Stranded at the airport: Tips for surviving a canceled flight with kids

Flying long distances with young kids, whether cross-country or abroad, is no easy feat. Between security checkpoints, the umpteenth diaper change, and keeping your kids occupied and fed for hours on end, traveling with young kids could qualify as an Olympic sport for many parents. And that’s before you see those dreaded words flashing on the nearest airport departure board: “flight canceled.”

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 100,000 flights were cancelled in 2011, affecting 7.5 million passengers. And the demand for air travel is only increasing. Read on for a step-by-step guide to getting you and your family on the next plane out, and how to prevent a headache or two in the process.

• Reschedule your flight as soon as possible. Don’t assume the airline will automatically rebook your ticket. Head to the nearest ticket counter, and while waiting in line, try to reschedule your flight using your Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone or tablet.

• If you’re traveling alone with the kids, ask an airline agent about expedited assistance for families with small children. Be polite and assertive. It never hurts to ask!

• Think ahead about your family’s needs. How many meals will your family require until your rescheduled flight? What about snacks and extra diapers? Discuss your needs with the ticketing agent, who should be able to provide meal vouchers for the airport. Some airlines also provide free diapers and baby food to stranded passengers. Be sure to save all receipts for any expenses you incur.

• If you require overnight accommodation, ask an airline agent for details. Does the airline provide hotel vouchers or do you have to pay upfront and submit a receipt later? If so, what is the airline’s maximum reimbursement amount? Although airlines are not required to cover hotel costs for events such as inclement weather or traffic control issues, confirm this with an agent. You never know, you might get a hotel voucher just for asking politely.

• Review your updated flight information. Before you leave the ticket counter, check your boarding passes and itinerary. Are you booked on the correct flight? Does everyone in your family have a seat? Reviewing the details will save you a headache down the road if the agent makes a mistake during the ticketing process.

• Book your family’s hotel room. Once you have tickets in hand and a plan for your family’s meals and other items, it’s time to secure overnight accommodation, should you require it. Unfortunately, penny-pinching airlines often recommend hotels located 30 minutes or more from the airport, adding to your family’s inconvenience. Use your smartphone or tablet to book an alternative hotel as close to the airport as possible, or ask airport services for hotel suggestions. Make sure the nightly rate is within the reimbursement amount the airline agent earlier quoted you. Or, pay the difference, if you don’t mind footing some of the bill.

• Follow up. Once you’re back home safe and sound, visit the airline’s website to submit electronic copies of your receipts and provide feedback about your experience. Offer details about staff members who were particularly kind or helpful.

Most airlines will offer some sort of compensation for your inconvenience, such as credit in a rewards program or vouchers for future travel.

Flying long-distances with your little ones is challenging, to say the least, especially when your flight gets canceled. These tips will help get you and your family back on track to your destination.

Heather Van Deest is a freelance writer and mother of two young sons.