What to do if Your Southwest, Alaska or Other Flight Gets Canceled

Airline cancellations are still disrupting the plans of millions of holiday travelers. Here are tips on how to cope.

This holiday season has been a particularly challenging one for those wanting or needing to travel–coinciding snowstorms in different parts of the country wreaked havoc on numerous airports from Seattle to Chicago to New York. Amtrak canceled trains on several routes while those hoping to go by road were also out of luck, with some major highways closed or were just dangerous to drive on. 

In the northern New York city of Buffalo, the situation was particularly bad as snow reached nearly 50 inches and 28 people died from weather-related events like being stuck in cars, snow-bound at home or power outages.

Thousands of Cancellations and Delays

While by Tuesday the weather had started to clear up in many cities, others are still either under advisory or dealing with the bottlenecks created by thousands of canceled flights over the holiday weekend. Plane tracking site FlightAware said more than 3,000 flights across, into or out of the U.S. had been canceled as of Tuesday afternoon.

Seattle’s SeaTac airport had the most cancellations in the country right before Christmas but, now, it has been pushed far to the bottom by the cancellation tallies for Denver International Airport and Chicago’s O’Hare.

When it comes to airlines, Southwest  (LUV) – Get Free Report led the pack by far by canceling 62% of all its Tuesday flights so far. The high rate prompted the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to say it will start looking into the “unacceptable rate of cancellations and delays and reports of lack of prompt customer service.”

While significantly lower than Southwest, Spirit  (SAVE) – Get Free Report, United  (UAL) – Get Free Report and Alaska Airlines  (ALK) – Get Free Report all were near the top of the list of airlines with high numbers of cancellations and delays on Tuesday.

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Tips for When Your Flight Is Canceled

Aside from booking directly with the airline, (flight aggregator sites may be cheaper but will make it much harder to get help or compensation in the event of problems), the No. 1 thing travelers can do to avoid getting stranded is to start checking the status of their flight 24 hours in advance.

If weather has been bad for days, some flights may be canceled hours before, saving travelers an unnecessary trip to the airport in difficult weather, or even going to the airport and finding you can’t get back home.

Signing up for text alerts can get you notified earlier, but do not trust them entirely and still check manually by going on the site if the weather in your city is getting worse.

For those who already made it to the airport, the obvious step is to go to the airline’s desk and discuss one’s options. This will work as a general strategy, but when cancellations are widespread, the lines and wait time may be long and airlines may have few options.

Some travel experts advise those stuck on hold to try an airline’s international line (perhaps the Canadian or British number) that may be dealing with fewer calls than the main U.S. one.

When you do reach a representative, it’s generally a good idea to be flexible and agree to non-standard solutions if the travel chaos is widespread. Some airlines may place travelers on sister carriers or flights going into a nearby city. Still others who can wait a day might be given a hotel and/or food voucher.

“If you elect not to be accommodated on a later flight and you book a new ticket out of your own pocket, you are entitled to a cash refund, though that may not help you get to where you need to go,” Lousson Smith, product operations specialist at Scott’s Cheap Flights, told CNN Travel. “As we all know, last-minute flights are very expensive.”

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