News of Hurricane/tropical storm Elsa has been a topic of interest as all of us fly down to Fort Lauderdale this week. Since travel is back in full swing, but it may have been quite a while since you have flown, I thought I would visit some of the topics associated with air travel, particularly as there are some new aspects to flying you may not be aware of…
New Flying Habits, Weather Delays and Airline Obligations
This week’s news of Hurricane Elsa was of interest since I was schedule to fly down to Florida in the midst of the projected track. On top of that, there are some new considerations when flying that you may not be aware of, so first let’s talk about being prepared in a different way.
New Habits for Flying
Preparing for air travel in 2021, while travel is surging with reopened countries, but airlines are short-staffed due to covid, means packing a big bag of patience. You will likely see fewer check-in staff and gate agents, which translates to longer lines and delays.
As you plan for air travel this year, here are the tips for the smoothest flight:
- Arrive at the airport an hour earlier that than you normally would. There will be long lines and delays, so don’t start your holiday stressed out – add extra time so you know you can handle slow movement through check-in and security and still easily make your flight.
- Pack your own snacks for the plane and bring a refillable water bottle. Airlines are still somewhat constrained in providing drinks and snacks, and may not have extra beverages for a refill.
- Expect delays and bring what you need – external battery charger, charger cords, and options for entertainment – cards, a book, or extra movies downloaded on your iPad.
- Some flights are being cancelled because of lack of crew, so think through anything you’ll need if that happens, and make sure you have it in your carry on and not your checked luggage.
- Don’t check your medicine or keys in your luggage – you may not see those for a while.
Weather Delays and Airline Obligations
Beyond the new normal of staff shortages as planes start flying, weather-related issues introduce a new wrinkle. And usually, the advice I give for managing around weather delays on flight pretty much matches the Covid travel tips, but I’ll go through it in detail for future travels. Also, most folks are not aware of the airline obligations, so I wanted to touch on that too.
As maddening as delays and cancellations are, when they are weather-related, you are at the mercy of the airlines, and they do not have to compensate you. You just have to deal with it. So, let’s talk about how to handle the situation and prepare for the inevitable time you will be affected by a weather issue.
First off, airlines have no liability for delays or cancellations due to ‘force majeure’ or weather and acts of God. They will work to reschedule you to the next available flight, whenever that may be, or they may reroute you. No matter how long you may have to wait for your rescheduled flight (hours, days), they don’t have to provide meal or hotel vouchers. All the extra costs are your responsibility.
Travel Tips for Dealing with Weather Delays
Anticipating these situations and making minor changes to your packing routine can prepare you to more easily manage these circumstances calmly.
You never know when a delay may impact your travel, so be careful about what you pack in your checked luggage and what you put in your carry-on bag. If you are delayed for 6-10 hours, what might you need access to during that time? Medications for sure, eyeglasses, but also any critical business papers, travel vouchers with contact info, charging cords, electrical adapters for the foreign airports so you can charge your devices. I was delayed 8+ hours during a connection in the Paris airport, and was very glad I had a European adapter in my bag so I could continue to use my laptop.
Sometimes these delays can take place once you are on the plane. You’ve certainly heard stories of folks being stuck on the tarmac for 4+ hours, with no food or drink provided to the passengers as they waited. So, another tip is to include some snacks in your carry-on bag. Whether you are stuck waiting in the terminal after hours, or on a plane, having food handy in your bag can make a huge difference in dealing with a difficult situation. You might also want to buy a bottled soft drink from an airport vendor to put in your bag before boarding a flight if the weather seems iffy – in case you are delayed on the tarmac, or if your flight takes off but there is no beverage service because of turbulence.
If you find you typically fly through a connecting airport often, like JFK, it can be helpful to keep a list of nearby airport hotels with contact numbers, so you can find a hotel room more easily when space is filling up quickly because of widespread delays. If you are delayed by a huge storm where many flights are cancelled, and nearby hotels are already full, another tip is to not believe the hotel website. Call and talk with a real person. When I was in JFK a few years ago, all the desirable close-in airport hotels showed no availability on their websites. I called the one I stayed in six months earlier (see, these issues happen a lot!), and they had a room available. They had three. So, this is a case where you don’t want to depend on technology but rather make personal contact.
While airlines will not provide compensation for weather related delays or cancellations, travel insurance can help with the expenses that arise when dealing with flight issues. The key is to understand the terms of your travel insurance, in this case the section called Travel Delay; second, keep every single receipt for any expenses incurred – taxi, hotel, extra meal costs.
The US Department of Transportation says on their website (https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights): “Airlines don’t guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip. There are many things that can-and often do-make it impossible for flights to arrive on time. Some of these problems, like bad weather, air traffic delays, and mechanical issues, are hard to predict and often beyond the airlines’ control.”
For important events, like family weddings or critical business meetings, the most significant tip is to anticipate a delay and build in extra time when you are scheduling your flights. You don’t want to miss a crucial appointment because you trusted the airline schedule – whether it’s a delay for weather, or even a mechanical delay where they compensate you with a hotel night, assume something bad can happen to mess up your plans, and plan some contingency to ensure a successful trip.