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Oops! What To Do When You’ve Missed Your Flight


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First, deep breaths. It’s not the end of the world. That’s December 21, 2012. (UPDATE: Looks like we’re still alive.)

Hey, it happens. While missing a flight might seem like a blemish on your ever-perfect-I-never-miss-a-flight record, no one’s really keeping track. The worst time I ever missed a flight, I woke up, looked at my clock and thought, “HEY. I’m supposed to be landing in 30 minutes.” That, believe it or not, was to go back home for Thanksgiving.

So, unless you love to show up at the airport four hours in advance, here’s what to do when the worst case scenario happens.

You know ahead of time you are going to miss your flight. As soon as you know for sure, notify a gate agent or call an airline rep immediately. With a little bit of luck, they can put you on standby on the next flight, either for free or for a reduced fee (certainly cheaper than a change fee). Once the plane taxis for the runway and says sayonara, you have significantly less options than you did before.

Relax. Seriously, breathe. I know you just missed your flight, but it’s gone and now it is time approach the whole situation in a fairly unemotional and logical manner. Not only will you think clearer, but you’ll be a lot nicer talking to the gate agent who handles your case. You’ll get a lot farther with some basic courtesy than huffing and puffing in full-on PANIC! mode.

Be very, very nice to the gate agent. Breathe! Gate agents deal a lot with irate, demanding passengers every day. They don’t care that your great grandma’s nurse’s cousin’s neighbor is a Hollywood director. They most likely won’t care if you have status. (Though if you’ve missed your flight and you do have status, try talking to the agent manning the lounge first.) You’re not special. And guess who has all the power? Not you.

What the gate agent can do for you all depends on the reason you missed your flight and who lies at fault. Was it yours? Was it the airline’s? If it’s the airline’s fault, generally they will put you on standby for the next flight free of charge. If it’s yours, it is very, very likely that they will charge you a change fee.

If it’s not going well, just realize that talking to another agent may give you different results. I once missed a flight and talked to five different agents who told me I would have to pay a $150 change fee – until the sixth agent helped me change my schedule free of charge.

Realize you cannot just buy a one-way ticket to your destination rather than pay the change fee. This depends on airline to airline, and whether you missed your inbound or outbound (return) flight. It may actually be cheaper to google and buy a one-way to pay than to pay the change fee (usually anywhere from $50 to $200), but if it’s the very first flight out, be very, very aware that if you do not take it, it will most likely cancel your entire itinerary. So unless you’re giving up on the trip completely, don’t do it. If it’s your outbound flight, however, and you’ve found a cheaper one-way than the change fee, well, who cares. You’ve already missed it, so take it!

Then there’s the “flat tire rule.” It’s basically a two-hour, get-out-jail-free card. If you show up to the airport within two hours within your flight but miss it, you may be entitled to a free change if you were involved in an accident, suffered a flat tire on the way to the airport (oh, really?) or even got stuck in traffic.

Not all airlines follow this rule, though US Airways, Southwest and American Airlines are rumored to have a policy in effect; it is not widely publicized for the obvious reasons. Still, don’t bank on the gate agent getting you out of this one – it’s totally up to their discretion.

Travel guru Christopher Elliot has the fine print on this one:

A passenger who has missed their schedule flight based on unforeseen causes ie. flat tire, accident, traffic delays may standby without penalty or charges provided:

  1. The passenger arrives at airport no later than two hours after departure of their confirmed flight, except if it’s the last flight of the day, in which case, they can standby on first flight next morning.
  2. The passenger must standby on flights of same airline as their ticketed flight

The 2-hour rule is not to be solicited or referred as part of fare rule to circumvent voluntary changes. In-house exception made only when passenger has made an attempt to make originally scheduled flight.

Notify your hotel. Like as soon as possible.

Did your baggage fly off with the plane? All I’ve got to say is I hope you make it to your destination eventually. This is another reason why packing light and carrying on your baggage is an advantage over checking in. If you put your flight on a credit card that has travel insurance (or have travel insurance), you might be covered until you get to your destination.

There, there. You’ll make it to Cancun soon enough.

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  • Jonathan

    Maybe a stupid question, but is the outbound really the return flight? I always thought that the inbound is the return flight, because you come in to your home airport again?

    • Erica Ho

      Actually the outbound is the flight that you fly out on. Return flight is the one that you fly back into your originating airport.

  • Jen

    What happens if you check-in online with carry-on luggage and then get delayed at security?

    • http://maphappy.org/ Erica Ho

      Depends on the agent you deal with. I think most airlines would chalk that up to your fault (not arriving early enough to clear), so it’d be up their discretion and how nice of a person you’re dealing with.

      I once missed a flight in the middle of security, but it was through a tight connection and the incoming flight was late, so I was rebooked for free.

  • Phil Davis

    NOT mentioned is: what happens when the connection fails do to your first flight being late so your connection leave without you. How this issue could have been missed is a mystery.

  • alaskanjackal

    You say, “Notify your hotel. Like as soon as possible.” Good advice, although hotels don’t usually care if you’re a few hours late. (It’s good to notify them if you’ll be arriving after midnight, as the night auditors may clear any un-honored reservations at that time.)

    But you completely forgot about the vastly more important one that no one remembers to do: notify your rental car company. Unlike hotels, rental cars are expecting you at a specific time (the time you put down on your reservation). And if a few hours goes by and you haven’t picked up, they’ll assume you aren’t coming and might give out an extra car to someone walking in to check availability…leaving them short a car when you walk up to the counter seven hours later. I’ve personally seen people stranded without a means to get to their hotel 45 miles away…because they remembered to call the hotel but not the rental car company.

    As a former manager in the rental car industry, I am acutely aware that we are the red-headed step-children of the travel industry, but do your readers a favor and don’t forget to mention us!

    • http://maphappy.org/ Erica Ho

      Yep, you’re right. Rental cars are not as usually necessary as hotel reservations, but when you do have one it’s necessary to notify them too.
      (I usually travel 99.9% of the time without a rental car; forgive me!)

  • lo
    • http://maphappy.org/ Erica Ho

      Haha! That clip is always gold. :)

  • http://maphappy.org/ Erica Ho

    To add a reply to this discussion, please go here.

  • http://www.carhire24h.com/ Iris Milton

    Helpful tips! Thanks for sharing. I hope, I won’t have a chance to overcome this, but still I will know what to do!

    • http://maphappy.org/ Erica Ho

      You’re welcome Iris!




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