I write about my own life a lot. I just never wanted to be this particular story.
I had just sent a Zoom invitation to Rolanda D. Chambers of Owings Mills’ Golden Voyage Travel on Thursday for an interview about how changes in weather have made booking trips so uncertain in the last year. As I was double-checking the email, I got an alert from Amtrak informing me that my long-anticipated train ride on the Adirondack line from New York to Montreal, which my son and I had been learning French for, was canceled.
The culprit? Heat from the Canadian fires that have not only plagued that country but made the air here in Baltimore unhealthy. As I have learned to say on our now-wasted Duolingo lessons, c’est tres mauvais. But we’re not alone in our malaise as we join the increasing number of travelers whose plans are being affected by severe weather.
According to CNBC, more than 20,950 flights were delayed or canceled on just the Monday and Tuesday of the last week of June. Climate conditions are not the official reason for every flight snafu. Chambers said her clients also have mechanical and staffing issues that cause crews to stop working lest they risk going over time — “it’s definitely a domino effect,” the travel consultant explained. “I’m interested to see how things play out while we have all these issues.”
Although there’s nothing to do about the weather other than jumping into a time machine and treating our planet better, Chambers has ideas for making travel planning as smooth as possible.
Know your options before you go
Chambers said travelers should understand the specifics of rescheduling or canceling your flight, hotel, cruise, train trip or other portion of your vacation just in case. There’s legislation called the Passengers’ Bill of Rights “that is not a law yet” but, if passed, would require airlines to compensate passengers whose flights are overbooked and whose flight delays or cancellations are the airline’s fault, along with refunding the baggage fees when bags get lost.
Consider booking with a professional
The unprecedented cancellations during the pandemic “definitely drove people back to travel agents” rather than trying to book themselves online, because “it really comes down to the customer service,” Chambers said. Sure, she’s biased, but “people didn’t know the rules for changes and cancellations just coming out of COVID, and they changed on a monthly basis.” And with continued weather uncertainty, she said, it’s helpful to have someone navigate on your behalf, particularly when you’re just one of thousands of stranded travelers at any time. (Golden Voyage Travel has a prompt on its voicemail for people who have a current travel emergency, which seems timely.)
Consider your airline
Forbes posted a list Friday of the airlines that recently have had the most cancellations. United neared the top for its percentage of canceled flights, with local favorite Southwest, which Chambers calls “our bread and butter at BWI,” ranking No. 10. The Dallas-based carrier is not, she noted, one of the airlines like Delta and United that can rebook each other’s passengers on their own planes if there is availability. But you know which airline wasn’t on that list of cancelers and “is hitting it out of the ballpark? Spirit Airlines,” she said. I was as shocked as you, but Chambers, who got a Spirit flight on the way to a destination wedding she was coordinating when the Southwest flight was delayed, said “they’ve never failed me. The planes are great, and they leave on time.”
Check your bags, leave on time
I was skeptical about this one, because when weather canceled our flight from Boston to Baltimore last year, we were able to get out of Logan International and rebook in Providence only because we had all our bags with us already. But Chambers made a connection as to why her current fave Spirit has an on-time record: It charges more for a carry-on than a checked bag. “There’s a method to their madness,” she said. “How long does it take for everyone to put their carry-ons in the overheard bins when they’re trying to board? If everyone checks their bags, everyone gets to sit and get gone.”
Consider paying more
Not only are your seats on planes and trains usually bigger the more you pay for them, but they come with more flexibility if problems arise. “We tend not to offer basic economy at all” in travel packages, Chambers said.
Get the travel insurance
I don’t usually spring for travel insurance, which covers the cost of cancellations, but I’m glad I thought to for my now-scuttled Montreal trip. If you’re trying to prevent weather-related money losses, the insurance must have been purchased before the storm or other event. “When people book travel, they don’t do it with the intention of having to cancel. They’re like ‘No, I’m gonna go!’” Chambers said. “But, if you can’t, it’s good to have the travel insurance.”
Book the earliest departure possible
Last year, travel planner Liz Brown of Lanham’s Mixed Adventures told me that the more time you give yourself, the more likely that you’ll make it onto a different flight that day in case your original one is canceled or delayed. Chambers co-signed this: “If you are on the 6 a.m. flight, there may be an 8 a.m. flight, and if something happens [to the earlier flight] and you have a connection, you’re laying over for a shorter period of time, and your connection is probably the same.”
Here’s the thing: Last week, the world had its hottest-ever day on record. And it’s not going to get any cooler. Travel won’t get any more predictable, but Chambers said preparations can help “as the new normal comes — whatever that is.”