Flight cancellations upend travel plans for millions of Americans each year, with tons of flight disruptions caused by staffing shortages and winter weather. This post covers how to avoid being impacted, what to do to improve your chances of a successful rebooking when your flight is canceled, and how to minimize headaches. (Updated December 26, 2022.)
According to flight-tracking platform FlightAware, over 17,000 flights throughout the United States have been cancelled thus far during the Christmas travel week. This is mainly due to severe winter weather across much of the United States, which brought snow, ice, high winds and bitter cold around the country, grounding flights from coast to coast.
While winter storms have hit airlines hard over the holiday travel period, that hasn’t been the only issue. Unexpected fog on the West Coast and staffing shortages, in addition to the winter weather, had a ripple effect on flights around the country. From Wednesday through Christmas Eve, approximately one-quarter of Southwest’s flights were canceled and two-thirds were delayed, making it one of the most negatively impacted airlines.
On Monday (December 26, 2022), more than 1,700 flights were canceled and 2,200 more were delayed, down from nearly 3,200 canceled flights and 7,700 delayed U.S. flights on Christmas. Every airline has been impacted–Delta, American, United, JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest all reported significantly more cancellations than normal. Meanwhile, it was just an ordinary week for Spirit and Frontier, which aimed to maintain their customary 50% delay or cancellation rate.
Joking aside, it hasn’t helped that the worst of the weather and cancellations came on some of the busiest travel days of the year; this was compounded by carriers planning lighter schedules for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. That has made it more difficult for the airlines to rebook travelers on other flights, as there wasn’t much spare bandwidth or empty seats–many flights over the weekend and through this coming week leading up to New Year’s Eve are already fully booked.
With this in mind, here’s our advice for minimizing the impact of delays and cancellations–and improving your odds of a speedy recovery…
We have flown numerous times in the last several months–and have had several flights cancelled during that time. In our years of traveling, we’ve faced (and defeated!) a number of flight disruptions, including a few hours before a flight to Japan and while connecting the day before a Disney Cruise Line voyage out of Copenhagen that had us reenacting Planes, Trains and Automobiles (minus the automobiles).
With these staffing shortages and flight disruptions unlikely to abate anytime soon (a couple of our cancellations were during the offseason at times when supply/demand shouldn’t have been an issue), we thought it would be helpful to put together some tips of what we’ve learned from our past experiences. Obviously, not all of this is going to be immediately helpful–especially if you’re currently stranded at the airport–but it’s potentially useful knowledge to have for future bookings, too.
On that note, let’s begin with the booking process. For starters, book nonstop flights whenever possible. The reason here should be self-evident; fewer flights equals fewer potential disruptions.
That won’t be an option for some of you, as there are not nonstop routes between your city of origin and the destination. However, you might have more choices if you’re willing to drive a bit farther to a larger airport. For example, when traveling to and from Southern California, we often choose LAX over SNA even though the former is farther away. It’s also more of a “pain” on the ground, but usually fewer problems where it matters–in the air.
If you have no choice but to book a flight with a connection, try to do so in a hub city. (If you’re unfamiliar with which airports are hubs for each airline, Google your carrier of choice + hub cities.) In the event that your connection does get cancelled, you’ll be better off stuck in a city with a higher flight volume.
Conversely, try to avoid cities where inclement weather is more likely to cause a disruption. Atlanta makes for a better layover in December than Chicago. You might also want to build in a bit of a buffer with your layover–that shorter flight duration might be attractive, but 40 minutes is cutting it close when there’s even a minor delay.
Next, book with the airline directly. This isn’t an issue for those of you who fly Southwest, but it can be a problem with other airlines.
On occasion, it’s possible to find a deal on flights via Expedia or other booking engines on flights. There are discounted packages that include some combination of airfare, accommodations, and ground transportation. We would strongly discourage you from booking these, unless they offer tremendous savings that you simply cannot pass up.
The problem with these packages is dealing with a third party when attempting to rebook a flight. You’re going to have two problems. First, long telephone wait times (measured in hours, not minutes), as those booking engines are almost universally understaffed. Second, you’re going to get the runaround. The booking site will try to pass the buck to the airline, and vice-versa. There’s a <10% chance you’ll get the issue resolved with one phone call.
If you know us, you know we’re incredibly frugal and are huge deal hounds. However, we also know the value of our time and cost of inconvenience. To that end, there is no monetary savings that would convince me to roll the dice and book a flight via Expedia or another booking engine. None.
To each their own, but I’ve heard and witnessed enough horror stories to make the same mistake myself. As much as I love saving money, I love not pulling my hair out in frustration more. I simply don’t have enough hair left to sacrifice any more of it! If there’s a bundle discount, you can be certain there’s another way to save money–opt for that alternative.
