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A dreaded flight delay is about to mess with your family vacation. Don't get upset. This guide will tell you what to ask for and what you should be offered by the airline--the information you need to get fair treatment on your next delay.
What caused the flight delay?
Airlines categorize delays two ways- mechanical and everything else.
If your flight was delayed because of weather (either in your city of departure or arrival city), air traffic control (this includes ground stops and control tower issues/backups), or crew rest (if the crew ran over their scheduled shift and had to take a mandatory break due to earlier weather delays) then the delay is considered out of the airline's control. Most airlines will rebook your connection for you if you were traveling on their airline for your entire itinerary. After four hours many airlines will provide a meal voucher.
Connecting to another airline or stuck overnight somewhere? Unfortunately, you are on your own. Try asking at the help desk for a distressed traveler rate to a local hotel or an overnight amenity kit if you don’t have access to your luggage. If you are nice about it, the agents are usually happy to help. (Quick tip: Head to a different gate instead of going to the same line everyone else is in.)
When the delay is the airline's fault
On the other hand, any situation in the airline's hands, such as maintenance, tends to turn out better for the traveler.
If the delay is caused by a mechanical issue, the airline is required to provide you with a meal voucher (you can request them at any time, most airlines will hand them out in the boarding area if the delay is four hours or more), they will rebook you on a later connection with no fees, and they will provide you with overnight hotel accommodations if you are stuck in another city (if contracted hotels are sold out, it will be up to you to find a hotel. Then you can submit the receipts and be reimbursed the “contracted rate” that they would have paid their hotel).
Ask nicely if it is possible to be upgraded. It’s gratifying to receive the silver lining of first class after a tough day. If the delay is lengthy and other airlines offer flights to your destination, many airlines will book you on another carrier. (Quick Tip: If you accumulate your own hotel expense be sure to make copies of all receipts before sending them off.)
Don't get angry, get rebooked
We’ve all seen it. The traveler who goes from zero to overly angry in 5 minutes. He goes to the ticket counter, yells a little, gets on his phone, and starts throwing out numbers. “This trip cost me $4,000. Now I’m losing a day!”. It is understandable to be upset. However, the calmer you remain, the more likely you are to get calm service. If you storm out of the airport, you may not be entitled to a no-fee rebooking because you are now considered a “no-show” for the flight.
Use your pleases and thank you’s. Identify with the agent: “I know this isn’t your fault but I’m sure you can understand that I’m upset. How can you help me?” Speak in a way that makes them want to give you a positive answer. Ask politely for items like credits and meal vouchers.
Do not use the vouchers to drink
Hopefully, you’re not “partying” at the bar while traveling with your kids, but we’ve all seen nervous, stressed folks add alcohol to the mix and end up too drunk to board when the flight is ready to leave. Claire infamously teetered on the edge of this mistake on Modern Family.
Repeat after me: There is nothing I can do
Many travelers stress out when delays happen. This is natural. The reality is there is not much you can do. Accepting this and reminding yourself that you will get there will help your mental state.
Multitask in line
Let’s face it: The gate agents get swamped when delays happen. If you are standing in a long line, be on your phone to the airline's 800 number while you wait. Then get assistance from whoever is available first.
Information is king
The more information you have the better. Know what other flight options are. A sample dialogue I’ve used:
Me: Hi there. I understand that you are swamped and I want to make this as easy as possible. I am probably going to miss my connection due to the delay. Is there any way you can protect me on the 4:30? Or maybe there’s availability on Continental’s 5pm?
Agent: Sure thing. Let me check. (Secretly thinking- thank you for not yelling and for helping me out.)
Ask to be protected on another flight
Not sure whether you’ll miss your connection or not? If you may make your original flight under the best case scenario, ask the agent to protect you in case of the worst. An agent can “protect” you on another flight so that you have a backup. This action does not delete your original reservation so you still have the option of using it if you make it in time. Do not accept a flight change unless you are absolutely certain that you will not make your original connection.
Ask for compensation
Many airlines offer a voucher system if you are delayed past a certain threshold. However, you have to know to ask for them. For other airlines check your carriers Contract of Carriage.
What's your worst delay story? Best outcome?
Nasreen Stump is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont, when she isn't on the road for work. Check her out on Twitter @ramblingstump!