Let’s face it: Sooner or later, you’ll have trouble if you’re flying at the holidays. Here’s how to cope

Managing delays and traveling obstacles during the holidays.
(Lynne Sladky / AP)

Question: I have had long delays on United Airlines in September and October. The only way to get through to them is to email customer care. I have emailed United and have not heard back and wonder if there’s a magic way to get through.

Deborah Allen

Palm Desert

Answer: If you are sitting on a plane and fuming because things aren’t going well — happy Thanksgiving travel, by the way — know that your best time to complain is right now.


We’ll get to why in a few paragraphs. And we’ll also get to the specific answer to Allen’s question at the end of this column.

But for openers, let’s talk about steps you can take before you’re stuck in Cleveland with no flight available and no hotel to be had. (No offense to Cleveland, but AccuWeather’s extended forecast predicts 30 degrees and snow on Christmas.)

Allen’s problem didn’t occur at the holidays, and if yours didn’t but you need to file a complaint, skip to the section called “After the fact.” But the season of trouble and airline travel is upon us, and it’s a good idea to have a few ideas in your hip pocket. They work any time of the year.

Remember, you are your own best, first line of defense.


Before you leave the house

Make sure you know which airport you’re flying out of or into. Huh? What kind of dolt do you think I am? The kind who is busy and may not have noticed that your search engine booked you out of one airport and returned you to another, said Rick Seaney, chief executive of, an airline search engine.

Think it can’t happen? I’ve done it with somewhat comical results — comical in retrospect, not when you discover your car is 85 miles away at another airport.

Check times besides places. As you are perusing your flight information, you also should reconfirm your flight times. Yes, they can change without your knowing it. Your email or mobile number can disappear from a reservation record, Seaney said, so you may be surprised to discover, upon arrival at the airport, that you’re early (not terrible) or late (not good) for your flight because the airline ostensibly had no way to contact you.

Know which airline you are flying. That’s from Seaney again and that’s a “Huh?” again. But remember, with the number of code shares — that is, marketing arrangements that allow, say, American to sell flights on Alaska — you may book with one airline and end up flying another.


Confusion about where to check in and what airline to go to may ensue. (Go to the airline whose aircraft you’ll be on. It should say that on your reservation if it’s a code share.) To read more about code share pitfalls, go to

Before you leave for the airport, check the weather where you’re going. Seaney acts as his own meteorologist, especially on connecting flights. Hubs that serve the Southern California flier going east can be problematic, including Chicago, Dallas and Atlanta, which can have wicked thunderstorms, snow and sometimes ice. See what’s brewing.

Knowing what you might face could give you a jump on addressing the problem. Remember, airlines are not responsible for putting you in a hotel or giving you meal vouchers if weather is the culprit. So …

When you add the airline’s customer service number to your phone, add a couple of hotel numbers. (For a list of airline numbers and websites, go to You can get the customer service number off the airline’s website, and while you’re at it, add the Twitter handle too.


Adding a couple of hotel numbers is a worst-case scenario for if you get stranded on your time. Most hotel booking sites let you see how far a property is from the airport. Those rooms will fill fast, so choose a second hotel that’s farther away. Closer is better but one that actually has rooms has something to recommend it.

♦Download an app that has flight information and have the person meeting you do the same. ( or, among others) That way, Seaney said, if your phone dies (and it won’t because you have packed an already charged external battery, right?) the person on the other end can see whether you are stuck, will be late or have smooth sailing.

On the way to your destination

If you have a problem, this is the time to complain — in the moment, as it were. Go to the customer service desk unless it’s mobbed because of late flights. Seeing your not-smiling face (but you’re always polite, of course) helps.

Meanwhile, if you’re in the middle of trouble that affects your travels:


Go to where the people aren’t. By “people,” we mean the 250 other people from your flight who are howling with rage at the airline customer service folks.

You don’t want to be around them, not just because their anger can color your life but because you could spend a couple of lifetimes waiting to get to the service counter.

If you’re stuck on the tarmac and know you are cooked and cellphone use is permitted, go ahead and call the stored customer service number.

But if your phone is dead, you can’t get through or your problem can’t be easily solved, you can find help on the ground. Just don’t go with the crowd.


Instead, try finding another customer service desk for your airline in another part of the building. You may have to exit security to do this.

That strategy won’t work if the whole airport is under, say, a winter weather siege. In that case, you might try buying a day pass to an airport lounge.

The lounge’s customer service agents are generally even better trained than those on the outside, Seaney said, and can help with a rebook. At the very least, you’ll have a chance to collect yourself.

If you can’t get to your destination, get as close as you can. Just keep moving toward it. That’s a technique that Seaney has employed.


For instance, if you can’t get to LAX, can you get to Las Vegas? From Las Vegas, where presumably there’s not a mass of people who just had the rug pulled out from under them, can you get to L.A. or one of its other airports? Can you rent a car and drive? (That’s a technique I’ve employed, but I also talked with the airline to ensure my return ticket was intact.)

Don’t forget social media. That has become the new way to call the airlines for help. Airlines tend to be responsive because it’s a bit like public shaming, and they are interested in protecting the brand. You know that Twitter, Facebook or Instagram handle you stored earlier? Use it.

After the fact

Let’s say (or hope) that it all worked out, but you’re still annoyed because (fill in the blank here). What’s your next move?

Contact the airline but don’t be an ogre. You think you can say whatever you want because it’s like shouting into a wind tunnel? That wind tunnel generally has a name. In this example, its name is Warren Chang, the vice president of, an airfare website.


If you have to deal with a couple of unhappy customers, which one are you going to address first — the one who said, “I hope to speak with you at your convenience”? Or the one who wrote to Chang’s company (true story) and said that if the company had the anatomy (modifying that part of the anatomy with an expletive) to call, go right ahead.

Don’t get moved to the bottom of the queue because you’re a boor.

State what the problem was, Chang said. If you missed your connection because of something the airline did, say that. It is not necessary to chronicle the actions of everyone who slighted you along the way. Just say, “I arrived at the check-in counter three hours early, but it was so understaffed that I didn’t get to the counter until 45 minutes before my flight and by the time I got to security, the gate was closed.”

Then say what you want or what you want the outcome to be. You can ask for a coupon for a free flight, Chang said, but the airline might be more willing to give you something that doesn’t cost much (except maybe balance sheet anxiety) — miles in your frequent-flier account.


Sometimes, Chang said, the airline will actually give you more than you ask for, which happened to a complaint he filed for his mother (so the airline didn’t respond just because of who he is.)

Sometimes, Seaney said, you get something you never asked for (free flight coupons from an airline apologizing for two planes that passed too close to each other, something Seaney said he would rather not have known).

♦Try email instead of calling (you’ll usually find the address on the airline’s website). That way, you’ll have a record of your contact, Chang said, which is important if you don’t hear back.

♦Complain to the Department of Transportation. The DOT can’t solve your problem, but it can spot patterns of behavior by airlines that can lead to reform. (Think tarmac wait times, for example.)


Here’s one last thing to consider: Stay home. Chang tries to avoid holidays flying, and he tries to curtail his airline travel during peak summer leisure times.

But wait. Miss all the fun of trying outwit the weather, the airlines and your fellow passengers? Not a chance.

And now, for the answer to Allen’s question, this from United:

Customer service/feedback: (800) 932-2732, (800) 864-8331.


Members of MileagePlus, the airline’s frequent flier-program, can reach out to that desk at (800) 421-4655.

Twitter and Facebook: @United

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