Learning From My Crazy Day Of Travel

Travel often enough and you’ll have a day like I had this past week, where it requires a lot of effort to make sure you can get to where you’re going.  A good friend of mine pointed out that I hadn’t more clearly detailed some of the helpful hints along the way like American Airlines’ last seat availability for AAnytime award travel.  That lead me to think that it would be a good idea to summarize the tips and tricks I used to make my way home:

Know Your Options:

Since I happened to be traveling with Gary and he was headed to the same general area as I did, I already knew what the last flight was to DCA, my alternate airport (BWI is an options as well, though less desirable).  If it’s important to get home (or to your destination) always know your backup options so you can quickly communicate them to an agent trying to help you.  There are lots of places to see lists of flights.  I prefer ITA Software.  They don’t sell tickets directly, but they have a great search engine for plugging in alternate airports and the like.

Figure Out How Likely It Is You Can Switch Flights:

As we were taxiing out to the runway in Seattle I decided to check Expert Flyer for availability on Gary’s flight to DCA.  I use Expert Flyer for a number of things, but it’s great for seeing how many seats are available on a specific flight.  Remember, that even if you see lots of availability, weather and mechanical delays on unrelated flights can dump a whole lot of people onto the flight you’re trying to make.  The interface at Expert Flyer will show you something like this:

Day Of Travel

In my case, the DCA flight was F0 A0 P0 Y1 B0 H0 K0 M0 L0 W0 V0 N0 G0 S0 Q0 O0.  What the heck does that mean?  That means there’s exactly one seat left for sale on the entire plane. Gulp!  That’s a really good time to book a ticket.

Know What The Airline Will Offer You:

American Airlines still offers truly the last seat for sale on a plane as an AAnytime award seat.  I proved that on Sunday, taking the last seat and watching Expert Flyer show the flight go from Y1 to Y0.  Last seat availability isn’t something all airlines do for award bookings.

If you’re on a mechanical delay, airlines will likely be willing to move you to another carrier, though that doesn’t generally count discount airlines like Southwest, Virgin America etc.  For weather, they’re a lot less likely to move you elsewhere, but it’s always possible.

Elite Status Can Help You:

In my case, elite status helped me with a number of areas:

  1. I could confidently book the last seat on that DCA flight because American Airlines Executive Platinum members can cancel awards for free and redeposit the miles back into your account.  There are fees for lower elites, though they’re not too horrible in a pinch.
  2. As Gary pointed out, the American Airlines app has Twitter feedback access for Executive Platinum members, who get priority responses through the app (which was definitely a huge help here).

Know Where You’re Going:

No, not your destination city, though that’s also pretty helpful.  In my case, I was originally trying to make a flight on United Airlines at ORD.  That meant a terminal change and a very long walk/run.  The gate for the DCA flight was a very short distance, but the H and K terminal form a weird sort of “A” shape and there’s potentially more than one way to get to your gate.  When time is of the essence, know if you’re taking a right or left when you get off the plane and what your path is.  Missing a flight because you went the wrong way in a terminal would be a horrible feeling.  Resources for knowing where you’re going:

  1. The airline’s app.  In this case, the American app was telling me what gate I needed to go to.
  2. Google.  You can Google your airline and flight number (AA #2346, for example) and Google will tell you the status.
  3. Apps like FlightTrack.
  4. And the most low tech solution of all, the in-flight magazine in the seat pocket in front of you.  Airlines print concourse maps of the major airports they fly to.

When All Else Fails, Book A Hotel Room Quickly:

As the sands of time were slipping through our hands on Sunday, Gary and I started looking for hotel rooms near ORD.  There’s a Hilton connected to the airport and a bunch of airport hotels nearby.  This wasn’t a massive weather issue so there were plenty of rooms.  But in true bad weather situations, rooms go quickly.  Don’t make the problem worse by waiting until there are no more hotel rooms.  In roughly 20 years of adult travel I have yet to sleep in an airport terminal.  I’m looking to keep that streak intact.

Be Nice.  Exceedingly Nice:

Airline employees don’t have the best jobs, nor the most highly paid jobs.  And, lots of them have bad attitudes.  Running up to the counter and demanding a seat is likely to get a virtual thumb in your eye.  In these situations it pays to remember the gate agent has all the authority.  It’s not to say that reason won’t win out in most cases, but when things turn south in a situation where you need help, the plane will be gone long before you get a supervisor to weigh in.  In our case, we were all smiles when we hit the counter to get our boarding passes. And, I was exceedingly nice when I asked the agent if she could find some way to let me board ahead of the rest of the line to stow my suitcase.

Leave It All On The Floor, So To Speak:

Gary didn’t have a carry-on suitcase, I did.  He made it to the front of the plane and I had a few people in front of me who refused to move out of my way even though I was in a huge rush.  I tried to get around these folks on the jet bridge but they were having none of it.  Still, I was a big favorite to catch up to Gary. Those of you that know both of us will surely agree.  I hit the terminal and took off like a bat out of hell.  I turned the corner into the walkway between H and K by the airline clubs and Gary was already down the far end getting ready to turn the corner.  Wha, what?

He. Was. Hauling.  Ass.

I managed to find another gear and managed to catch him as he was getting close to the gate.  I can’t speak for him definitively, but I don’t think either of us could have run much harder than we did.  Don’t think the plane is going to wait for you.  There’s plenty of time to rest when you get to the gate, whether you make the flight or not.

There you have it, some extended thoughts on how to improve your chances of making a flight.

And, one bonus tip.  Use Uber.  I waited roughly 10 minutes for an Uber car at DCA that night around 12:30am.  When I walked outside the line for regular cabs was legendary.  The last thing you want after a long day of hectic travel is an hour wait for a ride.  My family had that on a trip to NYC a few years ago when we landed at Laguardia and the cab line was an hour long.  Back then, I bribed a Super Shuttle rider to find room for us. Now, I just Uber. And, in case you don’t believe me about the cab line at DCA, here’s a picture I bogarted from Gary’s blog.  That’s only part of the line:

Day Of Travel

As a side note, the Uber link above is my referral link.  If you sign up using my link I truly appreciate it.  I think the current new referral bonus is $10 for both of us.  If you sign up and want to leave your referral link in the comments, please feel free.


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