I recently spent a week in Scotland, a journey that started for me at 5AM Tuesday and thanks to weather on the US east coast ended in me not arriving in Edinburgh until 9AM on Thursday.
The issue came when my flight from San Francisco to JFK wasn’t allowed to land because of approaching weather, a problem that forced the plane to divert to Philadelphia and sit for three hours, the three hours that just happened to be when my flight to Edinburgh took off. The best news? The next flight wasn’t until 7PM the next day.
So, what do you do?
I fly somewhere at least once a month, most of the time two or three times, and I’ve somehow managed to never be in this situation. If you find yourself in the same predicament, here’s what I learned from talking to airline staff and going through it personally:
Call the Airline
When we all got off the plane, the line at the gate desk was literally the entire plane long. No one intended on ending up in Philadelphia, and everyone had questions about when they could get a new flight and how they could be rerouted to get to their destination. Calling the airline directly can be faster than waiting in line.
Next time you go to book a flight you might want to look at the early-morning options first. Getting out of bed to make that 6AM might be a struggle, but Travel and Leisure suggests that you should exclusively fly in the early morning. The reason? You'll have a much better chance of getting to your destination.
If you call the airline you can switch your flight in much the same way you would with that gate agent. An airline rep on the phone can see what’s available and find you a spot (presuming there is one) just like that real person can, but in some cases much faster.
I spoke to an airline rep 15 minutes after landing who offered to move me to a flight 30 minutes later that I still would have missed (but nice offer) and let me know that if I didn’t make that one the next one wasn’t until the next day.
After about 45 minutes of waiting the desk agent yelled out for everyone who didn’t have international flights to get out of line, and while that thinned things out I was still waiting an hour and a half to get to the front and there were at least 50 people behind me.
People on the phone can’t help you with things such as hotel and travel vouchers, but they can help you get on a new flight if that’s a possibility. You can also do this within the mobile app for a few airlines, so it pays to have that downloaded as well.
If there had been a flight for me, this could have handled my problem and got me out of the long line in 15 minutes rather than 90. It also could have enabled me to snag that last seat on the next flight before someone ahead of me did in the physical line.
Your Bag Will Be Moved to Your New Flight
Your checked luggage is going to be sent to your next flight, even if that flight isn’t for a long time.
Based on the screaming around me, checked bags became a big issue for people on my flight. Since our plane was eventually going to go to JFK, our bags stayed on it even though we didn’t. That meant people who were moved to new flights weren’t able to get their stuff. Instead, their stuff was going to go to NYC as planned and then it would head to their destination.
This could have been a problem for me if I had actually gotten a new flight out of Philadelphia simply because my bag would have still gone to NY and not been able to get on a flight to Scotland until late the next day.
In my case, I was rebooked on a flight at 7PM the next day, 24 hours after my original flight, and the airline kept my checked bag overnight anyway.
This is where that advice about packing an extra set of clothes in your carry on comes in handy. I hadn’t done that this time because I only had one connection, could track my bags location, and figured my three-hour layover would have been enough to get the bag from my first plane to the second. What happened was I wore the same clothes for three days.
Don’t be me. Plan ahead and pack some emergency clothes in your carry on just in case.
You Might Not Get a Free Hotel, So Book One ASAP
This was the most surprising thing to me about the whole experience. I presumed that since the diverted flight meant I couldn’t catch my next flight for a full 24 hours that the airline would set me up with a hotel, or some food, or something. Since my issue was weather-related the answer was I got absolutely nothing. If your flight is diverted because of a mechanical or other issue then your situation might be different.
By the time I arrived at JFK at 10PM Tuesday night I had eaten half a cheese plate (what American gives you for breakfast) and only half a cheese plate all day. I wasn’t offered additional food on the flight, or at the gate while we were waiting for our diverted plane to take off. And when we landed I was told I was on my own, so things such as meals and hotel accommodations were mine to pay for and figure out.
Fun fact: The cost of a hotel that night was greater than the cost of my flight from SFO to Edinburgh, because NYU and Columbia were graduating that week and every hotel room in NYC appeared to be sold out.
Pack snacks in case you end up in this situation yourself, and if it looks as though you’re going to be stuck overnight it couldn’t hurt to go ahead and start scoping out hotel options before you talk to a gate agent.
I was one of a number of people who were stuck in NYC Tuesday thanks to the weather, and I imagine there might have been more hotel availability if I had managed to book that room earlier rather than later. I knew I was going to be stuck in NYC while I was still in Philly, although I thought an airline-sponsored hotel was in my future. That was the time to book.
When you end up in a situation such as this it isn’t a thing that’s just happening to you, it’s happening to everyone on your plane and possibly plenty of other people at the airport. Keep that in mind, and try to approach every conversation calmly and nicely. You’re not the only one having a rough day and someone is going to be much more inclined to help you through it if you’re nice to them rather than if you’re screaming at them.
Also, understand that even though you had the perfect aisle seat on your original flight that might not be available on the next flight. Be willing to take what’s available.
And if you do end up stuck in an unexpected city, try and make the best out of it. When I realised I was stuck I made plans to meet a friend for drinks when I made it to my hotel and another for brunch the next day. While I still would have rather made my original flight, seeing friends was a bright spot in an otherwise unpleasant day.