The first thing I do when I'm flying is to make sure there's a plane.
I don't put a foot in my car without checking my flight status beforehand -- online or on the phone. I can't tell you how many trips to the airport I've saved on cancelled flights.
Even before booking a flight, however, you ought to weigh whether it makes sense to drive or take the train rather than fly.
Meaning, if your short hop from New York to DC is delayed four hours, maybe it makes sense to catch Amtrak instead? Know your options.
Have a strategy
There's nothing you as a traveler can do to fix the airlines' problems. What you can do is strategize ahead of time, so you're ready when a problem pops up.
Here are tips I follow:
- Stick with a non-checked bag. So if I'm at Logan and all hell breaks loose, and I've got just a carry-on, I'm still free to jump on the train, rent a car, book a hotel, even go home. Remember -- once you give your bag to the airline, the control of your trip passes out of your hands.
- Don't even leave for the airport until you know your alternate flight choices, train options, car rental choices, hotel options.
- When you need your travel info, you'll need it fast. Keep it handy in your PDA, address book, or itinerary.
- Make sure you have your travel agent's phone number, or be prepared with your online booking tool. That way if you have to fly, and say you're heading from Boston to LA, and weather is the holdup in a connecting city, you can act quickly to see if an airline can reroute you through a different airport.
- You need all the leverage you can get, so have that frequent flyer membership handy too, especially if you have elite status.
- Know all the airlines on your route. Once you're at the airport, you won't have time to do the research.
- And know your schedule cold.
When flights start getting delayed or cancelled, people all run to the airline's help desks. There's a big line. Afterward they all run to the food court. There's a big line again.
Avoid the herd instinct. If you see a line, go where the herd isn't.
For example, on a trip to Chicago my flight was delayed. I immediately began to think strategically. I hit the places without lines first, like the Internet kiosk and restroom. When the airline announced they'd be loading the plane ostensibly for a 30-minute wait on the tarmac before take-off, that was a red flag. I immediately hit the food court.
So when that half-hour wait turned into a four-hour marathon, I was prepared. I had my snacks and water.
Save your sanity
You go to the airport, you expect to do a lot of standing in lines. But you still have choices.
Say there's a line because the carrier has cancelled a flight and is handing out hotel vouchers to all the passengers. Well, you can be fairly sure that a lot of those vouchers aren't going to be worth waiting for.
You just have to know there are more people in the lobby than can ever fit into that hotel.
You just have to know when it's more important to save your sanity.
And when it's time fish or cut bait.
I've known business travelers who've spent the entire day in transit, missing connecting flights and missing their meeting. They spent the whole day flying, not getting anywhere.
After all, if there's no way to get where you're going, sometimes it's better to head home and do the business meeting from a local hotel's video conferencing facilities. Or maybe just from the quiet of your home office.
Life is short enough. If your flight gets snafu-ed, don't make everyone around you miserable. They're going through the same thing. Their time is just as valuable. Get comfortable, get creative, get philosophical -- and deal with it.