Family travel tips for major airport delays

Everyone knows air travel delays are out of our control, and at best, inconvenient. There’s not much families can do about them other than wait and hope for the best. But what about big delays…the ones that can stretch for days? What then? Just about everyone who travels regularly has at least one extreme delay story. Here’s ours, followed by tips for major airport delays, to make the best of a bad situation.

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My son Tobias and I set out from Southern Oregon headed to Savannah, Georgia to review a hotel and gather some stories on the region. Our planned 12 hour travel day was on schedule until our layover in Chicago…where we crossed paths with their first snowstorm of the season. The storm brought blizzard conditions for two days straight, stranding just about everyone. Our flight that evening was delayed, then delayed again, and again, until it was finally cancelled well after midnight. Because our delay was due to weather, we were on our own to rebook our flights and put ourselves up for the night. We finally fell into a bed at a pretty terrible airport hotel at about 2 am.

The earliest flight I could find to rebook was a full 24 hours later, and we spent another full day in the airport. That flight, too, was cancelled. Faced with spending yet another night in a bad hotel and another day in O’Hare (and having missed 3/4th of our trip in Savannah at this point), we decided to cut our losses are book ourselves on a flight back home. This flight was scheduled for 36 hours later, so we got the heck out of the airport and enjoyed 36 hours in the city. The result: a stressful, awful few days ended in a spontaneous city getaway! How to make the most of your extreme delay:

While still in the airport:

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1. Be prepared to rebook when delays start stretching out. Minor delays are pretty routine, but when your flight is continuously delayed multiple times (often by increments of 15-30 minutes at a time), a cancellation may be in your future. You’ll want to do you best to beat others to the customer service counter, especially if you’re not a flyer with elite status. Locate the costumer service center for your airline (it will likely be in your terminal) ahead of time, so you’ll know where to go, and look up the 800 number so you can be calling while you wait in line. Note: you can’t rebook before your flight is officially cancelled…just be at the ready.

2. Once in that dreaded customer service line because of the dreaded cancellation, call the service number while you wait. It’s very possible you’ll be helped before you reach the front of the line. If your cancellation is due to mechanical issues, you’ll need to stay in line to get lodging and food vouchers, but if it’s due to weather, you’re now free to leave.

3. If you need to book a hotel, search for best rates using a 3rd party site (I recommend Trivago) but then call the hotel directly instead of booking online. The reason for this: you’ll find out if the hotel’s shuttle system is still running (they typically stop at 11 pm) and find out exactly where to wait for it. Plus, they’ll know you’re waiting and will usually make an extra run to the airport or offer you a voucher for a cab. Ask for the rate you found online and it will almost always be honored. Plus, by booking directly, you’ll be able to cancel the reservation much more easily should it be necessary for any reason. For example, when our flight was cancelled, I was flustered and made a reservation at the wrong location of the hotel chain I wanted. I called right back (within five minutes) and they were willing to cancel my reservation without a penalty. Had I booked through a large 3rd party site, I would have been responsible for the first night’s rate.

4. Consider paying for airport lounge access. If you’ll be delayed a long time and cannot leave the airport (you’re delayed all day rather than overnight, for instance), consider paying for your airline’s lounge access. The fee is usually around $30-$40 per person, and therefore rarely worth the money if you don’t have passes due to elite status or miles; however, in extreme cases, it can be of good value. For the price of admission, you’ll be able to wait in comport away from crowds, with unlimited snacks and soda (enough to make a few meals out of), free WiFi, and a bar (with some free drinks). Kids can stretch out, you can change your devices, and still keep an eye on your flight via monitors.

5. If you decide to cut your losses: if you’re delayed so long it’s no longer worth going to to your planned destination, there are several steps you need to take. Step 1: make sure you can cancel your planned hotel reservations, car rental, etc in your original destination. This will require some phone work and possible begging. If the delay is this long, there’s likely a good reason for it (epic snowstorm, hurricane, you get the idea) and usually you can find some mercy. Do this as soon as possible though, to avoid last-minute cancellation fees where possible.

