What to do during travel delays

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Airlines are particularly prone to delays, from weather events to mechanical problems. Here’s a recent personal experience that will help you avoid sleeping on a dirty airport floor.

My flight was late, and getting later by the minute.  Every time I checked my iPad, my Toronto to Chicago departure showed additional delays.  Its arrival in Chicago had now pushed past the departure of my connection, meaning that I wouldn’t be getting home to the west coast that night.

Travel is full of disruptions like this.  Some trips go smoothly and quickly, while others end up with cancelled flights and unplanned stops. In my case, I spent the night in Chicago because my flight there from Toronto was delayed by several hours.  How the airline handled this delay was a case study in effective customer service.  But airlines don’t usually volunteer information about what they owe you.  If you don’t know to ask, you’ll lose out.

There are different types of delays, and they fall broadly into two categories: Mechanical delays and weather delays.

A mechanical delay is usually an airline’s responsibility, and they have certain obligations to you when a flight is delayed or cancelled because of a mechanical issue.  In my case, a helpful gate agent in Toronto did the following for me:

  • Booked me on new flights the following day from Chicago
  • Changed my final destination from Seattle to Portland at my request
  • Noted my file for hotel and meal vouchers to be distributed on arrival in Chicago

Because the issue was mechanical, the airline gave me a hotel for the night and even rerouted me (at my request) because of a scheduling issue.

The important takeaway is this: Gate agents have a lot of power to help you when travel plans go sideways. Be patient with and nice to them, and they’ll usually accommodate any reasonable request.


A weather delay is a different animal.  Airlines consider weather events to be “acts of God”, and they won’t provide amenities such as hotel rooms if weather is causing the delay.  Your best bet in a weather situation is to patiently wait it out.  Weather delays can also be lucrative.  With so many delayed and overbooked flights, someone with a flexible travel schedule could make a small fortune getting bumped once flights resume.

And while an airline will be less generous in a weather delay than during a mechanical delay, they usually still suspend change fees and fare rules, so you do have some rights, including refunds on nonrefundable tickets.

A final note: When delays happen, whether they are mechanical or weather-based, the rules of your ticket go out the window.  Nonrefundable fares become refundable, mileage tickets can book into any available seat, and even your final destination is open for negotiation.  The airline’s priority to is clean up the mess, and if they can get you somewhere you want to go, it’s a win for everyone.  Remember to be reasonable; changing from Seattle to Portland is one thing.  Changing from Seattle to Paris is quite another.

So what should you do if you have a flight delay, cancellation or missed connection?  Here’s some battle-tested advice that has served me well over the years:

  • Know your travel rights.  Remember that what airlines owe you during a mechanical delay and during a weather event are very different.
  • Assert those rights – politely, but firmly if you need to.  Some agents are just nicer or more experienced than others.
  • Show a little sympathy to the agent.  They are under a lot of stress and are often berated by frustrated flyers during delays.  Someone who is reasonable and nice will be the exception, and they won’t forget that.
  • Elite status is worth your weight in gold during these situations.  And the higher your status, the better care they’ll take of you.
  • If you’re at the airport and trying to get rebooked, always dial in to the elite line while you’re waiting in the physical line.  Go with the agent you reach first.

If you’re not getting what you need, escalate the issue to a supervisor.  Again, keep it firm yet polite; agents can make notes in your record that can hinder what others will do for you later.  If you know you’re right but are not being well served, try a different agent, whether on the phone or in person.

Travel disruptions can be incredibly stressful, and elite status often makes the difference between getting rebooked promptly or spending the night in an airport.  Work on acquiring elite status before you need it, not when it’s already too late.

What have your experiences with flight delays been?  How have you handled delays, and what are your best tips for doing so?

About the Author

Ryan Lile's Profile Image

Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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