As any frequent flyer knows, an unexpected delay or detour can spoil travel plans. From being stalled in a foreign city because of a snowstorm to getting stranded at the airport due to a mechanical issue, there are some disruptions that are beyond our control. But for those of us planning to fly during the holidays -- when our tolerance for tightly packed terminals and trip interruptions is tested -- a flurry of questions arise as we brace ourselves for tough scenarios. If you miss your flight, what's the best way to reroute quickly? When bad weather strikes, what can you expect from your carrier? And under what circumstances is your airline required to compensate you or provide you with a meal voucher or a hotel room?
Whether you're preparing for a short trip or a long holiday break, knowing the rules and strategizing accordingly can help you avoid major hassles and headaches, not to mention hefty change fees. With some guidance from Airfarewatchdog creator George Hobica and consumer travel advocate Christopher Elliott, we've come up with eight practical tips for handling tricky situations and winging it when things don't go your way.
One way to prevent an unpleasant airport experience and mitigate your chances of incurring a steep rebooking fee is to get to the airport at least an hour before domestic flights and two hours before international plane rides. "Careful travelers add a half hour beyond that around the holidays," according to Elliott. Apart from sparing yourself the hassle of worrying about thick crowds and lengthy security lines, you'll also give yourself the leeway to catch an earlier flight if the threat of bad weather may impact your original flight route. Though each airline has the right to charge you a fee for changing your ticket (even if you exchange your ticket for a seat on a flight scheduled for the same day), most carriers will waive the fee if you paid for a refundable ticket. Even if you purchased a non-refundable ticket, it's still worthwhile to check if your carrier will waive the fee and let you fly standby. If you have access to an airport lounge, Hobica insists there's an even greater incentive to check in early. Executive lounges provide better access to airport employees rather than a jam-packed customer service counter, allowing you to change your reservation quickly if you're in a bind. Another bonus: Most lounges provide free Wi-Fi access, so you can stay connected with up-to-the-minute flight and weather information while you wait for assistance.
Don't Forget the Flat Tire Rule
What if a car wreck or a snowstorm prevents you from getting to the airport on time? Thanks to what is known as the "flat tire" rule or the "two hour" rule, you may be able to fly standby and avoid penalty fees if you arrive within two hours of your original departure time. Though this rule varies between airlines (US Airways and Southwest tend to adhere to this policy while other carriers, like Spirit, do not) Elliott recommends calling the airline as soon as you know you're running late. By notifying the airline, Elliott says that you'll allow the carrier to release your seat and better your chances of dodging a walk-up fare when you do reach the airport. Also be sure to mention if your a member of the airline's loyalty program, as standby preference is often granted to frequent flyers. But if you miss your flight because you overslept, don't expect this rule to apply. "Your best step is to throw yourself at the mercy of the airlines," Elliott advised, cautioning "it would be up to the discretion of the gate agent." And in the event an agent does charge you? You can fight back by calling the toll-free customer service number, Elliott said.
Remember Rule 240
Another option if your flight is disrupted: Inquire about Rule 240. The Department of Transportation (DOT) used to follow a policy to ensure that in a case of a canceled flight due to a traffic, mechanical or other service-related delay, travelers could reach their final destinations by taking the next available flight at no extra cost. "If your flight is delayed or it's canceled, you are entitled to ask for a refund, even on a non-refundable fare," Hobica explained. However, it's important to keep in mind that this is not a federally mandated rule and airlines are in no way obligated to honor it. In fact, Hobica notes, only a handful of airlines, such as US Airways and Alaska Airlines, abide by this policy -- or at least a variation of it -- in their contracts of carriage (the legal agreement set forth by an airline that outlines passenger rights and airline obligations). Don't expect refunds for cancellations or delays caused by weather (though some airlines may provide meal or hotel vouchers). In any other circumstance, a refund may or may not be awarded at the discretion of the airline. But Hobica says that it never hurts to ask, "Can you 240 me?"
