By Lauren Young
NEW YORK, March 3 (Reuters) - Winter has not been kind to airline travelers. Since Dec. 21, more than 74,825 U.S. flights have been canceled and another 285,889 delayed in the United States, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks flights.
I was one of those unlucky travelers.
During the Presidents Day weekend, I was set to go to Los Angeles from New York with my 9-year-old son. The day before our flight, New York City encountered a large snowstorm, but when we woke up to start our trip, the sun was shining and the roads and runways were clear.
Before we left for the airport, United's handy iPhone app indicated everything was fine, but shortly after we arrived at the airport, a "Canceled" message popped up on the departures board. An email from United followed: I was automatically put on a flight three days later, my 9-year-old son was rebooked a day after that.
Since that arrangement wasn't going to work, I jumped on the gate line and simultaneously dialed United's customer service number - which had a 60-minute wait. I also tried getting the airline's attention via Twitter. My goal: To get us to California sooner and definitely on the same plane.
Ultimately, it took three days before we reached sunny, snow-free LA. And just as we landed, after having missed a day at Universal Studios, my boyfriend and his boys were waiting on the tarmac across the airport about to head home.
Should I have taken a different approach? I spoke to several travel experts to get advice on what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled.
TALK TO A HUMAN BEING
When a major event hits, like a stock market correction in the financial world, many companies add staff. But union rules and other technicalities mean that airlines don't have as much flexibility if travel havoc strikes, explains Seth Kaplan, an analyst at Airline Weekly, an industry publication.
To cut through the long wait times on customer service numbers, friends in the know say to hint that you're calling to book a first-class, international flight. (Not that I suggest lying. Just passing along the tip.)
When you finally reach someone, be sure to let them know if you have any flexibility in your travel plans. Heading to Washington, D.C.? Would a flight to Richmond or Baltimore be better than no flight at all?
Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I had gone to the airport's main United desk, which is fully staffed, to speak with a representative sooner, instead of waiting at the gate.
CHANGE YOUR FLIGHT PLAN
Avoid the after-the-fact scramble by changing your flight as soon as a weather emergency pops up. When airlines issue travel advisories, they want you to rearrange your plans, says Jason Cochran, editor-in-chief of the travel website Frommers.com.
"It is easier for them if passengers get out of the way" of a storm, Cochran notes.
That's what my boyfriend did. He rebooked a flight to Los Angeles a day before the snow storm hit for no extra charge.
Keep in mind that once a travel advisory is issued, you have to act fast, particularly if you are flying on a peak travel day.
Another option: Fly standby, although that can be tricky if you have kids in tow or when lots of people are scrambling.
DON'T RELY ON TWITTER
Back in the caveman days of social media, airlines were quick to respond to consumers via Twitter. No longer.
"It's the illusion of customer service," Cochran says. "It just makes you feel heard."
Dori Fern, an editorial consultant in New York City, got stuck in New Orleans in late February with two teenagers. And, since it was Mardi Gras, just a handful of pricey hotel rooms could be found. She took to Twitter after she was unable to get any information or help from Delta's customer service via phone.
The airline ultimately gave each of them $50 travel vouchers, but that was less than Fern paid out of pocket. (Delta didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.)
If you don't like the service you have received, file a complaint with your airline. "It's certainly worth asking for something," Kaplan says.
Sometimes you don't even need to speak up.
My colleague Tonia Ciccone returned from the Dominican Republic in late February, and her Jet Blue flight back to New York was delayed. Once they finally boarded, the plane didn't have working televisions.
Ciccone had a nice surprise in her inbox the following Monday: $700 in travel credits.
Guess what? They've already booked a trip to New Orleans during JazzFest. "How awesome is that?" she says.
ENJOY WHAT YOU GET
As for my trip? I still don't understand why it took three very frigid days to get to my final destination. My flight was canceled because the inbound flight crew got delayed, according to United spokesman Charles Hobart.
"We would've liked to have gotten you to your destination sooner, but we, along with all major carriers, were affected by the severe weather in the region," Hobart says.
It turned out okay because we had a great vacation. And by the time we returned home, most of the snow had melted and it was 50 degrees Fahrenheit outside.
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