Talk to just about anyone who has flown lately and you’ll hear some version of what’s become a common refrain: travel is a hot mess right now. While that's not an accurate representation of all air travel at the moment, it's clear that passengers are feeling the pain.
At the moment, flight disruptions are average—even better than average. As of May 2023, more than 75% of flights are getting to their destinations on time and less than 2% of flights are getting canceled. Several major airlines—including Delta, United, JetBlue, and American—have already gotten the green light from the FAA to cut some flights into and out of New York this summer. At first glance, this may seem like bad news for travelers. In actuality, these preemptive cuts mean fewer disruptions down the line.
There is a natural push and pull affecting flights every summer. Weather is better during the warmer months, meaning fewer flights get canceled due to cold weather storms than do in the winter. On the other hand, travel demand is at its highest all year, meaning the system is more strained. During the summer, there are comparatively fewer airplanes on reserve—they’re all out flying—so when flights get canceled, there are fewer back-ups to take their place. With the FAA allowing airlines to take preventative measures by reworking their flight schedules now, we should see less scrambling by airlines to accommodate last-minute cancellations and delays.
So while we’re cautiously optimistic that summer will be less chaotic than many travelers expect thanks to these preemptive cuts, there are still some steps you can take to help prepare yourself for disruptions.
Expect to spend more
The summer deals we were seeing just a few weeks ago are gone, so if you’re still looking to book flights for this summer, you’ll likely pay more than you hoped. Also, flights are full, so if you want to ensure you sit with your traveling companions, you’ll need to pay to select your seats, or spring for the upgrade from basic economy to main economy to pick your seat for free (this also gets you free changes on the major US airlines).
Give yourself more time…and then add more to that
With airlines and airports understaffed in almost all areas, everything is taking longer than usual. Get to the airport extra early, give yourself plenty of time for layovers, and if you really need to be somewhere on a specific day, plan to arrive a day or two early if you can.
It’s also wise to book your flights as early in the day as possible. Delays tend to pile up as the day goes on, with early morning flights the least likely to see significant delays.
Pack light, pack smart
If you can, travel with only a carryon (it’s easier than it sounds, we promise!). Lines aren’t just long at airport security; they’re long to check luggage as well. If you absolutely must check a bag, be sure to put any valuables, medication, or anything else you simply cannot go without (the bridesmaid’s dress you need to wear, for example) in your carryon.
If you’re flying basic economy, it’s actually a smart idea to have those items within easy reach in your carryon as well. Basic economy passengers board last, which means there may not be space for your carryon in the overhead by the time you board; if you get stuck checking your carryon, be sure to remove any important items first.
AirTags can provide some peace of mind: drop the AirTags in your luggage and you can use your iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple Watch to track your bags’ location.
If your luggage does get lost or delayed, you’re entitled to compensation.
Download the airline’s app
Staffing issues extend to airline customer service and wait times to speak to an agent on the phone can be hours long. If something goes awry on your trip, the airline’s app is often the fastest avenue to a resolution. You can do everything from change your seat and track your luggage to rebook your flights or get updates on delays—and often those updates come a lot faster via the app than text or email.
Protect your investment
Many credit cards offer travel protection that includes coverage for cancellations, disruptions, delays, and lost luggage, so if you have one, book your trip with a card that helps cover you in case things go wrong. If you don’t, depending on the total cost of your trip, you may want to invest in travel insurance.
Know your rights
If an airline cancels or significantly changes your flight, and it’s a trip you still want to take, you can ask the airline to put you on another flight operated by the airline or one of its partners. Sometimes an airline may even be willing to rebook you on a competitor in extenuating circumstances, like the last flight of the night. Either way, if the airline rebooks you, any price difference is irrelevant; you won’t have to pay. (Alternatively, you’re entitled to a cash refund if you no longer want to travel).
If the airline cancels your flight and there is no replacement option (they stopped flying that route, for example) things are a little trickier. For an airline like United or Delta, this is easy. Rather than flying you directly from, say, San Francisco to Madrid, if they cancel their SFO–MAD route, they might fly you from San Francisco to Paris to Madrid, with the final leg connecting on a European partner, or they could put your on their flight from San Francisco to their New York hub where you can catch their direct flight to Madrid.
But many budget airlines—like Avelo or Breeze—don’t have an extensive partner network and instead of a hub-and-spoke model, they operate a point-to-point model. This means if they cancel a specific route, it may not be possible to reroute you. In this case, the most likely outcome is that the airline will cancel your flight and issue you a refund.
One exception is if you’re willing to be re-accommodated on a different point-to-point route. For example, if a budget airline canceled their Denver to Portland, Maine, route, they may be willing to rebook you onto their Denver to Boston flight (then you’d have to get yourself from Boston to Portland).
Finally, if an airline involuntarily bumps you from a flight, you’re entitled to compensation. The amount varies by destination and how long you end up delayed as a result of being bumped.