Best way to deal with travel chaos, canceled flights, etc.?
December 29, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Best way to deal with travel chaos, canceled flights, etc.?

I spent the last few days scouring websites trying to find a way to get home from NYC. I found that the usual resources -- such as airline websites and services like Expedia -- were not that helpful. For example, an airline website might list a flight as "scheduled" even though it is extremely likely to be canceled. Expedia might list flights as "sold out," even though there is reason to believe that a lot of people might cancel and there is a good chance that a lot of standbys will make it on.

Are there any good resources out there to get more practical information? Like, for example, which flights are the ones that are most likely to get out versus which ones are "scheduled" but have no chance? Which airports/airlines are likely to get moving the fastest? Are there special databases that travel agents can look at that have better information than Expedia/Orbitz? Is there any way to get a peek at those?

Alternatively -- what are your strategies for getting on a plane and getting out of town when the airlines are in chaos?

I am familiar with but for whatever reason forgot to check it during the storm. Twitter was only so-so useful; some information, but very spotty and full of spammers using the hastags. was good for seeing which planes were actually making it out, but tended to lag when it came to the latest cancellations -- my flights were shown as "scheduled" for hours after they were not.
posted by Mid to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Where are you trying to get TO? It seems 99% of the people waiting around for flights would be much better off hopping on a train or bus.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:03 AM on December 29, 2010

I think the best bet when a major storm is looming is to watch the weather forecast and get out ahead of the storm.

Normally I've had some luck by calling the airline and asking whether this particular flight is likely to be cancelled, but this past week the airlines that I called (AA, Jet Blue) were severely backed up on the phone. flyf.aa was useless this time too.

I think if you know what's going on in your airline's hub (i.e. Delta was bad this time b/c it's hub is Atlanta, and Atlanta actually got snow), where your airplane is coming from (i.e. more likely that a Miami-NYC flight would arrive, allowing you to get a flight out), what's going on at your destination, and the size of your airplane (i.e. smaller airplanes less likely to fly in wind, storms), you can make a slightly better than random guess. And airports that habitually get X weather, are generally better able to handle X weather than airports that don't.
posted by semacd at 10:10 AM on December 29, 2010

Expedia might list flights as "sold out," even though there is reason to believe that a lot of people might cancel and there is a good chance that a lot of standbys will make it on.

I don't understand how this could be true. It seems half the country is trying to get into or out of New York City right now. My flight on Jet Blue, scheduled for last night, was canceled. I'm now stuck in New Orleans until Monday. I spoke to someone at Jet Blue, we brainstormed for quite a while looking up other airports I could potentially fly into and then take ground transportation home, anything that could get me home sooner (even going to the airport and trying to fly standby) - nothing doing. There is no way people on those precious flights are going to be no-shows at the last minute.

What I did when my flight was canceled was to spend several hours dialing and redialing the airline's contact number, hoping to finally reach a person. After 20-something calls and more than half an hour on hold, I spoke to someone and they booked me on the next possible flight. Your choices are basically to do that, or, if it's at all feasible to travel overland, to book a train or a bus. There's no magic solution, here. Everyone is fucked just as bad as you are.
posted by Sara C. at 10:18 AM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sarah - I got home on standby on a Delta shuttle (LGA to ORD) because of no-shows. I think because things were so chaotic, people were just giving up and taking the train or rebooking for later in the week or whatnot. On twitter, people were saying that 20+ standbys were getting on to some planes. I have no good explanation for it. But this is the type of info that it sees very hard to come by.
posted by Mid at 10:31 AM on December 29, 2010

I just spent the better part of three days (Sunday-Tuesday) trying to get my mom out of NYC. Here are my takeaways:

- status with the airline is vital. I had elite status on the airline my mom was flying on, so I used the special phone line and my frequent flyer # to rebook her flights (even though I wasn't traveling). Being loyal to an airline and maximizing elite qualifying miles really is worth it. Every time I called my airline's elite customer service line I was connected with a human being within 10 minutes (often less), even during the peak of the travel panic.

