We’ve been incredibly lucky. In our 12+ years of traveling with kids, we’ve only had one flight cancelled. We were flying from Los Angeles to Detroit in the summer of 2016 when Southwest Airlines experienced a catastrophic computer systems failure that grounded flights across the country for days. While we could tell something was brewing as we navigated our way through LAX with two six year olds, the airline assured us we’d be able to catch our connecting flight in Denver that was still schedule to fly and we’d be just fine. But this is a post about what to do when your flight gets cancelled so spoiler alert– we were not just fine!
While we were in the air on our flight from Los Angeles to Denver, our flight from Denver to Detroit- along with all the flights from Denver to Detroit (and Chicago and Cleveland) was cancelled. Because checking bags on Southwest is free and every traveling mom loves free stuff and free hands, we had checked everything but the bare necessities (thank goodness we had those) and we found ourselves stranded in Denver with basically nothing. While it was an incredibly stressful experience for mom and dad- to this day our kids list the night they had a “sleepover” in the Denver airport as a major highlight of their travel career! While I can’t guarantee this article will help turn a travel nightmare into your highlight reel- I can offer you some tips and tricks on what to do when your flight gets cancelled that will hopefully make such an experience a little easier to handle!
Keeping Track of Your Flight
It’s important to keep tabs on the status of your flight before you leave for the airport. You can always use your airline’s website to check your flight status. Most airlines also have an app that makes it easier to check your flight status.
Flight Aware is another website that allows you to check your flight status. You can check on specific flights across all airlines, plus this website keeps track of overall flight trends including cancellations based on weather patterns. If you know you’re flying into, out of, or over a specific weather system- this site can help you get an idea of how airlines are handling the situation.
Another super simple way to check your flight status is to simply type your airline and flight number into a Google search. This is great for when friends or family want to keep tabs on your flight if they’re expecting you at a certain time or picking you up.
However you keep tabs on your flight, make sure you are checking your flight status frequently, especially leading up to departing for the airport. While some cancellations are last minute, many give enough advanced notice to avoid getting yourself stuck in the airport! And in an ideal situation- you’d find out that your flight is cancelled BEFORE you get stuck in the airport. That way you can either stay home or book a hotel room wherever you are located so that you can have a comfortable place to figure out how to re-book a flight.
But if you happen to already be at the airport when your flight gets cancelled, keep reading!
What To Do When Your Flight Gets Cancelled
If your flight gets cancelled, you’ve got some decisions to make. Does your airline have another flight that works for you, or do you have to bail and re-book a new ticket on another airline that has a better flight option? Do you need to fly into a different city that is near your destination? Will you be able to get out of the airport that same day, or if you can’t get out until the next day (or later), will you need a hotel room?
You’ll want to be thinking fast, because everyone on your flight is also trying to re-book other flights to the same destination and things will book up quickly as others discover these options for themselves. Think through these tips and be ready to move as quickly as you can with a plan. You’ll also want to be ready to make a quick decision. If you hem and haw for too long over a flight option, it may be sold out from under you by the time you decide.
Here are a few things to consider when you need to re-book a cancelled flight:
Be First in Line
Stay on top of delays and cancellations with your airline’s text alerts or by checking your flight status online. The second you are alerted to a cancellation, you want to be first in line at the agent’s desk. Agents will handle issues on a first-come, first-serve basis so you want to be at the front of that line. There will be limited seats on other flights and they’ll sell out fast- so get there quickly.
Use a Self-Service Kiosk
If the flight that is offered to you via the airlines auto re-booking service works for you, or if you can quickly determine an alternative flight on the same airline and it appears that flight has open seats, it may be faster to go straight to a self-service kiosk. Again, speed matters here. Everyone is going to be scrambling to re-book and seats will go fast. You’ll have to make a game-time decision when it comes to waiting at a ticket counter or heading to a self-service kiosk. If you’re not sure, get in line at a ticket counter and use the wait time to see if you can find an easy solution for re-booking. If you find one, you can always leave the line and head straight for a self-service kiosk.
Use Your Club Access
If you have access to an airline club, a third option is to head to the lounge. Most airport clubs have lounges that are staffed with an airline employee who will be able to help with ticketing. And since many travelers don’t have club access- the lines should be way shorter in the lounge. If you can get to your lounge quickly, this may be your best bet for accessing help in-person!
Call an International Call Center
While you’re in line, attempt to reach your airline by phone as well- in case you can get someone on a phone line before you get to the front of the line at the counter. Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights recommends calling an international call center as opposed to the domestic call center. In the US, everyone is going to call the US call center number for airline assistance. “Most US-based travelers aren’t thinking to call the Canadian help line for Delta. You might get through to an agent much quicker,” Keyes says. If you have multiple adults in your party, have each one try a different customer service number in hopes that someone will get through to an agent before the others.
Check Your Travel Insurance and Credit Cards
Nothing will challenge your multi-tasking skills like a cancelled flight! While you’re waiting in line (and waiting on the phone) you’re also going to want to check your travel insurance and your credit cards to see what perks they offer. If you’re a classic type A personality and you’re always super on top of all the important things, you’ll have this information stored away somewhere handy. If you’re like the rest of us- you’ll have to look it up while you’re standing in line. In addition to protections covered by travel insurance, many travel focused credit cards offer some sort of trip protections if you booked with that card. Some credit cards offer reimbursement for a hotel room or for food or ground transportation if you’re stranded due to a cancellation, A good travel insurance policy is your best bet here, but if you don’t have that- your credit card may offer more help than you’ll get through the airline. So be sure to explore all these options and see what’s available to you and what will be the easiest to access.
