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Insta-CoGo: You, Freezing Rain and Canceled Flights

John Deiner

Not more snow, sleet and freezing rain! The forecast is ominous, and having traveled through the last round a week ago, I feel for anyone traveling in the next 36 hours who may have concerns about whether their flights, or connecting flights, will get off the ground.

Let's say they won't. Sorry, but that's a definite possibility. I flew back to Newark last week from the Caribbean, unaware that a surprise ice and snowstorm had hit the mid-Atlantic. And having never had a flight canceled before due to weather (I know, I've been very lucky), I wasn't prepared for the possibility.

Long story short(ish): My flight landed at 7 p.m. in heavy snow, but my 9:45 p.m. connecting flight to DCA was still listed as "on time." So I went to the gate and waited. At 9, it was still snowing and the gate agent for Continental still insisted the flight was on time (though he admitted he had his doubts whether that would hold out). My wife and I discussed the possibility of a cancellation and called Amtrak to see its schedule south.


When ice isn't nice. (Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)

At 9:44, the flight was canceled. The next train to D.C. was at 10:20, but the cab line had about 100 people in it, and the airport monorail in the direction of the Amtrak station was temporarily out of service. With hundreds of people scurrying about trying to make alternate plans, we learned a few things:

1. It would have really helped if we'd programmed hotel chain 800 numbers into our cell phones. The airlines don't put you up if it's a weather delay, so we had to scramble. And because our flight was one of the last canceled for the night, there were few rooms in the inns. We finally found something at the Days Hotel -- and when we arrived were told we'd gotten one of the last rooms. Anyone following behind us would be out of luck, since it was overbooked.

2. We're going to carry an Amtrak schedule with us for now on. It took forever to get through to a live person, and the computerized menus on the 800 number take forever.

3. We never realized that Amtrak accepts Continental tickets, which we could have used if we'd made the train on time. The problem: Our flight was a Delta/Continental codeshare, and we'd booked on Delta's Web site. Next time, we'll book with Continental in a similar situation.

4. Those big hotel boards with the phones attached at airports are everywhere -- until you need one. I'm never leaving an airport again without taking note of where they're located.

5. If you're traveling in tandem, it really helps to break up and do different tasks. For instance, while I tipped the hotel shuttle driver and got our bags, my wife bolted into the hotel to be sure she was one of the first served.

6. We found an amazing Continental agent at an empty kiosk who talked us into the wisdom of booking the first flight out the next morning. Her reasoning: Even it's delayed, it'll probably be less delayed than the ones after it. She was absolutely correct; our flight got off the ground an hour late, while the ones scheduled for later in the morning were two or three hours delayed.

7. Always pack snacks. We ended up eating out of the vending machine at the Days Hotel, but it was the breakfast bars we'd been carting that really filled us up.

Any other advice out there for the haplessly stranded? I know I can use some more pointers.

By John Deiner |  February 21, 2008; 1:31 PM ET  | Category:  Insta-CoGo , John Deiner , Travel Survival Tips
Previous: Baby, Say 'Cheese' for the State Department | Next: What's the Deal: Get Away From the Ice!

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How did you find out Amtrak accepts Continental tickets? And do they accept any other airline's tickets?

Posted by: cab91 | February 21, 2008 2:35 PM

I found out when the flight was canceled and we were trying to rebook. The gate agent told me we could use our Continental tickets but wasn't sure about Delta. We called Amtrak from the gate, finally got through, and he confirmed that we could use Continental tickets but not Delta.

Posted by: John Deiner | February 21, 2008 2:39 PM

Ooh, thanks for the suggestions. I'm supposed to fly out of Dulles tomorrow afternoon (sigh) and am fully expecting my flight to be dramatically delayed at least. I guess if that happens there's nothing I can do but rebook and wait.

Posted by: h3 | February 21, 2008 2:49 PM

Also, preprogram the 1-800 number for your airline and check it during delays. Sometimes the automated systems are actually ahead of what the tell the ground staff. I've gotten to the front of many re-booking lines that way.

