My Flight Is Canceled, Now What?

Cancellations abound after a snowstorm in Atlanta grounds 800 flights. Photo by nesnet
By Lisa Cheng

With the rise of TSA's full-body scanners and à la carte airline fees, air travel has dipped to a newfound low. The top complaint routinely registered in the Department of Transportation's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report? Flight cancellations.

There are multiple reasons for an airline to cancel a flight, including crew shortages, mechanical failures, air traffic control delays, runway closures, and low visibility due to bad weather. Understandably, the resulting inconveniences -- scrambling for new flights, interminable wait times, crowded airports -- can frustrate even the most experienced traveler.

But with a sizeable amount of patience and these practical tips, you can ride out a flight cancellation with a minimum amount of turbulence.

Photo Caption: Cancellations abound after a snowstorm in Atlanta grounds 800 flights. Photo by nesnet/Flickr.com
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Canceled and delayed flights from New York City's LaGuardia Airport to Chicago O'Hare. Photo by sgvisuals
With high flight capacity and limited seats, a passenger shouldn't head to the airport until he or she is re-accommodated on another flight, advises Betsy Patton, a travel consultant at the Naples, Florida-based agency Betty Maclean. "You don't know how long you'll have to wait, and if the weather is bad, why risk slippery roads, crowded terminals, and cranky agents when you can wait in the comfort of your home, hotel, or office?"

Sign yourself up (and any friends or family members who are picking you up at your destination) for the airline's flight notification service. Another word of advice from Delta spokesperson Anthony Black: Subscribe to frequent-flier programs, even if you're not in it for the miles. Not only will you receive flight alerts, but the airline will automatically credit your account with miles or vouchers if you're due any post-flight compensation, say from an overbooking or flight delay.

As a pre-emptive measure, if inclement weather is in the forecast, many airlines will roll out an opt-out plan, offering alternative flights at no extra charge; check their websites for postings or call the reservations line to make a flight-change request -- before you get to the airport.

Photo Caption: Canceled and delayed flights from New York City's LaGuardia Airport to Chicago O'Hare. Photo by sgvisuals/Flickr.com
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The chaotic line to get rebooked at London Heathrow spills out the door at Terminal 4. Photo by ricoeurian
Airlines will always recommend calling their toll-free reservations number, even if wait times can be excruciatingly long and their systems risk shutting down under high call volumes. If this is the case, the best way to go is the airline's website, according to Kate Hanni, executive director of the consumer protection organization FlyersRights.org (www.flyersrights.org). "You can see if you've been automatically rebooked (now a standard practice), reschedule a flight, or cancel your reservation altogether," Hanni says.

If you want face-to-face customer service, the gate or ticket agent is the traditional option. "It's a good idea to become your own information pub, says Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare (www.farecompare.com). "Sometimes the airline personnel don't know any more than you do. Get on your smartphones, laptops, or iPads, and look at airport status updates, weather reports, and flight schedules. If you help them help you, then you can get through the line faster."

A good resource for those without Internet at their fingertips is the FlyersRights.org hotline (tel. 877/359-3776). Phone operators offer travel advice in all forms: they'll look up flight availability, interpret contracts of carriage, and locate ground transportation.

Other wait-reducing tips: "Make a beeline for airport club lounges -- they have dedicated ticket agents, usually two of them," suggests travel guru and million-mile flier John DiScala of JohnnyJet.com (www.johnnyjet.com). Elite-status fliers can call the priority number on the back of their membership card.

Travel agents -- many with 24-hour concierge lines -- can also ease the hassle of rebooking, though not without a fee. "Agents have all the same flight information as the carriers but no line of frustrated passengers," says Jacque Salentine Busby, president of the Milwaukee-based Luxe Travel Deals. "Plus we can more readily rebook you on another carrier if necessary."

Photo Caption: The chaotic line to get rebooked at London Heathrow spills out the door at Terminal 4. Photo by ricoeurian/Flickr.com
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Deicing a plane in Montreal. Photo by Apexdv
Rebooking a passenger on a partner carrier is entirely at the airline's discretion. Delta (www.delta.com), for example, has a reciprocal agreement with its SkyTeam members but will consider the switch only on a case-by-case basis, based on availability in an equivalent cabin class. On the other hand, United (www.united.com) will only reschedule flights on its own aircraft.

"Be proactive and look up real-time seat availability on Flightstats.com, then suggest those flights to the agent," advises Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org.

Most of the low-cost airlines like JetBlue (www.jetblue.com) and Southwest (www.southwest.com) don't interline with other air carriers. But as passengers are entitled to a refund under a regulation enforced by the DOT, you can cancel your reservation and buy a ticket on another carrier, if you don't mind a likely spike in the last-minute fare.

Nearby airports also expand your alternatives, says John DiScala of JohnnyJet.com. "If you're at JFK, you might want to consider LaGuardia or Newark. Or if you're in Miami, you might try flying to Fort Lauderdale. Sometimes the airlines will even give you a taxi voucher."

As for competing airlines: "Customer service agents will unlikely offer this option unless asked," says travel consultant Betsy Patton. "While the switch is free to passengers, carriers have to pay the other airline full fare -- regardless of what kind of ticket passenger holds."

Photo Caption: Deicing a plane in Montreal. Photo by Apexdv/Flickr.com
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Sleeping on the floor at the Singapore airport and waiting out the volcanic ash cloud. Photo by DeeKnow

While most airlines will offer hotel vouchers when a cancellation is due to mechanical failure or an absentee crew member, few will pony up for weather-related incidents and other causes deemed beyond their control. If this is the case, ask a gate or ticket agent to issue you a voucher for a "distressed passenger rate" -- a discount that airlines negotiate with nearby hotels specifically for these occasions," says Joel Smiler, FlyersRights.org's hotline director.

If you're expecting a short-term delay, you might want to stay on-site at an airport hotel. "And make sure that you check the hotel's latest cancellation time -- typically 6pm -- in case a flight opens up at moment's notice," Smiler says.

But if a snowstorm hits and all flights are grounded, then your best bet is to reserve a room immediately before hotels fill to capacity. "Remember, hotels set aside rooms for walk-ins, it's worth checking in at the reception desk even if the web site might say that there's no availability," adds Rick Seaney of FareCompare.com.

Photo Caption: Sleeping on the floor at the Singapore airport and waiting out the volcanic ash cloud. Photo by DeeKnow/Flickr.com

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Planes arrive in a blizzard in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo by Walmink
Purchasing travel insurance won't whisk you out of a blizzard or speed up the line at the ticket counter, but it will keep your wallet intact. "We recommend a comprehensive plan for any traveler because you really can't predict what could happen on a trip," says Carol Mueller, a spokesperson for Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com). "We hear so many stories from people who purchase it for one reason but end up using it for another." (Products covering only flight delays or cancellations are rare.)

Typically priced at 5-7% of the total trip cost, comprehensive insurance plans -- like Allianz (www.allianztravelinsurance.com) -- offer a spectrum of benefits under which cancellation-related claims can be filed: trip cancellation, travel delay, missed connection, lost baggage.

Airlines offer more moderately-priced policies averaging around $20, generally with more flight-specific coverage (for lost tickets, for example). Be sure to read your plan carefully for exact terms and conditions; the insurance site SquareMouth (www.squaremouth.com) has a handy comparison tool that breaks down policies clause-by-clause in a customizable chart.

Another perk to buying insurance: Insurance companies have 24-hour assistance hotlines that will be able to walk you through a flight cancellation, or any other travel emergency.

Photo Caption: Planes arrive in a blizzard in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Photo by Walmink/Flickr.com
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