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I’m sitting in my empty house right now enjoying some peace and quiet, and the rest of my family is in Florida, when many many other people had their travel plans ruined or postponed because of snow. They would not be in Florida right now if I hadn’t been very proactive about the impending storm. In fact, with only one exception, my family has always gotten where it needed to go despite the whether, by acting fast and planning ahead.
On our way to LaGuardia. It's like all of the other airlines said "Screw it" but @jetBlue said "Dammit Jim, we have to try!!"
— SelfishMom (@SelfishMom) February 15, 2015
There’s a lot of advice out there about what to do when your flight has been cancelled, and it’s all good advice. The main points are always:
- Get on the phone with your airline while you wait in the actual line at the airport – the phone might be faster. Make sure you have the airline’s phone number programmed into your phone. Contacting the airline on Twitter might help too.
- Carry a portable charger for your phone, and make sure it’s charged up before your trip. Rebooking might take a lot of time on the phone, and you don’t want to be tied to an outlet.
- Buy a day pass to your airline’s lounge – the lines will be shorter and the ticket agents in the lounge are usually among the most skilled and least harried.
- Your airline will probably try to book you on the next flight that they have available. Try to get them to book you on the next available flight from any airline.
- Carry your bags on. That way you can be flexible and move quickly if you find another flight.
- Be incredibly nice.
The problem with all of that advice is, it’s for after your flight has been cancelled. Often, if you wait that long to do something, you’ll be screwed.
Here’s my advice for what to do before your flight is cancelled.
Stalk The Website
By all means get flight alerts sent to your phone and email, but don’t wait for them to come. On one trip my flight was cancelled and I never got an alert – I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been stalking the website. Another time I discovered that my flight had been cancelled a full hour before the airline alerted me. I had an hour’s jump on rebooking over everybody who waited for the official alert.
Watch The Weather
Watch the weather across the entire country, not just where you’re traveling from and to. Your flight from Chicago to Orlando might be originating someplace else, and a storm in a different part of the country might impact your travel.
Even if the weather doesn’t look too bad, some airlines completely overreact to forecasts and cancel everything – that’s what happened to us yesterday. Delta cancelled my family’s flight even though only 1-3 inches of snow was in the forecast. I rebooked them on a jetBlue flight out of the same airport. The roads were fine, and the airport was fine. And because jetBlue had waited to see what was going to happen, instead of just cancelling everything, the flight got out no problem. In fact, just about every jetBlue flight out of LaGuardia left early today, because they practically had all of the runways to themselves!
Know The Cancelation Policy
When bad weather happens, the hold times to talk to an airline agent can get long. Know the airline’s cancelation policy ahead of time. Many airlines post a fee waiver announcement ahead of bad weather, letting you know that you can change or cancel your flight without paying extra.
I knew yesterday that Delta would let us cancel the outbound leg of the trip without a penalty while still keeping the flight home, I would just have to call them after the return trip was completed to get the refund.
When Delta cancelled my family’s non-stop flight yesterday morning, they automatically rebooked them on a three-leg flight that left a day later. However, since I already knew the cancelation policy, I was able to hurry up and book a non-stop flight on another airline without having to worry about cancelling the rebooked flight first.
Decide How Much You Want The Trip
Sit down before the trip and weigh your options. You might have to make quick decisions in order to rebook. If you wait for your spouse to call you back, or if you need to sit down to figure out your finances, you might miss your opportunity. Everybody is going to be fighting for the same rebooking options, and the quickest, most organized people will win.
How many days are you willing to be delayed before you’ll just throw in the towel and cancel the trip? How much more money are you willing to pay for an alternate flight? We ended up paying a total of $600 more to book a non-stop flight on jetBlue for today, their original travel day. And since jetBlue had already posted a fee waiver announcement, we knew that if for some reason that flight didn’t work out, we could cancel, get a full refund, and my husband and kids could still take the 3-leg flight tomorrow and start their trip a day late. In fact, I didn’t cancel tomorrow’s flight until my family had already landed in Florida this afternoon.
Yes, we paid $600 extra dollars, but that was a better alternative than spending all day tomorrow on airplanes and missing out on almost two full days of a five-day trip.
Book A Refundable Back-up Flight
I consider the back-up flight to be my secret weapon. It has saved me several times, and another couple of times I didn’t have to use the flights, and got my refund in full.
Seven or eight years ago a huge storm was heading in the night before we were supposed to fly out. A foot of snow was predicted. Our Monday flight hadn’t been cancelled yet, but we were pretty sure it would be, and we wanted to try to get out as soon as possible after the storm. I found a fully-refundable flight on another airline for Tuesday morning (first class, no less, for only $50 more than our original flight!!). I booked that right away. Sure enough, our Monday flight was cancelled. But we were on one of the first flights to get out on Tuesday! Compare that to the Thursday flight that our original airline was offering! I was pretty happy with my advanced planning. We cancelled the Thursday flight with no penalty.
Under normal circumstances, I never book fully-refundable tickets – I’m too cheap. But when it can mean the difference between taking a trip and not, it can be worth the extra money. And remember, you might not have to use it. It’s your trip-saving back-up! Just be super organized and make absolutely sure that you cancel whatever needs to be cancelled in plenty of time.
So what about that one exception I mentioned in the first paragraph? A few years ago we took what was supposed to be a quick, three-night trip to Turks and Caicos for some late October sun. It was the same weekend that Hurricane Sandy hit the NYC area. All flights back were canceled, and a four-day trip to paradise turned into nine days of me stuck with the kids on the most boring off-season island in the world. When the weather is bad enough, sometimes there’s just nothing you can do. Sandy screwed everything up enough that there simply were no flights, on any airline, going anywhere near NYC.
But most of the time, acting early and changing your plans before everybody else gets around to it can save your trip. Don’t wait for your airline to tell you what to do. Be prepared and take control of the situation.