Advocate for Your Passenger Rights
It may not seem like it, but as a passenger, you do have rights. Yes, in certain situations -- like losing your original seat assignment or getting stuck in a foreign city for the night -- you may be out of luck. But in other scenarios, there are exceptions and enforced Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules in place that allow you to invoke passenger rights. For example, if you're involuntarily kicked off your flight, often called "getting bumped," because of an oversold flight, under Department of Transportation guidelines, you are entitled to receive compensation. But there is a catch: You will only be reimbursed if your carrier cannot get you to your final destination within an hour of your original scheduled arrival time.
And what if a mechanical problem or a weather delay prevents you from reaching your final destination? You might be surprised to discover that there is no FAA-mandated rule that requires airlines to tender meal vouchers, lodging options or even cover the cost of airfare in spite of the situation. Whether a carrier provides compensation in these circumstances will depend on their individual carrier policy. But while airlines are not obligated to accommodate you because of a weather-related disruption, Elliot reassures that in certain situations like severe storms, "oftentimes the airline will waive booking fees as a matter of customer service." To learn how to shield yourself from incurring extra fees or service-related headaches, read the policies provided in your airline's contract of carriage before purchasing your tickets.
Rely on Online Travel Agents
Though in some cases you may receive support from an airline representative fairly quickly, according to Elliott, it's advisable to book your flight through a third-party site like Travelocity or Expedia to receive quality customer service should a disruption or cancellation wreak havoc on your travel plans. "Most people don't realize they're already working with a travel agent," Elliott explained, "They have call centers." Reserving your flight through a trusted third-party booking website will provide you access to a customer service team that can advocate for the best price in case you need to change your flight or find a hotel for the night.
Be Proactive on Social Media
If you're in a bind, consider taking action on social networks rather than attempting to contact customer service over the phone. According to Hobica, connecting with your airline's Twitter team can significantly improve your chances of receiving an immediate response. American Airlines (@AmericanAir) and US Airways (@USAirways) offer help through their main Twitter accounts. Meanwhile, some airlines have introduced Twitter accounts designed specifically for customer service assistance -- Delta encourages travelers to reach out to its @DeltaAssist handle for help."American Airlines does an amazing job," said Hobica, though he admitted, "Some airlines are better than others." And should you face a delay or cancellation and need real-time information, Twitter can serve as a key tool for monitoring your flight status. Following trusted air travel resources on Twitter, such as FlightStats.com (@flightstats) can enable you to receive instantaneous alerts and act quickly. "Use every channel," Elliott advised. "Try to get an answer if your flight is delayed or make a rebooking request."
Pick Your Travel Insurance Wisely
According to Elliott, purchasing insurance is especially smart any time you're spending more than $5,000. But you should not simply take the first option offered to you, Elliott insists. It may seem like a no-brainer, but the best way to maximize your insurance benefits is to compare coverage among different providers. Elliott advises using reliable site like travelinsuranancereview.net to find the insurance plan that suits your needs rather than opting for the coverage offered directly from your carrier or third-party booking agency. Oftentimes, insurance purchases are "made under duress," explained Elliott. Other providers like Travel Guard can offer more extensive benefits in the event of an unforeseen natural disaster. However, bear in mind Hobica's general rule of thumb: If you can't afford travel insurance, don't buy it. But if you're planning a trip where you could incur high medical expenses, or in a worst-case scenario an evacuation, it's in your best interest to invest in travel insurance. To determine whether investing on insurance is advisable, Hobica suggests examining what you can afford to lose.
Consider all Options and Plan Your Escape Route
When stalled at the airport, it's easy to think there's only one way to get back on track: to fly. But there may be other practical solutions available. "Your only option is not to go and buy another ticket on another airline. There are some great ground transportation options," Elliott shared. Consider flying to another city and then driving the rest of the way to reach your destination. Even if you're unwilling to take a car, bus or train to your final destination, Hobica insists "It's always a good idea to have a Plan B." Before you head to the airport, you should take note of alternative flights. According to Hobica, it's best to consider the other carriers flying your desired route and keep a tally of their flight numbers to "have a little list of other escape routes." That way, if a cancellation or delay spoils your travel plans, you've already got a bevy of options and flight times handy.
For more savvy travel advice, check out Christopher Elliott's latest book, How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler, scheduled for release in 2014. And for excellent airfare deals and tips, go to Airfarewatchdog.com.
-- Liz Weiss