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24 Things I Learned from a 24-Hour Flight Delay

It recently took me 24 hours to get from Washington, D.C. to Boston, and no, I didn’t drive. Or walk. While stuck in an airport for an entire day, I had plenty of time to think about what lessons a long flight delay had taught me. Here’s what you should know in case you ever get stuck in the same nightmare.

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24 Things I Learned from a 24-Hour Flight Delay

1. Airlines don’t have to provide passengers with food, water, or vouchers for the same. I’ve been on flights on different airlines that have been delayed for just a few hours and been offered free snacks and bottles of water, so this surprised me.

2. If your flight keeps getting delayed, consider making alternative plans. The more a flight gets delayed, the less likely it is to actually take off. My 7:00 p.m. flight was first delayed at 6:00 p.m., and didn’t get canceled until 2:00 a.m. I wish I had just given up after the first few delays, rather than hanging in there.

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3. Airline employees may not have the correct information. At around 1:30 a.m., a JetBlue employee told the crowd at our gate that our plane had just taken off from a different airport and once it arrived, we would be taking off for sure. Half an hour later, our flight was canceled.

4. Pack warm clothes and make sure they are accessible, no matter how short your flight is. I was so glad I had packed a few layers even though I was traveling from one warm destination to another, because the airport was freezing. And it got even colder once all the crowds emptied out.

5. Stock up on food and water before the airport closes. Even in a major airport, all of the shops and cafes closed in my terminal before midnight.

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6. Only having carry-on luggage will allow you to jump between flights more easily, if yours gets delayed or canceled.

7. If lots of flights are getting delayed, and you are trying to move to an earlier flight, you may want to go on standby if there is a chance that that flight will also be delayed or canceled–that way, you don’t lose your seat on your original flight if it ends up taking off earlier.

8. Don’t spend your delay at the airport bar. I saw a few very inebriated passengers who were too confused to deal with unexpected flight cancellations get belligerent with the staff.

9. Remember that the staff is working late too and that the delays/cancellations are beyond their control. The staff that stayed with us until 3:00 a.m. was back at the airport before noon the next day, still dealing with angry customers. Be patient!

10. Sign up for flight alert notifications directly through your airline. You’ll be texted or emailed as soon as your flight is delayed or canceled, and you can (hopefully) beat the mad rush of other people trying to get on a new flight.

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11. If the line for customer service is long at the airport, try calling the airline while you are waiting in line, as you might get through sooner. Note that phone staff might not be able to help with some issues though, like going standby on a full flight.

12. Gate agents can usually put you on a standby list, so try them if the line is shorter.

13. Know that you might not be able to go standby on a flight that’s more than one ahead of yours. For example, my new flight, at 3:00 p.m. the next day, was delayed, so I tried to go standby on a flight that was leaving at 1:00 p.m., but JetBlue’s policy wouldn’t allow me to swap to that flight, only to a 2:00 p.m. one (which was also severely delayed), even though my original flight was the night before.

14. Keep your toiletries. Sometimes at the end of a trip, I will toss travel-sized toiletries with just a tiny bit of product left in them to make a little more space in my suitcase for the flight home. I was glad that I didn’t on this trip, when I was grateful to have a little bit of toothpaste after 24 hours!

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15. If your flight is canceled, airlines may offer you a hotel room for the night. However, this may be far away from the airport (mine was 20 minutes away).

16. Try to be one of the first people from a canceled flight to get help–I was offered a hotel room, but they mentioned that there were only two left for the night, so I’m not sure what other people on my flight did.

17. If you are offered a taxi voucher by the airline to get to a hotel (or back home), know that it’s hard to find a taxi company that will accept them.

18. Turn to other airlines for help getting home. I ended up having to buy a ticket on another airline in order to get home, just because JetBlue was having so many cancellations.

19. If you have to cancel your ticket because your flight is canceled, the airline will refund your money. A last-minute, one-way ticket will be expensive, but after my refund, I only wound up paying about $60 out of pocket.

20. Look for other options–some passengers on my flight ended up renting a car or taking a train, and they still got back to Boston before I did.

21. Know your rights if your flight is canceled.

22. Be wary of booking a flight itinerary with connections on different airlines–I saw quite a few people who were anxious because they were going to miss an international connection due to the flight cancellations, and JetBlue wouldn’t help them at all with their onward leg.

23. If you complain and are offered compensation, it will likely be in the form of a travel credit from the airline, not cash.

24. Some airport bookstores have a program where you can buy a book, read it, and then return it to the same branch (or another in a different airport) for a half-price refund. Good to know if you’re bored and stuck in an airport!

What’s the longest flight delay you’ve ever had?

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By Caroline Morse Teel

Unfortunately for her bank account, Principal Editor Caroline Morse Teel is powerless to resist a good flight deal. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.

Caroline joined Boston-based SmarterTravel in 2011 after living in Ireland, London, and Manhattan. She's traveled to all seven continents, jumped out of planes, and bungeed off bridges in the pursuit of a good story. She loves exploring off-the-beaten path destinations, anything outdoorsy, and all things adventure.

Her stories have also appeared online at USA Today, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Yahoo, Boston.com, TripAdvisor, Buzzfeed, Jetsetter, Oyster, Airfarewatchdog, and others.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "Earplugs. A good pair has saved my sleep and sanity many times!"

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: Hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.

Travel Motto: "Don't be boring."

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle (when the first class private suite isn't available)."

E-mail her at cmorse@smartertravel.com.

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