It may seem obvious but you didn't mention a basic survival kit in your carry-on, because you never get your luggage back.

A spare toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste. Disposable razor and small shaving cream. Small hair-brush. Change of underwear and socks (or wear a pair of those underwear made of the fast-drying, wicking material that can be washed in a sink and easily dried overnight on the towel rack). Some form of sleepwear. A tin of stuff like aspirin and allergy meds (in case you have to sleep in a smoking room and you're a non-smoker).

You'd be surprised how little space these items take up in a carry on, and how much less stressful it is if you actually have these things when you realize you aren't getting your luggage back.

Also, be careful of airline semantics.

A few years ago over Christmas, we got stuck at MSP. One of our flight attendants would have been 15 minutes over her allotted time for the week by the time we landed due to a delayed flight she had manned earlier in the week, so NW had to scramble and find another attendant who had enough time. Even though the rest of the flight crew and the airplane stood ready and waiting at the gate.

The flight attendant they found had to arrive in MSP on a regional flight, but THAT flight got canceled due to weather. So our flight was canceled.

When we went to re-book and get a hotel room, the rep tried to tell us that because it was a "weather-caused" delay (because of the inbound flight attendant's canceled flight), we weren't entitled to a room.

In no uncertain terms, I told him that their lack of eligible staff in the airline's home town was not my problem. We got the room.

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Posted by: Anthony | February 21, 2008 10:30 PM

If you have to sleep in the airport, ask for pillows or blankets from the gate staff. There's usually a few tucked behind their kiosk.

Posted by: Liz | February 22, 2008 10:37 AM

I've not yet been stranded overnight while in transit (i.e., other than at home or at my destination), but I've had plenty of flights canceled due to weather, and take plenty of precautions - particularly when I'm flying without a computer in my bags. The time I was stranded the longest was 12 hours at DFW this time last year when a freak dust storm shut the airport down completely for several hours and more than a hundred flights were canceled. If I hadn't made it on the last flight of the day to my destination, I would have been stranded in Dallas until I could turn around and go home (the trip was only scheduled to last 48 hours). Before I knew whether the last flight would actually depart I called up a nearby hotel (not one of the airport hotels, but one that was close enough to offer shuttle/car pick-ups) and made sure that they had rooms available that night - it was a tremendous relief.

The most important tip - make sure that your cell phones, etc. are fully charged before you leave home, and bring a charger with you. When I know I'll be flying through a hub often, I'll usually print out a list of the hotels within a reasonable radius of the airport - same thing if I have connecting flights in winter or during hurricane season. I also have handy a list of all daily flights between my destination and starting points / hubs (OAG and kayak are good for this), just in case I end up with a situation where an airline's rule 240 clause might come in handy.


Posted by: adub | February 25, 2008 1:53 PM

Here's a tip. During the winter, don't schedule flights connecting through historically bad winter regions.

Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, JFK, etc. It seems to be worth it to shell out the extra money just to go directly home, or route through someplace less iffy.

Posted by: Kim | February 25, 2008 3:30 PM

If your flight is rescheduled, call ahead to make sure your rescheduled flight hasn't also been rescheduled without notice. This happened to me several times recently.
This may sound obvious, but pack an extra week's worth of any medications you need to take daily (not just a couple of days worth). And remember take into account hours lost or gained when traveling through time zones. I learned this the hard way after having a flight delayed 5 times and having absolutely terrible service from American Airlines recently (briefly, it took forever to get any information from them, the "helpdesk" agent yelled at and then hung up on me when I complained, and I spent 3 hours (along with 300 other passengers) waiting outside at night for a shuttle to a hotel (I was not the last to leave) with no food or anyplace to sit except the curb).
Most importantly, pack your patience and your sense of humor. They're invaluable.

Posted by: AF | February 25, 2008 4:17 PM

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