What to Do When Your Flight Is Canceled

The airline just canceled your flight. What you do now means the difference between being rebooked painlessly and spending the night in the airport.

Travel often enough and the dreaded traveler’s trifecta will occur. First, a moving sidewalk will catch fire in the concourse. Then bees will take over a plane and a jet bridge. Third, a pack of coyotes will descend upon the runways to prevent takeoffs.

And when this trifecta does occur (as it did in Charlotte recently), flights will be canceled faster than a flight attendant can say “Please return your seat to its upright position.” If you’re unlucky enough to fall victim to a cancellation, act fast or you’ll be sleeping in the airport. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Check your phone. If you’re flying into the airport, turn on your phone as soon as your flight lands and check if you have any emails or voicemails notifying you that your next leg has canceled. If not, breathe easier. If you did get a cancellation notice, then keep reading.

2. Call (or get to) the customer service desk as soon as possible. Everyone on the plane is about to call or queue up there to rebook his or her flight, and it behooves you to be the first in line. It might mean the difference between getting on the next flight out and one 24 hours later. Make sure to play multiple angles. Get in line for the customer service, work the airline's app and call the airline's customer service phone number ... and do it all at the same time.

Travel Tip: My experience is that the local agents at a customer service counter tend to provide more immediate help than those at an off-site telephone service center. Plus they can give you vouchers.

Queue up as soon as possible at the customer service desk when your flight is canceled to rebook your travels. (©PerseoMedusa/Shutterstock)

3. Ask for assistance from your airline. If your plane was canceled because of weather and the airline won’t be flying you out until the next day, the airline probably will not provide you a hotel room for the night. However, if the flight was canceled for a maintenance issue (or the flight crew didn’t show up), the airline should help you out. Some airlines will even offer additional airfare vouchers, frequent-flyer miles or a pass to the airline’s club access to help smooth out the wrinkles.

Travel Tip: Set your expectations at a reasonable level. In this day and age, some airlines are becoming stingy about providing assistance and seem to have removed the “service” from “customer service.” I once had an airline customer-service desk agent claim that the flight was canceled because of weather even though the gate agent had already kept passengers updated on the mechanical problem that had been unfolding on the ramp.

4. Find a hotel. Everyone who was canceled is going to need a hotel, and nearby rooms will fill quickly. The airline may provide you a voucher for a night’s stay at a local hotel, but even if the airline will not cover your overnight stay, it typically partners with service providers that offer discounted rates (called a “distressed traveler rate”) with nearby hotels; ask for the phone number of such a provider.

Travel Tip: Before you book a distressed traveler rate, make sure the rates truly are good. Sometimes you can find even better rates (or better hotels at the same rate) via apps like Hotel Tonight and Hotels.com.

5. If you booked a room online, call to confirm. Ring up the hotel to confirm it actually has the room you booked. My personal experience is that the online-booking systems rarely are in a real-time synchronization with the front-desk computers, and sometimes a reserved room is not available.

Travel Tip: Whatever you do, don’t procrastinate. The close-in hotels fill up quickly, and the last thing you want is to be making a cross-city trek to return to the airport for a 6 am flight.

Don't get your hopes up too high; the voucher you received from the airline probably isn't for this room. (©Escapio/flickr)

6. Rent a car, pronto! If you’ll need a rental, get to a counter as fast as possible, or call to make a reservation while you’re on the way there. There’s only a limited number of rental cars at any airport, and you are going to need a car if the flight on which you’ve been rebooked won’t work with your travel schedule. Three things to know: First, some rental-car companies do not offer one-way rentals. Second, one-way rentals are usually more expensive than the standard day rate for the same vehicle. Third, you may find cars at other in-town locations, even after all the ones at the airport are booked up. Fourth, airport rental-car counters are often the only ones in a town that are open late (most other locations typically shut down by around 7 pm).

Travel Tip: Save a few bucks by splitting the cost of the ride with another stranded traveler.

7. Find a shuttle if you can’t find a rental car. If the flight that was canceled was a short hop to your final destination, you may be able to find a shuttle van running the same route. When a flight from Atlanta to Augusta was canceled, I was lucky to find that a $40 shuttle ride would have me there in 2-1/2 hours.

Travel Tip: Customer-service agents and gate agents for the airlines often have a little black notebook of the companies that offer such services.

8. Locate your luggage. If you checked luggage, it may be possible to retrieve the bag, even if it was checked all the way to your final destination. Most airlines have a baggage counter located near baggage claim. You’ll need to request the bag be pulled for you. Whether the airline can pull your bag depends on if it has the stuff. My experience has been that the airline may pull your bag if you’re being rechecked on a flight the next day and would need your bag for the night, but even then it’s 50-50 on whether it will find your bag. If the airline can pull the bag, you will need to show your claim ticket and be prepared to give a visual description as well. (“It’s another non-descript, black roll-aboard.”) If you cannot get your luggage, it will be sent to your final destination, but there are no guarantees it will be on the same flight on which you were rebooked. It’s better (especially if you’re spending the night in the airport) to get the luggage and recheck it for your correct flight leg.

That’s it! If you cover these bases, you have a better chance of getting home or not having a stressful night sleeping in a chair at the gate. But in full disclosure, even if you try all of these tactics, sometimes they just don’t work, and you end up sleeping on a mat on the floor of an airport because all the rental cars and hotel rooms were taken by the time your flight landed at almost midnight. And that I know from personal experience!

Plan ahead or you'll be sleeping in the airport for the night. (©Geoff Kohl/Where)