[Rick Seaney is the CEO and cofounder of FareCompare, and columnist for Investopedia. The views expressed by columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Investopedia.]
Maybe it’s a bad storm or a problematic plane; all you know is that your flight is delayed and may be canceled. The next flight out will probably have only a few empty seats. How do you position yourself so you’re first in line to snag one? These strategies are based personal experiences (mostly mine) so I know they can help, at least sometimes. Try one, try them all.
1. Show Up on Time for Your Flight
You may get a message from the airline that a mechanical issue has delayed your flight by an hour. The logical thing to do would be to time your airport arrival for one hour later than normal – but don’t do that! If the repair job takes less time than expected, the plane may not wait the full hour. It could take off as soon as possible and those who aren't in the gate area when those repairs are completed will be out of luck. Exception: An airline sends you a message about bad weather delays; you look out the window at impassible streets amidst a raging blizzard. That’s a message you can believe.
2. Get in Touch with the Airline
When a flight is delayed or canceled, you know to get in touch with the airline. Take it a step further and multi-task: Stand in line at the airport and if the line’s long enough, call the airline while you wait. Also while waiting, try chatting with the airline website avatar where available (like Alaska’s Jenn). And don’t forget to tweet your dilemma (most airline PR folks pay close attention to social media). The point of all this is to simultaneously launch multiple ways to be at the head of the line for one of the few available airline seats to get out of town. You never know which method of contact will be first to connect you to a live and helpful human.
3. Juggle Airports
There are two ways to work this:
A) Say you’re in Dallas-Ft. Worth airport and flights are not taking off. Find out if the situation is better at the other Dallas airport – Love Field – and see if the airline can put you on a flight out of there (but make sure you have enough time to drive there). This could also work in cities like Los Angeles which is served by LAX, Long Beach, Burbank, even Orange County, or in metropolitan New York City (LaGuardia, JFK, Newark, Long Island). What if your carrier is balking at paying for a flight from another airport? If worse comes to worse and you feel you must depart immediately, consider traveling on your own dime and arguing who pays later.
B) You’re trying to fly from, let’s say, Chicago to Los Angeles – but flights on that route aren’t going anywhere and the number of passengers keeps stacking up. You know when the route is eventually back in business, a lot of folks will by vying for those seats and you might not get one. Sometimes a solution is to fly instead to another city that has service to Los Angeles. For example, if you can get to Las Vegas or San Francisco, you may be able to get to LA a lot quicker than if you wait in Chicago for a seat on the original route you booked. Tip: Check out a few alternative flights in advance, show them to the airline reps, and see if they’ll give you the green light to fly this way without an additional charge. It’s worked for me.
4. Use Your Miles
If you are an elite miles member, use your membership ‘hotline’ number to call the airline for help on any matter, including getting on the next available flight. If you’re not a member and know you’ll never amass elite status, join anyway; it’s free and there may be subtle perks to membership. Example: Two passengers are vying for one seat on the next flight out. One passenger is a miles member, one is not. Who do you think will get the seat?
5 Know Your Rights
Finally, check out this useful U.S. Department of Transportation online publication: Fly Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel. It will let you know what you are due in the way of compensation and give you the rules on other issues that may need resolution. If you fly a lot, consider bookmarking it on your mobile phone. Good News About Getting Kicked Off a Flight has some additional advice on passenger rights.