How to deal with flight delays and travel hassles

An American travel expert - Roger Rapoport - gives his advice on how to deal with flight delays and travel hassles.

In the lowered-expectations world of air travel, some facts of life have changed for the better.

Meal cutbacks mean most passengers never hear the most daunting question in the air, "Chicken or beef?" Minus high-salt meals, flying is definitely safer.

And thanks to the miracle of hub travel, fewer flights, more crowded planes and staffing issues, many travellers find a routine trip gives them the opportunity to spend extra hours, even days, killing time at the airport of their choice.

Reduced airline capacity means fewer options, all at the passenger's expense. My son's recent trip back from Michigan to St Louis, a nine-hour drive or train ride, took 36 hours due to the inability of American Airlines to rebook him for an entire day. When he finally did catch a plane to Chicago, a missed connection to St Louis added another 12 hours to the trip.

My own experience with cancelled and seriously delayed flights runs the gamut from AWOL pilots who didn't want to fly on Christmas Day to carriers that refuse to offer any kind of credit or accommodation for a cancelled flight. Your lost time is definitely not their problem.

Unless you happen to own an airline you might wonder what if anything you can do to circumvent just a few of the following common problems:

-You have missed your connecting flight and are unable to make a connection until the following day, meaning your cruise is leaving without you.

-Your airline only operates a single flight a day to your destination and a backup aircraft won't be available for a day or longer.

-Your carrier is unable or unwilling to let you change a flight unless you buy a new ticket or pay a huge cancellation penalty.

To get around some of these problems, here are a few helpful suggestions that will prepare you for the deregulated caveat emptor world of air travel.

If you are taking any trip under 800km consider driving or taking a train or bus. Often this is a better deal in terms of cost and competitive when you factor in time. This way you don't have to run the risk of huge rebooking fees if your original itinerary changes. This is doubly true if you are flying with someone else.

Before you book, look for a nonstop and try to stay with a single carrier or one that it is part of an inter-airline alliance or partnership. This means they have the ability to get you to your destination on a partner carrier.

Much of the problem with air travel is missed connections. This can be a hang-up with budget carriers like Spirit and Ryanair, which assume no liability for their late arrival if it results in a missed connection on another carrier.

Even if you are connecting to one of their own flights, you will have to wait for the next available opportunity, which could mean being stuck for a day or longer if they are running or full or have a light schedule on the route you choose.

If there is no direct air service from your hometown airport to your final destination, consider flying nonstop to or from a convenient hub. It's often worth the drive. You can also skip the regional airline connection to your final destination by choosing a shuttle, rental car or train.

Take Santa Barbara, for example. If you're flying from Minneapolis you could head for Los Angeles and then take a ground shuttle to Santa Barbara. This way you can avoid the possibility of commuter flight delays in Los Angeles.

In places like Europe and Japan, where there are efficient rail systems, this alternative can be cheaper and faster when you factor in the reality of bad weather. Also, you may find that the shuttle connection to your spoke city is cheaper than a connecting commuter flight.

Hubs offer plenty of backup flights. If your scheduled flight is seriously delayed or cancelled, chances are you can probably easily book a later plane.

No matter how you travel it's almost always better to take the first flight when planes tend to be on schedule, unless there are serious weather issues like fog.

And no matter when you fly, always arrive at the airport at least two hours early. Cutting it close can be a special problem if you are carrying checked luggage.

Some airlines have an earlier check-in deadline for baggage than they do for passengers. I learned this sad fact after arriving at the Los Angeles airport 34 minutes early for a long flight. I was denied boarding because my bag was due 45 minutes ahead of departure. As I result I ended up on a redeye six hours later.

Wise travellers realise anything an airline tells you is subject to change but there are things you can ask them to do.

Ask the airline if they can book you to another city. Once, when a snowstorm closed all the New York airports, I was able to switch to an alternate Washington, DC, flight at no extra cost; an easy Amtrak connection put me in New York just a couple of hours late.

I am not a big fan of airline clubs mainly because it's often easy to duplicate or even beat their services at an on-premises airport hotel. But if you travel frequently they do offer one big advantage: In some circumstances they can call a departure gate and find out if there is space left on a supposedly sold-out flight.

I suggest the following caveats for people headed for weddings, cruises, major business meetings or any event that is time sensitive.

-Leave at least one day early, two if you really must be there.

-You are often better off booking through a travel agent or direct with an airline. If you go any other way contact the airline directly before you leave home to make sure that your flight arrangements are in order. When in doubt, book on the phone and discuss recommended connecting times based on the experience of the agent, who has a good feel for how long you should allow to get through the Frankfurt airport on a holiday weekend.

-If you have an early flight it makes more sense to spend the night at a hotel near the airport than it does to drive early in the morning.

-In large cities double check the name of the airport on your ticket and be sure you know the terminal number

-Carry minimum luggage.

-Prepay all extras such as luggage fees and print out your boarding pass with a reservation for an aisle seat.

-Go to the bathroom before you get in line at the ticket counter.

-Allow at least an extra hour if you are returning a rental car. Seriously consider the prepaid petrol option.

-Don't schedule any appointments within five hours of your flight unless they are within a couple miles of the airport.

-If the weather looks dodgy plan to be at your flight gate at least an hour and a half before departure.

-Wear sensible running shoes.

And bon voyage.

The writer is the publisher of the I Should Have Stayed Home trouble travel series, and has edited hundreds of stories from around the world about trips gone awry.

AP

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