I’ve talked before on the 9 to 5 Wanderer about how to make your airport experience smooth or how to survive your long haul flight, but what do you do when you’ve prepared for everything, and things still goes awry? In honor of July 4th weekend, a big travel weekend, I’d like to talk about how to survive the air travel horror stories. This past spring, I went on a trip to Philly and then to Florida. The flight from Boston to Philadelphia was easy, my flight landed early, and my transit into Philly’s City Center pulled up just as I walked onto the platform. Little did I know, the next leg was not going to be so smooth.
At the end of the weekend, I headed off to my next destination, Florida. I packed the night before, checked in, picked my seat, and downloaded my boarding pass into my Iphone wallet. My itinerary was a simple four hour journey, Philadelphia to Charlotte with a short stopover, and then to Daytona Beach. It was simple, until it wasn’t. It started when I woke up at 8am to a million notifications from my flight wallet on my phone’s home screen. When I realized that my departure time for the Philadelphia to Charlotte flight was displaying incorrectly, I called a travel agent, and after about a half hour conversation, was able to get myself back on the correct flight. While on the train to the airport, my ticket notifications continued to go berserk, and I finally realized that my Philadelphia to Charlotte flight was delayed by four hours and that I would miss my connection in Charlotte. I called two different airline agents while I was on the train, who told me that there were no earlier flights I could get on and that the best they could do was a four hour layover, which would get me into Daytona at 10pm…seven hours after I was supposed to arrive. Gah. I got to the airport and spoke with the desk clerk to see if there were any other options. Phew, she thankfully was able to put me on a flight to Pittsburgh, then to Charlotte, then to Daytona. Not ideal, and a long travel day, but it would get me in at 5:30pm, only a couple hours later than my initial arrival time of 3:20pm. Fine. I get my new tickets printed, hop on a quick flight to Pittsburgh, and am feeling good. Upon arriving to my gate in Pittsburgh, I find that my flight to Charlotte is cancelled entirely. Not delayed, cancelled. Maintenance problems, the same reason my first leg was severely delayed. At this point I’m exhausted and about to have a nervous breakdown. It is now nearly 2pm and I’ve eaten nothing because I was on the phone with the airline in the morning and wasn’t able to fix myself breakfast, and then missed lunch. I do NOT do well when I’ve missed a meal. I spent about 45 minutes talking to a lovely grandfatherly gate attendant, who wasn’t able to get me a good itinerary, but was able to calm me down and avoid me having a nervous breakdown in the middle of the airport, which would have been embarrassing. The new flight still had a long stopover, and kept me in Pittsburgh for another two hours. I went to the food court and wolfed down an overpriced burrito. Apparently Pittsburgh Airport has some of the best shopping in the country, but by that point, I was too worn out to browse. I jumped on the flight to Charlotte, drowned my sorrows out with my second airport meal of the day, a giant French fry and Frosty from Wendy’s, walked around Charlotte Airport about 15 times, and then took the final leg of my journey to Daytona. It took me a grand total of 12 hours to get from Pennsylvania to Florida. What a doozy.
So what do you do when everything goes to hell in a hand basket when you’re in the air (or trying to be)? Here are a few things I learned through my ordeal:
1. Try your best to remain calm. It’s easy to begin to think that the universe is conspiring against you and that this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, but just relax. Take a deep breath. Freaking out isn’t going to get you to your final destination, but you do need to keep a clear head in order to advocate for yourself and figure out your best options.
2. Being sassy to airline staff isn’t going to get you anywhere. Regardless of how frustrated you are, try to remember that it’s not the gate attendant or call center customer support clerk’s fault that your plane isn’t leaving the ground. Being rude or condescending is not the way to get people to help you, so remember to keep your attitude in check. It’s ok to express your frustration, but be polite and understanding- a “I realize this isn’t your fault and you are doing your best, thank you for your patience” doesn’t hurt. At the same time, airlines have thousands of cancelled flights every day and if you don’t advocate for yourself, no one will, and you’ll find yourself waiting and waiting in the airport when you don’t necessarily have to. Although the Pittsburgh reroute was a disaster ultimately, I would never have known that was an option had I not asked. A polite but firm “This situation is not acceptable, how can we find something workable” approach at least gets you all of the best possible options, even if in the end it doesn’t work out quite as well as you’d like.
3. Always go directly to the gate desk. I called the airline via the 1-800 number four times en route to the airport in an attempt to pre-empt the crisis, but with no avail. The people at the desk were able to give me routes and options that the people on the phone weren’t aware of, and are able to liaise with colleagues in the airport to sift through the possible options in real time. If you are in the airport, don’t waste your time on the phone, go talk to a real person. If you’re trying to fix things en route and have no luck, don’t give up until you have had the final say from an airline representative at the gate (and when they say that’s all they can do, ask again, and see if there is anything else they can think of or do).
4. If you do end up getting a terrible reroute and are a little bit flexible, consider volunteering to get bumped, if it works in your new itinerary. The desk attendant who talked me off the edge suggested I do that. Because I missed my connection, the earliest flight from Charlotte to Daytona they could put me on was at 8:30pm. My flight to Charlotte was at 2:30pm, but if I took a 4:30pm flight, I would still make it for my 8:30pm connection. By taking the flight bump and volunteering for the later flight, I’d have to spend more time in the airport, but I’d also get money for food and up to several hundred dollars in flight vouchers. Alas, my flight didn’t ask for volunteers, but it is a good airline secret to know about and maybe be able to get a little something positive out of a bad situation.
5. When the ordeal is finally over, call or write to the airline, referencing your itinerary confirmation number, and then provide a description of what happened. If your flights are delayed or cancelled due to weather conditions, you’re out of luck because airlines aren’t liable for any issues caused by weather, but if your delays are for maintenance, then you have a case. Say explicitly what sort of compensation you are looking for- if you are a rewards member, ask for miles, airlines tend to be more generous with giving away miles than with monetary flight vouchers. I wrote a strongly worded letter to the airline after my experience, and was awarded 7,500 miles. Not too shabby.
Spending a day stuck in airports when you’re supposed to be on vacation sucks, but there are a few ways you can make the most of a bad situation and maximize the possibility of getting to your destination as fast as possible. If you have other tips I haven’t thought of, please leave them in the comment section!