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If you fly enough you are going to have the privilege of experiencing a flight delay. In fact, last year in 2016 almost 1 in 5 flights operated by US carriers were delayed more than 15 minutes. Obviously there isn’t much you can do about severe weather delays that impact a whole region at a time, but believe it or not, weather isn’t the direct cause of most airline delays. While you can never totally eliminate airline delays, there is a lot you can do to mitigate the impact delays have on your travel plans if you are proactive.
Here are seven ways to avoid and minimize airline delays.
Book on larger planes and fly earlier in the day when possible
Sometimes airline operations have to make decisions about which flights will go out on time (or at all) and which ones have to wait. There are no guarantees, but a large plane which has somewhere else to be later on in the day is more likely to get the green light than a small plane with fewer people. It’s more complicated than just a number’s game, but numbers do absolutely play into it. This is one of the many reasons I take advantage of flying internationally configured aircraft out of Houston on domestic flights whenever possible. If the airline needs that plane later in the day to head to Europe, South America, etc. it is less likely to be the one chosen to be delayed and stuck somewhere in the event that the airline has a choice.
Additionally, once your crew or aircraft has a delay in the course of their day, it is likely that day will impact all further plans for that plane and/or crew in that day. For example, if you are that plane or crew’s third flight in the day, you need the first and second flights of the day to have gone pretty well, or else yours will be delayed. However, if you fly early in the morning, you just need your flight to go on as scheduled and don’t have to have quite as many things go right in order to get your plane off on time. Additionally, if you are traveling early in the day there is a lot of time to still get where you want to be in the even there is a problem. If you are the last flight of the day and there is a major delay or cancellation, your options become much more limited.
Monitor your flights closely in the 24 hours before departure
The next step to avoid airline delays is to be very aware of the status of your flight because you can’t take action until you know there is likely going to be a problem. While most airlines will notify you via email, text, alert, etc. in the event of a posted delay (assuming you put your contact information in the reservation), you want that to be your last line of defense. Periodically check your flight status in the 12-24 hours leading up to departure to look for any issues, and in the six hours or so before departure I would check at least once an hour. Not only that, but check to see where your plane is coming from on the flight before yours and stay on top of the status of that flight as well. Most airline apps and sites have the option to “see where your plane is coming from”. If you see a major issue developing with that flight, odds are high that the delay will hit your travel plans as well unless you are flying out of a hub and a replacement plane/crew is available.
Check Your Flight Status One Final Time Before Heading to the Airport
A few minutes before heading to the airport, check the flight status one more time. Odds are by this point either your plane should be at the airport, or it should be in-flight on its way to the airport. If that is the case, then check the flight status of the one before yours to make sure it is on track. If either your flight or the one that will be feeding your flight is showing a major issue at this point then it is time to start weighing your options. Major delay is subjective, but I would define it as 60-90 minutes or more for these purposes, or potentially less if you have a connection that will be placed in jeopardy. If there is only one airport in your area then you probably still want to head to the airport, but if you have the option of different airports such as in the New York City area, you may want to start checking options out of all of the airports to see if perhaps your best bet isn’t at your originally scheduled airport.
Check Alternate Flight Options
As soon as you notice a delay, or even a likely delay for your flight, it is time to start looking at options. You will want to check other flights that would work for you so you can ask the airline to potentially be changed to a different flight. That process is likely to be much smoother if you have some options available for the airline to check instead of just relying on them to tell you what you can do. This can mean changing to a different flight, to a different routing, to a nonstop itinerary instead of one with connections, or even potentially to a different destination or carrier. There are a few times I have had the airline switch me to an entirely different destination city when that was the best course of action to get where I needed to be.
How many options you have will depend on a number of factors such as the severity of your delay, the reason for the delay, available space on other flights, your fare and elite status, the carrier you are flying, and ultimately how much the agent feels like helping you…so be nice even if you are very stressed!
