Computer glitches. Awful weather. Staffing shortages. Holiday crunches. So many things can cause a flight to be delayed or canceled.
In the latest widespread incident, more than 2,400 Southwest Airlines flights were delayed on April 18, 2023, because of “data connection issues resulting from a firewall failure,” prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a ground stop that was later lifted.
Added onto a string of other incidents involving mass cancellations and delays, it’s no wonder folks are wary about making it to their destinations on time – or at all.
Here’s some general advice to help travelers navigate the system when flights are delayed or canceled. Actionable tips are highlighted in bold:
Check the weather forecasts
Days ahead of the now-infamous December 2022 bomb cyclone, many US airlines offered their passengers a chance to change their flights for no fee.
When you know a major weather event is forecast, hop on those waiver offers quickly, said Scott Keyes, the founder of Going.com (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights). The early birds have the best choices of the remaining worms (that is seats and flights).
Avoid getting trapped at the airport
As bad as it is to find out your flight has been delayed for a long time, or worse, canceled, it’s better to find out from the comfort of home or a hotel room and make new arrangements from there.
“Check your flight status before you go the airport. Most of these notifications are not happening at the last minute,” said Keyes. “Save yourself the drive to the airport.”
Keyes told CNN Travel in an interview that you should sign up for airlines’ free text alerts on the status of flights when you buy your ticket. You should also download your carrier’s app.
You can also put your airline and flight number directly into a Google search bar to retrieve the status that way. That’s also handy for friends or family who are on standby to pick you up.
Keyes also suggested checking the website FlightAware to track larger flight trends across the country.
If you’re at the airport already
Sometimes, the delays and cancellations happen after you’ve arrived at the airport. Once the bad news has been delivered, what should you do?
Keyes said to head fast as you can to the airline agents’ desk – and get ready to multitask while you’re in line.
Fast is a key word here. “It’s going to make a difference who arrives first. It’s first-come, first-serve. Positioning yourself close to the desk can pay off,” Keyes said.
Then you might want to call up your carrier while you’re waiting. Depending on your spot in line, it might be faster to get through to a call center. “Whatever happens first, great,” he said.
Calls to US domestic numbers might have really long waits. Keyes suggested trying an international call center for your carrier instead.
“Most US-based travelers aren’t thinking to call the Canadian help line for Delta. You might get through to an agent much quicker. They can all handle your reservations just the same.”
You can also use a self-serve kiosk, American Airlines says. “Scan your boarding pass or enter your record locator to see your updated trip details. From there you can also switch your flight and print your new boarding passes.”
The travel advice website Travel Lens suggests using social media to your advantage.
“Not all customer service teams are as helpful as they should be and getting in touch with them via a phone call isn’t always easy,” it told CNN Travel in an email.
“Airlines value their reputation on social media and platforms like Twitter are a great way to get in contact with an employee. If you do use Twitter to reach out, then it’s important to remain polite and calm as this will work in your favor.”
Attitude and research matter
Whether you’re dealing with an agent in person or over the phone, how you approach things can make a big difference. That starts with attitude.
“Honey attracts more flies than vinegar,” Keyes said. “Look at this from the airline agents’ perspective. They’ve been dealing with irate customers really since the pandemic began. The agent is the one who has the most ability to help you.
“Asking nicely and sympathetically is far more likely to get what you want than being a jerk about it.”
He had another tip when it’s your turn to talk to an agent about making new arrangements: “Come prepared to offer your own options already. Doing your own research is absolutely helpful.”
Your agent can expedite things if you’ve already looked up new routes and possible suggestions while you’ve been waiting. Be ready to explain what you want.
If you’ve booked through Expedia or another third-party site, you’ll have to deal through them when there’s a cancellation.
If the price is the same, Keyes suggested you book directly with the airline. In case something goes wrong, “it makes it much more complicated with multiple sets of policies” when you booked via a third party.
