Theory Into Practice: Cancelled Flights

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Funnily enough, while Jeanne was writing about her flight cancellation due to collision with a truck, I was being reminded first-hand how important it is to have a course of action in the event your flight is delayed or cancelled.

A few days ago, I left for my long weekend trip to Alaska. I left at 3:30PM, arrived at the airport by 4, checked the monitor and saw my 5:41 flight was delayed by 2 hours. I should have checked before I left the office.

Well, with only a 44 minute layover in Seattle on the last United flight out, I knew my itinerary was no longer going to work. I immediately called the 1K customer service line, and ran for the ticketing counter. The line was long, but I got an agent on the phone immediately. By the time I was at the front of the check in line, she was in the process of ticketing an Alaska Airlines flight out of Seattle for early the next morning. Not great, but I’d be arriving only 8 hours later than planned.

I grabbed my laptop and started investigating my hotel options for an overnight in Seattle. With no Starwood properties in the immediate SEA Tac area, Priceline and Hotwire were my best bet. At the same time I called the Starwood line and cancelled my Anchorage reservation for that night, before the 6PM cut off.

After poking around on to see what my options were, I decided to head through security and book something once I was in the lounge. I also kept checking the flight status on my phone in case it got moved up. While outside security the flight delay increased to 4 hours. Booo. Now I had to decide if it was worth getting a hotel room for only 3 ½ hours sleep. Then on the train to my terminal, the flight status changed to cancelled.


I made a mistake and didn’t immediately call customer service, instead I hightailed it for the United Club lounge. I should have done both. The line was already 10 people deep.

Instead of getting in line, I found a seat and called customer service. Bad strategy again. For an hour the agent  tried to find an available flight out of Dulles or Reagan that could get me to Anchorage within 24 hours. No luck.

So then I stood in line while I was on the phone. Bad strategy again. Only 8 people deep this time, but the line didn’t move for 45 minutes. In the meantime the agent on the phone was trying everything possible, but couldn’t find a flight out of DC that night. Finally, once I was almost to the front of the line, she found a flight on Delta, leaving at 6:15 the next morning, connecting in Minneapolis, that would get me to Seattle in time to catch the afternoon United flight to Anchorage.

All in coach (my previous itinerary had been upgraded to First class) with a 4 ½ hour drive ahead of me as soon as I landed. Bleh.

I took it, because I had no other options, and then promptly sat back down in the lounge and started rebooking my rental car, cancelling more hotels, and being extremely grateful that I had not purchased a non-refundable hotel room for Seattle yet.

I could hear from people ahead of me that United’s room blocks at local hotels had already been exhausted, so rather than fighting them for a nearby room, I just went back to the parking lot, 5 hours after arriving, and drove home to catch (at this point) only a couple hours of sleep before coming back.

If I had it to do over again, in the beginning I would have just asked United to rebook me on the first flights out of DC the next morning rather than trying to do an overnight in Seattle.

So a recap of Jeanne’s advice:

  • Time is of the essence – the minute you know your itinerary is at risk, immediately and simultaneously call customer service and seek out the nearest in-person customer service representative.  This will ensure that you’re getting help as soon as possible no longer how long the on-hold wait time or long lines at the gate. DO NOT WAIT for them to contact you.
  • If you have access to a club lounge, go there ASAP, the lines will usually be shorter and I’ve found they often come up with better solutions.
  • If your flight is delayed and you have internet access, check your flight status online frequently. The website is often updated more quickly than the monitors at the airport. This is important in case your flight is cancelled.
  • If you have internet access, start looking up other flights that could work with your schedule, including other airlines. You typically don’t get to make suggestions to the agent, but sometimes you can and it’s better to know that you’d rather wait to be rebooked on a later non-stop than an earlier flight with a connection. (If you don’t have internet access, call a friend and ask them to look up flight schedules for you.)
  • Double check the cancellation policies for all hotel and car reservations you have. If you can still cancel without a penalty, start evaluating if you’d rather avoid a fee and rebook later if things work out. Also figure out what is the last possible minute you can cancel without penalty.

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