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So far, it’s been a summer of record-breaking heat, along with travel-disrupting storms. With stranded airline travelers regularly appearing on the local and national news, it’s now a traveler’s top priority to avoid their fate every time they plan a trip.

Thankfully, there are some tricks available to help maximize your chances of arriving at your destination sometime around when you planned to be there.

COVID’s One Good Change: No Airline Cancellation or Change Fees

flight delays on screen


Perhaps the only good travel-related thing to come out of this century’s global pandemic is that many airlines have dropped their once-onerous change and cancellation fees.

While just a few years ago, you might have been charged as much as $200 to change or cancel your flight, you can do so with most domestic carriers without incurring any additional fees. However, it's worth noting that same-day change fees are still more common, meaning changes are best done in advance.

That’s great, but what does this have to do with stormy summer weather? Where this comes into play is that you now have the opportunity to book a backup flight to your destination, without wasting the price of the extra ticket. 

Here’s an example of how I recently used this strategy.

This spring, I was scheduled to attend a travel awards banquet near Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, but due to schedule constraints, I was unable to fly there from Atlanta until shortly before the event. That meant that any delay would cause me to miss the entire reason for my trip. To maximize my chance of arriving at the event on time, I decided to book two separate flights from Atlanta to Dulles, one on United and one on Delta.

And because I used my frequent flier miles for both flights, I was free to cancel the unused one and receive my miles back. That day, it was pouring rain in Atlanta, and I was lucky that the United flight was still on time. Just before departure, I canceled the flight on Delta and received a full refund of my miles, plus the taxes and fees paid. 

This strategy works best when you use frequent flier miles to pay for your flights, but it can even make sense sometimes when you pay for your tickets with cash. That's because many airlines will give you a credit towards a future flight when you cancel a ticket purchased with cash (check the ticket's terms before purchasing to verify it is eligible). So you don’t get a refund, but you do get a credit to be used toward a future flight that is booked within a certain time frame. 

However, these policies don’t apply to the tickets purchased in the lowest fare class, often called Basic Economy. Also, airlines require you to cancel your ticket before departure, so don’t forget to cancel your unused flight.

Other Strategies To Help You Get Where You’re Going

enjoying coffee on a plane


Beyond the newly available strategy of booking backup flights, there are a few other time-tested techniques that you can use to minimize your chances of a flight disruption.

Book an Early Flight

First, try to book flights earlier in the day, as thunderstorms become more likely as the day goes on. And even when the weather is fine where you are, afternoon flights are more likely to be delayed due to late arriving aircraft from earlier in the day.

Get a Non-Stop Flight

When possible, always try to book a non-stop flight, even if it’s a little more expensive or it’s not on your favorite airline. That reduces your chances of a canceled flight by half. But if you must make a stop, try to find an itinerary that doesn’t require a change of planes. Doing this takes the stress out of making your connection. Southwest, in particular, makes it easier than most airlines to find and book flights with a stop but no change of plane.

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Be Proactive in Finding an Alternate Flight

When your flight is delayed, don’t rely on the airline to make things right. When your flight is canceled or you miss your connection, the best case scenario is that the airline’s mobile app automatically rebooks you on the most convenient alternative flight. But while it’s always important to have the airline's mobile app installed and to see if it helps, you should be prepared for the likelihood that it won’t give you the solution you want. It’s up to you to make the effort to have the airline re-accommodate you as soon as possible. 

When you’re not automatically rebooked on an acceptable new flight, immediately do your own search on the airline’s website for the next available flight. And if you’re flying Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, or United, look at available flights of the carriers you were not originally booked with because your airline may have a reciprocal agreement with them and could book you on its flight.

But even when you’ve found a suitable alternative flight, the greater challenge can be actually reaching a human at the airline who can help you. When weather disruptions affect numerous flights at once, there can be hundreds of people in line to speak with the airport agents, and hold times on the phone can stretch for hours. 

Rather than wait for either, you need to think a little outside the box. First, visit an airline lounge, if you have access, as I have found the agents there are usually the best at helping passengers. Alternatively, you could try to seek the help of a gate agent on the concourse, away from an endless customer service line. 

Another strategy is to try sending a direct message through (formerly Twitter). And, if all else fails, try leaving the secure area and trying to speak to a check-in agent. This may work best when you have TSA PreCheck® to minimize your delay going back through security to make your flight. Finally, I’ve heard that those who’ve called the airline and chosen the Spanish-speaking option often get through to an agent with far less waiting, and those agents are almost always bilingual. 

And When Nothing Works

Sometimes, you try every trick in the book, and you still can’t get a flight. This can happen when the weather is terrible, and all remaining flights are full. When this happens, see what the airlines offer, which you can find on the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Airline Customer Service Dashboard. Although this site will quickly tell you what your airline promises when a flight is canceled, you may have to wait in a long line to get the hotel and meal vouchers you’re entitled to. And sometimes, the hotel offered may not be a place that you want to stay at. 

This is when you can fall back on your credit card’s trip interruption or delay insurance or travel insurance. Many credit cards with these coverages allow you to be reimbursed for a hotel and meals during your delay, as well as transportation, if the delay is, for example, 12 hours or more or overnight. If you purchased your ticket with a card that offers this coverage, skip the lines and find your own hotel. Make sure to save your receipts and fill out the paperwork, and you should get a check within a few weeks.

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Bottom Line

When you travel by air, there’s never a guarantee that your flight will depart or arrive on time. But by taking every possible measure to minimize your chances of delay, you can avoid being like one of those people being interviewed on television about how they slept on the airport floor for days after their flight was canceled.


Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a journalist who specializes in covering credit cards, award travel and other areas of personal finance. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the credit card industry, Jason’s work has been featured at mainstream outlets such as Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money and Business Insider.