There Will Be Flight Delays and Cancellations This Holiday Season—How to Salvage Your Travel Plans

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Secretary Pete Buttigieg said about the upcoming holiday travel season. Save your sanity with this expert advice on booking flights, bypassing airport lines, and getting refunds.

There Will Be Flight Delays and Cancellations This Holiday Season—How to Salvage Your Travel Plans

Knowledge (about how to cope with the crowds) is power.

Photo by Shutterstock

As travelers gear up for the busy holiday travel season, there might be some nervousness in the air—that’s because air travel has been far less than ideal this year as airlines work to keep up with the rapid return in travel demand following a massive pandemic slump. Between January and July 2022, 3 percent of all U.S. domestic flights were canceled—the highest rate of canceled flights in the past decade aside from 2020—and one-fifth of all domestic flights were delayed, according to Bureau of Transportation Statistics. With the number of air travelers reaching and potentially surpassing prepandemic volumes for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve travel, should we be prepared for the worst?

“On the operational side, we’re not out of the woods yet,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said last week during an interview with Washington Post Live. Buttigieg acknowledged that the airlines and airports are still not where they need to be in terms of staffing to meet holiday travel demand. “So, we’re cautiously watching this holiday period. I think it will be an improvement from the toughest moments we saw over the summer but not perfect as we go into next year and start to see some of these pandemic shockwaves fully work their way through the system,” Buttigieg said.

Although carriers have worked to scale back on their schedules to reflect more realistic capabilities, the ongoing shortages of pilots, flight attendants, air traffic control crew, and baggage handlers, coupled with the inevitable winter weather issues and operational hurdles, mean that travelers could face delays and cancellations at airports in the United States and abroad this holiday season.

For those with plans to head into the skies for the holidays, don’t dismay. Here are some simple actions that travelers can take to minimize the stress and aggravation of air travel right now and to help ensure success. Arm yourselves with these pro tips from airline industry insiders.

What to know before you go

New York City winter snow

Winter storms can create a cascade of delays and cancellations.

Photo by Taiga/Shutterstock

Get TSA PreCheck, Clear, and/or Global Entry

Never have these security expediting services been more valuable than during the current congestion happening at U.S. airports. TSA PreCheck costs $85 for a five-year membership, and $70 to renew, and Clear costs $189 per year. International travelers should opt for the $100 Global Entry, which includes TSA PreCheck, for expedited customs screening upon arrival in the United States—and there’s a secret way to speed up the application process.

Check to see if your airport has a fast-pass security lane you can book in advance—for free

No TSA PreCheck or Clear? Select U.S. airports are giving travelers the option to make an advance “fast pass” reservation to head to the front of the security line—free of charge. We’ve compiled the full list of airports that offer this service.

Book directly with the airline and be sure to download the airline’s app

Carriers have greatly overhauled their technology to put a lot of capabilities directly into the hands of passengers, including the ability to track flights and luggage, and—perhaps most important in the current environment—cancel and/or change your flight. This will come in handy if you need to rebook and to see the full display of flights available through your carrier. And remember to check your flight status constantly; don’t wait for an alert.

Book with a credit card that has trip insurance coverage and/or buy travel insurance

Before buying travel insurance, “Take a look at your credit card first, because a lot of credit cards already offer trip-interruption or trip-cancellation coverage,” says Willis Orlando, senior product operations specialist at flight-deal tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights. In the event expenses start to mount (meals at the airport, overnight hotel stays, rebooked flights) due to flight delays or cancellations that aren’t covered by the airline, a credit card with coverage can ensure at least a partial refund, if not full. If you don’t have or use a travel credit card with adequate coverage, you can look into adding travel insurance to your trip.

Consider using a travel advisor

Amazing travel advisors are capable of executing incomparable trip and itinerary planning. But it’s in times of trouble when their services might be most appreciated. They can jump on the phone to negotiate with the airlines and advocate for your rebooking, flight credit, and/or refund. Consider using a travel advisor who can serve as a valuable ally when flight meltdowns start happening.