- when rebooking, don't take the first agent's answer (i.e., "we can't get you out for four days") as final. The situation is dynamic so keep trying. We were initially told my mom would have to fly out on Thursday (her flight was the previous Sunday, and airports began ops again on Monday evening). After two later calls, we ended up finding a direct flight on Tuesday.

- be nice to the people on the phone. The people taking calls are under ridiculous pressure and are taking personal insults all the time. If they're curt with you, don't take it personally, and try to make the best of it.

- take advantage of relaxed rebooking policies when cancellations occur. Use to scope out one-way travel deals and consider buying a ticket home, even if it's on a different airline. You can get a refund or credit for your initially reserved canceled flight (it's the law).

-make sure you ask the agents to explore different routings to your destination, even if they're outside the "hub" network. Often, an agent will ask you to pay for the fare differential in this case, but if you're nice to them on the phone, they can make exceptions. YMMV.

- it does sound like lots of standby passengers got lucky during this storm. If you're stuck at the airport, make sure you get on the standby list on fully booked flights while you scope out other options.
posted by BobbyVan at 10:56 AM on December 29, 2010

Definitely be nice to whomever you talk to. Agents have discretion about what they can and cannot do for you, whether it's booking you to another airline or getting you a seat. Being rude isn't going to get you far.

Be persistent. Ask specific questions - can I fly to x airport, can we go through another city, etc. - rather than just saying "get me home." Think of it as a puzzle you're both working on together.

Also, to some extent, recognize that it's just a difficult situation, and if you're not the worst off in the bunch, don't act like you are. In the scheme of things, losing a day or two to travel is not so bad.
posted by Sukey Says at 11:17 AM on December 29, 2010

Well, airlines won't admit flights are cancelled until the actual cancellation is inevitable unless the entire airport is closed. So this week, most of the New York airports actually closed and all flights for that day were canceled. Philadelphia was technically "open" but only had one runway when they should have four and had massive, massive delays on the very few flights that were running. So for all practical purposes, it was closed. But they didn't admit this and cancel the flights until a couple of hours before they took off.

On Saturday, it was obvious that the weather was going to be bad in the northeast on Sunday, when I planned to travel through Philly. I got the folks at USAir to grab me a seat on a flight through Charlotte on Monday as a backup. When my flight on Sunday canceled, they rebooked me on a Tuesday flight through Philly. So someone got my seat on the Tuesday flight, because I was on the Monday flight through Charlotte. US Air announced a "no change fee" policy for the northeast on Friday, so people who changed before the weather hit had the best choice of alternate routes. I assume this was also true of most of the other majors.

The best tips I can offer are to be proactive and try to route through warm weather hubs when you can. The sooner you can rebook, the better off you will be. Once everyone is stranded, all the flights will fill up for days. BobbyVan is right that status is very helpful, but that obviuosly doesn't work for everyone. flightstats, flightaware, flyertalk are the go to resources.

Once you are in the middle of the event and you are somewhere like NYC, you are in trouble. All the flights for several days to virtually everywhere will fill up. Your best bet is to stand by for anywhere that gets you out of NYC, preferably to a hub or try to take a train to another hub or decide being stuck isn't that bad.
posted by Lame_username at 11:41 AM on December 29, 2010

The main thing is to be realistic and not expect the nice lady at the ticket counter to materalize a plane out of nowhere. In my (long and varied) experience of getting stuck places the staff want you gone every bit as bad as you want to go. Sadly they are not wizards and cannot magic you home. So get all the info you can then decide if time or money are your limiting factors and act accordingly. If you have some time offer to rebook a couple days out. Often you can get a free voucher out of this. Then leave the airport and go do something fun for a couple days.

If time is your issue get on standby for as many flights as possible then try to talk all the people ahead of you in the standby line into taking the train. Seriously.

Find out what number you are on the stand by list. They.aren't supposed to tell you this but usually will if you promise not to riot when you find out you're #241 for a plane with 17 seats. If you are #241 forget about it and go see a movie or something. They will be so grateful you didn't start a riot they'll probably bump you up.

