Travel

Your guide to surviving airport chaos

It can happen to anyone. Your travel day is going according to plan, then disaster hits: a canceled flight because of weather, an endless security line or a lost bag.

It was a scene all too familiar with travelers this summer, and it could be on the horizon this holiday season.

When such setbacks happen, instead of wallowing at your gate (you could have plenty of time for that later), you’ll have a better chance at turning things around if you jump into action. Airlines have protocols in place to manage weather disruptions and labor issues, but being a proactive traveler can make all the difference.

Whether you want to fix your travel day or get a refund and just go home, here are our best tips for managing airport meltdowns.

1. You need to get through security fast

If you are one of those people who cuts their airport arrival time dangerously close (maybe it’s traffic, maybe you like to live on the edge), a security line-cutting service is what you need. There are a few options based on your travel style - PreCheck, Global Entry and Clear. Obviously you need apply for these before you arrive at the airport, but if you know thyself and are chronically #TeamJustInTime, do it now.

2. Your flight is canceled or delayed

If your flight arriving or departing from the United States is canceled or significantly delayed, you may be entitled to a refund under Transportation Department rules.

But be warned: If you choose to take a refund instead of a new flight option, you may end up scrambling for a more expensive flight — if you can find one at all. Then there’s the risk that your new flight may be canceled or delayed, too. It may also take a long time to get rescheduled, especially during peak travel periods when flights are already packed.

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While you’re stuck at the airport, ask your airline about hotels, meal vouchers or other services beyond the cost of the flight; U.S. law doesn’t require airlines to provide these but you should always ask. Services usually need to be requested in person at the airport, not on the phone or online. You can see what airlines should offer wronged travelers on the Transportation Department’s new online dashboard at transportation.gov/airconsumer/airline-customer-service-dashboard.

3. You need the latest updates

Download your airline’s app, as it can alert you to gate changes, delays and cancellations before the information has made it to the gate agent. It’s a good idea to have the app for nonemergencies, too. Airline apps can also help you avoid lines at the check-in counter by allowing you to download your boarding pass to your phone, pick your seat, upload documents and even now check your bag.

4. You got bumped from your flight

Airlines try to avoid “bumping” passengers from flights by offering customers thousands of dollars to volunteer. If no one bites, you could end up being an unlucky passenger who gets bumped. As frustrating as it may be, airlines are allowed to do this, and they don’t always have to compensate you for the inconvenience. There are times, however, that you’re eligible for compensation.

Here’s how it works: If there aren’t enough volunteers and you’re bumped, the airline owes you compensation if you have a confirmed reservation, checked in, got to the gate on time and the airline is unable to get you to your destination within an hour of the flight’s initial arrival time.

5. You’re separated from your family

You may have the displeasure of getting bumped or rescheduled and rebooked on a separate itinerary from the people, or even pets, you’re flying with. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to stop yourself from ending up in this situation. You are allowed to refuse the rebooking until the airline is able to accommodate your entire group, but there’s no law that requires airlines to keep families together (there are rules for seating young children with parents).

6. You want help fast

One of the quickest ways to get a response from your airline is by messaging them directly through their website or mobile app. Your first exchanges are likely going to be with a “virtual assistant” or chatbot, which can handle some basic needs. If your situation can’t be solved via bot, try messaging words such as “representative,” “agent” or “help” — they may send your case to a real human. Here’s more on dealing with chatbots.

What do you do if you need to get a human on the phone but you’re stuck on an endless hold? Try calling an airline’s international customer service centers, such as offices in Canada, Mexico or the United Kingdom. Before you do, though, make sure your phone plan includes international calls.

If international call centers aren’t fast enough, turn to social media for assistance by tweeting at or sending a direct message to the airline. Wherever you get through to someone, be as nice as possible; these people deal with angry travelers all day long. Not only is it the right thing to do, but you’re more likely to get your way.

7. Your airport is chaotic

The airport — and the menagerie of travelers who populate them — can be overwhelming whether your flight is on time or you’re stuck with a heinous delay. But swarmed airports don’t have to ruin your trip. Find six tips for making the experience a little smoother, from apps to download to mental exercises to try, at https://wapo.st/AirportChaos.

8. Your luggage is lost

Where do you turn when your bag hasn’t turned up at baggage claim? If you’re one of the unlucky travelers dealing with damaged, lost or delayed luggage, step one is to file a claim at your airline’s baggage desk at the airport. Get a copy of the report and a customer service contact number to follow up. You should also provide your preferred delivery address; many airlines will get your bag to you free.

If you haven’t jumped on the AirTag-in-your-luggage-bandwagon, you may be able to track your bag through some airlines’ app or website; the airline should also be tracking it in their system. If your bag is lost for more than 24 hours, passengers qualify for compensation. That may be to cover costs of buying clothes or toiletries for your trip, or to compensate for your permanently lost or damaged belongings.

9. You need a decent meal

Airport food doesn’t have the best reputation. But if you’re stuck in one, you likely need to refuel at some point. Find a guide to the best places to eat and drink at the 13 busiest airports in the United States, based on recommendations from local food experts and travel pros, at https://wapo.st/AirportRestaurants. If you end up in Chicago’s O’Hare, check out chef Rick Bayless’s Tortas Frontera, a favorite of many frequent fliers.

10. You have time to explore during a layover

If you’re looking at spending an eternity between flights, consider ditching the expensive and uncomfortable airport during your layover. But before you leave the airport, be sure you have enough time to get back, pass through security and make it to your gate for boarding. Calculate how long it’ll take to get into the city center, along with how long it should take to get back and how long you need for check-in and security.

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