How to Get a Seat When a Snowstorm Cancels Your Flight
Another week, another snowstorm. The latest winter tempest here in the northeast is snarling air traffic far and wide and has already cancelled more than 1,600 flights. With yet another blizzard expected later this week, I thought I should share a tactic that air travel whiz Brian Kelly—a.k.a., The Points Guy—told me he puts to use when a storm is imminent. It’s the best way he knows to avoid spending hours on hold waiting to speak with an airline agent when your flight may be cancelled, or has been cancelled, and you’re trying to get a seat on an alternate flight:
Every airline in the U.S. allows you to buy an airline ticket and cancel within 24 hours for a full refund. Kelly points out that you actually have more than 24 hours. You can work it so that you have nearly two days: If you buy a ticket on a Wednesday at 1 a.m., for instance, you actually have until Thursday at 11:59 p.m. to cancel and get a refund. “This is a risk-free way to snag a seat and then see how the storm plays out over those two days,” says Kelly. When it looks like a storm could cancel your upcoming flight, he advises, book that alternate—or even two alternates—just in case. “If your original flight doesn’t get canceled, you can cancel your new flight free of charge. If your original flight does get cancelled, you’ve got options on a couple of other flights." Keep in mind that the alternate flight you purchase does not need to be on the same airline that your original flight is on.
If your flight has already been cancelled, here are more tips for how to snag available seats on alternate flights.
UPDATE 2/4/14: Air travel expert Brett Snyder, the airfare specialist in my Top Travel Specialists Collection, tells me that Brian Kelly's advice above is "not entirely correct" and could get some people into trouble. First, says Snyder, the airlines' 24-hour refund policy applies only to tickets bought a week or more in advance. (Kelly's response: "I've never run into an issue of an airline not refunding within 24 hours—especially during weather events, since there are usually weather waivers in effect.") Second, although American Airlines lets you put a fare on hold until 11:59 p.m. Central Time the next day, other airlines give you only 24 hours. Third, if you book two flights on the same airline for the same day, the airline could cancel both. (Kelly's response: "American Airlines will reject the booking unless you take your frequent-flier number off the second reservation.")
The bottom line: If you book a flight that you might cancel within 24 hours, carefully note the terms and conditions, which vary by airline. If you book two such flights, book each on a different airline. And consider using a travel agent, if you're willing to pay the fee: "Travel agents can still void a ticket within 24 hours without penalty (for the most part)," says Snyder. "And if your flight is cancelled, then you don't have to sit on interminable hold with reservations. Your travel agent can work on options."
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