A Guide to Making the Best of Flight Cancellations

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Sara Nakash, Brooklyn bred, world tread. She has braved prison ghost cats in New Zealand, was involved in a bush taxi car chase in Togo, and accidentally biked from Luxembourg to Germany. Her love of travel was matched by her frustration in finding a service to cater to her particular travel goals. From this frustration Off the Map Travel was born. Here anyone can escape those cookie cutter travel packages and truly embrace the nature of your destination.

Recently, I went on a road trip with some of my friends. My friends from Connecticut planned to drive down to New York to pick me up. Then, we would spend a night in the DC metro area before picking up another friend who would join us for the rest of the trip along the east coast, down to Orlando to experience the magic that is Disney World.

As I thought about it, I decided that I didn’t really want to spend two days on the road between New York and Myrtle Beach, SC. I wanted to spend the few paid vacation days I had doing something other than riding along that route that I’ve seen so many times before. I booked a flight to Myrtle Beach, where I would meet my other friends and we would embark on our 10 day road trip.

As I eagerly awaited the bus to take me to the airport, the rain started pouring. I didn’t think twice, though. A little rain wouldn’t cause a flight to be cancelled, right? Wrong! I spent 3 hours at the airport before I realized my flight had been cancelled for at least an hour. It took some patience and a few extra dollars, but I was still able to make it to Myrtle Beach with extra time before the next leg of the trip.

Here are some tips for handling flight cancellations and some lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Upon selecting a flight:
Choose an early, non-stop flight. Early flights are better than late night flights. If an earlier flight gets cancelled, chances are you may be able to get on a later flight the same day. The later the flights are, the more likely you’ll need to wait a day or so before you can get on a flight. Non-stop flights are better because the more connections you have, the more likely it is that your schedule will get thrown off somewhere and you may end up stuck. It may be more expensive, but it just might be worth the money.

Upon booking the flight:
When purchasing airline tickets, always purchase trip interruption/cancellation insurance along with them. I had already learned this lesson the hard way back in Australia, so I had made sure I purchased it on this fight as well. Luckily, I didn’t need to use it. Many do, but not all airlines provide refunds for cancelled flights due to inclement weather. Some airlines refer to inclement weather as “an act of God” and refuse to cover it. In such cases, trip interruption or cancellation insurance will be helpful.

The day of your flight (an hour or two before leaving for the airport):
Check the weather at your place of origin, your destination, any connecting cities, and even the city from which your aircraft is flying prior to its landing at your airport. The weather at all of these locations can be the deciding factor on whether your flight will be cancelled or not. I never check the weather, and usually find out when I head outside. I’m usually the last to know when there’s a hurricane warning or a tornado passing through. Had I known of the severe weather warning in my case, I may have created a contingency plan even before my flight was canceled. Check your weather conditions and create your contingency plans. Then, when you speak to the airline, you know what your options are.

Upon arrival at the airport:

If possible, use carry-on luggage instead of checking your baggage. In the event of a cancellation, you want to figure out how you’re going to get to your destination and not spend precious time and energy hunting down your luggage. In the case of connecting flights, sometimes your luggage will be forwarded on to your final destination. So, if you are on a connecting flight and you need to check your luggage, it’s probably a good idea to bring a change of clothes with your carry-on.

Upon announcement of delay:

Sit as close to your gate as possible. While waiting for my flight to Myrtle Beach, because my gate was crowded and I needed a plug to charge my phone, I sat at a gate that wasn’t close to my own gate. I kept checking the monitor for status on my flight, and all it said was it was delayed. As the terminal started to empty, I headed back to my gate and learned that my flight was canceled. Apparently the monitors with arrival and departure information hadn’t been updating, but the boards by the each gate had been.

Upon announcement of cancellation:

Head over to the ticketing counter or the location handling re-ticketing. There will probably be a long line of people in the same situation as you. Don’t just wait in line though, pick up the phone and call the airline, as well. Remember that “Plan B” you figured out before you got to the airport? Now, it’s time to use it! More than likely, if the weather has affected a large region, you’ll probably on hold for a while. Or maybe you’ll get to speak to an attendant at the airport first. Some people are even finding some satisfaction using social media, like Facebook or Twitter while they wait in line. Try as many methods as possible to get your flight changed to the next available flight.

When I had reached the front of the line, the attendant has told me that the next available flight would be in two days and that all earlier flights had been booked. If I had realized earlier that my flight was cancelled, then I would have been far more likely to get on an early morning flight the next day. For me, waiting two days was not an option. (My friends would not have been happy!) I asked the attendant for other options – were there any other flights that would arrive anywhere else between Myrtle Beach and Orlando? (No.) Were there any flights arriving to Myrtle Beach or down around Orlando from JFK or Newark airports? (No.) Thinking it was too far out, but suggesting it anyway, the attendant suggested that Atlantic City Airport had an early morning flight. This would be a one-hour taxi ride plus a three-hour bus ride and an overnight stay at a hotel. It was more costly, but worth it. Without hesitation, I took the flight from Atlantic City. The canceled ticket transferred over, even though it was for a different airport.


Traveling is all about preparation, looking at all of your options, and thinking outside the box. Choose flights that give you the most flexibility, organize alternative options before you face a cancellation, and keep your eyes and ears open for sudden changes. But when it comes down to it, flexibility is the key!

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5 thoughts on “A Guide to Making the Best of Flight Cancellations

  1. I like the advice about getting an early flight, makes sense that this is more adaptable to changing your itinerary if a flight gets cancelled. Trouble is, it’s hard to find a reasonably-priced nonstop flight anymore for some of the trips that I usually go on. For example, it’s relatively rare and usually more expensive to fly from Newark to Denver non-stop, you save a lot going through Minneapolis, Dallas or even Nashville for some reason. The extra $100 it would cost for a direct flight makes it not worth it to me.

    Another piece of advice I would give is to make sure to call people at your destination know about any changes to your flight. Once I had a connecting flight from Chicago to Denver which was almost cancelled, but I got on one of the last seats anyway. I got to Denver and my parents were not there to pick me up because they had checked online earlier and saw a message that my flight was going to be cancelled. Had I gotten in touch with them it would have saved me two hours of sitting on a bench at DIA waiting in the middle of the night, although we did end up having a fun midnight snack at the Waffle House in Longmont, CO afterward. 🙂

  2. My worst horror story about flight cancellation was when I was traveling from Raleigh-Durham to Miami to Buenos Aires, Argentina. There was a tropical system (which ended up dissipating) swirling out in the ocean. RDU delayed us and delayed us and delayed us until we missed our connection from Miami to Buenos Aires. That meant that our medical team of about 30 people were stuck over night in Miami. Of course, we had not rented rooms. And our airline said, “This is an act of God. We won’t pay for any of your rooms, meals, or transportation.” So, our group of 30 managed to get the last 4 rooms available in Miami. I don’t even remember how we got to the hotel from the airport. And then, we crammed into the four rooms– some of us sleeping on floors or couches– for the short, uncomfortable night. Oh, the memories! Good times…