Booking A Flight In a Time of Uncertainty

Delays/Cancellations, Delta, Northwest, Southwest

Let’s face it. It sucks to have to book travel right now. Ok, it clearly sucks to actually be an airline far more, but we’ve beaten that horse to death already. So why do I say it’s so bad to book? Uncertainty.

With my wedding coming up in October, there are a ton of flight arrangements that need to be made. There are showers, receptions, and more, and they all require family members hopping on aircraft to criss-cross the country.

Now, I know fares are high. That’s fine. I have no complaints about that at all. In fact, I’d complain if they weren’t. But if I buy a ticket, I want to make sure that flight will actually go. Unfortunately, that’s not something that we can really rely upon as much these days.

I started thinking about this when JetBlue pulled their LAX service before it even started. Now just about every other airline has decided to reduce capacity, so buying a ticket is like a game of chance. Will your flight still be there when it comes time to travel?

So, I’ve tried to put together some pieces of advice on how to best position yourself to have your flight actually exist when you go to travel. Here are my somewhat feeble thoughts. Sorry I don’t have anything more substantial, but everything is so fluid right now that it’s tough to really know how to deal with this best.

  • Fly During Busy Times – That 8am flight to Chicago isn’t going away, but maybe that 6a or 10p flight will. When airlines look to cut flights, you’ll generally see it happen at off peak times. Sure, the flip side here is that the peak times will cost more, but that’s the price you’ll pay.

  • Don’t Fly Northwest or Delta – Yes, this is being pretty harsh. And yes, I’m actually flying Northwest in August, so why do I say not to fly them? Well, they’re merging, and though their pleas to Congress have stated that they won’t be cutting service, I think that’s a load of crap. My guess is that flights will be cut, and smaller hubs will be shrunk significantly, regardless of what they say now. They’ve even started to hint about it. So, if you’re booking very far out, you might want to keep that in mind. Even if the merger were approved tomorrow, I wouldn’t expect major cuts to begin until after the summer. If you do end up flying on these guys (or any airlines that decide to merge), at least try to avoid marginal hubs like Cincinnati and Memphis for your connections. Those will likely see the greatest impact, I’d think.

  • If You’re in Denver, Fly Southwest – As we’ve seen often over the last few months, Southwest is hell-bent on kicking Frontier out of Denver. So, they’re actually adding flights instead of cutting them. To be fair, they aren’t really doing much cutting elsewhere in the system either, so they might be a good one to book in general. Then again, what they’ve done so far isn’t necessarily an indicator of how they’ll behave in the future.

  • Don’t Book Too Far in Advance – The easiest thing to do is wait until it’s closer to your travel time before booking. When flights get cut, there will be some advance notice, so if you’re traveling within a month, you should be fine (unless you were flying JetBlue to LAX, I suppose). I know this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and yes, you’ll have to pay for more this privilege, but it will give you more certainty.

  • Keep Your Fingers Crossed – If you can’t drive, there’s really not much else you can do but keep your fingers crossed and hope that your flight goes. I know I make this sound like every flight is at risk, and that’s not the case. I’d like to think that I’m overstating the possibilities here, but it’s better to think about these things beforehand. The good news is that if flights get cut, you’ll be reaccommodated on another flight on that airline, but it may not be as convenient as you’d like.

It’s a tough time to be a traveler right now. So, just be patient and hope that your flight doesn’t get cut. What other tips do you have out there?

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14 comments on “Booking A Flight In a Time of Uncertainty

  1. Another tip, assuming you are willing to pay for the privilege, is make redundant reservations with several carriers in a refundable fare class. If your preferred flight is cancelled due to “unceartainty” you have a back up. If al systems are go then cangel and get arefund on the back-up plan.

  2. Amtrak rail passes. They have various regional passes for different parts of a cheap country with a very weak currency: the US.

  3. What happens if they drop the flight for which you hold a ticket? They’re obligated to “do their best” to rebook you but the alternative is to just refund, right? If that’s the case then the advice makes sense I guess… You want to arrive by a certain date with high assurance.

  4. Regarding the last point, driving is often times a more expensive alternative these days which I never thought would happen.

    Glad to see that you mentioned Southwest, in the past several months they have been shuttling me around the western states for far cheaper than I could have driven.

  5. EDIT to my previous comment as I missed your point… By driving, you would avoid the potential of being left high and dry be a flight cancellation. Got it…

  6. Andy – Most airlines will rebook you on the next best option out there, but if the new times don’t work, you are usually allowed to just request a refund. You can check with the contract of carriage for the individual airline to see individual policies.

    Wes – Yes, as you said in your edit, my point wasn’t about the cost but about reliability of getting where you need to go on time. Still, you raise an interesting point. It’ll now cost me around $130 to drive roundtrip to SFO from LAX. If I have more than one person, yes, it still makes sense to drive. But if it’s just me, it can easily be cheaper to fly.

  7. This already happened to me for a Midwest flight in June.
    My best tip: I did my research before I called and knew all of the alternative flights they had and how to refute that they wouldn’t work for me. They ended up offering $100 hotel credit and $100 rental car credit to fly the night before instead of the early am flight and then drive the hour my connecting flight would have eliminated. (which was actually what I wanted in the first place but that flight was too expensive…)
    As Andy said, are they legally required to do this?

  8. Embo – You know, it’s weird. In my quick glance at Midwest’s contract of carriage, I don’t see schedule changes referenced. Have a look for yourself (pdf). That’s a pretty surprising offer, actually. Usually you’ll see them just offer you a refund instead of providing all the other stuff.

  9. That’s what I was afraid of after I checked and saw other carriers flights were $300ish to just MKE, and I had only paid $247 with my connector…
    lucky for me, I guess, I know enough about the industry to BS my way through, and the poor lady unfortunate enough to answer my call probably just wanted to get rid of me….
    I documented the lady’s name, date and time of the call – but I better keep my trap shut until this is all said and done!

  10. I was in Denver this past weekend and you could tell Southwest is sinking its teeth into the market. Huge marketing displays lined the TSA security checkpoint and even in Concourse A, which Frontier uses, there was obvious marketing ploys to boot them out. I would much prefer to fly into Denver via Frontier, but its going to be a sad day when I concede that Southwest has won.

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