SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - The story I'm about to tell is similar to the one millions of Americans experience each year when traveling for the holidays, particularly to areas of erratic weather. However, telling the tale of my traveling nightmare after a family visit may very well serve those first time travelers or those stuck with similar experiences to understand that you do have choices that will make a bad situation work in your favor.
Being a California boy and in the middle of a historic drought, I did not miss the opportunity to visit my girlfriend's family back East for a snowy Thanksgiving. Everything was perfect and as peachy as could be. That is, until the return home back to Santa Barbara.
My girlfriend and I had decided to fly with United Airlines for this trip for the convenience factor. After arriving at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire at about 3 p.m. to check our bags, we were told that our flight had been delayed for an hour and a half due to a heavy snow storm at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, our first destination in our long return home. United failed to send out any type of alerts, whether it be through their app, email, text or call.
The United representative offered us a flight from Boston's Logan International Airport, the only catch, we had to drive there. We informed the United employee that we did not have means of transportation to get to Boston, and we had just returned our rental car. We asked if the airline would arrange our transportation to Boston. They informed us that was not possible.
If an airline offers you to place you in a flight at another airport, be sure you have your own means of transportation to get there before accepting the offer.
We took our chances and went ahead with the delayed flight hoping we would still be able to catch our connecting flight in Chicago. We had an airport-priced dinner, which is not cheap, but we conversed, told jokes, and made the best of it. Here's my first traveler tip: Always keep your spirits high. It will help you deal with any madness that comes your way.
At approximately 5:10 p.m., I approached the United counter at our gate to ask about the status of our flight. That's when they informed me the flight had been delayed another hour. A gentleman behind me overheard the United representative's response, and became visibly irritated and questioned why the airline had made no announcement of the latest delay. Soon after that exchange of words, a PA announcement informed United passengers of the delay.
An hour later, we were hit with another delay but this time it was for about 25 minutes. While I tried doing the math in my head, I kept telling myself we could still make our connection flight at O'Hare. About 30 minutes later, we started boarding the plane along with other passengers only to be told that the plane was being delayed yet again. All passengers already onboard were told to exit the plane. At this point, I knew we had missed our connecting flight, and the prospect of boarding the last flight to California, even if we made it to Chicago, seemed bleak.
All hope of making it home that night was lost when at about 8:30 p.m. local time, a United pilot made the announcement that our flight was effectively canceled as him and his crew were "timing out." Tip No. 2: Stay calm and collected and don't be afraid to ask questions about your flight options to airline's representatives.
As an influx of passengers approached the United counter demanding answers and flight rebookings, I approached the next available United representative to go over my trip options, while my girlfriend called nearby hotels for available rooms. The representative was nice enough to find the next available flight that worked for us, but never discussed any additional information for our current situation, such as lodging, until we practically pried the information out of her. We asked for vouchers, credits, upgrades, and anything we could think United could do for us as their customers to make our situation a bit more bearable.
Although we were told United would not provide credits or upgrades of any kind, the employee introduced us to the "Distressed Passenger" hotel rates. This is a rate the airlines and/or airports work out with hotels in the area wherein a daily rate for a room at a given hotel is lowered considerably to accommodate the impacted passenger.
This hotel rate applies to anyone who has had their flight either canceled or delayed and is forced to find lodging. In most cases, the airline representative gives the passenger a card, coupon, or other voucher with the "Distressed Passenger" rate so that the hotel has prove that you are indeed a distressed passenger. The key is to ask for it since it appears not many employees may readily share that information. Also, make sure the hotel you are staying at offers a complimentary shuttle to and from the airport.
Our suitcases were taken off the plane and waiting for us to pickup at the check-in counter.
We ended up staying at a Holiday Inn Express. The staff was friendly and nothing beats a warm buffet breakfast. A snow storm blanketed the area the next day, and my girlfriend and I made the best of the situation by touring the hotel, lounging at the fireplace in the lobby, watching TV, and when the storm had passed, even building a snowman.
A hotel shuttle took us to the airport early Tuesday morning, two days after our initial flight was canceled. If you had previously checked-in your luggage, save the receipt so that you don't get charged again. We left the tags on our suitcases just as extra evidence we had previously paid the $25 fee per bag. Any old tags will be replaced with new ones.
After boarding the plane, the flight was delayed for nearly 30 minutes due to icy conditions. This delay put us in an extremely tight timeframe to get to our connecting flight in Chicago. Before landing at O'Hare International, my girlfriend dug through the magazine and pamphlets in the back of a passenger seat hoping to find a map of the airport to determine where our next gate was.
Bingo! A "Hemisphere" magazine on the plane had a map of O'Hare showing the gate locations. To get to our connecting flight, we had to either walk about 20 minutes from our arrival gate, or take a shuttle. Either option was going to result in a missed flight. And if you think airline representatives will make the plane wait for you with a simple call, forget it! That's only in the movies.
Flights are under a tight deadline, and they will take off with or without you even if the situation is out of your control.
Luckily, airline representatives can help you find another flight, and always free of charge. In this case, we were directed to a flight leaving for San Francisco in just under an hour. Unfortunately, the gate was back in the terminal near where our landing gate was, but in this instance, we were able to walk instead of waiting for an airport shuttle, which could take a while, and made it just before boarding began.
If you have multiple people in your party, always request you stay together, but be aware that it may not always be possible especially in a flight that may be nearly full to capacity.
During long commercial flights, always assume you may be sitting next to crying kids. We experienced a little crying girl, about a year and a half to two years old, who threw a tantrum and even slapped her grandmother a few times. Fortunately, the plane had many empty seats that we were allowed to move to. Dare to ask for a complimentary alcoholic libation because you never know if a friendly flight attendant may just take pity on your situation and give you a little in-flight gift.
When boarding our last connecting flight at San Francisco International Airport, the tickets that had been issued to us in New Hampshire, were not functional. After the rest of the passengers boarded the plane, the United representative at the gate was able to fix our airline ticket and we were allowed to board for our final destination.
During your flight, try going through all of the pamphlets and magazines the plane offers. You may find really useful information there. In fact, a "Hemisphere" magazines found on one of the plane offered the following tips if your flight need to be rebooked:
- Stand By: If you're given a new itinerary but would prefer to take an earlier flight that is sold out, you can ask to be added to the standby list at no charge. If you don't get a seat, you'll be moved to the standby list for the next flight.
- Switching to a Nearby Airport: Flights into or out of nearby airports may be available, but only if you're able to arrange ground transportation. Taking this option can reduce your delay.
- Rescheduling Your Trip: You can reschedule or cancel your trip if your flight is canceled or delayed two hours or more by contacting your airline's customer support number.
- If your flight is canceled because of a mechanical issue or other circumstances within the airline's control, the airline will try to accommodate you in a nearby hotel at the airline's expense. For events outside the airline's control, such as weather, you may ask an airport representative for the airline about discount hotel options, but the airline will not pay for the hotel or meal expenses.
- If you're booked on a new itinerary, the airline promises to make every effort to reroute your checked bags. You may ask an airline representative about the status of your bags and if they can be rerouted.
- A toiletry kit may be provided by the airline if an overnight stay is necessary and they can't retrieve your checked baggage.
- If your bags arrive at your destination before you do, the airline promises to secure the bags until you claim them.
- If your baggage doesn't arrive at your final destination with you, you should speak with a Baggage Service representative.
It's important to know that you have many options that will make a nightmarish travel situation work positively for you. And no matter the situation, it is not the end of the world, even if sometimes it may feel like it.