Holiday air travel tips

November 24, 2014


The other week we flew across the country from SFO to the western NY city that is our hometown, Rochester.  There was a full schedule of events and a full house at sister-in-love’s house, so we were excited to get there.

Now, I never fly through Chicago in the winter. Or ever, if I can help it. But we used airline miles for our tickets and pickings were slim.

Less than a month before our flight, United sent an email — there had been a schedule change. Since we were in Sicily when it arrived, we weren’t as on top of it as we might have been and failed to notice that the change meant we now had a five-hour layover in Chicago, would  get in at quarter to midnight –and sister-in love insisted on picking us up, despite it being a work week for her. GRRR.  Turns out, United had discontinued the earlier flight and this was the last flight to Rochester out of Chicago. Last flight out. Another thing I avoid.

Landing on time in Chicago, we had time for a leisurely dinner and to sit. And sit. And sit.

Finally, it was time to board for our 8:56pm CDST departure.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your flight attendants just landed from overseas and have to make their way to this terminal. If they don’t get here in the next 10 minutes, we may be a little late taking off.” Ok, at least they were in the airport, somewhere.

Ten minutes clicked by.  Fifteen.  Our departure time inched up on the board  in 10 minute increments. The crew finally appeared at the 30-minute mark.  Still, we knew boarding was just a couple minutes away.

flight-delayedThen,  the crackle of an announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is a problem with the computer and maintenance is checking it out. They think it’ll be a quick fix.”

Quick and fix are not words that go together in airline lexicon.  We stood. And stood.  By now our departure time had pushed to 10:30 Central (11:30 in Rochester).  I sidled up to the counter and asked if the flight was going to be cancelled. Their faces said yes, but they hedged.

“When’s the next flight to Rochester?”

Turns out that while we had been patiently standing there, others had been “protecting” themselves on the first flight out in the morning and it was now full. In my days of constant business travel, I would’ve been one of those people but apparently I have developed amnesia about how these things work. It never occurred to me.

The gate agents “protected” us on a flight leaving Chicago the next day at 3PM. Yes. In the afternoon. If the flight were cancelled, we’d spend the day at O’Hare.  The agent told me that the customer service counter would get us a hotel voucher if the flight didn’t go.

I told M and suggested we slip down six or seven gates to the customer service counter, where we’d later get a hotel room and food vouchers.  We had time to check it out. After all, an hour to go before our new scheduled take off.

He didn’t like the idea.

“I’ll wait, just in case they fix it and board earlier,” he said.  He was once on a delayed flight that boarded earlier and half his colleagues missed it as they’d left the gate area.

I started down the concourse to customer service and almost instantly  heard him call my name.

“We’re boarding!”  Had we gone down the concourse we would’ve missed the flight.

Settled in our seats, we were ready to go.

Well, we THOUGHT we were.

“Ladies and gentlemen, maintenance noticed a dent on the back of the plane that they want to check out.”


After another 20 minute wait, the dent was deemed “not a problem” and we took off. We arrived in Rochester around 1 a.m.

So as you prepare for your own air travel this holiday season, let me share my lessons learned.

  • When an airline tells you there has been a schedule change, check it immediately.  If you don’t like it, call to see if it can be changed.
  • Never book the last flight out of a city.
  • Always “protect” yourself on the next flight out when it looks like your flight might be cancelled. Call the airline or go online immediately.
  • Never leave the concourse during a flight delay as they can call for boarding at any time and you can miss your flight.
  • Have a stiff drink in the airport cocktail lounge before any holiday trip.

Oh, and that flight we were protected on?  Apparently we were still scheduled on it. The following day I got a text that said Your 3pm flight has been delayed and will now depart at 4pm. 

The another, that said, Your 3pm flight will now depart at 5pm.

But by that time, I was happily hanging with a girlfriend in Rochester, the night before’s hassles only a distant memory.

Here’s hoping you fare better this holiday season.

47 comments on “Holiday air travel tips
  1. This is part of the reason why I hate air travel. You rarely get a straight story. We have been on delayed and cancelled flights. Our luggage didn’t arrive on time on one . And once when my son was sick we were stuck in the airport, poor kid. I felt so sorry for him. Ugh on air travel.

  2. Laura says:

    Why I don’t travel between November 2th and January 4th. In 30 years of living away from my family I had Christmas with them 5 times. Three of those five they came to me.

    • My family used to always say “but you’re so much more adaptable.” And truth, mom no longer flew. So it was me. Plus I lived on two coasts for some years and flew between them. I’m still waiting to be able to beam up.

