Not just in the current wintry conditions – flight cancellations are a common scourge and airlines often provide very little proactive help. Here is my personal guide to battle the cancellation evil.
1) Select flights earlier in the day
Weather related delays often cascade during the day as inbound aircraft can't make their hub connections. If you are flexible – consider flights earlier in the day.
2) Act quickly when a cancellation hits but don't panic!
Keep on checking the status of your flights with the airlines mobile app or use flightstats.com or flightaware.com. While you should make sure to check that your contact data is up-to-date with the airline – but don't wait until the airline contacts you. Being the first to spot a flight cancellation will help you get the open seats on alternative flights.
The airlines reservation system will automatically rebook you to an alternate flight. However this is often the most convenient (read cheapest) flight for the airline and not the best or fastest way to get to your destination.
3) Phone Reservation agents are often your best bet
Notate the Call Center number (or Google it) for your airline. Call and ask for changing your reservation. If you have status with an airline there is often a dedicated number for VIPs – make sure you know this number! If there is a long hold – make your way to the check-in or lounge staff (if available at the airport or location). When flights get cancelled – call centers are often hit with hundreds of simultaneous calls – so be prepared to wait 30 minutes or more.
While you wait – fire up a mobile app such as Kayak or ITA fare search and search yourself for alternative flights. Note that most airlines WILL be able to book you on another airline. United for example can book you on Hawaiian, American, Delta, US Airways into a paid seat fare bucket. So if a seat is available for sale the United phone agent can book you into it! It's rare though to get an agent to sell you into a higher class of service (i.e. from economy to business).
4) Lead the phone call and provide the best options (for you!) to the agent
Keep in mind that for the alternative flights you may have to change terminals and retag your bags – so don't underestimate the time required. Also with Delta it's often the case that phone agents can't reissue the ticket correctly and the check-in desk needs to run additional verification on it.
5) Gate agents and lounge customer service staff may only be able to give you certain options
Most airport staff and lounge customer service agents are easily intimidated by the sudden amount of people storming at them with new itinerary ideas. First Class lounges (or Admirals Club) may be an exception but mostly such staff will only rebook you with the airline itself and NOT get you another airline.
6) It does not matter what fare class you booked to get a new itinerary
It usually does not matter if you are on an award, a cheap fare or expensive fare for a rebooking on the same or different airline. As long as the class of service is the same there should be no policy difference.
However an expensive ticket may get better treatment in a new booking – so if you have paid a lot – point it out during the conversation.
If you have status with that airline/ alliance make it part of the conversation as well.
7) Be friendly but hold up your case
Be courteous and friendly but don't get derailed from your goal. The airline went into a fixed contract to transport you from A to B at a certain point and time and has just changed your while vacation/ business trip. If you as a passenger would want to change the itinerary fees of $150 or more would now be payable while the airline can do it anytime without a fixed 'fee' payable to you.
8) File for compensation
There is no hard and fix rule for delays and cancellations in the United States. However if your flight was in the European Union or arrived in the European Union there is a fixed law of very generous compensation.
Weather elated cancellations usually don't get any compensation. However there is a chance for compensation for cancellations that are an airlines fault such as a missing crew or faulty equipment especially if it involves an international section.
Airport staff usually provides small drink and food vouchers. Don't forget to ask for them at the airport.
As longer the delay – as better your options for a compensation.
What is your experience? What's your worst travel nightmare?