The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Canceled Flights and Other Travel Challenges

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Rolling black clouds welcomed me to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport one morning in 2017 as my United flight from Toronto landed on time. Bad news came a few minutes later.

Thanks to this severe storm front, my connecting flight to Houston and home was canceled, along with dozens of other flights. Thus began a 15-hour adventure as I worked feverishly to find creative solutions to being stuck in a major airport.

If you’re paying attention to the headlines, you know that delayed and canceled flights and other travel challenges like I experienced are more and more common. 

image: plane flying in the air

Over the years, I’ve flown many flights, domestic and international. Unfortunately, I’ve occasionally run into glitches, from short flight delays to oversold flights that canceled my standby status, to flights rescheduled for a day or two later.

When you fly, whether for business, pleasure, or a combination of the two, life can get interesting at the airport.

image: crowd of people at airport flight delays and cancellations

In this article, I’ve consolidated my years of experience handling travel challenges like flight delays and cancellations into a comprehensive guide on preparing for and surviving them.

Hopefully, these several dozen tips will make your next travel hurdle a little less of a headache.

image: woman sitting on airport floor next to rolling carryon with airplane behind her because of delayed or canceled flight

Why are flights canceled?

Flights are rescheduled, delayed, or completely canceled for many reasons:

  • Weather or natural disasters
  • Staff problems — Restrictions in the number of hours pilots and flight attendants may work.
  • Security issues
  • Union strikes
  • Mechanical problems
  • Unruly passengers

What are flight trends at any given moment? View live data about flight delays and cancellations globally and just in the U.S.

Ways to Prepare for Delayed and Canceled Flights Before You Travel

Just as with preparing for emergencies and disasters, the time to prepare for travel challenges is BEFORE you’re experiencing them. Here are some ways to do that:

Stay Updated About Current Events

The first rule to follow is to stay updated with weather, natural disaster, and airline developments in the days and hours leading to your flight so you’ll know how to prepare. Monitor both your departure and destination airport.

There is always a chance of surprises. However, I prefer they not be ones I could have known about if I had made an effort.

Join a Frequent Flyer Program

I have several dozen tips for you to survive flight cancelations, but my first one is something you should do weeks and months before your next flight — become a loyal customer to the airline(s) of your choice.

In my case, and since Houston is a United hub, we primarily fly United for all our flights and have registered with their frequent flyer program.

Even if we never accumulate enough points for free flights, we can use those points toward food and drink in United terminals and for other perks. Here’s a summary of how I use United points to show you what might be available.

  • Combine airline points with hotel chain loyalty points. If you also have a loyalty account with a hotel chain, check to see if those points are combinable with those of any particular airline. For example, my Marriott travel program gives me Premier Silver status with United, automatically upgrading my flights to Economy Plus with extra leg room and one free checked bag. Plus, the benefits extend to my husband.
  • Preferred airline credit cards can provide benefits beyond earning free flights. For example, an airline credit card also gives you a privileged status when boarding, grouping you into one of the first groups to board. This is helpful when traveling with carry-on luggage since the overhead compartments are still empty.
    As boarding continues, those compartments often fill up, requiring passengers to check their carry-on at the gate. This isn’t bad unless you have plans to quickly leave the airport the moment you land, which is usually our family’s strategy! Waiting for luggage at the carousel is a time-consuming activity we try to avoid.
  • With accumulated points, you can use them to purchase food and drink within the airline’s terminal. 

Purchase Travel Insurance

Make room in your budget for travel insurance, especially now. Over the years, I’ve traveled tens of thousands of miles with no travel insurance with only a handful of blips and glitches. Nowadays, with the number of flight cancellations, the reduced number of pilots and flight attendants, and other complications, the risk of a canceled flight is worth paying a little extra to cover.

Read the fine print of any travel insurance policy you’re considering, so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises. You may want to buy this insurance through a travel agent who will be able to help you compare policies and answer your questions.

Knowing your travel plans have a safety net sets the stage for a more pleasant and comfortable time at the airport if your flight is canceled or delayed.

And you’ll also want to prepare for emergencies if you’re traveling to another country.

Pick the Right Flight

If possible, schedule your flight for the first flight of the day.

I know it’s not much fun to wake up at 4 a.m. or so in the morning to make a 7 a.m. flight. However, multiple flights are still available later in the day if that flight is canceled. This increases your chances of getting out of town.

If you’re still at home when your flight is canceled, thanks to Covid’s effects on the airline industry, most airlines now allow you to make flight changes without additional charges. You can likely make that change directly from the airline’s phone app.

Download the Airline App

A traveler’s best friend is the airline app. If you haven’t done so already, download the airline app now. 

You can use its QR code as your boarding pass, so you don’t need a printed one. Also, read airline policies and check your flight status before heading to the airport. 

