Ask Gadling: What do I do if my flight gets canceled?

We’ve all been there. Fourteen seconds after getting to the airport in a mindless blur you look up at the departure boards and see that dreaded word next to your flight: CANCELED. Your weekend appointment, your deeply important business meeting, your tickets to the Knicks game – everything is suddenly on the line thanks to the fault of one airline that was supposed to get you to your destination on time. And now you’re stuck at the airport.

Flight cancellations happen all the time and there’s little that can be done about their occurrence. Mechanical, weather and act-of-God delays happen all of the time, but the result of their action doesn’t have to ruin your day – in fact, in a few cases it might improve it.

The first thing to remember: don’t panic. Airlines are contractually required to get you from point A to point B, and most carriers have enough capacity to get you there in a reasonable amount of time – so you don’t have to worry about never making it to your destination. How and when you get there is another question.

After you’ve collected yourself, look at the departures board and see if there are any other identical flights on the same or different airline to your route listed. Something on your airline at a later time is the most ideal case, but make sure to take note of any other airlines operating on that route – it might come in handy later.

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Next, despite what the agent at your departure gate might suggest, don’t jump into line behind the 200 other people on your flight waiting to get rebooked. Each one of those people has precedence over you on the soonest departing flight, and the faster you can speak to someone the faster you can snatch up an available seat. Thus, to get ahead, do one of the following:

  1. Find a free agent at another gate or find a rebook station. Most major airline hubs have manned stations where rebooking and organization can take place. In fact, most gate agents have access to the booking system. If you find a (free) agent and calmly outline your situation, most of them would be willing to help you rebook.
  2. Call the airline. Even if you don’t have access to a fancy elite line, it’s often easier to speak to a phone agent to rebook your ticket. Look down at your boarding pass for your record locator and/or your ticket number to provide everything you need for the phone agent. As an added bonus, representatives on the phone will probably be less stressed out and thus better equipped to help out in your situation.

There’s also the issue of routing. It always helps to have potential flights or strategies in mind when you walk up to the agent for rebooking. Remember those flights on other carriers? Make sure you suggest those routes if the ticket agent wants to put you on a flight that you don’t want to take. If you had a connection earlier, you can also suggest to be put on a direct flight to your destination. Cutting out the extra flight (and layover) can actually save you time in the long run.

A great way to suggest alternate routing is to jump online and check the available outbound flights. Plugging your departure and arrival airports into a tool such as seatcounter.com or even into your airline’s website will usually give you all of the possible routes that can be flown in one day – thus, if you would rather fly through Dallas over Chicago on your way to New York you can politely suggest an alternate route and the ticket agent should have the ability to accommodate your request.

Finally, if your cancellation involves being stuck in a transit city overnight or for a long period, make sure to ask for hotel, food or transportation vouchers to compensate for your lost time. Most airlines are obligated to help out so you should take advantage!

[flickr image via Danny Mekic’]