) and FlightView to see how timely your intended flight route is. Check the status of your flight 24 hours before a departure in case the flight is already delayed en route to the airport you’re flying out from, so you can make alternative plans.

Insider Tip: Have your airline and also arrival/departure airport’s app on your phone and subscribe to flight notifications, this way you’ll know if the airport is closed due to bad weather, or your flight is grossly delayed. 

 

Related: 25 Carry-On Essentials to Pack for Your Next Flight

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Be Ready to Deal with Delays

For 2021 so far, nearly 14% of all flights in the U.S. have been delayed, and that number will grow as more Americans begin to travel. Since airlines don’t guarantee their schedules and are not liable for delays due to inclement weather, travel insurance that matches travelers' trip specifications is important. Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection Vice President Carol Mueller says BHTP’s AirCare “provides payments for the inconveniences associated with flight delays, missed connections, and sudden flight cancelations that could strand travelers. People should also take note of the more comprehensive travel insurance plans that include medical coverage that may cover your treatment should you contract COVID-19 while on a trip. It’s important travelers understand insurance does not reimburse you for costs if you decide to cancel your trip over personal concerns or government travel restrictions related to COVID-19."

 

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Travel Insurance
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Consider Buying Extra Health Coverage

For peace of mind, planning for some worst-case scenarios is necessary. “While domestic health insurance may cover you abroad for medical emergencies, deductibles might be higher, and things like emergency evacuation and repatriation aren't covered. If you need to be brought back home after a medical emergency, you'd be paying out of pocket,” says Amanda Hand of G1G Travel Insurance. “Credit cards can offer great coverage, but you have to have a card like the Chase Sapphire. Even then, there are hidden caveats you might otherwise not be aware of. One thing people don't often think about is the number of reasons you can cancel a trip. A credit card trip protection plan will have fewer reasons for cancellations than a comprehensive plan, so it might be a traveler's best bet to look at their credit card coverage extensively and get a feel for whether or not it will suffice for their trip.”

Insider Tip: Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) insurance may be a larger investment than a typical trip plan, but it provides broader coverage and may be a traveler's best bet in the current travel climate, especially if it’s an expensive trip (like a cruise) with a lot of prepaid expenses. 

 

Related: Your New Air Travel Checklist

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Know Your Rights to Compensation

Fact: No federal laws in the U.S. require airlines to provide passengers with money or other compensation when their flights are delayed. What they are required to do is provide status updates (by website, telephone reservation system, flight displays) 30 minutes after the airline is aware of a status change. Each airline has its own policies to deal with delayed passengers (some will offer meals, toiletries, or discounted hotel room rates) but it’s best to familiarize yourself pre-trip so you know what to ask for. 

 

If you’re traveling to or from a European Union country, and your flight is delayed or you missed a connecting flight, you are entitled to financial compensation upwards of 250 euros per passenger if finding a replacement seat delays you by three hours or more. In the event the flight is canceled, you are entitled to a full or partial reimbursement of the full cost of your ticket or to be re-routed whereby you’ll be given meals, refreshments, two telephone calls, texts or emails, and possibly overnight accommodation if your rerouted flight is for the next day. 

 

Related: 15 Expert Secrets to Stress-Free Flying

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Decode the Delay

Flights can get delayed for a variety (and often a combination) of reasons and knowing the lingo helps manage expectations and when seeking a refund or compensation. “It [delays] could be technical, operational, crewing, weather, air traffic control, or waiting for connecting passengers,” says Brett Manders, pilot and author of Behind the Flight Deck Door


Operational: "Sometimes busy airports can be constrained by the number of arrivals and departures they can process."


Crewing: "On occasions, the crew can 'run out of hours.' Pilots and cabin crew have very specific limits on the number of hours we are allowed to work. Whilst pilots have been called glorified bus drivers, and people think cabin crew is airborne waiters/waitresses, we actually have roles related to safety. You don’t want your crew suffering from fatigue should an emergency happen."

Weather: "Thunderstorms in and around an airport really put the brakes on operations. Pilots don’t want to fly near them. An airport could have multiple runways, but due to strong winds, only one is open for take-offs and landings. This will slow down departures and arrivals. It will also cause consequential delays down the line for airports that aren’t affected by the weather system."

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What’s an Act of God?

Your flight is grossly delayed or canceled — but was it an act-of-God incident? If you read the fine print of your travel insurance policy, you might find that such an instance is not covered. “An 'act of God' is associated with natural disasters like severe weather or even civil unrest, and essentially refers to events that are out of human control that can neither be prevented or predicted,” says Brian Donovan, a frequent traveler and CEO of Timeshatter. “Travel insurance policies differ when it comes to covering these kinds of events, so it is important to look into the specifics of the coverage ahead of time. It is also important to note that any event that is 'known' does not fall under the category of 'act of God,' which includes forecasted storms and hurricanes that have already been named.”

