Thursday, June 13, 2024

Advice | Welcome to the summer of travel delays. Here’s how to deal with them.

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Summer is a season rife with travel delays, from three-day-weekend traffic to thunderstorms scrambling flight schedules. This summer could be even more perilous, with a bad hurricane forecast and record-breaking traveler numbers. Seven of the 10 highest TSA checkpoint travel numbers have taken place in the past 30 days.

Technically, the jury is still out on whether this summer’s delays are worse than usual; the Department of Transportation’s stats on flight delays lag a few months, so we only have data on flight performance through March.

But anecdotally, everyone we know seems to be getting caught in some kind of summer travel catastrophe. Even travel pros.

“I had a four-hour delay flying to New York a week or two back and ended up getting to my hotel in Manhattan at close to 4 in the morning,” Going founder Scott Keyes said.

You don’t have to wait for the DOT to crunch the numbers to prepare for the worst. Here’s how to stay on your toes when flying this summer.

Take the earliest flight out

In Keyes’s case, it wasn’t stormy skies responsible for the backup, but a mechanical delay. He kicked himself for not taking his best advice for travelers: Fly as early as you can.

“The first flight of the day has a much higher on-time-arrival percentage — about 25 percentage points higher than afternoon and evening flights,” Keyes said. That’s due to two factors.

First, weather tends to be better in the morning than later in the day. “Thunderstorms — which are so disruptive to air travel — are most common in the late afternoon and evening hours during the summer months,” said Jason Samenow, editor of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang.

Second, “your aircraft is already at the airport ready to go, whereas an afternoon flight has to fly in from somewhere else,” Keyes said. “If that flight gets delayed, then your flight is like delayed as well.”

Plus, if your early flight does goes awry, you’ll have more options the rest of the day to get to your final destination.

Adding a connecting leg can make your airfare cheaper, but it can also add more chaos. The fewer flights you have, the less of an opportunity there is for something to go wrong.

“A delay for a connecting flight might result in a missed connection,” Keyes said.

If you must fly with connections, don’t risk close calls. Keep plenty of buffer time during your layovers in case your first leg is delayed, so you’ll have a better chance at catching the next.

As you shop for airfare online, remember that airlines and aggregators will often show you itineraries in order of total trip duration. Flights with the shortest connections tend to appear higher up, so scroll down a little more to see options with longer layovers. You can also find them by tweaking your search filter for longer itineraries.

Keep an eye on your reservations

As your trip approaches, check up on your reservation. Airlines are allowed to change your itinerary even after you’ve paid for your ticket, and you may find that your direct flight has turned into one with a layover or two without your approval. The earlier you catch the swap, the more options you’ll have to switch to.

Alternatively, if the airline changed your itinerary significantly and you no longer want to fly at all, you are also entitled to cancel the trip and request a cash refund.

For certain moments you cannot miss (wedding ceremonies, cruise departures), consider making a serious backup plan, such as driving instead of flying or rescheduling your flight if you see a big storm rolling in.

After getting caught in the 2022 Southwest Airlines meltdown, By The Way founder Amanda Finnegan started booking backup flights in case there’s a cancellation or plans need to change. If her original plan works out, she cancels the Plan B for a future flight credit. JT Genter, editor in chief of the travel rewards site AwardWallet, has done the same, but he’ll book the backup on a separate airline with points or miles for the easiest refund option.

Most U.S. airlines will not charge you a cancellation fee if you booked with rewards, but know your airline’s cancellation policy inside and out before attempting this delicate dance. For example, you’ll need to know whether your airline charges a fee for canceling within a certain time period, or whether the policy changes depending on the type of ticket you booked.

Download your airline’s mobile app and sign up to get notifications by phone, text, email or push alert. Those apps can alert you to important updates such as gate changes and cancellations and help you rebook flights digitally instead of getting in line at customer service.

Don’t trust estimated delays

Airlines may shorten or lengthen delays if the problem in question improves or worsens. Depending on the reason for the delay, flights sometimes can depart earlier than the original delay projection. “In these cases, you wouldn’t want to stay home an extra hour to wind up missing the flight,” said Tomasz Pawliszyn, chief executive of AirHelp, an online service that helps passengers obtain compensation.

When deciding whether to depart for the airport or dawdle at home, first consider the length of the delay. If the delay is less than an hour, experts recommend proceeding to the airport as planned. For delays of two hours or less, err on the side of caution and arrive in time for your previously scheduled departure.

If your flight gets canceled or seriously delayed and you want to pivot your plans, you don’t want your stuff in checked-luggage purgatory. Having your luggage with you will make you more nimble.

But if you must check, pack with disruptions in mind. Keep a few days’ worth of clothes, plus valuables and medication, in your carry-on, and toss an AirTag inside your suitcase for tracking purposes.

Despite the fanfare over new federal rules that promise customers automatic cash refunds for significant flight disruptions, they won’t go into effect until later this year. In the meantime, airlines still may owe you for an airline cancellation or delay.

Bumped from a busy flight? You’re entitled to compensation if you didn’t volunteer to give up your seat (although there are a few exceptions).

If your flight is canceled or significantly delayed and you don’t like your rebooking options, you’re entitled to seek a refund for itineraries arriving in or departing from the United States. Before you take the cash, remember that getting your money back and looking for a new flight elsewhere might leave you scrambling for more expensive last-minute airfare — if you can find a new flight at all. You may want to reschedule your flight with the airline instead of going for the refund.

While there are no laws requiring U.S. airlines to provide hotels, meal vouchers or other services beyond the cost of the flight, you should always ask your airline what it can do. You’ll have better luck requesting such courtesies in person at the airport than on the phone or online.

You can also refer to the Transportation Department’s online dashboard to see what airlines promise travelers during disruptions within the airline’s control, such as mechanical problems.

Andrea Sachs and Hannah Sampson contributed to this report.

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