It happened again. And while we hate to be the bearer of bad news, after the latest round of mass cancellations and delays over the weekend, it's safe to assume these meltdowns are going to continue throughout the summer.
U.S. airlines big and small canceled nearly 5,000 flights and delayed many thousands more from Thursday through Sunday, according to data from FlightAware.com. Almost every airline struggled, but none more than once-reliable Delta, which canceled more Sunday flights than American, Southwest, and United combined.
Flight disruptions are an unfortunate reality of air travel, but as travel demand explodes it's clear we're in for a turbulent summer. After shrinking to survive the worst of the pandemic, airlines have stretched themselves too thin to operate the flights they've sold to travelers when things go wrong. At this point, it's best to hope for the best … and prepare for the worst.
But this isn't a story about what to do when an airline cancels your flight – we've covered that already. You need to be proactive. Here are some simple ways you can try to save yourself the stress of summer flight disruptions.
Read our op-ed calling for greater passenger rights and compensation in the event of delays and cancellations!
Pick an Earlier Flight
Flight disruptions can be unpredictable. When an airline is in full-scale meltdown, there's no telling which flights might be canceled or delayed.
But there is a general rule of thumb: The earlier the flight, the better.
It makes sense, right? Barring major weather issues or other problems, an airline can typically get its first flights of the day off the ground on time. But as the day goes on, delays and cancellations leave planes and crews alike in the wrong place, unable to catch up and get flights out on schedule. It's a snowball effect.
It might not always be the best for your schedule – especially for those who aren't morning people. But for peace of mind, it can be worth paying a bit extra for an earlier departure to increase your odds of getting in and out on time. Luckily, Google Flights lets you quickly sort your options by departure time.
Here's the other problem: Flights are full these days – like, full to the brim. In fact, data from Airlines for America show that domestic flights in the U.S. are more full, on average, than they were prior to the pandemic.
Sure, that means you're all but guaranteed to have someone next to you on your flight. But that also means the next flight to your destination is likely full, too – and the next one, and the one after that. That makes it even harder to get a seat on the next-available flight if your first flight gets canceled, stretching what could be a delay of just an hour or two into many hours … if not days.
This is by no means a silver bullet. But if you've got a choice between a morning departure and the afternoon, take the morning flight. It's the best bet you can make right now.
Avoid Connections If You Can
Booking a flight with a connection can be the key to saving over paying extra for a nonstop options. But taking an extra stop on your way to your final destination also doubles the chances of something going wrong.
If a one-stop flight is unavoidable, give yourself more time than usual to make sure you make it. In an era where flights are getting delayed left and right, the once-reliable connection of one-hour or less could suddenly be thrown in doubt. Yes, your airline is almost always responsible for getting you on the next available flight if you miss your connection … but if there's not a seat open on that next departure, “next available” could be many hours – or even days – away.
Personally, I'm sticking with connections of two-plus hours these days. Heading abroad? It's probably safer to round up to three hours or more, depending on where you're heading.
This is even more important if you're utilizing positioning flights. It's one of our favorite-money saving strategies for cheap international flights. Instead of searching for flights to Rome (FCO) from your home airport of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), you book a cheaper fare out of New York City (JFK) or another east coast hub, then separately book a cheap fare to get there for the transatlantic trip. Do it right, and the savings can be substantial.
But the stakes are unacceptably high with these connections these days. If your flight to New York gets delayed and you miss your connection, you're out of luck – the airline is under no obligation to put you onto the next flight to Rome.
With the risk of delays and cancellations seeming higher than ever, it may not be worth trying. If you do, give yourself as much buffer room between flights as humanly possible to make sure you don't miss a connection … five-plus hours minimum, I'd say. Wouldn't you rather sit in the airport for a few extra hours rather than buy another last-minute ticket to replace the flight you just missed due to a delay?
Get to the Airport Earlier, Too
I don't care who you are or what you normally do: This is not the time to cut it close with your arrival to the airport.
It's not just the airlines that are struggling these days. From check-in desk agents to TSA security lanes, seemingly everyone throughout the air travel industry has been caught flat-footed by the recent explosion in travel demand, unable to staff back up quickly in today's tight labor market.
Unless if you're flying mid-day or during other off-peak times, you might want to add another hour to your usual – better safe than sorry, right?
Services like TSA PreCheck and CLEAR – or heck, maybe both in tandem – can help you speed through the security lines quicker. But even that's not a guarantee these days. As travel takes off for summer, photos of long lines even at expedited CLEAR lanes are lighting up the internet.
Yet there's one area of the airport that could make arriving earlier than normal even more critical…
Don't Check a Bag
If ever there was a time to suck it up and join team carry-on, it's now.
The lines to check in for flights in-person and drop off a checked bag can be the stuff of nightmares. There are only so many kiosks and airline agents available, and staffing remains a major problem at airlines' big hubs. Business travelers who travel with just a carry-on or briefcase are coming back, but more and more of the travelers that are flying are checking a bag or two.