 

Related: 30 Things You're Doing Wrong When Planning a Vacation

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Getting Bumped Off a Flight

​Airlines are legally allowed to oversell flights, but they will compensate you if it happens that you’re voluntarily or involuntarily bumped from a full flight. As a general rule of thumb, the Department of Transportation notes that “Most bumped passengers who experience short delays on flights will receive compensation equal to double the one-way price of the flight they were bumped from, but airlines may limit this amount to up to $775. Passengers experiencing longer delays on flights will receive payments of four times the one-way value of the flight they were bumped from, but airlines may limit this amount to up to $1,550.” 


Insider Tip: If you volunteer to be bumped from a flight, airlines will compensate you for the inconvenience and are legally obligated to disclose “any and all restrictions that may apply.” This DOT link offers some useful questions to ask.

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Understand Your Travel Benefits

Seeing as airlines are presently having a challenging time dealing with weather conditions, staff shortages, and operational issues, you won’t be the only one asking airline staff for meal vouchers, or for assistance to get re-routed. Familiarize yourself with your travel benefits linked to your credit card or insurance plan, so you can take charge of any trip interruptions. Travel insurance typically kicks in for flight delays between six and 12 hours, however, some plans provide reimbursement for expenses as soon as three hours. 

 

“Let's say there's an airline strike and you can't get to your cruise departure on time. Missed connection and trip interruption benefits can reimburse you for expenses paid to get caught up with your cruise. But if you're experiencing a long delay due to bad weather, travel delay benefits can reimburse you for meals, accommodations, and local transportation. After all, who wants to sleep in an airport during a long delay if they don't have to?” advises Amanda Hand.

 

Insider Tip: Keep a tab on timings (and document it where possible) to help get reimbursed for things like hotel stays, meals, and local transportation. Do not discard receipts, baggage tags and boarding passes as you will need them for the claims process. 

 

Related: Annoying Airline Upcharges That Are Actually Worth It

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Rebook Yourself

If your flight gets canceled, it might be easier for you to find your own solution vs. standing in line to speak to airline personnel. Often, there’s a self-service kiosk to utilize. Or, use the airline’s website/app to source and book an alternate flight. As there might be limited options, be open to traveling from/arriving at a different — but nearby — airport. If you can’t find anything suitable online, call in, but do some research beforehand on preferred flights (get the flight number and times, potential partner airlines) so the call agent can quickly assist you. Also, don’t forget to check if the airline will charge you a fee to change your reservation. 

 

Insider Tip: Your flying and frequent-flyer status will come in handy in such scenarios, so have your frequent-flyer number ready. For instance, American Airlines prioritizes its First Class/Business Class passengers for waitlisted flights.  

 

Related: Here Are the Changes to Frequent Flyer Programs You Need to Know About

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Explore Traveling From and to a Close-By Airport

If flying to/from your original destination is no longer an option, find out if you can drive/take a ride-share, train, or bus to an alternate airport. It may not be as convenient, but it beats waiting in limbo or canceling the trip altogether. And if your travel insurance covers such trip interruption scenarios, that always helps. 


Insider Tip: Have Rome2Rio downloaded and handy on your mobile phone. It gives a number of travel options (planes, trains, ferries, bus/car) so you can compare what makes the most sense, time, and money-wise. 

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Document What’s Happening

The last thing you may be thinking about when your flight has been delayed or canceled is to document what’s happening, but it is essential if you’re going to make a travel insurance claim. Aside from taking note of the time  and date of the incident, try and get a statement from the airline that your flight was delayed or canceled, and preferably with an official date and time stamp. Make sure to keep all boarding passes, baggage tickets, flight tickets, receipts for expenses, additional luggage, and so on until your claim is resolved.

 

Insider Tip: United Airlines recommends sending an email to delayletter@united.com with all the necessary information, and they’ll be in touch. 

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Get a Refund Started

In general, if a cancellation occurs, most airlines will rebook you for free on their next flight. All airlines have different policies, but some targeted questions to ask are: Do they issue travel credits, and is there a time limit to use them? Do they refund only back to the original payment method? Will they refund for an unused portion of the trip? Can they provide you with a complimentary return to your original airport and refund the full cost of your ticket? 

