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How to Handle Every Travel Disaster That Happens During the Holidays

Insider Guides Airports + Flying
by Matthew Meltzer Oct 8, 2018

Travel disasters aren’t exclusive to the months of November and December. But, during the holidays, huge crowds and bad weather can combine to create an unusually high frequency of major inconveniences. Most of the time, there’s nothing we can do to prevent the disasters, but how we handle them can make the difference between a mild disturbance and the airlines ruining Christmas.

The first and most important rule in handling any holiday travel blip is to be overly nice and polite to the beleaguered customer service representatives and ticketing agents. They have the power to make your trip go smoothly, and having an attitude with them does nothing to make that possible. Beyond being nice, you should know certain rights, regulations, and industry practices so you get what you deserve when things go wrong. From cancelled flights to vanishing hotel reservations, here’s how to handle all kinds of travel disasters that can befall you during the holidays.

Flight is cancelled due to weather.

The good news is that airlines will rebook you on the next available flight to your final destination, once the weather has passed. The bad news is sometimes this requires waiting on a rebooking desk line that looks like a shoe store when they drop the new Yeezys. But you don’t have to! Modern technology often allows you to rebook online or even using the airline’s app. Or if you remember how to use a telephone, you can also call the airline’s customer service line. You might be on hold for a while, but at least you can pass the time at the Sam Adams Brewhouse.

Even if the airlines can get you rebooked, they’re not responsible for putting you up for the night. So don’t expect — or really even ask for — a hotel room. You’ll either need to shell out for one yourself, sleep on the airport floor, or call your friends and look for a place to crash. This also applies for air traffic control delays, and other situations the airline deems “outside its control.”

Flight cancelled due to the airline.

Of course flight cancellations aren’t always due to freak snowstorms. Sometimes they’re due to crew rest issues, mechanical issues, backed-up toilets, or pretty much any other reason an airline decides to cancel a flight. In these cases the rebooking process is the same as with weather: the airline will rebook you without a fee, but you’ll need to take matters into your own hands to make sure it gets done to your satisfaction.

There are no regulations stating airlines must give you accommodations in these cases, but most airlines will in the name of customer service. They might not offer it up right away, and getting said hotel might involve waiting for the dreaded rebooking desk. You can also try asking your gate agent or a ticketing agent in the front of the airport. If you ask nicely, they can probably help you out.

Flight delayed with possible missed connection.

Avoiding connecting flights during the holidays is more important than any time of year, since you’ll have tens of thousands of other people hustling through O’Hare and DFW trying to make their connections too. Also, with hectic holiday scheduling, airlines are less likely to hold a plane for connecting passengers.

The good news is airlines will automatically rebook you on the next available connecting flight to your final destination, often without you having to even make a phone call. Though if you want to be proactive about it, you can call and change your connection as soon as you learn of the delay with no change fee.

If the next available connection is the next day, the same guidelines apply as they do with cancellations in regards to hotels. If it’s weather-related, you’re on your own. If the airline caused it, they SHOULD put you up somewhere, though again they are not required to.

Your luggage gets lost.

You have a lot more rights when the airlines lose your luggage than you think. But to take advantage of them, you have to file a claim before you leave the airport. Go to the baggage office and you’ll get a case number, which you’ll use to track your bags and file claims for damages.

The airline is required by law to compensate you for any reasonable expenses you incur as a result of lost luggage. So if you have to go out and buy a shirt your mom would approve of for Thanksgiving dinner, the airline’s on the hook for that. Ditto for any shoes, pants, toiletries, cosmetics, or other necessities you’ll need while your bag is MIA. The key word here is “reasonable,” though. Don’t treat a lost suitcase as carte blanche to get yourself a new wardrobe.

If all your Christmas presents were in your suitcase and it shows up a day late, the airline won’t reimburse you for those, nor will it compensate you for the whining of your nieces and nephews when you explain Santa got lost on his way down the chimney.

