Airline travel has been unreliable for years as the airlines struggled with post-pandemic staffing and logistics. Almost every airline has had at least one disastrous weekend with mass cancelations during the last couple of years. We could be past the worst, but it’s still best to plan for possible problems. Here are some suggestions to help save you grief on your next trip.
If you’ve already booked a flight, you should do four easy but important things:
1. Download your airline’s app. This will help you get real-time notifications and communicate directly with customer service, especially if you need to rebook your flight and the phone lines are jammed. Do not just do a search for your airline; you could end up on a scam website or calling a scam “customer service” number.
2. Put trackers in your bags. Some of the biggest frustrations for passengers whose flights are canceled or rebooked stem from the airline not knowing where your bag is. It’s helpful if you do.
3. Bookmark the Department of Transportation’s passenger dashboard that shows the binding commitments from the 10 largest airlines on various issues, including cancellations and delays caused by the airline (because of staffing, equipment, etc.) Six of the 10 will rebook you on another airline at no charge. Some will pay for hotels, meals, etc. You can’t count on the airline offering this to you unless you ask.
4. Know that you have legal rights. If any airline cancels your flight for any reason, you’re entitled by law to a full refund of your ticket price, taxes, baggage fees, any extra charges and ancillary fees. Refunds must be issued promptly — if that’s what you want. You also have additional rights if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed for reasons within the airline’s control, such as staffing or equipment issues. Many airlines rebook you free, and pay for hotels, meals, ground transportation, etc. Even if it’s not the airline’s fault, you can ask an airline to rebook you on their airline or a competitor’s. They often will.
If you have not yet booked your flight, here are some important tips to consider:
Tread carefully if using third-party ticket websites
If your flight is canceled or delayed or you need to rebook or get a refund, it may be much more difficult to do so than if you purchased tickets directly from an airline. For sure, you don’t have as many rights with a third-party ticket site as you do with an airline. Complaints against ticket/travel agents were 13 times higher in 2022 than in 2019.
Fly in the morning
Schedule your flight as early in the day as possible. The DOT says you’re more likely to get where you’re going. The later in the day you fly, the more chances there are for the airline to get off schedule. And if you have a late-night flight that’s cancelled, there may not be another one until the next morning.
Download the app
Get the airline’s app on your phone at least a few days before your flight. It can help you with last-minute notifications, rebooking and contacting customer service. Then you can delete the app when you return from your trip if you’d like.
Avoid connecting flights
This isn’t always possible, of course. But two flights mean two chances for a problem. And a delay on the first leg could mean you miss the second leg. The extra cost of a non-stop may save you a lot of stress and expense.
Give yourself a buffer
If possible, plan to fly out a day before you actually need to be somewhere, particularly if you’re attending a wedding or going on a cruise.
Hedge your ticket purchase
Many airlines will hold tickets for 24 hours without payment, or will let you cancel your reservation and get a refund within that time frame, so you can make sure you get the best deal.
Check the flight’s record
Major airlines are required by law to provide on-time performance information on their websites when you consider what flight to buy. Check out the historic flight record for a specific flight to help avoid long delays. Note: Sometimes a flight number will show up under multiple routes.
The results will show you each city-to-city route. On a flight I took recently, it showed 85% going one direction, and 77% going the other direction.
In addition, the Bureau of of Transportation Statistics provides lists every month of “chronically delayed” flights.
Pay with a credit card, not a debit card
If you buy your plane ticket with a credit card, you have far greater protection to dispute the charge under the federal Fair Credit Billing Act.
Avoid checking a bag
This also isn’t always possible. But having a carry-on reduces the chances of you getting separated from your bag.
Put a tracker in your bag
Today’s technology allows you to buy a small GPS tracker that you can put anywhere — in a suitcase, a carry-on in case it gets checked at the gate, or, when you’re at home, a set of keys or wallet. These generally connect to your smart phone to allow you to find your item anytime, anywhere.
Take a photo and document your property
If you are checking a bag, take a photo of your belongings in the suitcase in case you need to file a claim against the airline. You’re entitled to reimbursement up to $3,800 if your bag is lost. If you have expensive items, take photos of them and write down the model numbers, serial numbers, etc.
Also, while checked wheelchairs and scooters are considered baggage, they’re not subject to the $3,800 liability limit, DOT says. Other “assistive devices” not subject to the $3,800 limit include walkers, CPAP machines, hearing aids and prescription medications.
Consider travel insurance
It won’t keep your flight from being canceled but should help with other expenses. (But read the terms and conditions on the limits.)
Check where your plane is
You can often get a heads-up on a problem, or reassurance that everything is on schedule, by checking the day before where your plane is coming from or where it is. Go to flightaware.com and search for the flight (don’t forget the airline abbreviation.) Find your time and route and go to the link “Where is my plane now?” You’ll see what city your plane is in currently and whether it’s on time.
Remember to be nice
If you have an issue, you should always be nice to whoever you’re dealing with. They probably didn’t cause your problem, but they may be able to help you fix it.
Know you have rights
You have certain legal rights in case of cancellations, lost or damaged baggage or wheelchairs and involuntary bumping. Here’s a complete list. Airlines are also contractually obligated to honor its commitments to the DOT on various consumer protections. Go to flightrights.gov.
How to handle airline woes, from cancellations to refunds to lost bags
Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.