Help! My flight is delayed, I am STUCK!

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Delays are the worst, and this year started off with thousands of travelers stuck and waiting for better weather as a massive storm swept the East Coast.

Delays test a traveler’s patience and budget. You may find yourself hungry and tired, in addition to stranded. Costs can add up fast, especially when traveling with others. Your travel budget will be tested by unplanned airport meals or an unexpected night in a hotel.

If you know what your options are, and plan ahead, you’ll have a plan in place if a delay does come your way.  Here is what you need to know for handling the costs and stress of a travel delay.

Know what the airline owes you.

You need to know the terms of your ticket and the airline’s policies on delaying, canceling and rebooking flights.

You may be right in asking if there are federal requirements for airlines to compensate for delayed or canceled flights, but there isn’t. You can write your senator when you get home. However, airlines know it’s bad for business (and their twitter feeds) to leave customers high and dry.

Typically your airline will try to rebook you on the next available flight. You can also request a full refund. You shouldn’t have to pay any change or cancelation fees. 

But it does pay to be polite.

You’re one of a hundred or so passengers on the canceled flight, but being the loudest or angriest is not going to help you to your destination any quicker. Your desk agent just became the gatekeeper between you and your destination. Be kind.

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Airlines also work with affiliated companies, and may even book you a seat with an alternate carrier to get to your destination. Again, they’re not required to, and may not offer until you ask.

Delayed is better than canceled, right?

Once a flight is significantly delayed, as in more than two hours on average, carriers may offer a standby ticket on another flight, or may grab you a seat for a comparable flight within 24 hours of your original flight. Comparable? Yes, but not necessarily identical. You may wind up on a route involving different but nearby airports. If you hear of the delay before you even arrive at the airport, you may also have the option of a complete refund.

Airlines often crack out the vouchers for free meals at the airport, or possibly free or discounted rates at nearby motels, but it isn’t a guarantee. A travel insurance plan is more reliable than hoping for a voucher.

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Grounded. Now, where do you sleep?

Airlines often try to put passengers up in hotels, on the carrier’s dime. But such offers may only extend to non-local passengers. That free stay may not apply to you if you live in the area. Also, that offer may be dependent on if they’re responsible for the cancellation, like a mechanical issue or similar matter.

Travel insurance may handle this differently. Your plan may allow you to book a room at the airport, or close by, regardless of your proximity to the airport. The plan may also allow for the costs to taxi home and back to the airport in the morning. Either way, if the airline won’t help, you won’t be cuddled up on a bench at the gate until morning.

Should I just cancel?

That’s a tough call that only you can make. However, for most travel insurance plans, you will have to show that you have missed more than half the total length of your trip because of this delay. Know the terms of your policy before you head out the door to the airport. Missing a night of vacation may feel like the end of the world, but canceling a well-deserved vacation may not be necessary, especially if you use your travel delay benefits to offset your costs and keep your travel plans moving.

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