Cheap Flights Need Backup Plans

We all hear travel horror stories and hope it never happens to us.  Here’s one from my cousin about their travels earlier this week.  There are a few bits here and there where they likely could have ended up in a better spot.

They had purchased cheap flights on JetBlue to head down to Florida to spend time with some friends.  They were flying from Westchester (HPN) to Fort Lauderdale (FLL), with the return flights the same.  Obviously, there’s been some weather in the Northeast complicating matters, but there were still lots of flights operating to and from the Northeast yesterday.

They had been checking their flight status since Sunday night and everything was showing up on time.  They arrived at FLL at 5:00pm for a 7:30 departure.  I thought I was the only one anal retentive enough to show up 2.5 hours early for a domestic flight, but they were traveling with their 3-year old daughter.  Kids are always an x-factor, we try to plan extra time whenever we travel with the kids.

One of the first things to note if you’re scheduling future travel is beware of the last flight of the day.  I’m not suggesting to avoid it completely.  But, understand the extra risk you take.  Early delays can cause a ripple effect to later in the day.  Plus, when things go wrong late in the day, there are generally less ways for airlines to figure out solutions.

There were no announcements of delays while they waited at the gate.  At around 7:30 pm (their scheduled departure time) a flight started boarding at their gate.  They assumed it was theirs but after getting in line, they heard an announcement that it was a flight bound for Los Angeles.  JetBlue also announced at that point that their flight to HPN was delayed an hour.

At 8:30 JetBlue announced that they had a plane but no pilot, and that they expected a pilot to be coming from Boston shortly.  There were no further announcements until 9:30, when they announced that the flight from Boston had been canceled and thus, no pilot yet.  I can’t tell with certainty when the BOS flight was ultimately canceled, but they likely were counting on a flight that was scheduled to land at roughly 10:30.

JetBlue also announced at that point they would start rebooking folks who wanted to travel another time.  When her husband made his way to the counter, the soonest they could get them back to HPN was 3 days later, and 2 days to get them back to NYC.  I’m not sure they considered all the airport choices available, but they decided to hold out a bit longer.

It was around then that my cousin’s husband reached out to me via text.  Some initial exploring had me optimistic they would get home.  I figured there were at least a few options for them to score a crew from one of the inbound flights that evening.  As a few more flights either got canceled or landed and time passed without a crew I suggested they consider a hotel near the airport, as they might not be getting home that night.

I also started looking for alternative flights home for them.  My previous experience with JetBlue is that they’re unlikely to move passengers to other airlines during irregular operations, I assume still due largely to the fact that they don’t have agreements with the legacy carriers for doing so.  I was able to find 3 award seats from FLL to Newark for them in coach on a United flight the following morning.  Not a perfect situation, but a good alternative.  Since I dropped from 1K to Platinum with United this year, I thought I would have to contend with things like redeposit fees on awards (I was wrong, as pointed out by Cliburn below).  I double-checked Expert Flyer to see how many seats were available on that flight so I could figure out if it was okay to wait before booking those seats.

Turns out the flight was canceled already, but United was still willing to sell me award seats.  Very generous of them.

At 10:15 JetBlue announced that their flight to HPN was canceled.  My cousin’s husband was now in line to see what rebooking options were left and they were considering where to stay for the night.  10 or 15 minutes passed while he was still in line and JetBlue announced they actually had about 100 total seats between two later flights to JFK that evening to accommodate people on.  Both of those flights were severely delayed and I wasn’t even sure they would take off.  JetBlue apparently echoed my sentiment and stopped booking people on one of the two flights shortly after the announcement.

My cousins were told they had 3 seats on a flight scheduled to leave around 1am but weren’t given boarding passes.  Maybe it’s just me, but if I was willing to stay at the airport that late and chance that I might get a flight home (I likely wouldn’t have been) I think there’s a good chance I would have stood on top of the counter if they refused to give me boarding passes.  I love my cousin’s husband to death (took him to the greatest Yankees game I ever attended) but I wouldn’t generally view him as a more patient man than me.  To this point, I’d rank his patience level pretty high.

They finally chased down boarding passes right near boarding time and found out they didn’t have 3 seats together, nor did they have two seats together (a bit challenging when traveling with a 3-year old).  Tired and helpful fellow passengers were willing to move around onboard and they were finally situated just after 1am, heading for home(ish).  Throughout this part of the process, their daughter had been remarkably well-behaved, and even managed to catch some much-needed sleep.

Cheap Flights

They landed at about 4:30 in the morning.  I had suggested to my cousin that she secure a hotel room near JFK when they landed and catch a nap before heading to HPN to retrieve their car and then ultimately on to upstate New York where they live.  Upon landing, she called SPG to secure a room and was transferred to the Sheraton near JFK.  They informed her they were sold out and to their knowledge so were all the other hotels in the area.  While it may not have made much of a difference, I probably would have tried calling while they waited to board their flight to see if a room could be secured.

When they couldn’t find a room, they decided to catch a ride to HPN.  I give my cousin credit.  Even in her exhausted state, she thought that for her first Uber ride she would use my referral link and earn herself a $30 credit for their first ride (thanks, cuz!).  That girl has a future in miles and points!

They arrived shortly after 6am at their car.  After giving it a bit of time to thaw out from the weather, they were on their way home.

When I talked to her again the following morning, I felt bad for what they went through.  While there was likely a point they could have pulled the ripcord and opted for a more sane approach to getting home, they powered through it and ultimately made it home, missing only a night of sleep.  It’s worth noting a few things in case you ever find yourself in this situation:

1.  Consider what your backup plan is if you’re booking the last flight of the day. 

2.  Consider alternative airports when you can’t get back to your primary one.

3.  Consider asking more probing questions of the airline when delays start happening.  Where is our plane coming from?  Where is the crew coming from?  Is there a deadline that the airline will make a decision by?  Are there crew rest issues?  Using tools like Flight Aware and Expert Flyer, you may be able to figure out what your chances look like to actually get where you need to go.  In some cases, this information is available online or via the airline’s app.

4.  Don’t wait too long to pull the trigger on reserving a hotel room when weather is a factor.  If everyone is stuck at the airport, demand can outweigh supply quickly.  Don’t be stuck sleeping on a floor.

5.  Be patient.  Even the best airline employees don’t like being abused, and there seem to be a lot less helpful airline employees today than years ago.

Do you have any airline horror stories?


The post Cheap Flights Need Backup Plans was published first on Pizza In Motion.

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  1. “Since I dropped from 1K to Platinum with United this year, I now have to contend with things like redeposit fees on awards.”

    FYI, there aren’t any award redeposit fees for Plat, 1K, or GS on United.

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