Your flight is canceled or delayed – here’s what you should do next

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

To say it in the nicest way possible, air travel is a total and complete nightmare these days.

Sure, some flights and travelers are fortunate and come out the other side unscathed, but hundreds of thousands of other recent travelers haven’t been so lucky.

Just this past weekend, nearly 15,000 flights were canceled or delayed — and that was without any big precipitating event, such as a massive storm. Instead, it was mostly just thunderstorms during a busy summer weekend where one thing led to another and airlines were struggling to keep up.

Unfortunately, it probably won’t get much better anytime soon. Since the factors causing these system backlogs and breakdowns aren’t as fleeting as snowstorms, it’s likely to keep happening periodically in the coming months.

So in light of all the recent — and likely still to come — delays and cancellations, here are tips on how to decrease your chances of getting stuck, and increase your chances of getting to your destination as quickly as possible.

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In This Post

How to find out if your flight might be delayed

In the current era of periodic, widespread delays and cancelations, you need to be proactive and not wait for the airline to tell you there is a problem.

You can keep an eye on general flight trends across the country on FlightAware, which gives you a good overview of how a day in the sky looks.

Here’s a direct link to the page that focuses on delays. Manually check the status of your flight in the 24 hours leading up to travel on your airline’s website (and check where the plane is coming from, if possible).

(Screenshot from United.com)

Also, opt-in to flight notifications with your airline and download the carrier’s app on your phone. Here are some details on that process with American Airlines and United Airlines.

Alternatively, you can get flight status updates sent directly from FlightAware. You’ll likely have more up-to-date flight departure information from your airline’s mobile app than what’s reflected on the airport departure and arrival board.

When to arrive at the airport if your flight is delayed

(Photo by People Image Studio/Shutterstock)

This can be a tricky question to answer.

If your flight is still listed as “on time” when you check the app, leave for the airport according to the original schedule. Once you’re at the gate, you may or may not experience a delay. Even if your flight shows as delayed in the app, it can be subject to change. It’s best to be at the airport ready to go at the originally scheduled time in most cases.

Remember that bad weather will sometimes cause a temporary ground stop at the airport. As soon as the weather gets better, the stop is lifted and airlines try to get their flights off the ground ASAP.

Related: 3 things to do if your flight is delayed

What to do if there is bad weather

(Photo by Bychykhin Olexandr/Getty Images)

Monitor weather patterns starting a few days before your flight to see if any major systems are anticipated. It’s vital to check the forecast on the day of travel to see how any issues are affecting your departure and arrival airports.

Again, be sure you opt into updates on your flight’s status. If you know bad weather is coming later in the day, ask for an earlier flight if you can.

More and more airlines are allowing travelers to change plans with no fare difference prior to severe weather problems, like impending blizzards, ice storms or even heavy thunderstorms. Some will even proactively change your flight for you.

If you know bad weather is on the horizon, either go to your airline’s website and look for an advisory notice or call the airline. If an airline gets ahead of weather issues, you may be able to reschedule your flight by a few days in either direction with no fees.

However, if the airline hasn’t issued its own advisory, you could have to pay out of pocket for any fare differences. It’s definitely worth making a case to the airline directly even if they haven’t issued a waiver.

Related: How the weather affects your flight — the atmosphere and winds

What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

If you realize your flight is likely to be delayed based on where it’s coming from, keep a close eye on your flight’s status. If a delay becomes reality and you want an alternative to waiting it out, check the airline’s app or in-airport kiosk for rebooking options.

You don’t have to stand in line to talk to a real person in many cases, as you can self-service the rebooking with many major airlines. In fact, it may be faster to do it online or at a kiosk in the airport — and speed matters. You may be able to rebook at a new flight time or even to a new “nearby” origin or destination city.

There are times when automated rebooking systems are not your best option, though.

Sometimes, the only automated option is for a red-eye flight or a future flight heading to your destination more than two days later. That’s especially true with flights as full as they are right now.

If you can’t find what you need online, find an airline employee who knows how to work the ticketing desk. Look at their uniforms and name tags to ensure you get a ticket agent and not a baggage handler or similar outsourced contractor.

If the U.S. call center has a long hold time (which happens during widespread issues), you can try dialing an international number for faster service.

You might also find success reaching out to an airline on Twitter, or via chat or other social media channels when customer service lines are busy.

Related: How to get help from an airline via social media 

For example, when the first leg of an American Airlines flight from New York City to Arkansas just before Christmas was delayed, TPG editor Madison Blancaflor missed her connection.

She reached out to American Airlines on Twitter to help ensure she was rebooked on the earliest possible flight. She still had to endure a long layover in Charlotte, but it was better (and less stressful) than rushing to the customer service desk to try and rebook upon arrival in Charlotte.

Retreat to a lounge

If you have airline club access at a United Club, Delta Sky Club or similar, you can head there for help from experienced agents with potentially shorter lines. Use it as a spot to gather your thoughts, charge your phone and make level-headed decisions. The agents there might be able to help you change or track your flight.

In third-party lounges, such as an American Express Centurion Lounge, you won’t be able to get that type of airline-specific assistance, but you’re still probably in a better spot to wait out the storm than in a crowded terminal.

Related: Best credit cards for airport lounge access

If there are no reasonable booking options left with your carrier, ask if there are options on another airline. If the delay is weather-related, and you are on a basic economy ticket or on a low-cost carrier, there might not be other airline options at your fingertips.

Still, it’s worth asking and — if possible — presenting available options you have researched yourself.

Rebook your flight

Sometimes, if you really need to get home, you may need to do the work and layout for the expenditure yourself.

