I fly a lot. Even over the past 2 months, while I was attempting not to travel, I took 10 different planes across multiple continents. I’m not trying to brag; despite what many think, the actual process of traveling can be tedious, frustrating, and tiring. Instead, my goal is to save you time and rage by sharing the top thing I’ve learned from all those flights.
These days, more often than not, air travel doesn’t go as expected. When flying within the US, it’s pretty common to face a cancellation, delay, or other change. When this happens, it’s tempting to trust the people paid to help fix the problems for you. Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be a bad idea. In fact, my #1 suggestion for air travel is:
Do NOT Assume Airline Personnel Know Better
Gate agents are not scheming against you, but that doesn’t mean they know better than you do. It’s tempting to assume that because they spend all day routing passengers, they are more familiar with your options and will pick the best one or will give you the top choices. That’s just not true. Here’s why:
- Your journey is always going to be more important to you than to them. They re-book dozens to hundreds of people per day, and the goal is to prevent melt-downs, not to find the best possible solution.
- Their incentives may not align with yours. For example, they’re told to get you on the earliest flight out because that leaves more options for people who need to be re-booked after you, and it maximizes profit by filling a seat that would otherwise be empty. But leaving earlier may not be the best solution for you.
- Their knowledge of possibilities – or even of geography – may turn out to be much worse than yours. They simply may not realize that certain other airports are close enough to your destination.
- Their knowledge of specific airports may also be worse. In some airports, 30 minutes is long enough to make your connection. In others, that’s only true if you magically can weave through pedestrian traffic with your bags at top speed.
- They actually have less information than you do. Gate agents may not propose options that are acceptable to you, but which they assume to be out of your way. That’s because they don’t know things like whether you’ve already paid for a rental car at a specific airport and whether you prefer fewer flights or less time waiting.
I once planned a trip from Columbus, OH, to Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. Based on my travel partners and our goals for the trip, I had booked a direct flight from Columbus to one of the NYC airports, and a rental car from NYC to the ferry in Rhode Island. However, surprise: my flight – and just my flight – was cancelled right before the intended take-off. When I went up to the counter, the gate agents told me to wait for a night flight to NYC; however, this would have caused me to miss the ferry. When I explained the issue, the gate agents said sorry, but nothing we can do. So, I insisted (nicely) that they check flights from Columbus to Newark (NJ), Teterboro (a small airport in NJ), Stamford (CT), Hartford (CT), and every other city I could think of in the area that had an airport. Even from memory, I was more familiar with New England than they were, so this significantly expanded my options. One of those cities worked out, and they switched my flight.
Just last week, a gate agent suggested I miss one full day of my trip to Akron rather than flying to Cleveland, which is only a 45 minute drive away. It turned out that she had no idea where Akron was, so the idea hadn’t occurred to her.
Sometimes, the issue is not a particular person’s knowledge base. Many airlines now use algorithms to automatically re-book you if your original flight is cancelled. Again, don’t assume that their suggestions make sense. I was once flying from Rochester, NY, to Philadelphia, PA – via Detroit. While I was in the air to Detroit, the Philly airport stopped accepting flights because of snow. Upon arrival, I discovered that the airline’s system had changed my Detroit to Philly leg to a Detroit to Chicago to St. Louis to Philly progression. In addition to the unnecessary west-ward flights, this option seemed to assume that Philly would magically re-open its airport by evening. I told the woman at the counter that I wouldn’t take those flights. She tried to pressure me, asking me 4 separate times if I was sure that I wanted to cancel my itinerary, because I couldn’t get those flights back. But I insisted and got her to re-book me from Detroit to Baltimore. Baltimore was accepting air traffic, so I arrived in Philly (by train) many hours earlier than their suggestion would have gotten me there. (For the curious, the Philly airport did indeed stay closed all day, so I would have gotten stuck in St. Louis that night if I had taken their suggestion.)
What You Should Do
So, if you have a delay or a cancellation, don’t leave it to the airline to fix it. Think of gate agents as a friendlier SkyScanner or Expedia: they can show you times and prices, but you have to come up with the ideas of what to check. Be proactive: brainstorm some ideas before you go up to the counter. Then, ask the representative to check for earlier connections, alternate destinations, or even flights on partner airlines. These are all common options, and they can save you a lot of time and hassle. Unless you’re hoping to get stuck in an airport and film a fun video. Then, by all means!