While flying has never been statistically safer than it is today, you always constantly run the risk that storms, snow, or even mechanical difficulties can throw all your travel plans out of whack. And when you've flown as often as I have, you learn to pick up a few tricks about how to make the best of a bad situation.
1. Never check a bag. Never.
I know this rule might be easier for follow for men than women. But when you're packing for a trip, do whatever you can to travel light where you can at least put a bag in the overhead bin of a plane. I've traveled for two weeks in Asia using a single bag, so I know it can be done. You can even "gate-check" your bag--which is normal if you travel on small regional jets--because they will bring you bag right up to the gate. But if you check a bag through to your destination, you might be in trouble if your flight gets delayed or canceled because you bag won't be with you, which makes it harder to change flights if you need.
That's why even if I am headed to a trade show, I'll ship everything I'll need--like a booth, materials, and books--to my hotel ahead of time so that I can be flexible when flying. I'll also pre-print my shipping labels so that after the event is over, I can just send everything back before I get on my flight.
Again, checking a bag means you have fewer options if you run into issues on your flight.
2. Stock up.
One thing I also do when I'm packing for a trip is to throw a couple of protein bars in my bag. That's my emergency stash in case I am running through the airport and don't have time to grab a bite to eat. Or, if a flight is late enough where the restaurants in the airport have closed, at least I know I have something to fill my stomach. I'll also buy a bottle of water before I board a plan. The goal is to avoid becoming "hangry" and dehydrated--especially in case you get stuck inside the plan waiting on the tarmac.
II. Watch For Warning Signs
3. Check the weather.
A day or so before you're scheduled to fly, start checking the weather at your home airport, your destination--and areas in between. What people might not realize is that your flight could be delayed or even cancelled because the plane you were supposed to fly on isn't able to make it to your airport. If you're flying to Chicago from DC and you know there is a snowstorm in New York, the chances that your flight might be delayed go up substantially.
4. Look at the departure board on the way in.
Before you even leave to head to the airport, check the departures for your airport online. Make sure that you're not seeing a lot of delayed or cancelled flights as that means your flight is likely to be affected to. Continue to check the information even after you get to the airport as a way to keep informed about what might happen to your flight.
5. Look for your plane.
After you get through security and head toward the gate your flight is scheduled to leave out of, walk up to the windows and look to see if your plane is at the end of the jet bridge. If the plane isn't there, the risk is that your plane got held up somewhere else. If your plane still isn't there and your flight is scheduled to leave in 45 minutes or less, you can pretty much bet your flight is going to be delayed because the crew can't turn the plane around any faster than that.
III. Take Action
6. Book your hotel room.
Every airline will try and avoid canceling a flight at all costs. But that could mean they could keep delaying a flight for hours until finally waving the white flag and canceling it. When that happens you want to be prepared and ahead of the game. That's why as soon as you see that your flight has been delayed, you should use your smartphone to make an online reservation at a nearby hotel. Make sure that it's the kind of reservation you can cancel without penalty. The point is that if the airline does finally cancel the flight, you don't have to worry about having a place to stay that night--or to fight everyone else on the flight for a room. While airlines will book a hotel room for stranded travelers, experienced flyers are willing to pay for a better room closer to the airport than where the airline will send you. I will keep my reservation active all the way until I actually get on the plane. Only when I'm in my seat, and the attendant closes the door, will I actually cancel my reservation
7. Find an alternate route.
Once I know my flight is delayed, especially if it's due to weather, I will also start thinking about alternate ways I can get to my destination--especially if it's a meeting or appointment I can't afford to miss. Based on what's happening with the weather, it can make sense to drive to another nearby airport that is clear of the weather and fly to your destination from there. If you're in Chicago, for example, it might make sense to drive to St. Louis and fly. Or, if you're in New York, to drive to Philadelphia or DC and fly. While this might seem extreme, driving a few hours to help ensure you get to where you need to be can be a better use of your time than just waiting around in the airport.
8. Skip the line, pick up the phone.
If you have decided to wait out the delay only to hear the announcement that they have canceled the flight, pick up your phone and call your airline directly to rebook your trip rather than go stand in line with everyone else. You'll likely get serviced much more quickly--especially if you have a Platinum, Gold, or equivalent status with your airline.
9. Don't yell at the Customer Service Rep
Last point, try to keep calm and not take out your frustrations on the customer service agents or flight attendants who are trying to help you deal with the delay. Even if you start yelling at them, chances are you're not going to get to your destination any faster.
If you follow these tips, you'll make the most out of what can be a terrible experience from a travel delay.