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As was seen recently with Hurricane Sandy (and the residual effects are still there), large portions of the East Coast of the US had major disruption to their air travel. There were also similar effects in Europe in 2011 due to the ash cloud from the volcano in Iceland.

For example, I had a flight booked this week from Pittsburgh to London, via Chicago. For several days Pittsburgh airport was closed and/or flights were (at least from my perspective) randomly cancelled due to aircraft being out-of-position, etc. Fortunately in the end I was lucky and my flight took off on time. Not everyone was so fortunate.

I know from past experience that when a flight is cancelled in these kind of circumstances (which often doesn't happen until less than 24 hours before, as the airline can't predict exactly what will happen), folks can get bumped onto flights several days later, as those are the first with spare seats.

What techniques exist, from the perspective of the traveller, for increasing the chances of getting to their destination promptly (either avoiding cancelled flights or getting a reschedule onto a flight shortly after)? Let's assume the traveller might be prepared to spend some additional money, but doesn't have the money for a private jet or a taxi cross-country.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Number one strategy is to get out ahead of it. For example a number of people I know were going to fly Monday of this week from the East Coast. Some changed their flights (for free in some cases, at significant expense in others) to get out Sunday, thus avoiding all the hassles. Earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like don't come with prior warning but storms and strikes do.

Once you're in it, knowledge is key. If you can take a train or a bus to somewhere less affected, great. But when a freak blizzard hit Baton Rouge (it snows there roughly twice a century) the people sitting near me who planned to rent a car and drive somewhere they could fly from discovered they couldn't get to their destinations any faster that way. Take some time to find out about schedules and about conditions in the place you're planning to use as an alternate departure point. Use the internet. Phone someone outside the airport and get them to help with research.

If you're borderline on having status (with an airline, car rental place, hotel or whatever), the way you get treated during "irregular operations" may make the difference for you. Benefits like "you can always buy a seat even if it's sold out" get less attention than upgrades, but every once in a while they're priceless.

Be in the habit of being prepared. Have stuff with you to cope with a 12 hour delay, or even a 36! Know where to get information. Practice breathing for stress reduction. Be nice to the staff - it's as horrible for them as for you. Count your blessings. The more positive you act and feel, the more likely you are to get lucky, whether you believe it or not.

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+1 for the "Always buy a seat". I always forget about this. Although I sometimes wonder how/if you can exploit that benefit through a travel agent or if you can book direct (I have to do all of my business travel booking through a travel agent). –  Andrew Ferrier Nov 2 '12 at 17:46

The first thing to decide is if you actually need to travel? With a lot of disruptions and cancellations, there's a lot of demand for the limited transport there is. You might be better off checking with your airline / travel insurance about covering hotels, finding a hotel before they all go, and settling down to wait it out. It won't work for all cases, but for some incidents it's much better to be sat in a hotel working remotely rather than spending days queueing / waiting in airports / railway stations!

If you do need to travel, the thing to remember is that frequent traveller status matters. If there's only 1 seat left on a plane, the person with the status is much more likely to get it than the person without. Secondly, if you have status you'll normally have access to priority phonelines, and you'll often be able to use priority checkin / priority assistance desks at the airport / station. These normally have shorter queues, and sometimes agents with more discretion.

Getting status will often mean a bit of planning in advance. You might find yourself needing to spend a little more on some trips during the year, or taking a slightly less convenient timing / routing to concentrate your travel with one alliance to hit the status threshold. That said, getting status has benefits normally, not just during disruptions - you'll normally get at least a few out of priority checkin / lounge access / extra luggage / upgrades. So, give some thought to concentrating your travel to earn status before you need it, so you've got it for when disruptions hit!

When you're trying to get a seat, it's worth being flexible. If your flight / train has been cancelled, see if they can put you on one to somewhere vaguely near your destination, or perhaps just a big hub of theirs. Aim to get out of the disruption first, then worry about the last leg later! Alternately, see if you can get a seat from an airport/station part way, then look at bus / taxi / hire car / train to get you there. If you can get just clear of the disruption, you should have more luck getting a seat for the rest of the way. Make sure you have route maps available when asking for rerouting, so you can sanity check options, and make suggestions for less obvious possibilities based on the routes available. Don't forget you may sometimes have to go backwards / the wrong way to go forwards!

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Get on any form of transportation out of the affected area. If you stay you need to share the limited options with a lot of people. The more peripheral you can get the better. It doesn't matter what direction.

I was once in a situation where the trapped travelers flocked together. I chose to jump at the first intercity bus out of the region. I didn't even check its destination. After jumping on yet two other buses this way, I got to a city where it was much easier to get a flight home.

So the main technique is disperse instead flocking together.

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I will hold dear on this tip, the years ahead promise lots of disruptions. +1 Simple and smart. –  brasofilo Nov 19 '12 at 1:04

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