Book the earliest flight out you can

“The first flight of the day is more important now than ever,” says William McGee, an aviation expert and author of the book Attention All Passengers. “You should book that 6 a.m. departure,” as delays tend to pile up later in the day.

Try to book a nonstop instead of a connecting flight

Even if that means an increase in airfare, the nonstop flight is the way to go. As McGee notes, “Why double your chances of a problem if you can avoid it?”

Schedule long layovers

If you aren’t able to fly nonstop, add a buffer to those connections, especially if you’re traveling internationally and will need to pass through customs and security again. One hour won’t cut it. Shoot for at least two hours for domestic layovers and at least three for international flights.

Fly in a day (or two) early

Travel booking site Hopper advises travelers to build in days of buffer, not just hours, for any can’t-miss event or get-together, including a wedding, celebration, important business meeting, cruise ship departure, or holiday gathering. Why not enjoy some extra time in the destination rather than risk missing it entirely?

Book a backup flight

Former airline pilot and spokesperson for flight tracking app FlightAware Kathleen Bangs will often proactively book a backup flight with a second airline as long as it doesn’t have a change fee and has a generous cancellation policy—such as with Southwest Airlines, which allows for cancellations up to 10 minutes before departure time. If you don’t end up using the backup, you can bank the flight credit for future travel.

Download the FlightAware app

Orlando swears by this flight tracking app, which can tip travelers off to any upcoming changes often before the airline does. He notes that if your flight keeps getting bumped back on the departure board, you can check FlightAware to find your aircraft on its journey. If it seems to be stuck at its previous departure city, you may want to start looking into alternative options for your flight.

Stay on top of the weather

If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a meteorologist, now’s your chance. Check the weather radar and forecasts available on sites and apps such as the National Weather Service, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather. “You should have a general idea of what major systems are coming across the country,” says Bangs. She adds that even if a weather issue isn’t in the region where you’re traveling, the ripple effect and strains on the system could affect your flight.

Getting to and through the airport

running with luggage

Get to the airport early so you can avoid having to sprint to the gate—the worst.

Photo by Shutterstock

Check the airport website for possible construction-related delays

If there are construction projects underway at your departure hub, some airport road lanes could be closed and there may be parking detours. It’s best to know what plans are in the works at the airport so you can plan accordingly. (Ditto any possible delays on the highways getting to the airport.)

Arrive at the airport earlier than usual

The lines and wait times at the country’s airports (and abroad, too) are longer than they’ve been in years. Best to arrive early and have some extra time postsecurity than risk missing your flight waiting in an hours-long check-in or security line. (It will also save you the sweat from having to run to the gate after a longer-than-expected security queue—dripping with panic is no way to start a long day of travel.) Aim for at least two hours before domestic flights and at least three for international flights, advises Orlando.

Download the MyTSA app

The Transportation Security Administration–powered app provides real-time security line wait times at airports around the country.

What’s the best strategy for luggage?

rows of luggage

To check or not to check?

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Airline status can help

If you’ve never been one to commit loyalty to one airline, you may want to consider it now. While TSA PreCheck and Clear can help with security lines, they can’t help if you’re checking bags. Typically, the check-in lines are much shorter for passengers who have elite status with any given airline. Of course, once you’ve made it through security, you can pass the time in the airline lounge with a drink, snacks, and free Wi-Fi before your flight. Some credit cards can also help with luggage fees and lounge access.

Consider traveling with carry-on only

This one is a bit of a double-edged sword because if everyone tries to bring carry-on, that can create added congestion during boarding and in the overhead bins. It may also force passengers to gate check and say goodbye to their beloved wheely bag. (This is why Bangs always packs some essentials in her smaller personal item that stays with her.) Orlando notes he doesn’t actually mind having to gate check his bag because he at least knows it’s going straight onto the plane. For those who don’t want to risk their luggage getting lost in the baggage operations vortex, this may be your best bet. (One of our favorites is the Bigger Carry-On by Away, $295, away.com.) For shopping inspiration, check our roundup of our favorite carry-on luggage.

