There is an old joke among frequent flyers that goes something like this: When I die, I plan to go to Heaven…
…but I’ll probably have to change planes in Atlanta first.
Airlines love to funnel as many passengers as possible through the purgatory of their big hub airports before flying you to your final destination, whether it be Des Moines, Wichita…or someplace more eternal. Unfortunately, a connection exponentially increases the odds that something will go terribly wrong.
With hundreds of flights and tens of thousands of passengers all attempting to land — and then take off again 60 minutes later — a single crack of thunder can shut down the entire airport resulting in total chaos.
As someone who endures this airline-caused misery on a daily basis, I’ve learned a few tricks along the way. Here is my guide to avoid getting stranded at your connecting airport — and what you need to do if disaster strikes.
Don’t connect. Book a direct flight.
Of course the easiest solution is just don’t do it.
Always book a direct flight over a connecting flight, even if it is a bit more expensive…
…which it probably will be, because airlines hate their customers and seem to place a higher priority on making your life terrible than making money.
Of course this is easier said than done because the three major airlines of Delta, American and United offer virtually zero direct flights other than to their hubs.
And the trend is getting worse, not better, as airlines consolidate their hubs. For example Delta has completely eliminated hubs in Memphis, Dallas and Cincinnati and has begun downsizing hubs in Detroit and Minneapolis, funneling even more passengers through Atlanta.
So…chances are you are probably changing planes somewhere on your next flight. In that case…
Give Yourself Plenty of Time
Check the connection time before you purchase your ticket.
Even if you are a fast walker, it takes AT LEAST 20 minutes to walk through the concourse, go down the escalator, wait for the train, ride the train, go back up the escalator and walk through another concourse to your gate at big sprawling hubs like Atlanta, Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth.
Remember, it takes at least ten minutes to get off a plane — longer if you have to wait for your regional jet valet bags.
And your next flight begins boarding 35 minutes before scheduled departure. An hour connection leaves you just 10-15 minutes to run to your connecting gate. Forget grabbing a bite to eat or even a restroom pit stop.
And that assumes your first flight is on time.
Which, let’s face it, it probably won’t be…
Don’t Give Up
For connections less than an hour, even a minor delay means you might miss your next flight.
We’ve all been there. Dashing through the crowded airport, luggage in tow, while the final boarding call for your connecting flight is being called over the speakers.
Or staring blankly at the departure board wondering if it is worth the effort to make a 20 minute sprint when your flight closes in 10.
My advice? Go for it.
Run, Don’t Walk, to the Next Flight
You really never know for sure if the boarding door to your connecting plane is still open until you get to the gate, gasping for air, and see it with your own eyes.
Maybe, just maybe, someone at the airline knows you are coming and has decided to hold the plane for a few minutes just for you.
Yeah, right. Who I am kidding? That NEVER happens.
But you never know.
Check for the Next Flight
If the gate agent slams the boarding door in your face (always with sinister glee), ask her when the next flight to your destination is departing — and make sure she puts you on it.
Some airlines like Delta actually have a pretty decent system to handle this kind of chaos and will automatically roll you over on to the next flight.
Others like American don’t. Their message seems to be: “Sorry Charlie. You’re on your own to solve the problem we caused.”
Call. Don’t Stand in Line.
Chances are you aren’t the only one who missed the flight. I’ve seen gate agents happily slam the boarding door ten minutes early in the faces of dozens of connecting passengers.
The plane leaves the gate with dozens of empty seats because the airline refused to hold the plane for 90 seconds.
I did tell you the airlines hate you, right?
If bad weather strikes, hundreds, thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of passengers could be stranded. And they all stand in the same so-called “Customer Service” line to talk to one or two agents one at a time.
Don’t do that.
Check your reservation online to see if you have been automatically rebooked.
If you really need to talk to someone, pick up your phone and call the airline. You may be on hold for an hour or two, but trust me, it is better than standing in line all night.
Of course with planes booked to 95% capacity these days, just because there is a later flight doesn’t mean you are getting on it.
So the more options you give the airline agent, the better your odds of getting where you need to go.
Is there a different airport or city you could fly to?
If you are trying to fly to LaGuardia, ask the agent to check flights to JFK and Newark too. Heck, ask about White Plains, Philadelphia and Islip if you are really desperate.
Yeah, you’ll need to rebook your rental car or make new arrangements with your Aunt Jane who is patiently waiting for you in the LaGuardia Cell Phone Lot, but I never said this was going to be easy, did I?
Or just drive.
If you are stranded at Chicago O’Hare because you missed your connecting flight to Milwaukee or Green Bay, head to the rental car center and rent a car. You’ll get there a lot quicker than waiting another three hours for the next flight.
The drive from the Atlanta Rental Car Center to my home is exactly 5 hours and 42 minutes.
You don’t need to ask me why I know that.
Because if that connection you missed happens to be the last flight of the night (which it ALWAYS is for me), there is one fate you want to avoid at all costs…
Don’t Get Stuck Sleeping on the Airport Floor
Wait a minute. You didn’t actually think the airline agent who caused all this chaos, slammed the boarding door in your face and gleefully told you that was the last flight of the night, is actually going to offer to put you up in a hotel, did you?
As the kids like to say…lol.
More like S.O.L.
The airline agent will almost always blame your late flight on the weather. With a straight face. On a beautiful starry night.
And cheerfully inform you that she has no obligation to offer you a place to sleep for the night.
If you plead nicely (and let’s face it, who has the emotional control to muster “nice” under these circumstances?), she might — MIGHT — give you a $12 “meal” voucher, which conveniently can be redeemed for about one alcoholic drink at the airport hotel bar.
Occasionally during truly catastrophic weather events, the airport will kindly roll out cots where you can lay there in the airport terminal shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other stranded strangers.
At the first sign of trouble I immediately book a room at a nearby airport hotel with a 24 hour free shuttle.
Remember, airport hotels have a limited number of rooms. Don’t wait too long to book yours or you’ll be spending the night in the airport.
Finally, none of my above advice will work if you failed to follow our PAT commandment…
Never EVER Check a Bag
If you ignored my advice and checked your bag, you literally have no options — and just wasted five minutes reading this article chock full of great advice which doesn’t apply to you.
You cannot switch to a different city because your luggage is checked to your original destination. You cannot just switch flights, switch airlines or walk to the rental car counter and drive home, because the airline has your luggage.
No. The airline agent who slammed the door in your face is not going to reroute your luggage.
Even if the airline strands you for the night at your connecting airport, no one is going to go get your luggage for you. It will stay in the airline’s possession until you reach your final destination. Whatever day that happens to be.
So to add insult to injury, you are stranded overnight in a strange city — and you can’t even get your toothbrush or a change of clothes.
The bottom line is if you want to remain in control of your options when disaster strikes, don’t let anyone take your luggage.
And if you travel enough, disaster WILL strike eventually.
Depending upon the airlines to get you to your final destination on time is NEVER a sure thing.
So if you die and get to Heaven before me, do me a favor. Tell St. Pete I’m on my way…
…just don’t mention that I’m probably cashing in my $12 voucher at the airport hotel bar.