Holiday Travel 101: How to Avoid 5 Airline Horror Stories

Delayed? Stranded? Bumped? Diverted? Know the policies – and your rights – before you go, so you don't lose your cool this holiday season

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Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Bruno Rocha sleeps on the floor of John F. Kennedy Airport after having his flight to Brazil delayed due to a winter storm.

“We always have to do better,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at a recent gathering of 250 government officials, who came together to discuss what could be done to avoid cascading airline delays caused by weather. The summit was called following a much publicized debacle in October, when at least three planes were stranded for nearly eight hours on a Connecticut airport tarmac.

Some of the recommendations that resulted from the conference — writing airport contingency scenarios that incorporate plans from airlines, creating a central website with airport information about diversions — are logical and welcome. But despite recent additions to the somewhat informal passenger bill of rights, there is still confusion among passengers who are hoping to fly this holiday season as to what they can expect to happen in the event of delays, cancellations or closures. Here’s what you need to know in navigating around unexpected weather-related winter mishaps.

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If you are bumped:
This common issue, which arises when an airline has overbooked a flight, isn’t necessarily weather-related. While overbooking isn’t illegal (after all, sometimes people just don’t show up), airlines are required to make other accommodations for people who are booked on overcapacity flights. First, they’ll likely ask you to give up your seat in exchange for a voucher. Delta will offer up to $650 for flights that will land within two hours of your original flight and up to $1,300 if a delay is more than two hours. American Airlines has the same upper limits on compensation for both domestic and international flights but will start paying up if the new flight lands more than one hour after the original one. If for some reason you’re stuck overnight at the airport, some airlines, including Delta and U.S. Airways, will put you up in a hotel — though that’s “subject to availability,” of course.

If your flight is canceled:
It’s pretty disheartening to get to the airport — often an exhausting experience in itself — only to find that your flight is delayed five hours or canceled altogether. Even more discouraging: there is no official government policy, and no consistent industry standard, as to how passengers are to be accommodated or compensated. The Department of Transportation (DOT) page explaining the rights of air travelers points out that “contrary to popular belief, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled … compensation is required by law only when you are ‘bumped’ from a flight that is oversold.”

The most common airline response to cancellations or delays is to rebook you on the next available flight, especially if the cancellation is within the airline’s control. Weather-related cancellations or air-traffic-control issues are not within the airline’s control, which is too bad because those two factors cause a lot of cancellations. If you’re stuck overnight, unless the airline is clearly at fault, you may have to pay for overnight stays yourself — or grab an empty spot on the floor of the airport. Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals, says that a cool attitude is key: “Don’t take anything anyone says personally.” While it might seem like it’s you against the representative at the counter, try to remember that those tending to you are working hard during peak travel time and may not even get to see their own families during the holiday. A good attitude will go a long way toward enticing them to go the extra mile on your behalf.

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