Brandon Ehrhardt is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Expedia, Inc and previously worked at United Airlines.
A recent blizzard in Chicago left us with 8-12 inches expected in the Chicago area, with this winter storm watch coming on the heel of the storm system that hit the Northeast resulting in more than 1,000 cancellations and almost 6,000 delays. With nearly all major carriers having at least one hub impacted by the Midwest and Northeast storms, delays and cancellations are a certainty when winter storms hit. Traveler anxiety will be at a seasonal high this weekend as road warriors try to get home and leisure travelers escape for warmer climates. With this in mind, I thought I’d dust off the message I send my family when they slide in my text messages asking for help.
1. Do not accept your fate.
American, Delta, United, and many other carriers have issued travel waivers allowing for changes to be made depending on where you are flying from ahead of this big storm. Leave earlier, leave later, or don’t go at all...but don’t sit in the terminal with masses if you don’t need to be. I had a friend who had a trip booked to the West Coast for Friday morning, she was able to change for free to Thursday midday, and was certainly laughing at me as I shoveled snow.
2. Be quick and know your options.
Airline rebooking technology has certainly improved…generally, you’re automatically rebooked with a greater frequency in years past. The days of waiting in long lines haven’t disappeared, but the process has improved. However, that doesn’t mean you’ve been rebooked on the best option. Know your options – use a site like Flight Aware to find scheduled flights between two cities and then use Orbitz or Expedia to find all of the options on the route. If you’re flying from O’Hare to LAX, there’s going to be at least four carriers that offer flights. The much debated and now defunct Rule 240* didn't cover events like weather, but it never hurts to ask if you can go on another carrier. Last year, I was re-accommodated on AA, despite holding a ticket for United metal. The best options will disappear fast, but knowing what’s available and acting immediately, should keep you from a multi-day delay.
3. Treat yourself!
You just sat through a four hour delay. You’re not happy. Take advantage of the airline industries latest cash grab…reasonably priced first class offers on the day of departure. Until recently, first class seats were largely filled by upgrades. Airlines weren’t receiving any revenue for this, so they pivoted to cheaper first class fares, especially upsell offers on the day of travel. Case in point: I flew to San Francisco last week and was offered a $119 upgrade for a 4 hour flight. For double premier qualifying miles, more leg and seat space, and a Bloody Mary to help you get over the four hours you spent next to gate B8 – well worth it. I will say, temper your expectations, domestic first class is not what it used to be in terms of dining options, but it beats the day-old hot dog pretzel.
4. Stuck? Don’t panic – use the hotel marketplaces available.
This dovetails from Tip #2. If you’re stuck and you know you won’t be leaving until the next day, maximize your options and go to an Online Travel Agency to increase your odds of finding a hotel that isn't sold out. OTAs, like Expedia, have agreements with brands and independents alike, allowing for hundreds of options, instead of a handful. Acting fast and maximizing your lodging choices will increase the odds you’re not sleeping on the baggage claim conveyor belt as it restarts the next morning.
Purposefuly excluded: Day passes at airline clubs. Often as chaotic as the concourse. The exception: if you're already a member - the club can be a great place to get quick assistance by agents who have done this before!
What do you do to stay sane during winter travel?
* The Federal Aviation Administration (FDA) Rule 240 mandated that an airline with a delayed or canceled flight had to transfer passengers to another carrier if the second carrier could get passengers to the destination more quickly than the original airline. Read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_240