US PIRG, a consumer advocacy group, suggests you avoid layovers when booking if possible. The more times you stop, the more chances for something to go wrong.
The group also backs up the advice from Keyes to be nice and polite to agents but also says consumers should be persistent in trying to get the situation resolved satisfactorily.
Help from other airlines
Cooperation between airlines could work in your favor.
“When flights are canceled, many airlines have the option of putting you on another carrier’s flight because they have interline agreements,” Lousson Smith, product operations specialist at Going.com, told CNN Travel in June 2022.
“This means, for example, if Delta is having service interruptions but American is running a flight to your destination, you may be able to get on that flight.”
“If you elect not to be accommodated on a later flight and you book a new ticket out of your own pocket, you are entitled to a cash refund, though that may not help you get to where you need to go,” Smith said. “As we all know, last-minute flights are very expensive.”
Trapped for the night
What do you do if it looks like you’re not going to be able to fly out until the next day and you’re not in your home city?
“Ask the airline to put you up in a hotel or give you a hotel voucher. They might do it; they might not. It’s not required by law,” Keyes said.
They’re less likely to do it if it’s weather related, he said, than if the problem is a mechanical issue with the plane or staffing issues.
What you might get depends on the airline itself and the specific circumstances on why a flight was canceled.
Get to know policies. For instance, Delta Air Lines says it will provide a hotel voucher in some circumstances if travel is interrupted for more than four hours after the scheduled departure time when the delay is between 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
Whatever you do, at least ask, Keyes said. A voucher for hotels and even ground transport and meals aren’t likely to just be offered.
In some cases, airlines will set you up with accommodations, Smith said, but it’s a case-by-case basis and never guaranteed.
Also, your credit card could be your friend in this situation.
“The good news is that many credit cards offer travel protections such as reimbursement if a flight cancellation forces you to get a hotel, meals, etc.” Smith said. “These travel protections are typically included automatically as long as you used the card to pay for your flight. Google your credit card plus travel protections to see what specific offerings your card carries.”
If your flight is delayed instead of outright canceled, you might want to weigh whether to wait at the airport. Depending your personal circumstances, hunkering down there for five or six hours might be easier than going to and from a hotel. Also, Keyes said, check whether there is a hotel within the airport.
The Points Guy advises trying to get into an airport lounge if you can, where you can recharge your phone and rest more easily.
Stay safe. If extreme weather is causing air travel disruption, trying to make the journey by road could be hazardous. Frustrating though it is to stay put, it’s always better to arrive late than not at all.
Travel insurance and receipts
Consider buying travel insurance, advises Airport Parking Reservations in an email to CNN Travel.
It said “most travel insurance policies provide additional cover for travel uncertainty. Additional [coverage] usually becomes applicable if your flight is postponed by more than 12 hours due to a strike, adverse weather or a mechanical breakdown.”
The site also advises that you keep any receipts of airport purchases. You can try to get the money back from the airline later.
But keep it to the basics. “Airlines only pay for ‘reasonable’ expenses though, so you are unlikely to get money back for purchases such as alcohol, expensive meals or extravagant hotels. “
Refund entitlements for your flight
The US Department of Transportation says you are entitled to a refund of your ticket cost because of a cancellation or “significant delay” and you choose not to travel.
This is the policy regardless of the reason the airline cancels or delays the flight. However, what constitutes a “significant delay” remains open to interpretation.
According to the DOT website, “it has not specifically defined what constitutes a ‘significant delay.’ Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances. DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis.”
Tomasz Pawliszyn, CEO of AirHelp, said in an email to CNN Travel that flyers should try to avoid vouchers.
“If travelers are denied boarding, they should not volunteer their seat in exchange for perks or a voucher. If they do, they could be giving up their right to any additional compensation,” Pawliszyn said. “Of course, if the airline makes a compelling enough offer, they may prefer to take it.”
Top image: A flight board at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on in Arlington, Virginia. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.