Overall be really nice to the airline staff and/or travel agents. They can't magic up entire planes or change the weather but they can let you know when a seat opens up.
posted by fshgrl at 11:47 AM on December 29, 2010

Another vote here for being nice. I always try to be nice to the gate agents, etc, since they are in a position to help you. Indeed, I usually *like* being in line behind someone being an angry, raging, SOB, since then I'm also the person making the agent's day less miserable instead of more miserable.

My best advice is "be flexible". Don't just talk to an agent. Call the airlines 800 number as well, those people have a different view of the situation, and are often less stressed and calmer (although they are still stressed a bit). Keep an eye on other travel options and one-way deals. Make sure that for every candidate flight going where you are, and make sure that you are on the standby list for that flight. Know how to bargain (while not your situation, I've gotten some screamingly good deals from airlines by approaching them with confirmed reservations, and agreeing to take a much later flight so that someone else could take my place. If you've got a place to stay and can afford the extra time, this is often a good idea)

And sometimes, it's good to know when to give up. If it's a really bad storm, sometimes it's better to be one of the people that grabbed a hotel room early than be one of the people that slept in an airport while trying to get a flight.

Finally, consider using a good travel agent or concierge service. Even when I'm on personal travel, and booked my own tickets, I've called the travel agent my company uses (and paid her fee) for her assistance in generally unfarking things.

Actively managing your situation is always the best approach. I've known many people that had miserable travel experiences just because they wouldn't take command of their situation.

(Myself, I'm lucky, both my BOS->LHR trip and the return were more-or-less smooth, while if I was a day later on the trip out, or a day earlier on the trip back, I would have been in a world of hurt)
posted by kaszeta at 11:48 AM on December 29, 2010

Airline loyalty does seem to matter - I was a 'priority verification' for a flight on Monday night that we were told was overbooked and was given the last seat ahead of standby passengers who'd been waiting for 2 days - because I always fly with American.

Have carry-on bags only.

Particularly in the smaller airports, being at the airport in person rather than on the end of a phone can get you home, I saw it a couple of times on Monday, both in Columbus and Chicago, where people were told "if you can get to the gate in the next ten minutes, you're on the plane"

Whether on the phone or in person, staying calm and polite will make people more inclined to be helpful, even if the options they are offering are extremely limited. I can't imagine how awful it must have been to be working at an airline call centre or on a check-in desk these last few days - they don't get paid enough to be abused.
posted by essexjan at 12:15 PM on December 29, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks - to add a little food for thought, the way I got home was to give up on my AA tickets (which had canceled twice) and to book separately through Delta. Paid full fare for 3 1st class tix for my family ($1,000 total). This was painful, but we absolutely had to get home. With the full fare tix on Delta, we got very good treatment from the ticket agents -- they put us on an earlier flight (in first) because of some no-shows. When I got home, I called AA and explained what happened. I got an $800 cash refund from AA for the return portion of my trip that I ended up cancelling. So, all told, net cost of $200 to get home probably 24 hours before AA could do it.

From my own anecdotal observations, AA seemed to be hit hardest in NYC by the storm. It stopped snowing early on 12/26, but AA was still canceling flights in the afternoon on 12/27. And, for what it's worth, my "Gold" status on AA did not seem to help at all. I was better off with no status (but a full fare) on DL.
posted by Mid at 12:36 PM on December 29, 2010

sort of like, BobbyVan, I just tipped over into Premier status on United a month ago (thank you round trip flight to Argentina) and so when I was stuck on the West Coast during the blizzard, I had a very easy time with rebooking whenever I'd call United's premier line. There was one point where I called the regular number by mistake and it took significantly longer to get connected to an agent.

I wound up getting rebooked about four times as the extent of the storm became known and Logan went from cancelling all Sunday morning flights to being fully shutdown into Monday morning. At each case, when I was given my options for where to fly, I never took the first available option because they all seemed like a recipe for getting stranded in some place like Cleveland or Phoenix. Instead, I kept on asking my agent to keep looking and would opt to go on flights that were either direct or connecting at a major hub (like Denver or Chicago for United). If I didn't get a flight that liked, I thanked the agent and said that I'd consider my options and call back when I made my decision. Every single time when, I'd call back, usually in an hour or two, a better option had opened up.

