There are lots of reasons to hate cancelled flights that require you to spend the night at or near the airport. But beyond the delay getting to your destination, I think the worst part is the panic of finding a hotel for the evening. Typically you don’t know you need to spend the night until it gets quite late. Either you were already on the last flight of the day or you’ve been waiting on standby, one flight after another until your luck ran out.
Unlike most people who have time to consider their options and find a reasonable price and comfortable accommodations, you, the unfortunate passenger, have to find someplace — anyplace — to sleep for the night before trying again in the morning. So what do you do? Surprisingly, this is one case where loyalty doesn’t matter much to me. My first focus is on properties that have an airport shuttle to minimize my costs and maximize my sleep. But I still want to get a good deal.
Ask the Carrier for Assistance
If the cancellation is the airline’s responsibility — mechanical or crew issues, usually — then they are responsible for accommodating you. If it’s weather or some other “act of God” then you’re on your own. This distinction is helpful for determining who pays, but not necessarily how helpful the airline will be. For example, you can still get some assistance finding discounts on last-minute hotel rooms by visiting the gate agent or baggage claim office as airlines will work with local hotels to negotiate deals on distressed inventory (see “Hotel Tonight” below). Or, maybe the airline is responsible but the line is long for a hotel voucher; you might have some luck if you book your own room and later request reimbursement.
If it’s a flight departing the E.U. (even if on an U.S. carrier), or traveling to the E.U. (but only if on an E.U. carrier) then compensation is clearly defined under EC Regulation 261/2004. I bring it up because it’s a pretty significant and generous regulation, but this post mostly concerns itself with travel within the U.S.
Use Your Credit Card’s Trip Insurance
Even if your airline isn’t responsible, it’s possible that your credit card issuer will cover some costs when your flight is delayed or canceled (usually for 12 hours or more). Chase is particularly good at offering trip insurance depending on the terms and conditions of your card. To benefit, you must pay for the ticket with that card. Pay for your basic needs like meals and accommodation and then file a claim for reimbursement.
Use Hotel Points
I do not recommend using points from your hotel loyalty program to book a free night unless you have exhausted the two options above. I understand some people are on a budget and don’t want to pay the unexpected costs of a hotel room. However, no one is going to reimburse the cost of the points you redeemed. The best you’ll get is a “customer care” award that acknowledges the inconvenience but doesn’t attempt to represent the value of the redemption. I repeat: if you are short on cash and worried about the time it takes to process a reimbursement, using points likely means no reimbursement at all.
Why? Generally, points and miles have no value — or at least not one that can be easily and defensibly claimed. So what if you think your 10,000 Hyatt points are worth $200? United doesn’t have to agree, nor would it have any means of coming to such a conclusion. You can’t provide a receipt for $200 to its auditors. And an screenshot showing that Hyatt was charging $200 on that particular night isn’t good enough. They need to know what you paid. Which, if you use points, is likely zero.
Use Hotel Tonight
Hotel Tonight — and to a similar extent Hotwire and Priceline — provides deals on distressed inventory. These are rooms the hotels don’t expect to sell and so they lower their rates. Hotel Tonight will tell you where you’re staying and is easy to use from a smartphone app. Hotwire and Priceline use opaque deals that hide the name of the hotel, but they still provide some information on quality and proximity to the airport.
I keep the Hotel Tonight app on my phone even though I almost never open it and have never used it to book a room. It’s a great concept and if I do find myself in a situation where I need to use it, I probably won’t want to be waiting an extra two minutes to find and download it.
Book through an Online Travel Agency
Yeah, sometimes Expedia, Orbitz, or their competitors will work. It’s the first thing most people do when they’re booking a hotel room under normal circumstances, and it can still work at the last minute. Use a meta search engine like Kayak or Hipmunk to explore multiple sites at once and cut down on effort. I still don’t recommend it to most people.
I have, in fact, been able to search, find a hotel I like, and even book it directly so I earn some elite status. In that case I do try it first before going through the other options above. Paying $100 for an airport hotel that earns me status is better than going through the hassles of reimbursement — I will still try to get reimbursed, of course, but I accept up front that it may never happen. But this is all because I’m a status-obsessed junkie who sees a cancelled flight as an opportunity. If pressed to find the cheapest option, I wouldn’t bet on finding it here.