Step 2: Head back to that customer service counter and explain that you no longer want to go to your final destination. Instead, you want to be rerouted home. This is called a Carry Over Carry Back. To do this without paying a re-scheduling fee, you’ll be asked to book the earliest option available. If you’d like to salvage some of your holiday, however, you’ll actually want to be rebooked home at least 24-36 hours later, so you can get out of the airport and have a little fun. This is the part where you’re very nice and polite to your desk agent. He or she has the power to bestow some goodwill your way, and help you out as much as possible. Acting angry and rude will not work. Believe me, I’ve seen it played out time and again. When we were delayed in Chicago, I was helped by several agents during my long layover, and all were kind and generous with what they could do. I believe this is because they are kind people, but also because I was kind and patient when talking with them.

Note: on most airlines, after you’re successfully rebooked home without a fee and in the time window you desire, you’ll keep the same confirmation number, but you won’t have boarding passes (because your flight will be more than 24 hours away). You also won’t be able to check in online or via the airline’s app, in our experience. You’ll need a desk agent to check you in when you return, so include that into your plans. You’ll also, in my experience, be issued two sets of boarding passes, one of which you’ll need to hand to the gate agent, even though you’ll already  have seats assigned. I have no idea why.

6. Once you’re all rebooked and ready to get the heck out of the airport, you’ll need a hotel. Don’t go to a lame airport hotel. This is your chance to salvage your trip! This is the time to book a nice hotel downtown in the city you’ve found yourselves in, upgrading yourselves silly. Trust me, you’ll be glad you pampered yourself, and probably, you’ll still spend less money than you planned to spend wherever you were going (because now your trip is much shorter). Call the hotel of your choice directly, so you can book their best rate (just like with the airport hotel) and to ask a local hotel desk staff member for the best directions and transportation method to the hotel. We like to use public transit when possible, but depending on the weather situation and location of your hotel, the hotel desk clerk may suggest a taxi or car service. If this is the case, ask for the approximate rate you should expect.

Once on your ‘new’ holiday:

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1. Use your hotel’s concierge. It has one, because you booked a nice place, right? Because this city wasn’t what you planned on, you probably are at a loss as to what to do and how to go about doing it. The concierge is your new best friend. He or she can tell you what maybe be happening that day or weekend in the city, any special events causing traffic, and what attractions are must-dos. During our trip to Chicago in the snowstorm, we only knew about a Thanksgiving parade because of our concierge. She also gave us exact directions to the best museums so we could stay dry and warm, and recommended a seasonal Christmas market.

2. Get some R&R. If your hotel has a club level, upgrade to it (many Westins and Grand Hyatts have these). If not, book a spa treatment or order room service. Buy that pay-per-view movie and watch it in hotel robes under the covers. Have a nice meal or try that excursion you never thought you’d do.

3. Reach out to social media. Get tips for your ‘new’ city, find out if far-flung family or friends live nearby, and ask for restaurant recommendations. I got a 25 ideas in less than an hour when I asked about Chicago! (Just don’t take rides or offers from strangers, of course.)

4. Allow time and budget for getting back to the airport. When your salvaged mini holiday is over, remember you’ll need to get yourselves back to the airport without the convenience of a free shuttle. Plan the time to take public transit, or, if your flight is very early in the morning, ask your concierge whether it’s best to hire a car service or take a taxi. Depending on the distance to the airport and the number of people in your party, the answer varies. Allow extra time to see an agent at check-in, since you likely won’t be able to check-in online, and extra time to see a gate agent.

With our impromptu 36 hours in Chicago, we had a magical time. We started with a chilly commute to our downtown hotel, but quickly made up for it with club level access and amazing views at Westin River North. The next day, we enjoyed a full day on the town, during which we said ‘yes’ to everything from hot cocoa to ice skating to souvenirs, and while our trip wasn’t what we planned on, I know we’ll have fond memories of our ‘stolen’ day in the Windy City.

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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  1. Generally when I am on vacation, I don’t rent a car I like to use the local public transportation like the bus or a taxi. I find it more fun. Great tips on budgeting your travel time and handling any delays. Delays can be difficult, but patience is key. Thanks for sharing!

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