What If I … Get Stranded In An Airport?

Being stranded in an airport isn't the worst thing -- but it isn't the best thing, either.
Being stranded in an airport isn’t the worst thing — but it isn’t the best thing, either. (Photo credit: Thong Vo via Unsplash.)

By Molly Jensen

Your first flight has landed, and as you look at the monitor to double-check your gate number, in bold red letters next to your flight it says CANCELLED.

Congratulations; you’re now stuck in a foreign city for the foreseeable future. You wouldn’t wish this on your worst enemy.

What do you do? After panicking for a little while, you try to book a new flight.

The important thing here is to cover all your bases.

  • While you’re waiting in line with everyone else, get on your phone and call the airline. When they put you on hold (which they will inevitably do), get on social media and tweet the airline, and post a Facebook message.
  • Do you have the airline’s app? If it allows messaging send a message – and keep paying attention to the notifications issued through the app, because many times they’re more timely than the information the gate agent has.
  • While you’re multitasking, don’t forget the secret ingredient. Be patient and nice with everyone, not only because it’s the polite thing to do but also because these people are going to help you get to your destination. One veteran traveler even goes so far as to buy the harried gate agent a sandwich, and delivers it with a smile. You can bet his ticket goes to the front of the line!
  • If there’s an issue getting you on the airline’s next flight, ask about being put on a competitor’s flight. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there was Rule 240, which said that airlines with non-weather-related delayed or cancelled flights had to transfer passengers to a different carrier if that carrier could get passengers to their destination faster. While Rule 240 is no longer in effect, a lot of airlines have similar procedures in their conditions-of-carriage policy. Make sure you know what your airline’s policy is so you can ask the right questions to get the best flight.
  • Ask for perks. Refunds or vouchers for a hotel stay or dinner might not be offered outright, but airline staff often have such perks at their disposal, and sometimes they give them out to (nice) customers whose flight was cancelled.

Now that your new flight plans have been figured out, how are you going to spend your time?

If your flight isn’t until the next day and you want to spend the night somewhere other than the terminal, book a room as soon as possible. Try a last-minute hotel-booking app like Hotel Tonight and Roomer, but don’t forget Airbnb, which often has some sort of lodging available, even if it’s a cardboard box in the middle of the street. Your ability to lip-synch to “All By Myself” will be compromised, but you’ll get some sleep. You decide which is more important.

Depending on when your new flight leaves, you might want to leave the airport and come back later. Some airports have storage areas for luggage, and many airports (especially foreign ones) have excellent mass transit into town. Just check the schedules before leaving to make sure you’ll be able to get back to the airport in time for your new flight. You don’t want to go through this process again!

If leaving the airport isn’t an option, accept your fate and make the most of it. Acknowledge that you might have to break into that emergency cash stash you’ve hidden in a pair of your socks at the bottom of your carryon. Just be conscious of how much you spend while you’re stranded, if you have to stick to a budget on this trip. (On the other hand, if you had AirCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, your budget would increase by at least $50.)

Here are some things to try:

  • Explore the airport. You were going to do some exploring on your vacation, right? Start now! A lot of airports have museums, massage shops, day spas, or gyms. Check out the murals and sculptures. There’s a ping-pong table at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee; challenge all comers. Get down with the marimba player at PDX. Exploring will also help you find the quietest corner for a nap or the shop with the best postcards.
  • When you’ve found the best postcards, buy a couple and send them to people back home and tell them all about being stranded in an airport. Send multiples to people, and tell a little bit of your story on each. Think of it as slow Twitter.
  • Chances are you’re going to get hungry eventually; make a smorgasbord of a meal when you do. Get some fries from here, a sandwich from there, and lemonade from the little stand in the middle of the hall. If you have the time, lines don’t matter. And switch up the order of things. Eat dessert first. Orange chicken for breakfast? You bet!
  • Fire up Netflix or Hulu and catch up on your favorite TV shows. If you don’t have an account, sign up for a free trial and then cancel your subscription by departure.
  • Check out the airport shops for a book you’ve wanted to read. If you don’t want to spend any money, see how long you can stand there reading the book before you get kicked out. And once you get kicked out of one bookstore, go to another. Make the rounds, and see if you can finish the book before your plane takes off.
  • Play airport bingo or go on a scavenger hunt. A crying baby? Check. Neon luggage? Check. Someone with a neck pillow? Check, check, double check.
  • Become the next internet sensation by make a goofy video. Author John Green has made a number of his Vlogbrother videos while hanging out in airports, and Richard Dunn’s “All By Myself” video is at 1.8 million views and counting. If you have a phone, anything’s possible.
  • Finally, make some new friends. Track down a pack of playing cards and start a game with people around you. Ask someone to help you with the newspaper crossword. Or simply strike up a conversation. (Were you both supposed to be on the cancelled flight? Start there!) One of the best things about traveling is being given the opportunity to experience new things and learn about other people. You can do that anywhere – even if you’re stranded in an airport.

Molly Jensen is a member of the marketing staff at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.