How to Survive a Flight Cancellation

Self photo in mirror
48 hours after being delayed, I’m still smiling!

My recent vacation in Costa Rica was perfect. The weather, the activities, the company … everything was stellar.

And then I boarded my plane in San Jose for my flight home. That’s when things started going wrong. I’ll get into the details at a later date, but suffice to say that the flight was canceled, and all 130+ passengers (which included one baby and one dog) were stranded in Costa Rica. Most of use were stuck for the night, and a good percentage of us were delayed yet another day once we finally got stateside. All told, I arrived home 48 hours later toting two flight vouchers and a ridiculously awesome story.

What I learned during the those two days, though, was priceless. If you’re ever caught in the same situation I was in, here are a few tips to help you survive your flight cancellation:

Know your rights.

That is to say, know the few rights that actually exist. There were all kinds of rumors circulating while I was stuck in Costa Rica about what we, as passengers, were entitled to. According to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are no federal requirements that airlines compensate passengers in the event of a flight delay or cancellation. Every airline has its own policy regarding how passengers will be compensated for the inconvenience. In other words, be thankful for what you do get when your flight is canceled, and know that you need to plan well enough to deal with other expenses (such as hotel reservations, car rentals or other flights) you’ve invested in at your final destination. This is where travel insurance comes in handy.

Don’t get angry.

Trust me, the airline didn’t want to cancel your flight. Whether it’s due to bad weather or mechanical problems, having to cancel a flight is a royal pain in the butt for airlines. Mounds of paperwork, tons of logistical issues and a ridiculous amount of money all go in to getting the problem resolved as quickly as possible. It’s also important to realize that the people working at the gate are doing what they can to get information to you. They don’t have all of the answers, and they are not necessarily able or obligated to give you anything and everything you ask for. Remaining patient and saying “please” and “thank you” will go a long way in getting you on a plane as soon as possible.

Have clothes to spare.

I pack light, and I’d stunk up my three t-shirts the week prior as I toured around Costa Rica. On my extra night in Costa Rica, I had to do an emergency wash cycle in my bathroom sink so that I had something to wear the next day. This wasn’t a big deal for me as I often do sink laundry when I travel, but if you need clean clothes to feel comfortable, make sure you pack an extra shirt and a couple extra pairs of underwear just in case you get stuck somewhere due to a flight cancellation.

Commiserate and bond.

This is not a personal attack on you. You aren’t the only person going through the flight cancellation. We learned that the best way to deal with the situation was to make the best of it by getting to know our fellow passengers and turning the negative experience into a positive one. Our group of passengers bonded with each other over happy hour, had a variety show once our flight finally reached cruising altitude and set up a Facebook fan page so that we could share photos, videos and memories about the good things about being stranded in Costa Rica together.

Have you ever been on a canceled flight? What other tips helped you pull through the situation?

13 Responses to “How to Survive a Flight Cancellation”

  1. Katharine

    I’ve had several flights cancelled on me. The the first and easiest was a flight from Southern California back up to Seattle, the airline put us up at a hotel and we just caught a flight the next day. We ended up coming home a day late but it really wasn’t a big problem.

    The second time my flight got cancelled, it was the last leg of a cross-country trip into a minor regional airport. Unfortunately we HAD to get to our final destination that night, luckily there was another minor regional airport within 200 miles of our original destination. We were able to get onboard a flight to the second airport that night and then we drove to our original destination. Unfortunately that was also the only time all our luggage got lost. It took 48 hours for the airline to find it and we never did get our carseat back.

    The third time my flight got cancelled, it was because our destination airport was closed due to snow. There were literally THOUSANDS of cancelled flights. As my husband tried to figure out a new travel plan at the check-in desk my youngest son went into complete meltdown (high stress plus a missed nap does not end well). Fortunately, his tantrum was overshadowed by the tantrum a 50-year-old man was throwing farther down the desk… our son at least got sympathy from the other passengers. We ended up stuck at our lay-over city for five days. We took the opportunity and turned it into it’s own mini-vacation (which is easy when your layover city is NYC).

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Wow ~ those are some serious flight cancellation stories. With as much as I travel, I think I’m pretty lucky just getting stuck the one time.

      Reply
  2. Candice

    Hahaha, wish I had kept my cool like you did while my flight was cancelled on the way back from Mexico! Great attitude.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      You were stuck in Mexico and you lost your cool? Having a flight canceled in Mexico doesn’t sound too bad.

      Reply
  3. Leigh

    I had a flight changed on me last year & we were never notified. After 2 hours of being extremely pleasant in the Tucson airport we were finally able to get our tickets changed to a different airline. You can read my blog description here: http://bit.ly/fFUN3A. Basically you want the ticket agent to PUSH your ticket onto the airline you want to fly on. The other word for this type of transaction is FIM – or Flight Interruption Manifest.
    Forty eight hours of being in transit would make me grumpy. I always carry a good book just in case I am delayed.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      There were no other flight options where I was. Apparently if an airline is in a partnership with other airlines that are headed to your destination then you have a better chance on getting the bump you need, but there were no partnerships where I was.

      Reply
  4. Christine

    I’ve never had a flight cancelled but we came very close in Hawaii–one of the flight attendents got an awful migraine and thus was unable to fly. Luckily another flight attendant who was actually on her vacation in Honolulu agreed to fly over so that we could fly home that day–even if it was delayed by several hours! Everyone at the gate cheered when her flight finally arrived and she walked to our gate. Even though we were all a bit frustrated, it was awesome to see her get such a great welcome–and so many individual thank-yous! The rest of the crew was super nice about it, too–they felt so awful about their coworker with the migraine. Always helps to be patient and say thank you!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      What a story! I can’t imagine them canceling a flight because a flight attendant had a migraine!

      Reply
  5. Bluegreen Kirk

    I never actually experienced a cancellation but like you stated airlines don’t want to cancel your flight its just a pain for them.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      It’s a hassle, and it’s exceedingly expensive. I was surprised to learn about all of the additional costs associated with canceling a flight.

      Reply
  6. Kristin

    That pretty much turned out to be the best unexpected travel delay ever. It was lovely to get to know you!

    I think I told you our other flight problem story during happy hour- storms in Rome made us miss our connecting flight in Frankfurt (and made me get airsick on myself during landing). Cut to the “no more flights to the Western US today” scene and the “sorry, your luggage was put on the flight they wouldn’t let you on, here’s a toothbrush” scene and then send us to a hotel for the night. At least we didn’t have to eat at Denny’s!

    My additional travel advice in this situation is to make sure you don’t have anything you absolutely HAVE to do the day after you get back, just in case. Plan a buffer day after every international flight.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      It was a lot of fun chatting with you too, Kristin! Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment.

      Great advice about leaving yourself a free day the day after you’re supposed to return home. 24 hours can go a long way!

      Reply
  7. Richard Kyereh

    There is something call Flight Interrupted Manifest (FIM) which make airlines transfer passenger to other airlines in times of technical or operational cancellation. This FIM helps not to inconvenient passengers and enhances passenger service delivery

    Reply

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