Traveling can be adventurous and fun – until it’s not! Flight cancellations and delays can quickly suck the joy right out of it. And while Tom Hanks made living in an airport look cool in the 2004 movie “The Terminal”, you only need to look at the face of stranded passengers to see how miserable they are.
But getting stranded in an airport doesn’t have to be a traumatic experience, if you’re prepared for it. In fact, there are ways to make that time tolerable or even pleasant, if you put your mind to it.
On top of the usual weather and mechanical delays, the COVID-19 pandemic introduced even more reasons to cancel and delay flights. So, whether you become a victim of an airline staffing shortage or stuck in a blizzard, we offer some useful advice to keep you safe, reduce your stress, and put your time to good use if you get stranded in an airport.
Being prepared is not just for scouts. The stuff you do, bring and know can make a huge difference. For instance, make sure to do these things before you board your flight:
- Register for flight status alerts from your airline or on flightstats.com
- Program the airline’s customer service number into your phone, so you can call them quickly if your flight is cancelled.
- If you have a connecting flight, check to see if your connecting flight is still on schedule before you board your first flight.
Most people pack the basics in their carry-on bag, such as charging devices, reading material, and snacks. Here are a few other items to bring to make a lengthy delay more tolerable:
- A toothbrush and toothpaste
- A comfy sweatshirt, sweater or hoodie you can use for warmth or as a pillow
- At least a two-day supply of any medications you need
- A small notebook and pen (to record alternate travel research or brainstorming ideas)
- An empty water bottle (to save money on airport bottled water)
Know Your Rights
It’s important to know your rights if your flight is delayed or cancelled before you leave for your trip. That way you aren’t spending time researching them while your fellow passengers are taking action. Some of the most common information is provided below, but you can also get a more comprehensive look at airline passenger rights.
Your Rights if Your Flight is Delayed
Airlines aren’t required to guarantee their flight schedules, since there are factors outside of their control, such as weather, mechanical problems, and air traffic delays. In fact, airlines are allowed to delay flights at their discretion.
Under U.S. federal law, airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers for delayed flights. However, each airline has its own policy about how to approach long flight delays. You’ll want to understand your airline’s policy to learn what the company may owe you. Some airlines will pay for meals or a hotel room, or even partial compensation.
European Union law is not the same as U.S. federal law on this. If you’re traveling from the EU, or flying to an EU country with a European airline, you’re entitled to compensation if your flight is delayed for longer than three hours, or if it is canceled. The exact compensation the airline is required to give to its passengers varies depending on the destination and how long the flight is delayed.
Under U.S. law, airlines are required to inform their passengers about flight status changes if that flight is scheduled to depart within seven days. Airlines must make these notifications within 30 minutes of learning about the flight status change, and the notification must at least be made on the airline’s website and telephone reservation system. For flights delayed 30 minutes or longer, airlines must update all flight status displays at U.S. airports within half an hour of learning about the delay.
Your Rights if Your Flight is Cancelled
Airlines reserve the right to cancel flights at their discretion. However, since your airline ticket represents a contract between you and the airline, the airline must make reasonable efforts to fulfill their end of the deal.
If a flight is canceled, most airlines rebook their passengers on the next available flight to their destination, free of charge. If a passenger chooses to cancel his or her trip after a flight cancellation, the airline is required under U.S. law to provide a full refund for the unused flight, even if the ticket was nonrefundable. These passengers are also entitled to a refund for baggage fees and any other extra purchases.
If your flight is cancelled and the next available trip doesn’t depart until the next day, your airline isn’t required by law to pay for meals or a hotel room. However, some airlines have policies regarding these situations, so it doesn’t hurt to ask your airline what amenities it may provide to stranded passengers.
If a canceled flight affects your vacation plans, the airline isn’t required to reimburse you for any trip costs you may have lost. For this reason, it’s best to purchase trip cancellation insurance for those parts of your travel expenditures. Trip cancellation insurance can protect your finances against a loss of nonrefundable travel expenses and deposits. Some policies allow you to cancel for any reason. There are also trip cancellation plans that include strong medical coverage.
Getting Bumped from an Oversold Domestic Flight
For flights in the U.S., airlines are required to compensate passengers if they are bumped from a flight that is oversold. So, if you’re unwillingly bumped because your flight is overbooked, you may be eligible for some big bucks, perhaps quadruple the price of your ticket.
Regardless of the reason for the delay or cancellation, you should always ask airline staff if they will pay for meals or a hotel room if a flight is severely delayed, rescheduled, or canceled. Some airlines do offer these services to passengers, and others won’t.
What to do When Your Flight is Cancelled
- As soon as you learn that your flight has been cancelled, get in line at the gate counter. Act quickly because other passengers will be doing the same.
- While in line, call the airline’s customer service line (have it programmed into your phone before you leave). If you have trouble reaching someone, try using social media. Airlines often watch social media messages closely and respond promptly. If your schedule is flexible, it may be worth the time to work the standby list in case there is a last minute no-show.
- Once you connect with a customer service person by phone or in person, it’s important to be polite to them. Airline employees are usually more generous to the nice passengers than the angry ones. If you can hide your frustration and remain calm, you’ll have a better chance at getting what you want.