Keep all your receipts, and file a claim as soon as possible. Most airlines limit you to a week.

You get bumped from your flight.

After the United Airlines passenger-dragging fiasco, airlines have severely cut back on overbookings. But if there’s ever a time you’ll have more seats sold than seats available, it’s during the holidays. On the off chance you’re involuntarily moved off your flight, you do legally have to get off the plane as you agreed to it in your contract of carriage.

That said, the airline is also required to compensate you for the trouble, most of the time. If they put you on a flight that gets you to your final destination within an hour of your original flight, you get nothing. Good day, sir — or ma’am.

If you reach your final destination between one and two hours of your original time (or two to four hours on an international flight), you’re entitled to 200 percent of the ticket price, up to $650. More than two hours domestic and four hours international, you’re entitled to 400 percent, up to $1,300, plus a full refund of your original ticket.

The airlines might try and offer you less, and will sometimes offer money on the spot if you’re taking less than what you’re entitled to. It’s up to you whether you accept it or not, but know that once you do, that’s likely all you’ll be able to collect.

Rental cars are unavailable.

Those old enough to remember the original run of Seinfeld will recall an episode where Jerry arrives at a rental car counter only to find no cars are available — even though he has a reservation.

“What’s the point in reserving a car,” he asks in only the tone Seinfeld can, “if you don’t have a car reserved? That’s the point of a reservation.”

Of course, during the holidays the dreaded “No Cars Available” signs are out in force, and your family of six may be stuck in a Prius — or, worse, in no car at all. Because rental cars are one of the few travel sectors left that let customers cancel without a fee, they take far more reservations than they have cars. Which means sometimes the car you reserved isn’t available.

It’s industry practice to upgrade you to the next class up if the car you reserved is out. If they can’t do that, typically they will rent one for you from a competitor, even if doing so requires them to pay for a ride to the competitor’s lot. None of this is law, but rather industry standard practice, so if the agent doesn’t offer it up you have no legal recourse. But politely ask for a supervisor and they will probably help you out.

You miss your flight.

Airlines actually have an unofficial policy called the “flat tire rule.” It basically states that, if you show up at the airport within two hours of your scheduled departure, they can put you on standby on the next available flight at no extra charge. Of course, during the holidays when flights are booked solid, this might mean standing by all day since nearly every flight in completely full.

Also, customer service, ticketing, and gate agents can put you on the next flight at no additional charge, but they don’t have to. So, once again, be nice, polite, and apologetic for being late and you’ll get a lot further.

American Airlines offers a same-day confirmed seat option, allowing you a confirmed seat the same day for $75. Again, this is assuming seats are available. Southwest Airlines asks you to call the airline within ten minutes of departure if you think you’ll miss the flight so you can be rebooked. Southwest doesn’t charge change fees, so the process is much simpler.

And remember: if you’re checking a giant duffle bag full of presents, airlines have bag check cut-off times too. So even if you show up with time to get on the plane, you’ll need more time if you’re checking a bag.

Hotel doesn’t have your room.

Hotels, like rental cars and airlines, regularly overbook themselves too, between two and 10 percent of their capacity depending on the time of year. During holidays, where no-shows are less common, arriving at a hotel with a reservation doesn’t always mean there’ll be a room for you. The practice is legal and there’s no regulation for what hotels must do other than refund your money. But common practice is for them to find you a room at a nearby hotel.

Front desk personnel won’t always do this automatically, of course, but if you ask them to “walk” you to another hotel, they’ll know you know what’s up. That’s industry jargon for finding you a room elsewhere. They’ll probably also pay for your ride there, but you need to remain calm and ask for both nicely.

Of course, sometimes the hotel isn’t oversold at all, but the reservation you made through an online booking service isn’t in their system. If this happens, rather than getting infuriated at the poor front desk clerk, call the travel agency you used (most have 24-hour customer service numbers) and ask them to figure out what went wrong. If they can’t get your reservation figured out, they’ll book you at another hotel.

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