It’s that time of year again. Yes, it’ll feel great to be home, chilling out, stuffing yourself, falling asleep on the sofa. But boy, it’s going to suck getting there.
That’s because 24 million people will travel on US airlines over the Thanksgiving period (up 6 percent from last year), according to the TSA. This week, even a short flight will feel like an epic journey, with many perils and demons to vanquish.
Airlines stand at the ready, fully staffed and prepared to tackle crummy weather, broken planes, staff calling in sick, and whatever else may happen. But they can’t plan for everything, and delays are inevitable.
As you prepare for this fight, you’re carrying a weapon you might not even know about: your rights. Not the first amendment right to yell at gate agents (which helps no one), but law-given privileges created to keep you safe, comfortable, and sane as you battle your way home.
Here, then, brave traveler, are some of the beacons to use to guide you on your epic holiday quest. Onwards!
In the Airport
Before getting to the legal stuff, a few general tips. First, know your enemy. Some airports are more prone to delays than others. Data visualization firm Graphiq assembled Bureau of Transportation stats into this handy chart. If you’re flying out of or into one of these hubs, be prepared to wait.
You’ve heard this before, but it bears saying again: Get to the airport early. Every step from check-in to security to boarding will take longer than usual over the holidays. If somehow it all goes smoothly, you can kill time trying to download some TV shows over the crappy airport WiFi. Or hit the bar.
The law says airlines must alert passengers to delays of 30 minutes or more, but the US Department of Transportation cautions those estimates are not guarantees. Weather can worsen, mechanical issues can prove more complicated than initially thought. Think of delays as a minimum wait time, and adjust your expectations accordingly.
If your delay is significant (think several hours) or your flight is cancelled, and you can find a better option on another airline, ask your carrier if they’ll “endorse” your ticket over to the new one. They don’t have to, but they might, and it’s worth a shot.
How you’ll be treated when things go wrong comes down to each airline’s “conditions of carriage”—a document they write and file with the government. They decide what they’ll cover, but once the thing’s written, they can’t renege.
For example, no rules insist airlines provide food vouchers, or help you find a hotel, but many say they’ll do as much. It’s always worth asking—and pulling up the thing to hold them to their word (a quick online search should turn it up).
If the delay is so bad you decide to cancel your trip and eat turkey cold cuts at home, you have the legal right to a refund—even if your ticket is non-refundable. Make sure to ask for your checked bag fee back too.
On the Tarmac
Say the flight is on time, but the airline overbooked it, figuring some passengers wouldn’t turn up. If everybody shows, the gate agents will bump as many as necessary. They’ll ask for volunteers first, usually with a modest pile of cash attached. If you refuse the deal and get bumped anyway, the airline must give you a written notice explaining your rights, and usually a compensation check. That can be as much as 400 percent of the cost of your one-way fare, depending on how long you’re delayed. Not a terrible deal, depending on how eager you are to get home.
So, you’ve passed through the airport and wedged yourself into that middle seat. Then the plane sits on the tarmac, unmoving as the waiting area you just left. It might be the weather or a mechanical hiccup. The good news, if you can call it that, after two hours, the airline must provide food and water, along with working lavatories. If the delay runs to three hours (four, if you’re flying international), they have to open up the sardine can and let you out.
You can thank a few highly publicized cases in 2008 and 2009 of people trapped on planes for hours that pushed the DOT to mandate the rules. The penalties don’t mess around—after Southwest broke the law in 2014, the DOT fined it $1.6 million.
Then there’s the good ol’ “my bag didn’t arrive with me” issue. Report it to the airline immediately—oftentimes, it just didn’t make it, and will arrive on the next flight. You are entitled to compensation for reasonable expenses while waiting, like a toothbrush and a change of underwear. Don’t go crazy. And hey, there are worse things than wearing those awful clothes your mom dug out of the attic.
If you do need help when you’re flight is delayed or cancelled, skip the line of people waiting to holler at the customer service desk. Calling the airline’s support number can often get you to a sympathetic human faster who can rebook you. And don’t underestimate social media: Big airlines have people checking Twitter, and they don’t like being criticized in public.
It’s also worth checking in advance what benefits your credit card offers. Some provide delay and cancellation insurance, or, in fancier cases, a concierge to help you get another flight.
Hopefully it will all go smoothly. But don’t relax just yet. Stats say Thanksgiving isn’t even the worst time for travel delays. So maybe just spend Christmas at home.
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