Updated June 16, 2020.
It’s the thing every traveler with a layover of any size dreads: a missed connection.
It’s the thing every perpetually late traveler dreads: a missed flight.
My husband and I travel a lot—like, a LOT—and believe it or not, we just had our first missed flight situation this past January on our way to Auckland, New Zealand. It was basically awful because there was literally nothing else we could have done to change the outcome.
We had arrived for our first leg with plenty of time to spare, but San Francisco’s (SFO’s) air traffic control was having some major back-up issues—one of the reasons I avoid SFO whenever possible!
Anyway, our first flight from Washington-Dulles (IAD) was delayed three hours due to SFO’s air traffic control, which ate up every bit of our intended layover. Steve and I had called to try to book an earlier flight to SFO, tried to find different routing options, went through all of our options with the customer service rep, and prayed that our flight would take off in time to get across the country for our flight. We had even been reassured that the pilot would wait for us because there were 20 people making the same connection as us on our flight, plus more connecting passengers on other flights.
That did not happen. The pilot chose to leave without us. To add insult to injury, our connecting flight was still on the ground when we landed! They literally closed the door on our connecting flight as our first flight landed. They knew we were coming (all 20 of us), they knew we were about to land, and it was up to the pilot to make the call. The connecting flight to New Zealand could easily have made up the 20-30 minutes of waiting time in the air, and when the flight landed in New Zealand, it would simply sit there at the Auckland airport for 7 hours until it turned around and came back. There was no reason that flight shouldhave left without so many people–again, 20 on our flight, plus others coming from other flights around the country!
Rant over. The point is, now we (and a lot more than 20 other people) were stranded at SFO at 11:00pm, dealing with missed connections. We needed to be first in line to get on the next possible flight (21 hours later), otherwise we would risk being stranded for days until we could find two openings on a flight to Auckland.
One good thing about missing our original flight?
We got to experience Air New Zealand!
Other Reasons You Might Miss Your Flight
Maybe your situation is different. Here are some common reasons why people miss their flights every day:
- Car trouble
- Show up at the wrong airport
- Get the day wrong
- Missed connection (due to weather, air traffic control, airplane maintenance issues, etc.)
- Fill in the blank!
Steps to Take When You Miss Your Flight
No matter what the reason you’ve missed your flight, you will feel that sense of panic, irritation, perhaps even anger, if or when it happens. But push those emotions to the side for the moment and do these things instead:
1. Take Preventative Steps
Can you already tell your first flight is delayed enough to make you miss your connection? The traffic you’re sitting in is giving you no hope of making it to your flight in time? Go ahead and call your airline to get yourself rebooked before you even get to the airport. The early bird gets the worm, and the early re-booker gets the first pick of new flights!
2. Know Your Rights*
It feels more and more like airline passengers have no rights, but that is not true… at least not yet! You could be entitled to a hotel stay, compensation for missed plans, and more, but it can vary by airline. For all the details for U.S. Citizens’ traveler rights, check out this page from Transportation.gov.
*Note: If you booked on a third party site like Hipmunk, Orbitz, Kayak, Skyscanner, etc., you will likely get the run-around with the airline telling you to take it up with the third party, and the third party will tell you to resolve it with the airline. I recommend going straight to the airline and not giving up until they rebook you.
I recommend always booking with the airline directly on their website. Find the fare deal on the third party site, then find that same deal on the airline’s website.
Missed your flight in Europe?
You may be entitled to EU 261 Compensation.
3. Call Your Airline
Do this as soon as you can. Yes, you will probably have to go through an automated system, but putting it off will do you no favors. Get in that queue ASAP! Everyone else will be calling and going through the same automated system. You can either do it before them or after—I would choose before. Stay on the line even when you move to Step 4.
Pro tip: This is where Benefits of Airline Loyalty come in handy.
4. Get in Line
Even if you’re still on the phone, get in the physical line. You never know which line will move faster. Exhaust all your options and get in line at customer service. If you can get off the plane quickly and be at the front of the line, you will have a better chance at getting your first second choice. (You first first choice would obviously be your original flight!)
For all my tips and my tried-and-true system, read
How to Find Cheap Flights!
5. Find a Solution
Be nice to the customer service reps. I know it’s irritating when it looks like they’re ignoring you (and when they are actually ignoring you), but you will catch more customer service representatives with kindness rather than snarkiness. Guide the conversation and have a positive, “we’re in this together and we’ll find a solution” attitude. If you’ve missed your flight due to a delay, they probably already know what happened, and they have very likely been dreading this for hours in anticipation of your flight landing.
If you’re still waiting on the phone, hang up. Greet the customer service representative with a smile (but feel free to have desperation in your eyes). Ask what your options are. Ask about other routes if you don’t like those options. Ask if they can help you with a hotel room if you’re stranded overnight. When you’ve found a suitable solution, thank them and move along so they can get going on the next person in line!
6. Make a New Plan
If you’re like us and stranded over night, you might have to find a hotel. Sometimes your airline will provide one, but sometimes not. Maybe you’ll be on the next flight in 20 minutes! Maybe you can make the most of it and consider this a “long layover” in a city to be explored! Or maybe you can sleep and you’ll just feel better when you wake up (we were mighty tired—it was after 2:00am our time when we were trying to figure it all out).
No matter your circumstances, once you know when you can get a new flight, you can get excited for a new plan and make the absolute most of a bad situation.
More here: The Best Travels Aren’t Planned
7. Change Your Affected Plans*
If you’re like us and you’ll be missing an entire day of your planned trip, you’ll need to get in touch with your accommodation and make sure they don’t give your room away when you don’t show up on the right day. Try to get in touch with your car rental company, too, and anything else you might have scheduled.
*Note: This is why it’s never a good idea to make important plans for events (theater shows, luaus, hard-to-get dinner reservations, etc.) for the day you’re supposed to arrive. Always save those things for your second planned day or after.
8. Call Your Loved Ones
Let your loved ones know where you are and what happened! And maybe you can get all your pent-up complaints and gripes out to them, too (instead of customer service representatives).
Not quite what you’re looking for? Check out What to Do When Your Flight is Cancelled instead!
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