What to do when things go wrong

Flying means that things sometimes go wrong…horribly wrong. Flights get delayed or canceled, reservations get lost, and involuntary denied boarding happens. Here’s how you can be prepared to make sure that, when things go wrong, you can get home.

This post is inspired by my travel last weekend. Both the significant other and I had issues. My reservation was canceled and she was dealing with the fallout of a tornado in Chicago.

Be prepared before you go to the airport

Always have your itinerary or confirmation from your airline printed. If an agent can’t find the reservation, this one piece of paper will solve a lot of problems. During my recent trip to Albuquerque, my return segments mysteriously disappeared. Because I had my reservation in-hand, I could convince the ticketing agent to put me back on my original flights, even though he had to manually overbook them.

Know the reservations telephone number of your airline. Save it in your phone before your trip, and write it on your printed itinerary in case your phone dies. If a flight is delayed or canceled, it is often faster to call the reservations line than to wait for an agent at the airport.

Bonus: Know the hubs of your airline and its partner airlines. Sometimes agents get lazy and don’t search as thoroughly as they should. If you know where your airline’s hubs are, you can ask the agent to search for connections through any reasonable hub choice.

If your flight is delayed and you’ll miss your connection…

If your flight is delayed and you know that you will miss a connection, don’t wait until you arrive at the airport to solve the problem. Space on flights will fill up and taking action immediately might mean the difference between getting home and not.

Last weekend, the girlfriend was flying from Chicago to Omaha via Minneapolis. Her flight to Minneapolis was delayed so much that she would certainly miss her connection in Minneapolis, to the last flight of the day to Omaha. Rather than get stranded in Minneapolis, she called Delta before she got to the airport in Chicago and asked to be put on an earlier, delayed flight. Delta put her on the earlier flight and she ended up getting home that night.

Don’t wait for an agent. Call the reservations line.

If you see that your flight is delayed and you need to change, call the reservation line immediately. Most of the time, if your flight is delayed or canceled, the reservations line can make any changes that an agent at the airport can. You can even do this while waiting in line to speak with someone at the airport. The advantage is clear: If there is one seat left on a flight to your destination, it might be gone by the time you speak with the airport agent; if you can get the reservations line to snag that seat, you’re one step closer to being home. Besides, if you’re going to be waiting around the airport anyway, you might as well try.

Get creative

If you need to be rerouted, don’t assume that you can fly only through an airline’s hubs. Getting from Detroit to Minneapolis on Delta, for example, can be done with a connection in Chicago. I use the ITA Software OnTheFly app on my mobile phone to check for possible alternate routes if a flight is canceled. Look for one-way trips on the current day between your origin and destination. Most of the time, if OnTheFly can find it, the airport agent can put you on the flight.

If the delay is due to an issue under the airline’s control, most airlines will put you onto another carrier. The airlines generally won’t offer this as an option, so you must ask. If you don’t like the options that the agent gives you, ask to be accommodated on another carrier.

Also, many larger cities have airports nearby. If you’re flying to Chicago and there are no flights to O’Hare, ask to fly to Midway. If you don’t mind driving for a bit, see if you can be routed to Milwaukee. The more flexible you can be, the greater chance you will have of getting home.

Finally, be polite, but firm.

Remember that almost everyone who works for an airline suffers a lot of abuse, especially on days when things go wrong. Empathize with the person you’re working with and keep in mind that they are going to help you solve your travel problem. At the same time, if they resist helping you, be firm and insist that they help solve the problem.

What other tips from the road to readers have for handling things that go wrong? Leave your tips in the comments!

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