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Give Your Accommodation a Heads-Up

Unless you’ve booked a hotel with a very flexible cancellation policy, a flight cancellation or long delay may result in paying for unused nights at the property. Once you’ve sorted out what’s going on transport-wise, get in touch with your hotel or Airbnb / Vrbo host, and explain what’s going on to either cancel, delay, or seek understanding in avoiding an unwanted added charge. A lot of it will depend on their goodwill, so be nice. If you are stranded at the airport, U.S. airlines aren’t on the hook to provide you a hotel room or meal voucher. (It’s a different story if it concerns a European Union country.) However, you should still try and ask a customer service representative if they can help you, and if they do make a promise (hotel, meal claims, etc.), get it in writing, that way when it’s time to make a claim, there’s a paper trail to follow. 

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Sit Tight If It's a Tarmac Delay

Count yourself lucky if your delay occurs before you’ve stepped into the plane. In 2019, passengers of Delta 2385 flying from New York to Miami were stuck on the tarmac for eight hours due to bad weather and a host of other issues. So why didn’t the passengers just get off at some point? Even though the Department of Transportation mandates that carriers are not allowed to hold a domestic flight on the tarmac for more than three hours and an international flight for more than four hours, barring safety exceptions, deplaning brings a whole additional list of complications, such as passengers being separated from their checked bags and passengers having to contact the airline to sort out a replacement flight. And if the flight eventually takes off, and you’re not on it, you’re on your own, including finding a solution to be reunited with your luggage. 

 

Insider Tip: Always have some water and snacks on you. If there is a tarmac delay, the airline technically has to provide food and water but only after two hours. 

 

Related: Unbelievable Airline Incidents Through the Years

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Your Check-In Baggage May Arrive Before You

Frequent travelers often prefer to travel with just a carry-on to avoid unnecessary baggage issues. “When it comes to your luggage after a delayed/canceled flight, the following procedure depends on the airline. However, the most common thing to happen is, if your luggage has already been checked, airlines will ship your luggage to your original destination and then ship it back to you. Sometimes you could also be entitled to compensation for your expenses if the airline isn't capable of returning your luggage after a flight's delay or cancellation," say Torben Lonne, frequent traveler and co-founder of DiveIn.

 

Insider Tip: If there’s damage to your baggage, photograph the baggage and its contents, then go to the airline's baggage service office or check-in counter to lodge a report and start the claim process. Take note, airlines like Southwest require you to report the damage in-person within four hours of arrival while some other carriers like Delta, American, and United allow for up to 24 hours. 

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Pass the Time in Style

No one enjoys being stuck in a longer than expected layover or to be waiting it out till the next flight becomes available. If you’re at an airport where there’s stuff to do, it can become part of the trip. Enjoy live music performances at Austin-Bergstrom International, Seattle Tacoma International Airport, and ​​Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. San Francisco International Airport has a 24-hour kids play area and free yoga studio rooms with loaner mats. Philadelphia International Airport offers stationary bikes, while Phoenix Sky Harbor International and Minneapolis-St. Paul International have walking trails to work off some energy. Art fiends can admire a model of a Brachiosaurus skeleton, and the awe-inspiring "The Sky’s the Limit" 745-foot-long kinetic light sculpture at Chicago O’Hare, while Pittsburgh International Airport has an artist-in-residence program with exhibits scattered around the different terminals. 

 

Insider Tip: Plan ahead and research your home or layover airport so you won’t be bored (or at a loss) if there’s a delay. You’ll know where rest areas are (before everyone else does), stuff to keep the kids entertained, and if there are free/paid shower amenities. 

 

Related: Stuck on a Layover? Secrets to Beat Boredom in 19 Major Airports

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Make Use of Your Loyalty Perks

Depending on which credit card/airline loyalty you might hold, a flight delay will likely mean quality time at the airport lounge. The Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card grants access to Priority Pass lounges worldwide, while the Platinum American Express gives access to its swish Centurion Lounges where they serve food by James-Beard-awarded chefs and serve creative libations by top mixologists. If you’re traveling internationally, it almost pays to do a long layover in places like Doha just to check out Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Business Lounge with its game room featuring an F1 race-car simulator machine, or Dubai where the Emirates First Class Lounge has a cigar lounge, wine cellar and on-site spa. 

 

Insider Tip: While some of the higher-end lounges require a certain level of airline status or to be holding a business or first-class boarding pass, some do offer lounge access for a fee that can be purchased in advance. 

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Make a Vacation Out of It

You’re better off rolling with the punches than taking it out on a gate agent or customer service rep. If you do find yourself stranded at an unplanned destination, make a trip out of it. Search for tourist destinations near the airport — you’re in luck if it’s Honolulu, Dallas, Las Vegas, and San Diego — see if an airport offers free/discounted city tours, or just catch an Uber into the city and squeeze in some impromptu sightseeing.

 

Related: Long Layover? Unique Attractions Near Major Airports