Make sure to have one or two days of clothes and essentials on you

For those who are devoted members of Team Checked Luggage (there are more of us than you might think), pack at least a day or two of clothes, toiletries, and any essentials in your carry-on in case you do get separated from your checked bag.

Ship your luggage

For a longer or more important journey, this may be the time to look into baggage shipping services.

What to do when things go wrong and your flight is canceled or delayed

beach ocean waves

When the going gets rough, keep calm and channel your favorite beach destination.

Photo by Shutterstock

Know your rights

On September 1, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) launched a new Aviation Consumer Protection website to help travelers track down what kind of refunds or compensation their airline should provide when there is a cancellation or delay.

Airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems deemed beyond the company’s control, like bad weather. They also aren’t required to provide a refund when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change. But a refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or alters a flight, or passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems.

Additionally, after the federal government began cracking down on airlines this year, all of the major U.S. airlines vowed to provide meal vouchers for delays of more than three hours and to provide transfers and hotel stays to passengers affected by an overnight cancellation. They have all also agreed to rebook travelers on an alternate flight at no added cost due to a delay or cancellation and most will also rebook on a partner airline.

Use your fliers’ rights knowledge as leverage

According to Orlando, “Knowing those rights kind of gives you priority in getting yourself rebooked.” He notes that when you approach the airline agent via phone or text message, “and you say, ‘I understand under law that I can ask for a refund and go home, but I prefer not to do that. I found this itinerary that I would like to be rebooked on’—they are highly incentivized to help you out. You’re bringing something to the table that the other customers are not. They very often will go the extra mile for you.”

Research alternate flights with the same airline, partner airlines, even competitors

As soon as you see an avalanche of delays or cancellations heading your way, start researching alternatives with the airline you are booked on, but also on partner airlines (especially for international flights), and even with competing carriers. Don’t be shy to “go to a different carrier and say, ‘How can you get me to [my destination]?’” advises Bangs. In some situations, even competing airlines with a mutual agreement to do so can allow you to transfer over a ticket. Use Google Flights to see all the options available to you.

Always ask for miles

This is another good reason to make sure you’re signed up for airline loyalty programs. If an airline rebooks you onto a different flight after a flight was canceled, it can (and should) at least offer you miles “for the inconvenience” if it doesn’t offer you other compensation, such as payment for meals or an overnight hotel stay, notes Bangs. “I would just say to the airline, ‘What can we do to make this fair?’”

Try to remain calm and friendly (and call back if the agent is not)

You can only imagine the amount of frustration fliers have right now. Good ol’ fashioned friendliness can help make headway with a weary gate, airline, or customer service agent who isn’t having an easy day (week? year?). If you’re on the phone with an agent who just does not seem like they want to help, don’t hesitate to make an excuse for ending the call and try back for another person who maybe is more willing, advises Bangs. Yes, we know that could mean another prolonged period of sitting through lounge music while on hold.

Lean on your travel advisor, friends, and family members

“If you used a travel agent, that is someone who can advocate for you. You paid for this person’s services, and when things hit the fan, this is the time to take advantage of those services,” says Orlando. If you don’t have a travel advisor, provide your flight numbers and travel details to a trusted friend or family member who can help keep flight status watch for you and provide helpful info via text or even do some behind-the-scenes research and rebooking while you are up in the air. Adds Orlando, “It’s not a bad time to call on favors.”

File a complaint with the DOT

If the airline wasn’t cooperative in providing a required refund or requested assistance, file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, which can be done online. It can help ensure you (finally) do get a response from the airline.

Most importantly, don’t forget to (hopefully) enjoy wherever it is you are going and to be kind to all the people who are helping to get you there under incredibly trying circumstances. (We’re looking at all of you, tired airport staff, pilots, flight attendants, air traffic control crew, and everyone else working to make our travel dreams come true.) Travel is and will always be such a privilege.
Barbara Peterson contributed reporting.

Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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