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5 Things I Learned Flying on the Worst Travel Weekend This Summer

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It’s no secret that the summer of 2022 is a terrible time for air travel. Flight cancellations for the first six months of this year have already topped the total for all of 2021, making this year the second-worst year for flight cancellations ever, surpassed only by 2020, when the start of the pandemic brought air travel to a near-halt.

Flight cancellation statistics can just feel like abstract numbers, though, until it happens to you. I know, because it happened to me. As a speaker at the Collision Conference, I flew from Seattle to Toronto during the weekend of June 18-19. Overblown travel demand, nationwide storms, and staffing shortages all combined to make it the worst weekend for air travel on record, although that record may have been broken since. I’ve learned a lot from that experience, and from research I’ve done since. Here’s my best advice for surviving air travel this summer.

1. Technology actually can help you…

Less than 24 hours before my scheduled flight to Toronto, my smartphone rang with an automated call from the airline alerting me that there had been a “change” to my flight and apologizing for any inconvenience. The computer-generated voice offered no further information, so I popped open the airline’s website to see what was going on. It turned out that the word “change” was stretching the truth a bit. I’d been originally scheduled to coast Seattle-Toronto with a brief layover in Calgary. They had now rebooked that second Calgary-Toronto flight as a flight to Winnipeg with a 27-hour layover, followed by a flight to Toronto that would get me there a whole day later than planned. There was no offer to put me up for my night in Winnipeg.

At first, in addition to being angry about the canceled flight, I was also annoyed that I hadn’t gotten a call from a human being to tell me about it. But when I thought about it, I realized what was brilliant about that system: It alerted me to the problem much more quickly than human beings could have, especially considering how many people were likely affected by this and other flight cancellations that weekend. It got me to the information I needed right away, and time is of the essence when it comes to canceled flights.

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2. …but you need human assistance as well.

Recently, flight attendant Kristie Koerbe shared some advice for surviving the horrors of air travel this summer. Among her suggestions: Book your travel directly with the airline. The idea is that you’ll have better negotiating leverage that way if your flight is canceled or badly delayed.

Koerbe is a flight attendant and she certainly knows the system better than I do, but I respectfully disagree with this advice. Or at least, I disagree if your top priority is to get where you’re going as close to the originally scheduled time as possible. If your top priority is to minimize extra costs, than her approach may possibly be better, I’m not sure.

What I do know is that it was not possible to reach anyone at the airline even though I tried my best. It’s a problem that at least one beleaguered airline CEO has publicly acknowledged. Fortunately for me, I had not booked my flight directly through the carrier–I had used an online travel site, one where I’ve been able to get agents on chat or on the phone pretty reliably over the years. So I did that now, and once again was able to reach someone with relative ease. The agent I got on chat arranged a refund for my “changed” flight, and I used the travel site to book a replacement trip on a combination of two airlines. Admittedly, that led to a considerably higher fare, but on the other hand it saved me having to spring for a hotel room in Winnipeg. And it got me where I was going when I was supposed to be there.

It stands to reason that a travel company dealing with multiple airlines, as well as hotels, car rentals, and many other forms of travel, won’t be as overwhelmed by a spike in customer service demand that an airline will during a high-cancellation time. At least, that’s how it worked for me.

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3. Build in a 24-hour buffer if you can.

In this case, I had planned to arrive in Toronto the day before I needed to partly because I did not want to start a day when I would be onstage multiple times with a bad case of jet lag. But in general, if I absolutely have to be somewhere on a specific day, I build in in an extra overnight since flights and delays do happen. 

This is Koerbe’s advice as well. She remembers a family of eight that missed a cruise departure due to a flight cancellation that they hadn’t allowed for in their scheduling. Think about it. If a business event is important enough that you have to get on a plane to be there rather than talk by phone or video chat, it’s likely to be important enough to make sure that you get there. And if you’re heading out on a long-awaited vacation, you’ll have a better, more relaxed time if you start your trip a day early.

4. Beware of short layovers.

Koerbe says that a one-hour layover is not enough these days, and I agree, especially if you’re using multiple airlines. Just because an airline or a travel site is willing to sell you a trip with a short layover doesn’t mean you should buy it. (And do you really want to be that person dashing frantically through the airport lugging or dragging your carry-on baggage that you probably won’t be able to fit in the overhead because all the room is already taken?) Most trips these days can be managed with one or two flights–multiple layovers may save money but they also multiply the risks of a delayed or canceled flight messing up your trip. So coast nonstop or direct, or with only one layover, if you possibly can.

5. Rethink your checked baggage.

If you’re a seasoned traveler, you may have developed a somewhat cavalier attitude toward checking baggage. At least, I know I have. In countless flights, I’ve only twice failed to find my luggage at the carousel when I got off the plane, and in both cases the airline got my bag to me a day or so later.

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But times are changing. We don’t often think about ground crew as part of the great staffing shortage, and yet airlines are lacking gate personnel, mechanics and baggage handlers, just as they are short of pilots and flight attendants. The result, experts say, is that we should all expect our luggage to get lost much more often than has happened in the past.

With that in mind, think carefully about what you put into your checked baggage, and what you carry with you on board. Consider putting a Tile or Apple AirTag device into your suitcase to make it easier to track down in case it goes missing. And of course, your best bet is not to check luggage at all. Traveling with only carryon luggage can simplify your life in ways that make washing your socks in a hotel sink well worth the trouble, particularly if a flight is canceled or badly delayed while you’re in the middle of a trip. Many airlines have made this easier by increasing the size of their overhead compartments. Take advantage of that extra space and spare yourself the headache of checking a suitcase.

They remind me that it’s a big world out there, and getting to see it through air travel is a privilege. Unfortunately, the travel itself is often a miserable experience. Following these precautions can make it a little easier.

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