Speaking of deals, I recently could’ve saved $60 by flying from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Orlando via Frontier. Unfortunately, the flight had a layover in Denver (yes, Colorado) and Frontier didn’t operate any flights out of GRR the following day. Suffice to say, that felt like playing with fire, so I paid the $60 extra for a nonstop flight. For me, that was worth the extra $60 for an entirely uneventful (and much shorter) flight.
Generally speaking, this is also one of several reasons why I’m averse to low-cost carriers. It’s not because I enjoy wasting money. Rather, since those low-cost carriers typically fly fewer routes, don’t have reciprocal relationships with other airlines, and are less responsive when issues arise since they compete on price and not customer service.
Fast-forward to post-booking, roughly 24 hours before departure. We’d recommend starting to periodically check out the status of your flight and the flights before your flight starting at that time. Many airlines have a “where is my plane coming from?” link right in their dashboard.
Failing that, FlightAware has a feature for tracing back your flight along with an interactive “Misery Map,” both of which can help anticipate disruptions before they are posted to your flight status.
Now, you shouldn’t freak out and call the airline to rebook if there’s a 20 minute delay nearly a day in advance of your flight, but if inclement weather or something else is clearly going to be an issue before your flight status is updated, it might behoove you to proactively call and attempt making an adjustment.
Many airlines will accommodate, especially once it’s obvious to them there will be systemic delays or cancellations; moving forward your flight essentially amounts to reduced future burden for them.
On the day of your flight, be sure you have the airline’s official app and are signed up for text message and push notifications about your flight status. In addition to the redundant alerts, having the app can be helpful for quickly rebooking if your flight status is officially changed to delayed or cancelled. In such a scenario, you’re essentially competing with other impacted customers; fast action in that capacity-constrained environment gives you an advantage.
Beyond that, customer service phone lines are notoriously short-staffed right now. By the time you’re able to get through, it might be too late or your options will be far more limited. (If there’s no button to rebook in your airline’s app, try contacting them on social media before calling.)
If none of that works, or if you’re already at the airport, head to a self-service kiosk or speak with a booking agent. Ideally, attempt to do both.
A self-service kiosk might be faster, but a human agent will usually have more options, including potentially rebooking you on another airline. (For the latter approach, it’s incredibly helpful if you already have a flight–with availability–in mind.)
In “advice that should be obvious,” be polite when speaking to a customer service representative. For one, it’s the right thing to do. For another, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. In other words, if you’re asking for an accommodation over which the agent has a degree of discretion, your odds of success are significantly higher if you’re nice.
If you’re traveling with multiple adults, know your strengths and play to them–this is why I head to the self-service kiosk while Sarah talks to an agent! People tend to like her more, whereas computers lack the sentience (for now) to dislike me.
This has been our approach over the years, and it has almost always worked out. The only times we’ve gotten stranded were scenarios when that was our best course of action and it didn’t really matter to us.
There are also other ‘advanced level’ things we are able do by virtue of credit cards and/or traveling frequently, such as having status with certain airlines and access to club lounges where lines are nonexistent and agents often go above and beyond. That’s more long-term strategy (useful for a variety of reasons) than near-term advice, though.
With that said, sometimes none of this advice will prove fruitful. There’s literally no way to salvage the situation–a point at which further efforts become a headache-inducing waste of time. I’d hazard a guess that right now is one of those times throughout much of the United States, as the volume of cancellations is so high, as is the degree of demand.
There simply aren’t a ton of good alternatives that haven’t already been booked. On top of that, customer service reps have likely taken abuse from people who didn’t read the “advice that should be obvious” above, and are less likely to go out of their way to help–even if you’re the most polite person ever.
That’s just the way it goes sometimes, in which case you can either keep trying to swim upstream in the hopes of getting lucky, or cut your losses and rebook another flight out of pocket (if available) or head off to a hotel. In this scenario, one final recommendation is to read the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel. If you’re traveling within or from another country, do a quick Google search for country name + travel bill of rights (or something like that). Many countries have imposed certain minimum airline requirements for compensation and addressing delays or cancellations.
More than anything else, the advice we’d offer is to minimize the odds of your flight being delayed or cancelled, prepare in advance for it anyway, and develop a plan for what to do when it happens. This will enable you to be decisive in the moment, implementing your strategy as quickly as possible to (hopefully) achieve the best outcome.
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Have you experienced any flight cancellations or noteworthy delays while traveling during the spring break season or when there’s inclement weather? What’s your strategy to reduce the likelihood of travel disruptions? Any other tips or anecdotal advice/experiences for addressing and overcoming cancellations that might arise? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!