NEW YORK (MainStreet) — I'm currently booking a flight and deciding on a window or aisle seat for next Wednesday. (A small joke there. We're flying United where it apparently costs extra to pick a seat now.) You see, my fiancée and I recently sat down to buy our tickets home for Thanksgiving, and, as everyone knows, going home for the holidays may be many things, but it certainly isn't cheap.
Tucked into the corner of every Norman Rockwell painting is someone weeping quietly over a credit card bill.
Still, the only thing worse than having to pay through the ear, nose and throat for a seat designed to inspire body image problems is doing so and then not even getting on the plane at all. Speaking anecdotally, three out of my last four flights had been oversold, leading to harassed gate clerks trying desperately to find someone (anyone) willing to give up his seats. On a recent trip from Boston to Chicago, they needed as many as twelve volunteers, because evidently it made sense to sell a full dozen seats beyond what they'd installed on the plane.
According to the Department of Transportation, over 120,000 people gave up their seats in the third quarter of this year. That may sound like an enormous number until you compare it to the 161,930,846 people who successfully got on their plane. Still, to put it in context, here's an idea of just how many passengers were left clutching grossly oversized carry-on bags and watching their flight from the airport bar.
It's a lot of people. So the question is, what to do this holiday season if you're one of them? It will certainly be at least some of us. According to Stephen Ebbett, president of the lifestyle insurance company Protect Your Bubble, nearly 25% of consumers say that they've had a flight delayed or canceled during the holiday season. It's a very real issue.
"We all hear stories anecdotally about travel delays and cancellations because of the weather and such, and we wanted to get a feel for how serious that was," Ebbett said. Unable to find meaningful data, the company ultimately decided to do its own survey and discovered that a quarter of all travelers face problems getting on their planes during the holiday season.
"We wanted to dig in a bit further, so we followed up with that audience with some more questions trying to get an understanding of what the issues were and what it was about," he said. "It was interesting to see that there seemed to be more delays than final cancellations... We found that 40% [of travelers] had to wait at the airport for another flight for more than four hours. 11% have had a situation so severe, and such a desire to get to their destination, that they had to rent a car."
So, what to do if it happens to you?
For most travelers the first line of defense seems to be either waiting it out or trying to get on another plane. If that's the case, Ebbett recommends moving fast. Even one delayed flight means hundreds of passengers scrambling to find new reservations, especially since no delay happens in a vacuum. A plane that never leaves LaGuardia never gets to Hartsfield and so doesn't makes it to Detroit-Metro and so on. Customer service quickly gets overwhelmed. If you want their help, it's best to be first in line.
It's also good to remember the great Steve Martin's documentary on the subject of holiday travel.
"We see a kind of dogged determination to get to where they want to get to," Ebbett said of the consumers his company works with. "[Thanksgiving] is such an important family time, even more so than Christmas. We'll travel the length and breadth of the country to be with our family and friends."
The moral of the story is that you'll be competing against a sky full of travelers just as determined to get home as you are. Whatever you do, move fast. Once it feels like that 20 minute delay might never leave the ground, start looking into your options to rebook. If that doesn't work, there's always Plan B.
Rent a car.
"People talked about cars being the most primary option," Ebbett said. "They talked about Amtrak as well, but it seemed that over some of the distances people were talking about, Amtrak is a slightly slower way of getting there."
Trains can get you where you need to go, but only as long as your destination is on or near the rails. Make sure to take a trip to Amtrak.com though.
A combination can also work, and for anyone traveling long distance may be the most appealing option. Most problems happen on popular, crowded routes. If you can reschedule to a nearby airport or a train station slightly off the grid then drive the rest of the way home, it opens up a world of options. For travelers trying to get to Chicago, for example, look at flights headed into Gary, Indiana or Detroit. It will add hassle and complications but can mean the difference between home-sweet-home and a night at the airport hotel.
Plan ahead when booking too. Scheduling an early departure can give you options in case problems come up later. Getting up at 5 a.m.for an 8:00 a.m. flight is no one's idea of fun, but it opens up the entire day in case anything goes wrong. By 9 p.m. at night, your options to rebook have dwindled significantly.
Taking advantage of third-party services also is a smart choice. Programs like Ebbett's Protect Your Bubble or the American Express concierge, while not always cheap, do give you quick access to someone who can not only start looking for new flights while everyone else is on hold but who will search all available airlines. Trying to rebook through your carrier means that you'll only get the flights available through them and their partners. Depending on your ticket that might mean functionally everyone, but it's hard to tell.
The advantage of a third party program over simply logging onto the wi-fi yourself is that they often come with trip insurance and might cover the costs of rebooking. If you just find the flight solo and the airline doesn't recognize it, you might be on the hook for an entire second ticket.
Ultimately, cancellations are a part of life in today's travel industry and will naturally hit hardest in a season when the weather's bad and lots of people are flying. The best thing to do is plan ahead and move quickly if disaster strikes. After all, scrambling to find a new booking or unused sedan might make for a difficult night, but at least you'll be home for the holidays.
--Written for MainStreet by Eric Reed, a freelance journalist who writes frequently on the subjects of career and travel. You can read more of his work at his website www.wanderinglawyer.com.