How to Handle Overnight Delays

Know your travel rights when your flight is cancelled or delayed, and find a hotel room, too.

Many moons ago, when I was pregnant with our daughter, my husband went to London for a week without me.

Hmm, I’m sensing a pattern here. This summer he’s jetting off to a professional conference in Bologna, Italy, leaving me behind … while pregnant.

We might have to discuss this.

Anywho, back then, his mom and step-dad were living and working in England. I was too sick from the pregnancy to join him on what had become an annual trip, so I granted him permission to go solo.

The night he was to return home, he ran into a series of snafus—including missing his connection, thanks to lackadaisical service—stranding him in Newark, N.J. It was nearly 2 a.m. before he exhausted all his options and realized he’d have to stay overnight.

Dealing with Delays

Because he booked his flight on two unconnected airlines, his hotel wasn’t comped by the international carrier (a well-respected one run by an eccentric billionaire) or the domestic airline that would eventually get him back to our home city.

Just like a man (sorry, honey, but it’s true), the first person he called was me. He was desperate to get a hotel room, and he just didn’t know how to do it.

Eventually we got him squared away, but not until well after a series of increasingly testy phone calls between the two of us that lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

Ah, marriage. Ain’t it grand?

This time around he flies directly to Munich from O’Hare International Airport, but I am well aware that he could easily get stranded again.

According to the United States Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 70,671 flights have been canceled so far in 2008. In all of 2007, 76,098 flights were canceled.

I’m no statistical expert, but I’d say 2008 is on track to be the Year of the Canceled Flight.

The Reason for Troubled Travel

So what’s the deal? Why so many delays? Why so many bloody cancellations?

Anthony Pagano, associate professor of managerial studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, says there are a variety of factors in play.

It’s a question asked by many, and there are very few “good” answers, he says. “Each delay seems to involve a different set of factors and decision makers,” Pagano explains, adding that cutbacks in personnel and the number of flights available means there’s very little slack in the system.

“The airlines find it hard to adjust to small problems, which then turn into large ones. For example, I recently was on a flight to California from Chicago which was delayed for two hours,” he says. “Fortunately, we hadn’t boarded the plane. Why were we delayed? Because there was bad weather in Cleveland. So, what does bad weather in Cleveland have to do with a flight to California?”

Turns out that the flight attendants who were supposed to be on Pagano’s flight were stuck in Cleveland. “We waited two hours until they could scrounge up flight attendants to fill in,” he adds.

It’s not so bad when it’s just you, or you and your partner. You can bunk down on a plastic chair, or spread your coat on the floor and catch a snooze while you wait for your new flight assignment.

It’s different when you’re traveling with kids, especially the pre-school and under set. Parents of kids under the age of 5 know that if baby ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy—and I don’t know too many toddlers who would be content to sleep on the floor at LaGuardia.

Know Your Flight Rights

The good news is, although Federal lawmakers nixed a passenger bill of rights, customers do have some rights when their flights are canceled.

Always check the fine print before you book a flight, and make sure you understand who is responsible for your lodging, should you be required to spend the night in an unfamiliar city due to a canceled flight.

Many airlines will provide passengers with vouchers for overnight stays in nearby airport hotels and can also help arrange for transportation.

Typically if your flight is canceled by your airline, they are responsible for finding you a hotel and paying for it,” says Michael Nealon, market director of sales, Tampa Florida Region, for McKibbon Hotel Management. “All airlines have a list of local hotels they use that are set up to directly bill the airline. The airline provides the family with a voucher they use to cover room and tax at the hotel.”

He adds that hotels generally have shuttle buses that run to and from nearby airports, and there is always the taxi queue.

Sometimes, there really is no room at the inn, but Nealon says that front desk staff is trained to move heaven and earth to help stranded travelers.

“In most markets, Tuesday and Wednesday are the most difficult days to get a room, based on business travel being at its peak,” he says. “However, we will take reservations at any time as long as at least one room or suite is available.”

My husband will be traveling on the weekend. Lucky for him.

And me? I’ll be stuck in Urbana, nursing my swollen ankles. All I can say is, he’d best come home with a small, black, velvet box with my name on it. 

Themes: Family Travel