In a later section, we’ll cover how the app helps with delayed and canceled flights.

Learn Your Rights as a Passenger

Another simple task before your trip is learning your rights as a passenger. Also, check the airline’s website for information about filing a claim in case of a cancelation or a lengthy delay.

In case of a cancelation or delay, all other travelers will line up at the customer service desk or the gate, confused about their options. Some will angrily demand hotel and meal vouchers or to be put on the next flight, no matter what.

You’ll have a massive advantage by knowing your rights and what the airline can offer. Plus, being extra polite, patient, and kind to the airline employee might earn additional assistance.

Some frequent flyers I know carry $10 Starbucks gift cards to serve as small appreciation gifts for overworked flight attendants, gate agents, and other airline personnel. These employees are your best source of information for flights out, getting you on an alternative airline, and handing out vouchers.

So no matter what, be kind to them.

What to Do After Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled

As soon as you know, do two things first:

  1. When I’m stuck at an airport, I first scope out the most comfortable sitting area close to an electric outlet.
  2. Then I activate the airline phone app ASAP for the latest news about the flight and other flight options and plug in the laptop for easier browsing.

Now you’re ready to work!

Use the Airline App

With flight delays and cancelations, sometimes the app alerts you before the gate agent makes the official announcement.

Beyond alerts, the app provides some helpful info to help you make your next move. For example, if you have a hunch that your flight will be delayed or canceled, get on the app, and look for other flights. In addition, you’ll be able to see a seat map for each flight which lets you know if there will be enough available seats for your party.

Image: United airline seat map

With this knowledge, you can make the gate agent’s job a lot easier by knowing which flight you want and even asking, nicely, for specific seats. I fly standby a lot and use this strategy to get the seat I want.

Other things the app can help you with:

  • Airport maps
  • Track your checked luggage
  • Locations of airline’s lounges
  • Food and drink menus for flights
  • Provide flight status
  • Luggage policies
  • Pet and service animal policies
  • Passenger rights

Your Options with Flight Cancellations

If your flight is canceled, you may have more options than you think.

In the case of that long delay at the Chicago O’Hare airport I mentioned at the top of this article, I worked a few options:

First, I tried to get a later flight to my destination.

If I could catch a flight later in the day, I would only have to spend some extra time at the airport

But, unfortunately, every plane to Houston was booked for the rest of the day.

So I moved on to the next possibility.

Next, I tried to fly to a different city, so I could rent a car and drive the rest of the way home.

If your flight is canceled and there is little chance of getting on a similar flight any time soon, this is a good strategy.

In my case, any of those three cities would get me back into Texas, where I could rent a cheap vehicle and then drive 3 or 4 hours home.

But no dice.

Chicago to Dallas — every flight was full.

Chicago to Austin — every flight was full.

Chicago to San Antonio — every flight was full!

Now what? Well…

I could get a hotel room and fly home the next day.

The airline may or may not provide hotel vouchers. There’s no guarantee. Knowing the airline policy will tell you under what circumstances this might happen.

Also, check your credit card, AAA, or travel insurance (if purchased) for relevant travel protections.

If you must pay out-of-pocket, you must weigh the expense of the hotel against the inconvenience and discomfort of sleeping at the terminal.

Be sure to brush up on hotel room safety if you go this route.

Or, I could sleep at the airport and take a flight home the following day.

Sleeping at the airport was not ideal, but I was willing.

If you choose this route (or have no choice but this), keep reading for great tips to make this safer and more comfortable. 

But before I resorted to napping in the terminal, I wanted to try one other thing first.

Or, I could stay with friends and family.

If you aren’t crazy about sleeping at the airport, another possible option is to spend the night with friends or family.

Provide they’re within reasonable driving distance from the airport, rent a car or an Uber, and spend the night there. It will be much more comfortable than sleeping on a bench in the terminal.

In my case, I came up with a wacky scheme that quickly got me on a flight out of Chicago. I flew to Phoenix, where my parents live. I surprised them with my impromptu visit and returned to Houston the next morning.

Every Second Counts with Flight Cancelations

When you’re seated in an airplane, everyone is headed in the same direction, and you’re all on the same team, so to speak. In case of a flight cancelation, however, those same passengers become your competition!

Competition for any open seats on other flights.

Competition for nearby hotel rooms.

Competition for rental cars.

Competition for customer service.

You get the idea. It’s every man for themselves.

That’s why every second counts when you learn your flight is canceled. You want to avoid being the last in line at the customer service desk or trying to sleep in the last remaining empty vinyl-covered chair by the gate. Therefore, you need a game plan that helps you make quick decisions.

A Game Plan for Handling a Canceled Flight

Quickly find a comfortable spot where you could stay for several hours. A location with comfy chairs against a wall is a good choice, and a nearby electrical outlet is a must.

