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How to navigate holiday flight delays and cancellations

As winter weather once again coincides with the holiday travel season, stranding thousands of airline passengers this week in cities like Boston, travel experts and federal agencies offer tips for how to game the inevitable delays and cancellations.
“It really boils down to understanding how you can give yourself the best odds at getting to your destination on time,” Katy Nastro, travel expert and spokesperson for Going.com, told Yahoo News.
This week will see a notable increase in air travel over the same period last year. December 21 is expected to be the “peak day for flights” in the U.S. ahead of the Christmas holiday, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a tweet. While much of the nation will be spared frigid temperatures this week, storms could still disrupt air travel over the coming days.
“A round of wet weather will cross the southern Plains from Thursday into Friday, bringing the potential for heavy rain to cities such as Oklahoma City, Dallas and Houston by the end of the week,” AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Heather Zehr said. “After a short break, another round of potentially travel-disrupting rains can move through over the weekend. This rain may linger into Christmas Day in some places.”
In 2022, a massive winter storm, inadequate staffing and outdated computer equipment at Southwest Airlines resulted in 16,900 flight cancellations by the carrier that stranded 2 million passengers. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Transportation reached an agreement with Southwest, imposing a record-setting $140 million civil penalty for the delays and canceled flights.
Based in part on those travel horror stories, Nastro offered a few tips for navigating the stress of delays and cancellations. (Some answers have been edited for brevity.)
Know your options before you arrive at the airport
“Say my flight out from New York to Charlotte gets canceled. I can go on my app and see what my options are,” Nastro said. “I’d even say to do that a day or two in advance. Just in case some weather rolls in, you’ll be aware and can approach the agent with some options and you actually are helping them out in the process. It’s a win-win.”
Act quickly once your flight has been canceled
A woman looks at a flight board after a hurricane-force wind warning grounded flights at Logan Airport in Boston. (Matthew J. Lee/Boston Globe via Getty Images)
“The moment that you hear your flight has been canceled, you do not want to wait,” Nastro said. “In that moment, you should be taking action, whether that means getting in touch with an agent in the airport or on the customer service line.”
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is, when you find yourself needing to get rebooked, there is not an endless supply of flights being added to the schedules. The schedules are already set; we’re locked in,” she added. “That means there are only a limited number of seats available during a busy holiday period. We’re expecting to see more people travel over this holiday period than we did last year. There aren’t going to be as many empty seats. You don’t want to be the last one to get in touch with someone to get you rebooked. The [more] seconds and minutes that go by, the less availability you have at your disposal.”
Try contacting your airline via an international service line
“If you can’t get in touch with someone on the domestic customer service line, try one of the international customer service lines,” Nastro said. “Most airlines that fly internationally have tons of different lines for agents across the world. Just because that agent isn’t located where you are doesn’t mean that they don’t have access to be able to get you the assistance that you need.”
If possible, book early-morning flights
“If you can be a little bit flexible and change your flight to a morning departure, the better odds you’ll have for an on-time departure. Early flights have a 25% higher on-time arrival rate than afternoon or evening flights,” Nastro said. “If you can get an early flight, go for it. Your plane will already be at the airport. It doesn’t run the risk of getting delayed or canceled as if it’s coming from someplace else.”
Read the fine print before buying travel insurance
“Travel insurance is funny. Most of the time you don’t need it, since you’re already covered [for refunds] under federal law,” Nastro said. “A lot of traveler insurance comes with fine print and may not be helpful at all. But if there are gaps, maybe you do need to supplement. Regardless of the airline you are flying, they are obligated to get you to your destination regardless of whether there’s a schedule change. That’s something people should be aware of.”

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