During busy periods, it can lead to lines like this one from just a week ago at Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP), where travelers stretched from end-to-end waiting to drop off a bag with Delta.
Then there's the wait to get your bag after arriving – and that might be the worst part. Even airlines like Alaska and Delta that guarantee your bags will arrive within 20 minutes of arrival are falling short, shelling out 2,500 SkyMiles at a time for being late. But it gets worse…
Airline baggage handlers are clearly just as short-staffed as the rest of the industry, and it's causing major problems. Never in the last five-plus years have we seen so many reports about bags being lost by the airline, showing up at a travelers' destination after days of headaches and stress.
Data from the Department of Transportation shows the rate of mishandled baggage on U.S. airlines increased by 63% in the first three months of 2022 compared to a year ago. We'll have to wait a few more months to see how those numbers look for the early summer – but by all accounts, it's gotten much, much worse recently.
But there’s an easy way to avoid it all: Pack in just a carry-on bag – trust us, it’s easier than you think. That means no long lines to drop off bags, no stress about a lost or delayed bag, and you can complete your entire check-in process online or via smartphone app.
Watch Your Airline & Your Reservations
These days, it pays to be vigilant.
Just because you booked a flight a few months (or even just weeks) ago doesn't mean that's exactly what your flight will look like when your trip finally comes. We've seen airlines big and small adjust their schedules heading into the summer, hoping to stave off even worse snafus by condensing schedules and eliminating some flights to buy themselves some breathing room.
But airlines don't always do the best job letting customers know when they've made a change. That means you need to watch your reservations like a hawk. As your trip draws near, you should check, double-check, then triple-check your flights to make sure they haven't been changed.
Apps like Flighty and TripIt often do a much better job at catching these changes. Whether it was a flight change days in advance or a day-of delay, I can't count the number of times that Flighty alerted me at least 30-plus minutes – if not hours – before the airline itself. Tools like these are indispensable these days.
But there's one more tool that can help you prepare for potential issues: FlightAware.com's cancellations dashboards. This handy tool tracks all the day's delays and cancellations from airline to airline, airport to airport.
As you're getting ready for your trip, scope out your airline in the days leading up to departure for potential warning signs. If you're flying on a Friday and your airline has canceled hundreds of flights on both Wednesday and Thursday … well, prepare for ongoing issues. It's a fairly safe bet that those disruptions are going to continue.
Beware of Major Issues in Europe, Too
Heading across the pond for the first time in years? Aspiring international travelers got some great news earlier this month when the U.S. finally dropped the testing requirement in order to fly home.
Here's the bad news: Several major European airports are struggling just as much as those here in the U.S. right now … if not even more. Take a quick glance at this list of huge European hubs that have made some cutbacks to cope with travel demand:
- Amsterdam (AMS) is trying to cut inbound and outbound flights by as much as 10% through the summer
- London-Heathrow (LHR) encouraged airlines to cancel 10% of flights on Monday as some of the airport's baggage systems were overrun
- The smaller London-Gatwick (LGW) airport is also cutting flights in July and August
- Brussels (BRU) halted all its flights on Monday amid a strike that left the airport unable to process travelers
Americans might see the issues right after landing, as immigration lines from Dublin (DUB) to Oslo (OSL) can take several hours to get through.
Book Your Flights with a Good Credit Card
Preparing for the worst all starts from the time you buy your tickets.
Sure, you could buy a travel insurance policy that’ll help cover some of your additional costs if plans change. But if you’ve got the right travel credit card, you may not need to. Just book your flight with a card that comes with travel protection and you’re set – plus you’ll earn some extra points, too.
Few are better than the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, as they have some unbeatable travel insurance coverage on any ticket purchased with the card. On the Preferred Card, for example, you get:
- Up to $500 in reimbursements for expenses like airfare, hotels, meals etc. in the event of a delay of 12 or more hours.
- Up to $100 a day for five days if your checked baggage is delayed more than six hours.
- Unbeatable coverage for rental cars
- And more…
Read more on the best credit cards for travel insurance!
When it comes to accommodations from hotels to resorts to Airbnbs, there’s one simple solution: Make sure you’re booking fully refundable listings. That’s one of the best pieces of advice we can give for traveling these days, whether you’re worried about flights getting canceled or not.
Fortunately, it’s much easier these days. Major hotel chains always offer fully refundable bookings – often at a small premium over a nonrefundable rate, but that’s worth it. Meanwhile, Airbnb has made it much easier to find properties with flexible cancellation policies.
The writing is on the wall: This is going to continue.
There's no way to know for sure whether your next flight will get delayed or canceled. Even on an airline's worst day, 60% or more of flights will get on and off the ground on time.
But those are unacceptable odds for airlines that U.S. taxpayers singlehandedly kept afloat for years with tens of billions of dollars in subsidies. For now, the best you can do is follow some of these tips and hope for a smooth flight.