All this while, I was staying with my parents, and thus had some luxury in being able to take my time and forego a dodgy flight that was leaving in two hours for a more secure one that would be leaving in six.

At the same time, I kept checking weather reports for Boston as well as massports updates on when Logan would re-open to get an educated idea of what arrival times were solid and which ones were fantasy.

so, yeah, basically a lot of what's been said already:

1. it helps to have status, and if anything, the preferential treatment that you get when the fit hits the shan is much more valuable than the early boarding and no fees on checked bags. If getting and retaining status means that I pick one airline that's going to be about $50 more expensive than its competitor on a particular flight next year, it's totally worthwhile for crises such as these.

2. doing research means keeping up on weather at your destination and the state of the target airport. Don't bother with using Kayak or Orbitz or any fare shoppers to see what's available. In many, many ways, these services lag in their availability and status reports and are close to useless when shopping for a flight that may or may not be cancelled in the next three hours. Better to have a copy of your preferred carrier's weekly flight timetable, which lists all of the itineraries that are planned for your destination for that week; and use that to educate yourself on what your options are. Rely on the phone agent to tell you what is actually available and what isn't.

3. if you have to choose: prefer direct to a connection. If you can't get direct, aim for your carrier's hub city. If you can't get a hub, ask the agent for the next set of flights that will leave from your connecting city to your destination, to give yourself an idea of what could happen if you get stranded at the connection. If you don't like it, try again later and see if any of your other options open up.

4. always be nice. Always take a deep breath when trying to make yourself understood on a poor connection. Always remember that these people are trying to help you. They are not a vent for your frustration or impatience.
posted by bl1nk at 12:40 PM on December 29, 2010

3. if you have to choose: prefer direct to a connection. If you can't get direct, aim for your carrier's hub city. If you can't get a hub, ask the agent for the next set of flights that will leave from your connecting city to your destination, to give yourself an idea of what could happen if you get stranded at the connection. If you don't like it, try again later and see if any of your other options open up.

I think this is good advice. Need to get to Chicago from NYC? Go to Atlanta and sweet-talk your way onto a Delta flight.
posted by gjc at 3:55 PM on December 29, 2010

My anecdotal experience is that Southwest will go when other airlines might not. I was told this is because they don't use a spoke and hub system. The great thing about Southwest is you can also get a full fare ticket at a reasonable price so you can change plans easily.
posted by Xurando at 4:06 PM on December 29, 2010

Be thankful that you're in one piece and that your plane isn't flying through a dangerous winter storm. And make some new friends.

You're safe, warm, and have access to clean food and water. Winter travel sucks, but I find it makes a lot better to be thankful for the little (or big) things. Delta or Continental can't make the snow un-fall.
posted by j1950 at 5:52 PM on December 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Depends on where you're headed and what your constraints are. If you don't have to be anywhere, relax, as others above have said, find a good hotel, get some sleep and a good meal, take in the sights if that's possible, make the best of it.

If you DO have to be somewhere...well, here's what we did in such circumstances.

We were in Boston in December 2004 for a cousin's wedding. My husband had to be back home in downstate Illinois to teach a class (for which he could get a colleague to step in, not a big deal) and then catch a series of flights to Taipei for a conference at which he was an invited speaker (a big deal). Huge nor'easter blew through while the couple were saying their vows. We arrived at Logan the morning after the reception to find that, with two feet of snow on the ground, all flights were cancelled.

Immediately, instead of attempting to negotiate with clogged lines and overworked airline employees and the uncertainty (and unlikelihood) of getting an alternate flight, we went over to the Hertz counter and rented a Ford Explorer--the liberal treehugger environmentalists inside us were screaming in protest, but we needed the four-wheel drive and the high clearance. One-way rental was $550, but that was OK. (We recouped the cost later by getting our return flights refunded.) And then we drove for eighteen hours straight. Got there forty-five minutes before his class, and got him on his plane out of the local airport (blessedly only fifteen minutes from campus). We both felt like hell, but we made it. And as he slept nearly the whole way across the Pacific, he didn't even have jet lag when he got there.
posted by tully_monster at 7:34 PM on December 29, 2010

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