- Although you may not be entitled to compensation from the airline, it doesn’t hurt to ask anyway. The airline may offer you airline credit, frequent flier miles, or a voucher for a meal, hotel or taxi.
- Keep in mind that if your original airline is unable to accommodate your travel needs, you might consider requesting a refund from them. You could look for another airline, or you could take a train or bus to a nearby city to fly out of.
Make Use of Airport Resources
- If you’ll be stranded in an airport for a long time, you should become familiar with the resources available in the airport that could make your stay better. For instance, some airports have exercise rooms, napping pods, showers, or spas. You can use the airport courtesy phone to locate airport resources such as showers, cots, blankets, and diapers.
- If you’re flying domestically, consider buying a one-day pass to an airport lounge. An airport lounge or airline club is probably the most comfortable place to be in an airport. In addition to comfortable seating and places to stretch out and sleep, airport lounges typically have free snacks and beverages, free Wi-Fi, and showers. Many airport lounges have a dedicated service desk that can help re-book flights.
- If an airline-specific lounge isn’t in the cards, check to see whether the airport has a public lounge. These types of lounges offer similar amenities, Smarter Travel says.
- If you don’t go to an airport lounge, find a space away from the heavy traffic with a charging station where you can rest without having to move.
- If you’re stranded at a major international airport, you may find some interesting entertainment options. You can play nine holes of golf at Hong Kong International Airport, listen to live music at Munich International Airport, or visit the butterfly garden at Changi International Airport in Singapore. At some airports you may discover art exhibits, small museums highlighting local history, and shops with unique items.
Staying Overnight? Get a Room!
If you find out your travel delay will extend overnight, start calling hotels quickly before the rooms are filled by your fellow stranded passengers. Should an available hotel not be found near the airport, don’t be afraid to try some farther away. If they don’t offer an airport shuttle service, your additional transportation costs might be offset by a lower hotel price.
There are several last-minute hotel-booking apps, such as Hotel Tonight. This app is good at finding low-priced rooms and is easy to use. Some airports give out discount vouchers toward hotel rooms, so it’s worth asking.
How to Sleep Safely in an Airport
If you find out you travel delay will extend overnight and you decide not to sleep at a hotel, here are a few tips to sleep safely in an airport:
- Check out the sleep options available in your airport. Some major airports offer sleep pods – capsules that convert from cozy chairs to lie-flat beds. Other airports rent mini-suites by the hour.
- Some airports stock cots for mass flight cancellations. An airport employee may be willing to let you use one if you ask nicely.
- If you’re left with sleeping in a chair, take a strength-in-numbers approach and find a place to sleep near other sleepers.
- If you’re traveling with a companion, sleep in shifts so one of you can watch your stuff while the other sleeps.
- Use your carry-on bag as a pillow, with the zipper facing your sleep surface. You could also lace the bag’s straps around your legs.
- Remove the distractions with an eye mask, earplugs or headphones. You could even drape a blanket or sweater over you. (If you want people to leave you alone, consider wearing an Ostrich Pillow.)
- Remember to set an alarm on your phone so you wake up when you need to.
- Once you wake up, freshen up by taking a shower at the airport, an airport hotel gym, or a fitness center. Having a change of clothes in your carry-on bag would also help. Or you could at least wipe off with watered-down paper towels or antiseptic wipes in the restroom.
If you’re stuck at an airport during the day, but you’ll fly out before an overnight hotel stay becomes necessary, consider a day trip. Several airports offer a list of day-trip itineraries for people with long layovers – trips that are easy to get to from the airport via public transportation. For instance, one of Japan’s most popular temples is a short train ride from Tokyo Narita Airport. And from Frankfurt Airport, beer tasting in Bavaria is a quick trip. Some airports may offer bag checks, which allows you to stash your suitcase and travel light on a day out.
How to Spend Your Wait Time
- The first thing you’ll want to do is to calm yourself down and put your travel delay in its proper perspective. Close your eyes or do some breathing exercises if you need to. This will allow you to think clearly about how to make good use of this time, instead of just fretting about it.
- Go for a walk to get exercise and think. Brainstorm ideas, consider opportunities, ponder possibilities. Write down the ideas you come up with.
- Shop at the airport stores.
- If you packed a tablet (with movies loaded on it) and ear buds, you could watch a movie.
- Read a book or magazine. If you didn’t pack enough reading material, buy some at an airport shop.
Benefit From Our Experience
We’ve all been there. At Good Neighbor Insurance, we have a lot of international travel experience and have encountered our share of flight delays and cancellations. We know they can be frustrating, and we’ve learned ways to make them less frustrating.
We’ve learned there are things you can do in advance to be better prepared and things you can do when it happens to minimize your travel delay. That your waiting time can be better if you take full advantage of airport resources and find fun or productive ways to spend your time. And if you experience an overnight delay, there are ways to get a hotel or to sleep safer in an airport.
Sure, our trip cancellation insurance plans www.gninsurance.com/travel/trip-cancellation/ will protect you from losing money when your trip is cancelled. But since they won’t prevent you from ever being stranded in an airport, we hope this article will help with that. Safe travels!