Pre-departure lounge in a small airport in the southern part of the Philippines

The problem with us, humans, is that we tend to think that those things we see on movies or read about in the newspapers will never happen to us. But they do. Oh yes, they do. Just like getting bumped off a flight when it’s overbooked (quite common in the United States, if I’m to believe everything that I read). Or find your flight delayed by half a day or a whole day…or worse, canceled altogether.

Should you find yourself in this situation, please try to keep calm. There’s no point in hyperventilating at this point. Because your airline is legally obliged to remedy your situation in some form. And you will need all your wits together to make the most of this situation. I’ve had my share of these horror stories and can share with you what I’ve learned from my experiences.

Are you ready? Well then…let’s begin.

Step 1: Do You Really Need To Fly? As In, Now?

Ask yourself if you really, really, really need to reach your intended destination according to the original schedule. Be very honest with yourself here. Is there a wedding? A funeral? A meeting so important that’s totally impossible to re-schedule?

If your answer is no, then by all means, please take the airlines’ offer of free change of flight and/or free hotel stay, free meals, and, sometimes, free vouchers for meals and/or in-flight duty-free items. Because they’re obliged to do so. Unless they’ve got themselves covered in the fine print of your paper ticket or e-ticket. End of story.

My Story: I was checking in early for my Emirates flight from Dubai to KL. The guy in the counter told me with a straight face that the flight’s overbooked, I can’t possibly board that flight, and that they’re giving me a free hotel stay, with free food, and free transport to and from the aiport. And to top it all off, they even offered me a free return air ticket anywhere within the region. Did I grab that offer? No. Because I wanted to go home. So I waited in the airport for what seemed like eternity, boarded the flight at the eleventh hour…and regretted my decision all throughout the six-hour flight after sitting sandwiched between two stinky men, one of whom snored at a volume that rivaled the engines’ drone. I still regret not taking that free return air ticket to this day. Moral of the story: if you don’t need to go, don’t go. Take the free ticket/hotel/vouchers, for heaven’s sake!

If your answer is still a resounding YES, please proceed to Step 2.

Step 2: Be Firm But Polite.

Go to the check-in counter of your airline, ask to see who’s in charge, then tell him/her firmly but politely that you need to be on that flight by hook or by crook. Be prepared to hear stories about how impossible it would be because the only other flight is full, there are no other flights, there’s not enough time to catch the other flight, and etcetera and etcetera and etcetera. Nod your head, tell them you understand, but you need to fly. As in NOW. Then give them your name, booking reference number and mobile phone number. And may I remind you again to be firm but polite?

My Story: I was with 3 others, checking in for our KLM flight from KL to Jakarta. We were told that the plane from Amsterdam had technical problems and would only be arriving the next day. They offered us the free hotel/food/transport shebang, as expected. They even threw in a free IDD call for 3 minutes to anywhere in the world. But we had to go to Jakarta because we had an important meeting to attend which could not be postponed at all. My companions panicked; I didn’t, thanks to my Emirates experience. So I calmly listed our names among the standby passengers and told them to relax and wait. We got on the next MH (Malaysia Airlines) flight to Jakarta while a group of impatient fellow passengers blew an obscene amount of money to buy last-minute tickets for an AirAsia flight all by themselves.

Step 3: The Waiting Game.

Your airline actually has the prerogative of putting you on the next available flight (of the same airline) or putting you on a flight of another carrier. The first scenario, i.e. same airline, is ideal because it will involve the least amount of hassle. However, this is very much dependent on your airlines’ frequency of flights to your intended destination. The second scenario, i.e. different airline, is a little bit more complicated and is a very costly alternative for your airline. Therefore, your airline will almost always offer you a different flight even if it’s the following day in order to cut down on their cost. If you are really, really, really in a hurry to get to your intended destination, and you know that there is a (different airline’s) flight in two hours’ time, be prepared to be told, “We’ll try to put you on the next XYZ flight but the system shows that it’s fully booked, so I suggest that you take the free hotel stay and take our flight tomorrow.

At this point, you’ll have to go backtrack a bit and ask yourself again, “Do I really, really, really need to get on that flight?”. If your answer is still yes, then be persistent and firm with the your airline but remain polite. As the cliché goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

My story: I was with my assistant, checking in for a KLM flight from Jakarta to KL. Again, there was a technical problem that prevented the plane from Amsterdam to fly into Jakarta that day, so we were offered a free overnight stay at a 5-star hotel in downtown Jakarta. Again, I insisted on going back because we had several important meetings lined up for the next day. Initially, they told us that the MH flight to KL was full and so was the AirAsia flight. But we persisted. Key words: Firm. But. Polite. And we got into the MH flight back to KL that night.

IMPORTANT NOTE: You must aware of the procedure: your airline will only be able to put you on XYZ flight if there are empty seats or no-shows, i.e. people who bought tickets but didn’t show up at the last minute. And your airline will only find out the number of empty seats — if there are any — AFTER all passengers of XYZ flight have checked in and the counter is closed. This would normally be around 60 minutes before the flight. At this point, all that you can do is wait and pray. Just before the magic hour strikes, make your way to your airline counter once again and inquire nicely (I can’t stress this enough!) about the status of your standby request. Standby passengers will be entertained on a first-come, first-served basis; this is when it pays to check in early for your flight. Because if you check in early, you’ll find out early about the flight being overbooked/canceled/delayed and have your name up there in the list of standby passengers.

If Lady Luck smiles upon you, you’ll find yourself among the lucky few with a boarding pass for flight XYZ, your luggage tagged and checked-in at the very last minute (thereby increasing the possibility of losing your luggage), and running through the airport to get past X-ray machines, Immigration, another x-ray machine, in order to get to the boarding gate before it closes.

If you don’t get a seat on flight XYZ, you’ll still end up in the hotel offered to you in the first place. Or perhaps you ditch the offer and go home instead (if you’re in your home country) and sleep in your own bed and check in for your flight the following day.

Disclaimer: Airline policies may vary — especially for low-cost airlines! — so read the fine print in the Terms & Conditions of your ticket. But even AirAsia offered its customers some vouchers redeemable against the next ticket purchase for delays more than 4 hours. I’m not sure if this policy is still in place as of this writing but my husband had these vouchers sent to him by email in two separate occasions.

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