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Savvy travelers find ways to avoid airport delays

  • Story Highlights
  • Fly early in the day to avoid the ripple effect of delays throughout the day
  • Avoid the last return flight so you won't risk having to spend the night
  • Book nonstop flights and avoid peak travel times
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By Neil E. Schlecht
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(LifeWire) -- At wit's end, Jay Lenstrom, chief executive of Chicago-based Radiate Group, decided to hit the road.

Load your cell phone with airlines' 800 numbers, so you can call other carriers flying your route in the event of a delay or cancellation.

A recent flight home from Nashville, Tennessee, was repeatedly delayed due to bad weather, so a fed up Lenstrom rented a tiny car at the airport and drove 518 miles -- through a tornado, flooding and hail.

It was the "most relaxing travel experience I had in five years," Lenstrom recalls. "I only spoke to who I wanted to call... I sat next to no one ...(I) saw four states, waved to farmers, and listened to country music."

Lenstrom arrived just in time for dinner. The flight never did reach Chicago that night.

New York City resident Tom Berger feels Lenstrom's pain. Berger, who travels for business every week to Boston, has seen the situation get progressively worse over the last nine months, especially this past summer.

"Every single day, every single time, every single week, there were three- or four-hour delays," said Berger, 39, a sales executive. "One time, three of my flights were cancelled successively. I rebooked, and I rebooked and I rebooked. I've never seen it like this."

Dismal forecasts from the Department of Transportation's inspector general office confirm what these and other travelers are coping with. Based on the first seven months of 2007, the DOT notes, "it is clear that 2007 may be the busiest travel period since the peak of 2000 and may surpass the 2000 record levels for flight delays, cancellations and diversions."

In June, for example, 462 flights sat on the runway more than three hours, and in August, nearly 30 percent of all flights were delayed, according to the DOT. Customer complaints have doubled.

Avoiding delays

At a time when so many travelers feel helpless, frequent fliers stress the need to be proactive. "If you're on offensive footing, as opposed to defensive, all of life goes better, including flying," says Troy Williams, an Internet entrepreneur from Houston, Texas, who has logged as many as 150,000 air miles in a year.

Here are some techniques Williams and other savvy travelers like him employ to avoid delays:

  • Fly as early as possible to avoid the ripple effect of compounding delays throughout the day.
  • Avoid the last return flight so you won't risk having to spend the night, often without compensation for hotel and transportation.
  • Book nonstop flights; if you must make a connection, consider the size of the airport and the difficulty of getting to your gate.
  • Avoid peak travel times; travel on weekends if possible.
  • Choose a carrier with good on-time performance. The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the DOT has monthly summaries of on-time performance information.
  • Try to use regional airports rather than major hubs.
  • Check the National Air Traffic Controllers Association Web site for airport-specific tips including heaviest directional traffic.
  • Visit for a real-time flight tracker and to compare individual flights for on-time performance.
  • How to shorten delays

    When a delay hits, there are things you can do to minimize the damage.

    "It's all about being quick on your feet. It's like a bazaar in Cairo; you have to negotiate everything," said Matthew Bennett, publisher of the newsletter First-Class Flyer and the business travel blog, who offers these tips:

  • Know where to turn. Load your cell phone with airlines' 800 numbers, so you can call other carriers flying your route. Use do-it-yourself kiosks to rebook and get on stand-by lists. Locate gates for the next two flights to your destination and try to get on those flights. Check your airline's contract of carriage, also known as Rule 240, for policies regarding delayed and stranded passengers.
  • Upgrade. Bennett believes that elite-status travelers start with a leg up: "In a (private) lounge, more experienced personnel can assist you. If you don't have elite status with the airline you're flying, spring for a lounge card. It'll be worth the $50," he said. "Turn the delay into focused, undistracted work time."
  • Be patient. Keep cool and be accommodating. While this is no magic bullet, understandably, ticket agents are more likely to make hotel and flight arrangements for the few passengers not yelling at them.
  • Find a backup. Berger books two returning flights in case one gets cancelled. When delays stack up, he has resorted to one-way car rentals, impromptu carpools with other passengers, and Amtrak's Acela Express to cities in the Northeast.
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    Of course, some problems are beyond consumers' and the airlines' control. Certain delays are the inevitable result of surging numbers of travelers, reduced capacity, poor weather conditions and congested airports and air space.

    "Plan for it not to go right," says Williams. "When it goes right, be happy." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

    LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Neil Edward Schlecht is a freelance writer based in Litchfield County, Connecticut, and the author of more than a dozen travel guides.

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