Research Other Options
If you’re still waiting to talk to an agent, research your other options. If you can present a few solutions to the agent when you reach one, you might have a better chance of them helping you enact one of those plans. Look for other flights on your airline. Look for flights on other airlines. Look for flights to other destinations that are close to your originally planned destination. When we were stranded in Denver and trying to get to Detroit, we looked at every airline flying to every airport within a 4 hour radius of Detroit. We organized a list of our preferred options and had that ready to present to the agent when we finally got to the front of the line- and it turned out to be incredibly helpful.
So you’ve juggled all your multi-tasking skills while you’ve waited in line and now you finally reach an agent! Hallelujah! Hold up. Take a deep breath. Then take another one. I can’t stress enough how critically important it is to BE KIND when speaking with an agent. Surely you are frustrated. Probably quite panicked. Possibly even outraged. But anger and outrage won’t get you anywhere. In fact, it is likely to limit your options and cause you more headaches. Most things that an airline can do to help you in this situation, like vouchers, aren’t required- so mouthing off to an agent means they’re less likely to offer you this kind of assistance. Remember that agents are just doing their jobs- and these days, it’s a tough job to do. Be kind with your words and you’re likely to get more help.
Ask for Vouchers
Airlines are not required to offer vouchers for hotel rooms, ground transportation to a hotel, or food if your flight is cancelled. But many airlines have these available and will give them out in certain situations. But they’re not going to just offer them up. You have to ask. This is exactly why it’s important to be kind from the moment you engage with an agent. If you can’t get out on another flight until the next day, let the agent know you understand this and then ask if they can give you a voucher for a hotel room. It’s not a perfect solution- you’re still going to get home a day late- but at least you’ll have a comfortable place to sleep for the night and it won’t come out of your pocket.
Ask for a Ticket on a Different Airline
Again, airlines are under no obligation to put you on a flight with another carrier- but if you’re stuck in a tricky situation, it’s worth asking. This is also another reminder to be kind when working with the ticketing agent! This is a huge ask- and chances are you’re not going to get one airline to pay for a ticket on another airline. But most major airline carriers do have “interline agreements” with other carriers so there may be options.
Negotiating with kindness is your best bet here. Stay calm, explain your situation if there are any extenuating circumstances, and explain how and why this is the best option for you. Airlines want happy customers, and they may try to make it work for you if they can.
Remember in the “Research Your Other Options” section where I mentioned that it’s helpful to step up to the counter with a few options ready? This is exactly what we did when we got stuck in Denver. By the time we got to the ticket counter, we were well aware that Southwest didn’t have any options for getting us home within 72 hours. And while I always fly with a few extra doses of medication for my health condition- I only had two days of extra medication on me. We very kindly explained this to the ticket agent and had an alternative option ready for her. Another airline had a flight out at a comparable price at 6am the next morning and we calmly presented this as the safest option for us. It took some negotiating, but under these circumstances, we were able to get them to agree to purchase us four tickets home on another airline.
Do I Stay or Do I Go Now?
Depending on when you re-book your flight, you might have to decide whether to stay in the airport or try to get a hotel room for the night. If you’ve got to wait until the next day, the best possible option is a hotel IN the airport. Many airports have a hotel or two directly connected to the airport, which is convenient for a number of reasons. However, these hotels are usually expensive and they book fast, especially when multiple flights are cancelled at the same time.
If you can’t book a room at a hotel in the airport, you have to decide if it’s worth leaving the airport to stay at an off-site hotel and then returning. The key deciding factor here will be time. Do you have time to get to get ground transportation to the hotel, get a decent rest, and then return to the airport and go through security again? By the time Southwest booked us a flight home on another airline, it was about 8:00pm. Our flight the next morning was at 6:00am, so we would have had to be back at the airport at 4:00am. By the time we got to a hotel and had to head back to the airport, it wouldn’t have been worth it. And that’s how we ended up having a sleepover in the airport!
Check out our tips and tricks for finding affordable last minute hotel rooms here!
Am I Entitled to a Refund?
Most likely- yes. If the airline cancels your flight and you choose not to re-book with them, you are likely entitled to a refund. A full cash refund, not just a voucher. And sometimes it’s easiest to just accept a refund and re-book a new ticket.
The US Department of Transportation governs refunds when airlines cancel flights. If a flight departs from or lands in the United States, it falls under the US-DOT rules. You can find the full list of rules here, but basically they state that if the airline cancels a flight- you are entitled to a full refund. This rule also applies to flights that are “significantly” delayed, but things get tricky with delays because the US-DOT doesn’t define what “significant” means. Additional rules require airlines to refund the difference to a passenger if they change the class of service as well as refunds for optional service fees that may have been cancelled.
Stay Calm Mama!
The single most important thing you can do when your flight gets cancelled is stay calm. If you can stay calm, you’ll be able to utilize all these tips and tricks for re-booking a flight and navigating a refund if necessary. You’ve got this mama!