I don’t have to tell you about the calamity that hit European (and other) air travelers last Friday. Only yesterday, flights began getting off the ground and air transportation finally started to return to normal. According to a report I heard on NPR this morning, it will be weeks and weeks before the backlog of flights is cleared. Who knows how long it’ll take for all the thousands of stranded passengers to get where they need to go.
It’s not every day that you have to worry about what to do if a volcano erupts and halts air traffic. On the other hand, as we learned this week, it can happen. That got me thinking. What do travelers need to know in the event that some force of nature grounds air traffic and throws their plans into gridlock?
Here are a few suggestions you can follow if you find yourself stranded, sharing an airport with hundreds of other travelers in the same boat as you.
- Call the emergency numbers your travel agent gave you. Friendly Planet gives everyone emergency numbers to call in their destination as well as our own number that is manned 24/7. Report what has happened and ask if any assistance can be provided by your agents and their representatives and what you should do.
- Stay calm. Don’t look for anyone to blame, and don’t become overwhelmed. And don’t shout at the ticket agent who is dealing with the snaking line of equally upset travelers. Be the one traveler who is sympathetic to that agent. Out of gratitude for your graciousness, the agent will be more inclined to help you before the guy behind you, who has turned red from frustration.
- Don’t waste any time. Take action yourself, and don’t depend on someone to come rescue you. If your flight is canceled and you have not gotten immediate instructions from your agents, take matters into your own hands. Start working to find yourself a seat on a different airline. You can go the Web sites of airlines that fly from where you are to where you need to go, check availability on the spot, and often, grab a vacant couple of seats way before that hassled reservation agent behind the counter gets to you. Call the toll free numbers of the airlines if you can’t get online. In an airport, you can even go from counter to counter, if necessary, to look for seats.
- Book a new seat. Once you’ve found a seat and booked it, take your luggage and go to the new airline’s counter. Check in and say you have a reservation. Make sure you wrote down the new reservation number. Show the agent your original ticket and say you want to go on the newly reserved flight. The airline might ask you to pay additional fees , and I suggest you pay the fees if necessary. If the fees are extreme, try and negotiate. The agents behind those counters have more leverage than they want us to know. And you can always ask for a supervisor in an effort to lower those fees. But even if you have to pay something for a new ticket, buy it if you can. It’ll be worth it, trust me.
- Get a receipt. You can claim that extra money from your travel insurance. If you purchased travel insurance (everyone should purchase it), you will be reimbursed for your extra ticket expenses due to involuntary rerouting, as long as you rebook yourself in the same cabin as your original flight. If you’re flying in coach, don’t rebook yourself in business class if you want the insurance to cover your entire involuntary rerouting expense. If you don’t have travel insurance and you have to swallow the cost of that new ticket, consider yourself lucky. You got home and didn’t have to spend even more money on hotel accommodations and food. Some stranded passengers will be spending more than a week or even two weeks in a hotel, at their own expense. And if you’re missing work on top of that, the extra cost for the new ticket might start to look like a pretty good bargain after all.
What to do if you can’t book yourself on a new flight
- Book a hotel room right away. If you have to stay overnight, the same rules apply. Don’t wait around for someone to offer you a free hotel room. If one flight was cancelled, then yes, the airlines would get you a room to stay in. But this will not happen when air traffic is suspended. Find a hotel room on your own or you’ll be sleeping on cot in an airport gate area, along with hundreds of other stranded travelers.
Remember, if you’re traveling away from home, be prepared for the unexpected. Always have extra cash available before you go away on vacation in case an event like this one occurs. Hopefully you’ll never have to dip in to your stash, but if you have to bear some extra costs in an emergency, you’ll be covered and won’t feel panic.
Most important of all, try to keep a level head. There are things that happen over which you have absolutely no control. When that happens to you, you need to think creatively and calmly about how you will solve the problems that arise from those things that happened.
You have no control over the volcano or the grounded flights, but you do have control over how you will choose to handle yourself during the crisis. Sometimes, the very best and most wonderful adventures are those that happen serendipitously.
At the very least, use that extra time that you’re stuck to check out one new thing about that destination that you wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. Browse the bookstore at the airport for a new read. Give yourself the luxury of a nap in the midst of chaos. Watch the people go by. Write in your journal. Whatever it takes to make the time pass productively until your life is back in your control once again.
If you follow these steps, you’ll get back to the United States much faster than waiting for the airlines to help you. If you have any questions about what to do in a travel emergency, write to me directly.