  3. And if at all possible, avoid Chicago O’Hare. The last 2 times we flew through there, our supposedly non-stop flights to Philly left a day late and required flying first to Minneapolis (for one) and Dallas (for the other)—not exactly on the way.

  4. ryder ziebarth says:

    Air travel now is appalling. Someday I’ll tell you the story of almost being arrested for “talking back “to a huffy, Pompous overly -tired United Airline stewardess. She actually called the Newark Police to meet us at the gate. Those days are gone, too. Thank God. And three stars for M.

  5. Roz Warren says:

    My favorite line: “Their faces said yes, but they hedged.” 🙂

  6. I soooo relate. Traveling is a bitch with an oversized carry-on. Finding the bar is a must. God’s speed my friend. I’m hitting 30, 000 feet tomorrow. Pray for me.

  7. It’s a never ending JOY… the holiday travel. And I”m with you on visiting the airport lounges ahead of time> !!!

  8. Mary says:

    So sorry all that happened to you! Your story makes me very thankful that 90% of all my family from Buffalo now lives in California!

  9. Risa says:

    Then there was the time I was detained at the John Wayne Airport for allegedly sniffing Sterno while being a teenager. But seriously, the drink at the airport bar should always come first, if time allows. One of our kids lives in Syracuse, and there’s just no good, reliable way to get there that doesn’t include a long layover and possible delays. I’m going early next month and know that it will be a very long travel day. I only have one daughter, and that’s where she lives, so…unless I can get her and her family to come to their senses and move back to California where they belong, I’m going to have to deal with this stuff. Glad you had fun in Rochester!

  10. Janie Emaus says:

    And that’s exactly why my husband had us take a train to Texas!

  11. Lana says:

    Uggh…air travel. Great tips though. We’re flying out on Thanksgiving morning – don’t know what I was thinking when I booked those flights!

  12. These are excellent, travel-savvy tips!

  13. Wonderful post, Carol. You have a great way with the travel stories, I like the way you include humor and useful information. 🙂

  14. Michelle says:

    I am very grateful that my holiday travels plans include a short trip by car.

  15. Kim Tackett says:

    Yesterday I saw a survey of airport delays and O’Hare was the clear leader. Just booked a flight for our daughter from Amsterdam to Portland, via Houston (instead of Chicago). The extra three hours seemed like a good trade (plus she’s 20).

    • Yes, no one likes to fly through OHare but sometimes there is no better alternative. Your daughter would probably not have spent those 3 hours at OHare, but she might spend SOME time there. I’ve also had flights that went right on time out of there. But winter is ALWAYS problematic and a southern route most always best.

  16. And whenever possible, plan in a little buffer time… This is the first I’ve heard of the “protect” your flight option! Will definitely remember that one! Thanks for sharing!

  17. I’m laughing….oh the joys of airplane travel…especially during the holidays!

  18. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    Those of us old enough to remember when air travel was luxurious and fun are probably the worst off with the sorry state of affairs today. Our kids have never known differently.

  19. Jackie says:

    I’m not a traveler. I hate to fly. This would have sent me over the edge — and I would have had NO idea what to do… thanks so much for the helpful tips! (I won’t be travelling over the holidays, but will keep this info in my “back pocket” anyway!)

  20. penpen says:

    When my daughter moved back east after 15 years on the west coast, I thought I was lucky: same time zone. No more calls at midnight my time. Now I realize the real luck is in not having to travel cross country for holidays. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. Ruth Curran says:

    I dread flying in and out of Chicago…. Seems to happen every time no matter the airline or time of year!

  22. Sounds like travel day Hell. Ive been there so many times, flying back and forth between SFO and ATL. Getting stuck in an airport is misery. Once when we connected in Chicago in March, I was wearing flip flops. Never in a million years did I think we’d be plodding outside through the melting snow slop to our next puddle jumper. My poor toes! I thought they were going to break off.

  23. Why is air travel one of the only industries that seems to be going backwards? It’s so frustrating!

  24. Liv says:

    Wow Carol…that sounds like quite the adventure. My worst travel experience was a three hour layover with two kids under 5. Have always taken direct flights since then. Sharing.

  25. WendysHat says:

    Yes airline traveling isn’t easy like it used to be. My best tips are be early, be organized, be patient, be flexible and be happy!

  26. Estelle says:

    I hate when your best laid travel plans go array. At least it all worked out for you in the end.

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