Daybook · On Places & Travel

Surviving Stuck at the Airport: 12 Tips

Here are 12 tips distilled from my Las Vegas travel nightmare:

  1. Be cautious about acting on flight status updates: Checking flight status on line can help you avoid lots of extra time at the airport, but a lot depends on why you're delayed. If you're delayed because the plane you're supposed to be on hasn't
    arrived yet, as opposed to air traffic control delay, it's less likely
    to shrink suddenly.Air traffic control delays are capricious, and can grow or shrink, sometimes dramatically. If you really don't want to miss your flight, and you see your flight is delayed because of air traffic control, you're still best off being at the airport at least a half hour before your scheduled departure.
  2. Gather intelligence: Although it's tempting to tune out at the airport, if things aren't going quite right, you need information. Pay attention, sit near the podium or near the door to the gate where airport staff tend to congregate, eavesdrop shamelessly. The information you gather won't always be accurate –for instance, I later learned that Las Vegas does have de-icing equipment, just not enough of it and in the right places to prevent disruption –but the spirit of the information was accurate enough.
  3. Always be nice to airport personnel. Yelling accomplishes less than nothing. Do whatever you have to do to be charming and nice. 
  4. Pre-feed your phone: Before you leave home, make sure you have the phone number of your airline programmed into your phone.
  5. Phone is better than face-to-face: Time is of the essence when a flight cancels, you're competing with all of your fellow passengers for a seat on another flight, and standing online to talk to the gate agent is just a waste of it –there's nothing that they can do for you that the 800 number cannot.
  6. Be a repeater. All it takes is a slip of the finger to misenter
    a date. Use specific dates when you're handling things over the phone,
    and have every thing read back to you.
  7. Make a power plan: it's easy to run down your cell battery chatting to friends and family if you're delayed for a while, but you're really going to need that phone to talk to airline (see above), arrange hotel and so on.  Make sure you have your charger in your carry-on (and find a wall outlet) or pack a battery-powered emergency charger.   
  8. Think about how you'll make backup hotel arrangements. It was a surprise to many of my fellow passengers that the airlines didn't just make hotel arrangements for everyone, but while policies vary from airline to airline, the best bet is not to count on the airline to do a thing for you. Some will give you vouchers for free or discounted hotel rooms, many will only give you a list of area hotels offering "distressed traveler's rate", and these may sell out fast. I was lucky that I was in Las Vegas at a slow time, so there were plenty of rooms, and further, that Andrew was still in town and just made my arrangements for me.  If you don't have a buddy waiting to jump in,  you can call  Expedia 1-800-EXPEDIA and Orbitz 1-888-656-4546 to book rooms, or deputize someone at home who can use a computer to help you find the best rate on a hotel room.
  9. Have emergency funds: To avoid sleeping in the airport, you've got to have some emergency cash or credit available to cover a few extra days.
  10. Be Elite: if you're really close to achieving elite status on an airline, or
    jumping up a level, and you travel enough to make this worthwhile,
    consider purchasing miles to jump up a level before you leave home. Not only was I able to call a different reservations number, I was also ahead on the standby list, since the airline prioritizes standby passengers by their elite status, among other factors.  (There were 25 people on the list all together, I think only 10 made it on that flight. I even got a window seat.)
  11. Prepare to Carry On: Standby is always a judgment call, but it's worth a try if you're not too far on the list. It's best to do this if you're not checking bags, though, so when you're packing, think about how you'll carry your bags on if need's be. (Leave the jumbo sized toiletries at home, for instance.)
  12. And finally, universally: It never hurts to be lucky.