Traveling in connection with a holiday, particularly flying, is a mix of joyful anticipation and anxiety-laden fear of disruptions. Janet and I have been flying somewhere every month since May, and over half of our flights have either been cancelled or rescheduled, and that’s before the added load of holiday travelers. This year presents some unique challenges…major airlines like American and Southwest scheduled flights and then filled them with paying customers, knowing they didn’t have the flight crews to operate them. They have been relying on flight crews taking on as many extra flights as the FAA allows, but their flight crews are tired and are beginning to refuse the extra hours. That has resulted in an unprecedented number of cancelled and rescheduled flights just when the peak holiday travel season is upon us.
If you are flying this holiday season there isn’t much you can do to avoid the risk of last-minute schedule disruptions. However, here are a few things you can do to soften the impact if you find yourself staring at a text message telling you the flight you are waiting to board has been cancelled:
1. Once you’ve booked your flights, assume they will be cancelled. Look at alternatives that, while not your first choice, would still work for you. A back-up plan can substantially reduce your risk of missing out if you face last-minute changes, and it will definitely lower your stress.
2. If you find yourself with a cancelled flight, your airline will automatically rebook you. That isn’t for your convenience but for theirs. You don’t have to accept their choice, which will probably be worse than any choice you would make. Go through the options that work best for your schedule. You may not get your first choice, and maybe not your second or third choice, but you won’t know until you ask.
3. Be sure you enter a current cell phone in the contact information field when you book. You’ll be the first to learn about changes that way, and if there is a schedule change that doesn’t work for you, you’ll be at the head of the line for more acceptable options.
4. Download your airline’s app and if the airline changes the schedule on you, don’t wait for them to rebook you. Once you learn of a change, use the airline’s app to check options and at the same time call the airline so you get into the queue ahead of everybody else on your flight.
5. Think outside of the box. When the airline changes their schedule and your preferred alternatives aren’t available, look at other airports. We are fortunate to have four major international airports within a 3-hour drive: Philadelphia, BWI, Dulles, and Reagan/National. Don’t worry if you have to fly out of one airport but return to another if there is an option that otherwise works for your schedule. You can book an Uber, take an airport shuttle, or get a one-way rental car, though you’ll want to consider costs.
6. The days of an airline rebooking you on a competitor are long gone, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it on your own. Chances are it will cost you more…there’s a reason you didn’t book with that other airline and the reason is almost always cost. You also must think about whether to cancel first or rebook first. But when your trip is on the line, you might find the extra cost and risk of cancelling and booking with another airline are worth it.
7. Just say no. If the airline has changed your schedule or cancelled a flight and rebooked you on an alternative that doesn’t work for you, think about whether you might be better off cancelling your plans or putting them off until after the holidays. If that is an option, refuse the change and demand a refund.
8. Don’t fly. It sounds trite, but do you really need to fly to get where you want to go? Maybe you can take the train, or drive. We’ve been able to avoid flying several times since we resumed our travels by driving and taking a train.
It would be nice if you could book your holiday travel plans without having to worry about delays or cancellations, but that isn’t going to happen this year. The only thing you can do is pack your patience and have a plan of action in the event your flights are cancelled or delayed. And it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway…get to the airport early. Plan to arrive at least two hours before your scheduled departure for domestic flights and three for international.