Check the airline’s phone app for other available flights. If your flight is permanently canceled and not just delayed, try to switch to a different flight directly from the app.

⬜ If traveling with family or friends, start delegating — one person gets in line for coffee, another person starts calling hotels, someone else works on getting a rental car, and so on.

⬜ Another task to delegate is dealing with the airline staff for booking your next flight or asking for hotel/meal vouchers. Vouchers depend on the airline, the when and why of the flight cancellation, and whether or not you live in the departure city. It doesn’t hurt to ask, though. This would be a good task for the most patient and diplomatic person in your party!

Get those hotel and rental car reservations made ASAP if you’ll be leaving the airport. The same applies to Uber or Lyft rides. Remember, you’re competing for scarce services.

Call any local friends or family and see if you can spend the night at their house.

⬜ If you are sitting in a prime location and it’s time to eat, you’ll have to eat in shifts to save that spot!

Check the airport map to find restaurants, quiet sleeping spots, airline lounges (more on that later), etc. 

Be Ready to Sleep at the Airport

It may not be fun or super comfortable, but it’s an adventure, spending the night in an airport!

A website I’ve used over the years, Sleeping In Airports, lists all the possible sleep locations in any airport with reviews. If there are comfy couches a short walk away, why try to scrunch your entire body into the space of an uncomfortable, vinyl-covered seat?

Some terminals are newer, with more restaurants, lounges, and comfortable seating areas; they’re worth the time and effort to track down. Again, the airport website or the airline’s phone app will have the most up-to-date information.

If you’ll be sleeping, be sure to set an alarm if you’ll be catching a red-eye or super-early flight. And remember to always practice situational awareness.

Items for Improving Airport Shut-eye

These items take up little room but will help you catch at least a decent cat nap.

  • Sleep mask
  • Warm socks
  • Neck pillow
  • Foam earplugs — better than nothing!
  • Sound-canceling earphones or these Loop noise reduction earplugs quiet the noises around you while still allowing you to hear voices. 
  • Travel blanket or a travel towel like this one. These are handy as a ground cover if you sit on the floor. 
  • A small travel fan if you’re in a tropical, warm location

Safety Precautions for Sleeping in Airport Terminals

Scope out the most comfortable spot available, preferably near other people who will also spend the night. Then, situate your luggage and belongings so they are as secure as possible, and then catch some shut-eye. This article has additional safety tips.

How do you sleep in airports when you have youngsters?

I wouldn’t recommend sleeping in an airport if you have young children with you, say younger than 7 or 8. They can wander away too easily, especially if you’re stressed and fatigued and your attention is scattered. If there’s no choice, take turns with the other adults in your group or get to a hotel.

If you are traveling with young children, these frugal and practical tips for family vacations are helpful.

Items To Always Carry in Case Your Flight is Delayed or Canceled

No matter where I go or how long I’m gone, I only take a single carry-on suitcase. I despise waiting for luggage and love the freedom I get by traveling so lightly. 

Another advantage to traveling with only your carry-on is that you have everything you need if you are stuck at the airport. You’ll have clean clothes, more comfortable shoes or a change of shoes. In addition, you’ll have toiletries, medications, and miscellaneous items like a small flashlight.

When you pack, ask these questions: “What if I get stuck at the airport? What might I want to have with me?” Once you check in your luggage, it’s gone, and you won’t see it again until you eventually get to your destination.

Whether in your carry-on or a backpack or oversized purse, always have these things with you, just in case:

  • A fully-charged battery pack with appropriate charging cords. I like this Anker Power Bank, because it has 3 USB ports, allowing for more than one phone charging at a time.
  • Toiletry bag with medicines, pain-relief meds (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, etc.), toothbrush, toothpaste, facial/body wipes, contact lens case and solution
  • A pair of comfortable shoes and socks
  • Something with long sleeves. In warm weather, even a long sleeve t-shirt will help keep you comfortable.
  • Your laptop computer and charging cable, if you usually use one.
  • Change of underwear/bra
  • The items listed in the Improving Airport Shut-eye section.
  • A few small snacks like energy bars and nuts
  • Water bottle — airport prices can be outrageous, and with this, you’ll at least be able to have water to drink.
  • A book or some other small, portable form of entertainment

How to Spend Your Time Without Going Crazy

You may wonder: if I have hours and hours to spend at the airport waiting for my flight, what is there to do?

If you’ve checked out the airport map and don’t mind giving up your prime, comfy location, then spend some time exploring the airport. You’ll get some exercise and probably find interesting shops, restaurants, and maybe even some pleasant surprises like:

  • A chiropractor!
  • Beauty salon and/or spa
  • Art galleries and exhibits
  • Kids play areas
  • Chapel/Prayer room
  • Rest areas with recliners
  • Sleep pods
  • TV lounges
  • Adjoining hotels
  • Wheelchair rental 
  • Butterfly garden — Yes, the Singapore airport has this!