If There is a Problem, Contact the Airline ASAP
Once you have identified a delay, or even a likely delay, and you think you will be best served by potentially changing your flight, get ahold of the airline ASAP. There will often be 100+ or more people trying to scramble for better alternate options at the same time you are, so don’t wait to be the last served. Instead, be proactive in getting help if you need it. If you are in the airport, you can do this in person with a gate agent, a customer service center, or sometimes at an automated kiosk. The staff in the airline specific lounges can also be a great resource if you have lounge access, however if the lines to get help in the airport are long remember you can manage much of this either on the airline’s app, website, or by calling their 1-800 number. If there is a large system wide issue you may even do better by using one of their international numbers for help, or you can try sending a direct message on Twitter, though some airlines are better than others with Twitter assistance.
While some airlines do a great job of letting you change your flights for free online in the event of delays, if you don’t see the option you want there, don’t assume it isn’t possible if you ask a real human.
Ask Questions About the Delay and Make an Informed Decision
Whether or not it will be in your best interest to change your travel plans because of a delay will depend in large part on how long the delay will last. Sometimes the airline has a pretty good idea of how long that will be with a simple maintenance fix or a delayed inbound crew or plane, and sometimes it is essentially a rolling delay where they are just totally guessing on when the plane may take off. Then when that time comes and goes they make the estimated departure another 45 minutes later, and then another, and another. These are the worst kind of delays because it can be hard to determine if you are better off changing plans or not.
In this case you can either just sit back and go with the flow or try to find as much out about the delay as you can and make your own best guess as to whether you should change to a different flight. As an example, last night my husband was flying home from Newark to Houston and his evening departure was delayed several hours due to a late inbound aircraft. The Houston-bound flight that should have left a couple of hours before his was also delayed many hours and still on the ground due to maintenance issues while he was waiting for his flight. It was experiencing rolling delays that just kept getting pushed back further and further. He inquired with staff in the United lounge as to whether he could/should switch to that flight if it looked like it would be heading to Houston earlier than his delayed flight.
While they didn’t know for sure, they highly recommended he “steer clear” of that option. In the end, they were right, and that flight with maintenance delays eventually cancelled out for the night while his flight did ultimately make it to Houston, albeit in the middle of the night about three hours late.
If you are experiencing all of this with young kids, you may also reach a point where enough is enough for the day and you need to call it a night. Again, you need to just make an informed decision if it looks like the rolling delays are likely to just keep rolling later and later. If it gets too late, your crew can run out of legal hours to work, the airports can have hours they aren’t permitted to operate, etc. and you could wait for many hours only to have the flight cancel for the day. Given that, if you need to draw the line at a certain point and retreat with your family back home or to a hotel that is okay, just work with the airline on rebooking in the morning.
Save Receipts and Know Your Coverage
If the delay is the fault of the airline they will often offer you some meal vouchers and/or lodging for the night, but this may take time to obtain or it may not be offered in situations like weather. However, many of the rewards credit cards we use to earn miles also have built-in trip protection and delay coverage if you use them to pay for your ticket. It can even work in the event you paid the taxes for the award ticket with that card. For example, the Citi AAdvantage Executive Card has delay coverage that kicks in after just 3 hours and works even if you used American Airline miles and just used the card to pay the taxes. Every card manages that slightly differently, but in general I have found Citi cards and Chase cards to offer pretty solid built-in trip delay coverages.
To give another example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve’s trip delay coverage kicks in after 6 hours, and I have seen some other cards that kick in after 12 hours, or in the event of an overnight stay. In most cases this kind of delay coverage will reimburse up to $500 per covered traveler for things not reimbursed by the airline that can include meals, toiletries, and lodging. However, it often won’t cover your costs for booking alternate travel options out-of-pocket. If you are traveling to/from the EU you may have even more protections afforded to you and your family in the event of delays and cancellations.
If you can stay informed as to your flight’s status, know your alternate travel options, and proactively seek to switch your travel plans when necessary, you can avoid and minimize airline delays to a large extent. You will never be able to avoid them entirely, but in those cases you can rely on the built-in trip delay coverage afforded by your rewards credit card of choice.
I’d love to hear your airline travel delay tips and stories!
Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.