Most frequent fliers will agree that between lengthy security measures and strict baggage guidelines, air travel is rarely stress-free, and when you throw extreme winter weather like snowstorms in the mix, you’re likely in for more flight cancellations and flight delays. While it may seem like avoiding flights to places prone to extreme weather conditions like Denver, Detroit, New York City (and most of the Midwest while we’re at it) is the easiest way to avoid long delays, there are proactive steps you can take to adjust your travel plans and stay in the know when you know winter weather is coming.
Know Your Rights
When weather causes a flight cancellation, passengers' rights vary according to the terms they agreed to upon buying the ticket. While the United States doesn't enforce any minimum compensation for the inconvenience, the European Union does require its airlines to pay compensation and provide meals or even hotel rooms for cancellations or delays exceeding two hours. The rule applies to all flights departing from European Union countries. Stateside, the airlines are required to provide food, water and bathroom access if you are stuck on a plane or the tarmac for two hours. After three hours, you must receive the option to disembark the plane.
Call While You Wait
Instead of just waiting with the throng, maximize your means of communication by calling the airline while you wait in line at your airline's customer service desk. Different airlines have different contracts of carriage, meaning that the weather-related cancellation might entitle you to a hotel stay, food vouchers, a replacement ticket or none of the above, depending on the airline. Have your flight number and confirmation number on hand when you call. When you do speak with someone, confirm that the canceled flight is canceled in your record, but that the return flight is still confirmed, should you plan to take it.
Tap Insurance Options
If you purchased travel insurance for your trip either through your airline or a third-party, it can defray some of the costs associated with your flight cancellation. This usually will include costs related to extra nights at hotels or meals if you are stranded in your destination while waiting for a return flight. Some credit cards – Chase Sapphire and Citi Prestige, for example – also offer automatic trip insurance if you used them to purchase your flight. Regardless of the provider, check the fine print carefully to see what is covered. Your spending, for example, will have a cap depending on the policy, so don't expect your misfortune to be a chance to try out fancy hotels and restaurants.
Flight status information can change quickly, especially as it pertains to weather. Luckily, there are a variety of ways to stay updated while you’re stuck at the airport.
Check the Website
If you have access to the Internet, checking an airline's website is often the fastest route to determining the current status of your flight. Once you know that the flight is canceled due to weather, you can log in online to determine whether you have already been booked on another flight. Although you won't get the chance to consult with a representative, at least you can gain some information without waiting in line or waiting for a representative to attend to you. Flightaware.com can also give you helpful information regarding your flights anticipated take-off time.
Pursue Alternative Communication Channels
For airlines like American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest Airlines, it’s easy to track your flight information through their respective airline app. For the technologically savvy, certain social media platforms might offer flight information as well. Many airlines offer notifications by text message, email, recorded phone calls or even Twitter. Major carriers including Delta and JetBlue use Twitter as an additional platform for customer service, sometimes rebooking flights through the social networking tool.
If you're in the airport and the weather conditions are expected to clear up soon, the airline may be able to book you onto a later flight. Its later flights may be sold out, however, as your fellow passengers will also be scrambling for seats, so be proactive by calling the airline's customer service number on your cell phone while waiting in line at the customer service desk in the terminal -- you never know which method will connect you to help faster. If the airline doesn't have seats available on a later flight, or isn't booking anyone onto flights, another airline may have a seat for you. Many airlines have a policy that if they can't accommodate you, they will get you a seat on a competitor's flight without charge because of the disruption.
Airlines often can predict when they'll have to cancel flights because of snowfall, unlike mechanical breakdowns, and in such cases, you may be able to deal with your cancellation without leaving home. If a winter storm is coming, some airlines will allow you to reschedule your flight for a later date without paying the usual flight-change fees. In the 24 hours before your flight is scheduled to depart, there should be information on the airline's website that explains how to change your flight online or by calling customer service. Sign up for notification alerts when you book your flight to ensure you are getting news of cancellations as early as possible. Some apps, such as KnowDelay, use weather reports to predict delays before they’re even announced. The bad weather will still strand you, but you won't be out any money or stuck at the airport. Always be sure to read the terms of the your ticket before arriving at the airport for any information regarding cancellation and rebooking policies.
Wait it Out
As snow is unpredictable, and cleaning off the runways and planes takes time, you may have to wait several hours to days before you can get a flight out on any airline. In the meantime, the only thing to do is settle in the airport lounge, or somewhere else where you can easily access new flight information. A customer service agent can tell you if the company issues meal vouchers for stranded passengers. In the case of significant delays, they also may help get you a hotel room, though when weather is to blame, the airline won't pay for your stay.
For more information regarding weather-related travel cancellations, go to the Department of Transportation at www.transportation.gov.