Eric has been writing a miniseries on strategies for rebooking cancelled flights, and while I have been fortunate to suffer only one or two in my life, I have seen plenty of delays. Cancellations tend to open up more options, like rebooking on another carrier, but are generally similar. I often rely on my elite status and alternate routings to get myself to my destination faster or to re-route around what would otherwise be longer delays. My name goes to the top of the list even if someone else without status has been waiting for hours, and many fees are waived.
But one key lesson I have learned is that these options can disappear if I check a bag, which is generally supposed to travel with the passenger on the same flights. This is a much easier problem to solve with a carryon that follows right behind me everywhere I go. Even on regional flights with insufficient overhead space I can gate check the bag and pick it up at the plane when I arrive (this can take some time and will still be an issue if I have a short connection).
It isn’t impossible to be rebooked with a checked bag, but it isn’t easy. The agent may make a fuss about going to find the bag and retagging it with the new flight information. I might even be asked to exit security, collect it at baggage claim, and re-check it. If time is of the essence — that new flight may depart in 20 minutes — then I’m stuck either way.
Here’s my story about how a checked bag delayed my trip home by 10 hours, including an overnight stay at Dallas-Fort Worth.
Shaving Cream Ruined My Trip Home
My wife and I were flying home from Amarillo on Sunday evening. We had a 6:50 departure and, if all went well, a little under three hours to make our connection in Dallas to Seattle. There were even two later flights from Amarillo to Dallas that could serve as backup.
Ordinarily we would carry on, but we had Christmas presents in tow. We could probably repack the bags to fit, though we weren’t eager to lug them through DFW. In the end my decision came down to a 5-ounce can of shaving cream, over the TSA’s arbitrary limit. For the sake of shaving cream I checked our bags.
Just as we walked up to the check-in counter at Amarillo, the screen flashed and our flight was delayed an hour. The last flight of the day was already cancelled. No biggie. We would still make our connection easily.
But by the time we got through security the delay was an hour and a half. The previous flight was wrapping up boarding. We probably could have rushed on and gotten ourselves to Dallas early as a precaution, but with checked bags I knew we would be turned away. I overhead that exact conversation with another passenger who checked a bag and didn’t even bother.
Our original flight’s delay got longer. The second of the two later flights was also cancelled. At least ours was the flight that would still head out tonight. It remained unclear if we would make our connection.
Keeping Your Bags at Hand Makes Delays Tolerable
I had been content to wait, though at this point I regretted our decision. If we had to stay the night in Dallas I wanted to have our luggage with us so we could use our toiletries and change our clothes. Or, if we had to make a run for our connecting flight that night, there seemed to be a better chance of our bags arriving on time if they were in our possession rather than transported by a baggage handler.
Obviously, you should never check medication, electronics, or other fragile and/or valuable times that you will need access to at a specific time. Our contact lens cases and solution were in our checked baggage, and we definitely didn’t want to sleep without taking them out. I ended up buying replacements in the terminal.
When traveling on international flights, sometimes a full-size domestic carryon isn’t allowed due to weight restrictions. I bring with me a large laptop bag that can expand to hold all my toiletries and a spare change of clothes just in case.
Short Check or Ask to Reclaim Your Bags
The gate agent was able to get us seats on the first flight in the morning. I had the option of requesting a “short check,” meaning that the bags would be offloaded at Dallas so we could claim them there even though as passengers we were checked in all the way to Seattle. (This is a neat little trick if you ever have a long layover on an international flight.) But that wasn’t appealing either. The last time we spent the night at Dallas, picking up our bags meant a 30 minute wait at baggage claim plus 45 minutes for the shuttle bus even though we were staying at a hotel attached to the terminal. Staying airside with carryon bags would mean we could take the inter-terminal train.
In the end we declined the short check in the interest of more sleep (and we didn’t make our connection). The agent did make an effort to deliver our bags to baggage claim at Amarillo us so we could exit and re-enter through security with them as carryons. But after the inbound flight took off from DFW she had to hurry to get the gate ready for arrival. There are only so many employees at a small airport.
Plan for Good and Bad Scenarios
People say they like to check a bag for convenience. I get that. It’s exactly what I thought when I checked our bags earlier in the day. But nothing about this scenario ended up convenient for us. Keeping our personal belongings with us at all times would have made the delay far more tolerable. While I don’t mean to make this story about the airline and who’s responsible for getting us home on time, the decision to check a bag was definitely within our control.
Next time, we’ll pack smarter. And I’ll bring a smaller can of shaving cream.