Get creative with the time you have on your hands!

It’s the perfect opportunity to go through your phone’s screenshots — delete what you don’t want, organize in Google Photos what you want to keep. Then, do the same for your Dropbox, OneDrive, or any other Cloud storage space.

While you’re in an organizing mood, organize the apps on your smartphone into categories and folders.

BONUS TIP: Look for all the apps on your phone that have to do with travel and save them all in one folder — Google Translate, Uber, Lyft, currency calculator, airline and hotel apps, Google Maps/Waze, Yelp, weather app, Hotel Tonight, Groupon (for your travel destination — you never know what good deals you might find!), AirBnB, PackPoint, LoungeBuddy, etc.

More suggestions:

  • Play video games on your computer or smartphone.
  • Read a book — an actual book or Kindle.
  • Listen to a book on Audible.
  • Work on a knitting or crochet project.
  • Read a book out loud to your kids.
  • See all those open tabs on your computer and phone? Now is the time to read all those articles you never seem to have time for!
  • If you have time, take a taxi or Uber into the city for a meal or to visit a few tourist attractions. Be sure to calculate the travel time to and from the city and the time it will take to get through security again.
  • Some airports offer city tours that depart from the airport! Ask at the airport customer service desk.
  • Keep your enthusiasm going by researching your destination and planning a daily agenda.

Airport Luxury, if You Qualify

Airport lounges.

If you know, you know.

There’s something special about walking through that sliding glass door into comfort, quiet, and luxury.

One of the main reasons to establish yourself as a loyal customer of a particular airline is that it can open the doors, literally, to a true life-saver in an airport crisis – the airport lounge.

These quiet places of refuge offer free snacks, drinks, wifi, big, comfy chairs, and sometimes showers and kids’ play areas. They sound ideal, but it’s not always easy to access; overall, lounges are relatively few. 

Lounge access isn’t always clear-cut, so check out your airline’s website or app for more information in the days before your departure. In addition, different airlines have different rules and fees. Therefore, to avoid disappointment, know before you go.

How to Access Airport Lounges

Depending on your status with the airline, access could be free. Otherwise, you can qualify to use the lounge facilities by:

  • Purchasing the airline’s Club Membership 
  • Having the airline’s credit card. (It will likely be a premium card with a higher fee but some nice perks.)
  • Traveling business class or higher (a guest might not be allowed lounge access)
  • Paying a one-time fee at the door — easiest way to go, but this depends on lounge occupancy and also probably comes with a time limit, usually 4-6 hours.

Another way to access lounges is to join a lounge membership program that isn’t tied to specific airlines, Priority Pass and LoungeBuddy. At the time of this writing, the lowest-priced tier with Priority Pass has an annual fee of $99 and then a $32 entry fee to their lounges. Although they have over 1000 lounges worldwide, it doesn’t mean they’ll have them in the airports you’ll be using.

You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of investing in whatever program gives you lounge access. However, if you want to while away the hours in an airport, there’s no better way to do that than in a quiet, exclusive lounge.

Into Every Life, Some Delayed or Canceled Flights Must Fall

Whenever I experienced a disappointment of one kind or another, my mom told me, “Into every life, some rain must fall.” As a traveler, this is the ultimate truth.

As you journey near or far, you will run into difficulties. It might be getting a stomach bug during that long-awaited second honeymoon or dealing with cranky kids right in the middle of a Grand Canyon tour.

Flight cancelations and getting stuck at an airport rank right up there with the biggest disappointments and frustrations, but they’re also part of the adventure.

Plan ahead, be prepared, and be determined to enjoy the experience.

Read more about urban preparedness.

What are some of your favorite strategies for handling flight delays and cancellations? Share them in the comments!

5 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Surviving Canceled Flights and Other Travel Challenges”

  1. James Patrick

    Also, I was recently enroute to the airport when the airline’s app alerted me that my flight was postponed. I was able to reschedule with the app by the time I arrived at the counter. The agent said the flight was then full. Whew!

    1. The Survival Mom

      The airline app is a lifesaver. One time my flight was going to be delayed by several hours, but after getting settled into a comfy chair, the app notified me that, no, actually your flight will be boarding in 20 minutes!!

  2. For retired military and veterans, check to see if the airport has a USO Club. They provide snacks and a secure place to wait for a flight. Don’t forget to leave a small donation.

  3. Even if you don’t like credit cards, keep one account with sufficient credit to cover rental car, hotel, Uber, etc.. even an alternate flight.. just in case. You might need to get out quickly due to family needs or even an unstable / violent pack of disgruntled travelers..

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