In an Orlando to Houston delay last year where my original carrier couldn’t get me home for more than a day, I found a nonstop Southwest Airlines flight to Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) with an extra seat, available for $463. Even though rebooking yourself is typically not going to be covered by any insurance or carrier, I went for the Southwest option and got my original United ticket refunded which offset some of the pain of a new ticket.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Your credit card’s built-in trip delay or trip cancellation coverage can help with many expenses, but a brand-new flight home isn’t likely to be one of them. Still, in some cases, it may be the only way home for a while.

Related: When to buy travel insurance vs. when to rely on credit card protections

Check airport hotels

While thinking through what to do in case of a flight delay or cancellation, consider your options at airport hotels, which can fill up if there are major delays and cancellations.

Sometimes, it is best to pull the plug on getting home that day, get some good rest and try again in the morning. Airport hotels are generally pretty affordable on points, although cash rates can skyrocket when demand surges. Accommodations are typically covered by trip delay protection, offered by cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and The Platinum Card® from American Express.*

* Eligibility and benefit level varies by card. Terms, conditions and limitations apply. Please visit americanexpress.com/benefitsguide for more details. Underwritten by New Hampshire Insurance Company, an AIG Company.

The Hyatt Regency Orlando airport entrance. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Show up early for standby flights

If you know in advance that your flight is canceled or delayed, heading to the airport early could score you a same-day standby flight that gets you to your destination early.

TPG engineering manager Steve Romain was able to avoid an overnight stay by utilizing this strategy. A hiccup with his flight from Austin to New York City would have caused him to miss a connection in Dallas. Since Romain has A-List status with Southwest, he showed up at the airport a bit earlier and did a free same-day standby onto an earlier flight that connected to a different city. His A-List status bumped him to the top of the standby list.

Getting on the standby list isn’t a foolproof method, especially if the earlier flight is almost full.

Having elite status can certainly help since you’ll have priority over non-elite travelers. Plus, some airlines charge a fee for non-elite travelers to get on the standby list for an earlier flight.

How to get a refund or flight compensation

If you decide not to fly your originally scheduled flight in light of major delays and cancellations, get your money or points back — do not settle for an airline voucher that may be hard to use and eventually expire.

You may have a cancel-and-refund option available to you online or in the airline’s app. If not, you can ask an airline employee for assistance in person or over the phone. Just be sure to cancel your original flight before its eventual departure so you can get the money or miles (hopefully) returned.

Know your rights and take stock of your credit card protections. You’ll have to read some fine print, but you may be entitled to accommodations, credits or expense reimbursement by the airline or from your credit card (usually depending on the length of your delay and the reason for delay or cancellation).

Many travel credit cards offer trip delay insurance that can save you money when you’re stuck somewhere. While it won’t help you avoid cancellations or delays, it could help you cover expenses while you wait for your flight.

Related: You are entitled to a refund for your canceled flight — even if the airline says you aren’t

Cards that provide travel protection

There are many rewards credit cards that help confer valuable travel protections when you do have a delayed or canceled flight (if you used them to book your flight). Here are just a few examples of cards that provide some built-in coverage:

(Photo by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy)

Chase Sapphire ReserveProvides a $300 annual travel credit, up to $20,000 in trip cancellation coverage, up to $75,000 in car rental coverage, trip delay benefits of up to $500 per person that kick in at a six-hour delay and more.

Chase Sapphire Preferred CardThe Chase Sapphire Preferred includes trip cancellation and interruption insurance, trip delay reimbursement, travel and emergency assistance services and more.

American Express Platinum — In addition to the extensive lounge benefits and $200 in annual airline fee credits, the Platinum card also provides trip cancellation and interruption insurance for up to $20,000 of a covered trip and incident.

Make a decision

Last but not least, you can’t be indecisive in the face of delays and cancellations. If you are, expect your options to dwindle; once you finally decide, you will be at the mercy of whatever options the airline has to offer … which may not be great.

As you wait, flight options are likely to disappear, as hundreds (or thousands) of other passengers beat you to the rebooking. Weigh your realistic options and make a quick decision if you want to keep some control of your schedule.

If you’re OK getting stuck somewhere for a bit or taking a creative route home, waiting for the airline to direct you is a feasible option. Just don’t stress about your decision once you make it.

Your credit card’s built-in travel protections may cover unexpected expenses not covered by the airline (such as a hotel for an overnight weather delay, though not a new flight) if you get stuck during your journey.

In my Orlando example, my original flight was stuck in Denver with a five-hour weather delay, so the odds of that flight getting me where I needed to be that day didn’t seem great. When I didn’t clear standby on the other United flight to Houston from Orlando that night, I made a decision and stuck with it.

(Screenshot from United)

I left the terminal and headed to my new Southwest flight in another terminal (Clear and PreCheck helped with that quick transition). Yes, that choice cost me a new flight home, but I had to make that call right then or roll the dice on my United flight making it out that day.

I wasn’t in a gambling mood when it came to getting home, and I understood the out-of-pocket implications.

PreCheck and Clear saved tons of time when changing terminals. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Bottom line

Most of the time, your flight will get you where you need to be close to when you want to be there. Still, there’s no question that flight delays and cancelations are an acute issue these days.

If your flight is delayed by an hour or two, there’s not usually much to do other than be patient. However, when facing a long delay or cancellation, it’s good to have a plan to reduce the odds of getting stuck.

Given the common theme of full loads on flights these days, acting quickly, researching options and making a speedy decision will put you ahead of the pack.

Related: Best credit cards that offer trip delay reimbursement

Additional reporting by Kristy Tolley, Victoria Walker, Madison Blancaflor, Benji Stawski and Benét J. Wilson.

Featured photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

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