With a fresh Nor’easter headed for New York and New England this weekend, airlines have loosened up rules on restricted tickets in order to help travelers avoid being stranded. For this storm and every other act of nature affecting air travel, realize that you have a great deal of leverage to re-tool your travel plans to your advantage–even if you are not directly affected by bad weather. Through proactive action you can position yourself to avoid extended delays, cancellations, and the horrible feeling of being trapped.
Let’s take a look at the travel waiver polices of the three majors this weekend for the Northeast storm–
AA’s list of eligible cities is limited and the same fare class must be available on your new flight (“original inventory required”). That doesn’t mean if you purchased an economy ticket there must be economy class space open but rather that your exact fare class within the wide range of economy class fares must be available. AA does have a generous re-booking window (7-11 February). There is no mention of refunds and AA is stingiest of the big three when it comes to refunds–you may have to fight for it, even with a significant flight delay.
Unlike American and United, Delta makes it easy to modify your itinerary online during irregular-operations like winter storms. If your flight is not directly affected, Delta will allow you to change your plans without imposing a change fee, but like American Airlines, if your lower fare class is not available, you will likely have to pay any fare difference due.
One thing I loved about the pre-merger United Airlines was how flexible the carrier was during irregular-operations. The post-merger United is a bit more rigid, but still willing to bend rules in your favor in case of bad weather. United’s policy this weekend is that you can make complimentary same-day changes to alternate flights or routings–even if your original fare class is not available and even if your booked flight is not affected by a delay or cancellation. For non same-day changes, the change fee is waived but any difference in fare will be collected. Still–like Delta, United hedges its rule by saying a difference in fare “may” apply (as opposed to “will”).
Here are my five tips for dealing with an affected flight–
1. Act persuasively. Tell the agent exactly what you want. Do this as succinctly as possible and make sure you cite the “storm” as the reason for your proposed change. Agents are empowered at most carriers to waive rules and fare differences under the proper circumstances and it will behoove you to be a salesman–make a convincing argument to close the deal.
2. Act immediately. As someone who eats, sleeps, and breaths airlines, I watch both award and revenue inventory fluctuate by the second. There is rarely time to think about your options very long–if you find your flight cancelled, get something booked, even if it is not ideal. If you find something better, chances are you can change your trip again without fee.
3. Act preemptively. Even if your flight is not delayed or cancelled, if you are flying out of Boston at 6pm and a storm is due to blanket the city at 4pm, chances are your flight will be delayed or cancelled. Adjust your flight schedule early, lest you find yourself with no options later.
4. Act smartly. Make life easy for the agent–if your flight is cancelled or delayed, it won’t hurt to tell a sob story, but don’t berate the agent: they certainly do not have control over the weather. What they do have some control over is whether to (over)book you on a particular flight. Be sweet and understanding and they will be much more willing to help.
5. Act often. Your re-booked flight may itself run into cancellations or delays. Set automatic alerts (from AA, DL, UA) and monitor your flights if the weather is bad. One change may not be enough–when a bad storm hit Philadelphia last autumn, I ended up making six changes to a San Francisco – Philadelphia United ticket.
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Be patient throughout this time–use Skype so you can multi-task while waiting on hold. Even I have experienced excruciatingly long hold times during times of bad weather so do not let the time go to waste.
I hope the tips above will help you avoid cancellations and delays that frankly are not necessary if you are savvy about it.