Untangling Travel Snafus

Business travel doesn’t have to be a hassle—if you know how to plan for delays and cozy up to your airline of choice.

Kelly Merritt has been around the block—and across the country—quite a few times. Merritt, who splits her time between North Carolina and Florida, is the author of The Everything Family Guide to Budget Travel. After years of traveling for work, she says she doesn’t anticipate travel delays—she expects them. “I find that accepting the likelihood of delays or unplanned changes relaxes me because it removes the surprise or shock of such issues,” she explains.

Budget your time
Merritt’s number one rule for unexpected turbulence in the skies or on the ground: give yourself extra time to reach your destination. “There is no way to prevent flight cancellations or delays,” she says. “But I always allow for a day to travel to a destination and a day to travel back.” If it’s possible to do so, she says, this can greatly reduce stress if you’re unexpectedly stranded for a few hours.

A few extra hours can be productive time if you plan ahead. A partner in an accessibility consultancy, Dana Marlowe says she always prepares in case she needs to work while on the road. “I bring my laptop, tablet, charging cords, and remote-access apps with me so I can do work from a mobile office anywhere and log in to my secured network.” But, she says, there are also ways to ensure you can work even if an outlet or quiet space isn’t available. “I like to be prepared with both digital and hard copies of documents in case I can’t charge my technology,” she explains.

For a short delay, it’s critical to focus on the things you can control, like completing work that doesn’t require much of your attention. In some terminals and gate areas, there simply isn’t enough free space to spread out copious amounts of paperwork—and there often isn’t time to get set up and dive into complicated contracts. Keep some simple assignments handy so the time waiting won’t be wasted. Read email, check social media, and make short phone calls you’ve been putting off.

Know your options
Contrary to what many travelers think, airlines are not required by law to offer meal vouchers or compensate for phone calls in the event of a delay. If a plane is delayed on the tarmac, federal law requires the airline to provide food, beverages, and restrooms and to allow passengers to deplane if the plane is grounded for more than three hours. However, if you end up bumped from an oversold domestic flight, the airline is required to get you to your original destination within an hour of the scheduled arrival time or compensate you up to $400. On international flights, the airline has a four-hour window and must otherwise offer up to $800. Visit USA.gov for more on your rights as an airline passenger.

Every customer should be valuable to an airline, but being a member of a loyalty program may mean special treatment when travel plans change. Nearly every airline has some sort of loyalty rewards program, and many are part of a larger network of shared services and providers, such as SkyTeam, which includes Delta, and Star Alliance, which includes United Airlines. Both are linked with major European carriers. Even the most basic level of participation in a program can garner better service—if you’re also polite to the ground crew, of course.

The more you travel, the more your loyalty pays off. Carrie Reber is a Boston-based executive and former vice president of worldwide marketing who used to fly from a small Ohio airport to St. Petersburg, Russia, every six weeks. For her, the benefits of airline rewards programs were invaluable. “Once you reach the top status level, everything about travel gets easier,” she says. “They rebook your flights automatically if you miss a connection.”

Social media is also helpful in trying to make alternate arrangements. Gone are the days of calling an airline and waiting on hold, or queuing up at the customer service desk with other frustrated travelers. Many airlines use Twitter and Facebook to keep passengers informed about flight delays or other potential problems and to post up-to-date information on schedule changes, maintenance, or weather-related issues that may temporarily ground a flight. Diane Danielson, a Boston-based executive at a real estate brokerage with offices in many states, swears by turning to social media to solve travel problems. In the past, she’s used Twitter to rebook a JetBlue flight. It was faster and more efficient than calling the airline.

Map your route
Like a lot of executives, Danielson is sometimes on the road for half the month. For that reason, she’s careful not to be overly optimistic about weather or especially busy airports. “I avoid flying through Chicago or any northern cities during the winter,” she says, noting that airports in colder climates can have frequent delays when snowy weather sets in. Even though she isn’t a big fan of the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, she says, “I try to connect through Phoenix or Vegas when I have to.For her, a desert airport can be a true oasis.

Danielson also says the promise of good food can determine her route. “I plan layovers around meals,” she says, noting many airlines don’t have snack boxes that suit her needs. If she’s headed across the country, she’ll try to schedule a layover in an airport with a diverse selection of restaurants serving healthy food. If you’re stranded in an airport, it might as well have a great bar where you can wait out the storm and get a little work done. GateGuru is an excellent app for finding such amenities in airports around the world.

Stay calm with your carry-on
Airports have gone all out in recent years to offer not just cushy amenities but open spaces filled with natural light and inspiring public art. It’s an attempt to make even the most stressful trip calmer and more enjoyable—and it works. If you’re stranded in airports including San Francisco, Denver, and New York’s JFK, take a deep breath while gazing at large-scale sculptures, colorful murals, and professionally curated collections of modern art.

If you need a break from the chaos of the gate area, locate the terminal’s interfaith chapel or reflection room, which is often the quietest place in the entire airport. Many airports also now offer sleeping capsules or quiet office cubicles for rent. Minute Suites (MinuteSuites.com) has rooms for rent by the hour in airports like Dallas/Fort Worth, Philadelphia, and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson.

Carrie Reber suggests that airline lounges can also be a great place to recharge, literally and figuratively. “When crossing multiple time zones in a day, there is no telling when you’ll be hungry,” she says. “Your body may want breakfast when the world around you says it’s dinnertime. First-class lounges are generally well set up for this.”

Just don’t get too comfortable. You wouldn’t want to miss your connection—again.DW

Journalist Brittany Shoot enjoys United Airline Premier Status and free miles earned on her JetBlue American Express card but never takes either for granted. Find her work at brittanyshoot.com.

Track Star

Keep track of your flights—and potential delays or weather disruptions—with these handy apps.

TripIt: A favorite app for itineraries and travel notes. Free for iOS and Android at TripIt.com.

FlightView: Real-time tracker. Free for iOS and Android at FlightView.com.

FlightStats: This app offers up-to-the-minute flight information, including delays and handy maps of major airports. Free for iOS and Android at FlightStats.com.

AirportZoom: From the makers of FlightStats, this free real-time tracking app optimized for your iPad offers the same basic functionality, including flight status and interactive airport maps.

GateGuru: This free app provides information about restaurants, shops, and amenities in 105 domestic and 85 international airports. iOS and Android at Gateguru.com.

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