Back in 2012, I got stuck in Hurricane Sandy in New York City. Though safe from the danger that many faced, with my flight cancelled, it would be days before I was able to fly out of the country; days which consisted of a mountain of stressful phone calls. In 2015, my long haul flight from Australia arrived hours late at its destination, resulting in me missing my scheduled connection flight. And a rescheduled flight. And then another flight.
Whether your flight is cancelled due to natural disaster (or any reason really), you miss a connection or you are having general airline difficulties when abroad, here are some of my helpful tips to ensure you get to your final destination as quickly as possible.
Get off the phone (and get to the airport)
Now in the case of Sandy, this wasn’t possible. At least at first, the phone was the only way I would be able to (try) and organise a way out of the country, as the airport was closed. But even after days of calling my airline’s customer support, being put on hold for hours at a time, they were not able to guarantee me a flight out of NYC, quoting a date two weeks later that they’d be able to put me on a flight. And I had to get to my destination sooner…
Given this was a cancelled flight, it is their responsibility to get me on the first flight out of here – but many call centres just don’t have the ability, or permission, to do the things necessary to get you on an earlier flight than their system allows; restricted by class, ticket type and priority. If you’re calling on the phone, it’s assumed – I guess – that you couldn’t possibly in a rush to get anywhere.
So, what do you do? Get to the mother flipping airport as soon as you can.
Especially following a natural disaster, the customer service at the airport you were due to fly with actually knows what’s going on, and have the responsibility and ability to do everything they can to not just book you a new ticket, but get you on the next plane.
The secret is to a) get to the airport as early as possible and wait at their customer service desk and b) request a stand by ticket for the next available flight. Some may try to discourage you from doing this, saying it’s unlikely you’ll get in the flight – but this is again their way of ensuring the most urgent of travellers get those spare seats. There are always people who don’t show up… especially following a natural disaster. Even on Christmas Eve in the USA, I once made it onto a wait-listed flight – having missed my prior flight due to some confusion in the terminal (following the most ridiculous lines at LAX I’ve ever witnessed…)
In my case, there was only the one flight a day that I could catch, so, if I didn’t get on the flight, I would have to come back and do the same thing again the next day. But, I was front of the queue (thanks to waiting some 8 hours before the service desk opened – which may have been overkill but I wasn’t taking any chances), which meant I was the first with a stand by ticket. In the end, the local manager of the airline walked me onto the flight himself, acknowledging the time I’d patiently waited, and the difficulties getting anything done over the phone.
Everyone at the airport could not have been more helpful and in spite of everyone over the phone telling me it would never happen – the planes were fully booked and I should wait two weeks – the people at the airport were able to assess the situation more realistically and slide me into the flight with ease. Not everyone is as lucky – and you may have to do this for a couple of days – but it’s the only way you’ll get out of there without relatively substantial delay.
If one person won’t help you, talk to another…
Some people are more senior than others. Some people are simply better at their job at others or give more of a shit. Either way, if one person doesn’t give you an answer that you want, there may be another who can.
Last year, I found myself stranded at Vancouver’s lovely international airport (there are worst places to be stuck, that’s for sure) thanks to some poor communication and on ground planning for international to domestic transfers. After lengthy delays both on ground and in the air, I was going to miss my on ground connection. I then found myself in an almost two hour queue to try and get onto a later flight, only to find out that they had already rebooked me on another flight, but I’d missed that one too (this is something I should have been advised of on landing, given the hours of notice they had of our late arrival… But that’s a separate issue). Using my past experiences, I knew my best way out of there was on standby. With hourly flights they agreed, and put my bag in holding and printed me out a stand by ticket.
I went to my first flight, and found no luck. A second flight, no luck. The woman at the counter, though agreeing to print me up standby tickets for the next flight, wasn’t giving me much indication as to how difficult (or otherwise) it was going to be to get me on a flight. I asked if I could be booked on the next available flight out just to guarantee me transit. She said their wasn’t any possibility today. Having already checked online to see that there were multiple flights with tickets still for sale, I called her bluff, but she still didn’t have a piece of it. It was time to talk to someone else.
I made tracks to the customer service centre where I explained the situation. The woman looked furious, “I can’t believe they would give you standby but wouldn’t book you a ticket on the earliest available flight as well! That’s what they’re supposed to do! I’m so sorry about this!”. She immediately booked me a ticket on the flight after next, and after missing standby for a third time, it got me out of there. But not before I enjoyed some celebratory poutine. The airline had kindly provided me with a $10 voucher to have some food while I waited. And poutine was the obvious choice.
Try to book connections on the same ticket (and through the airline directly)
Sometimes it’s cheaper to book with two different airlines than it is to fly on the one ticket. But it does carry a risk. For my partner, who was travelling to a different destination than myself following New York back in 2012, she had booked on a regional flight, before a separate flight to New Zealand out of Los Angeles. Though the domestic airline – with a tonne of daily flights between NYC and LA – were incredibly helpful in rebooking her domestic flight over the phone (though we did have to talk to a lot of different people to get there, and none of the airlines would make the rebooking until the disaster had actually hit – of course we’d tried to get out early, but insurance wouldn’t have covered it and the airlines weren’t having any), the New Zealand bound airline wouldn’t rebook her, saying she would have to buy a new ticket as the ticket didn’t originate in New York.
Had she been at the airport, or perhaps voiced her concerns on social media (more on that in a moment), maybe they would have been more flexible. But, they wouldn’t budge on their policy and she had to spend thousands on a new ticket. Travel insurance of course covered it a month later – 1cover were phenomenal to deal with – but not everyone has a couple of thousand, spare for a rainy day (or in this case, a hurricane!). Had she booked the NZ flight from NYC, she would have never had the issue – but that’s the risk you take when you are looking to save some coin.
On a similar note, as great as online services like Expedia are, booking through a third party can also come with its fair share of difficulties, depending on the situation. These tickets often come with more restrictions, and airlines may require you to talk to Expedia (or equivalent) to sort out the ticket changes, rather than through them directly. This is rarely an issue by the time your flight has been cancelled, as then it’s entirely in the airlines court, but it is something to keep in mind when booking. Having your travel agent do the work can also be handy – as they will do what they can to assist you – but often once a flight is cancelled it really is left up to the airline and your persistence one way or another…
Try voicing issues on social media
It may sound like a dickish move, but sometimes it’s the only way to get an airline’s attention. Those with particularly poor customer service over the phone, often have a brilliant social media team manning their Facebook and Twitter accounts to help passengers with any issues they may have. In other words, they’re doing constant damage control. But this is fantastic for the consumer. If you can’t get to the airport and have no help over the phone: tweet them, Facebook them. Make your issue public and you may find they’ll be quick to look after you. But just keep one thing in mind, and this is my last point:
Be patient and polite
In the airline world, people are stressed. People are tired. Airline staff have to deal with a lot of arseholes. They have to deal with some pretty terrible airports. We all have to go through outrageous screening procedures. All in all, it can be a pretty miserable environment. But if you’re patient and polite – especially when conversing in person or on social media (often it really doesn’t matter how you act on the phone – most are running from a script and couldn’t care less) – you’ll find yourself treated well. And you may even find yourself make a lovely Canadian worker furious at the fact you haven’t been treated better. And then you eat some poutine and everything is once again right with the world.
Keep all this in mind, and the next time you travel you’ll be sure to get from A to B with as minimal delay as the Gods of transport will permit.
Have any other questions about travel? Feel free to hit me up on Twitter.