I've had a few friends ask me for advice on booking air travel in the last few months, as well as some fun recounting a few horror stories I've learned from, so I'd thought I'd write down what I suggest to avoid air travel problems. Yes, they may cost a bit more. However, I think the anxiety, stress, time, and frustration caused by air travel trouble surpasses the increased fare in more cases than not, particularly on quick trips.
1. Go non-stop
There are very few occasions where putting in a layover or an unnecessary stop is a good option. The more stops you have, the more chances you have to be delayed/miss a flight (and to lose baggage, if you check a bag….which you shouldn't). Not to mention, non-stops are quicker. While flights with multiple stops may be cheaper, weigh the pros and cons. Is saving $100 worth 4 hours in an airport? For us, when we travel for 4-5 days, the answer is almost always no.
The only time we've opted for an unforced stop in the past 2 years is because I couldn't redeem miles for business class straight from Tokyo to Dulles (so we stopped in Chicago). That stop was definitely worth 13 hours in a lay-flat seat.
More stops=more chance of delay.
2. Avoid problem airports
Oh, the problem children. ORD and MSP, I'm looking at you in winter. MIA and MCO have issues in summer (thunderstorms). Here's a list made by the Weather Channel if you want to see statistically who has the worst delays and cancellations. If you have choices, do not fly through these airports during seasonal weather problems– think hurricanes, snow storms, tornadoes. You can't always avoid them, but when you can, you should.
I've spent multiple nights in Chicago, and had a delightful run-in with a tornado with crazy-size hail in Dallas a few years ago (yes, this is the storm they reference in that link). Neither are something I yearn to repeat.
3. Book the earliest possible flight
There are two reasons for this: 1) if your flight is cancelled or delayed, you can hopefully get on the next flight out rather than be stranded overnight, and 2) air delays often pile up throughout the day, so issues in the morning can be big problems in the afternoon. No one likes to get up for that 6am flight, but what I like even less is to waste a day in the airport or not get where I'm going at all.
Early flights=more chances to make it to your destination.
4. Pay attention to what's going on
I can't believe how many people are always at the airport during a snowstorm with a bewildered look on their face because their flight was cancelled. Why they ever make it as far as the airport….I do not know. Pay attention to the weather and the news. If things look dicey, most airlines will allow you to rebook with no fee (one time) to other dates to avoid the serious weather events. For leisure travel, this is almost always the best option, especially if you can do it online. Without elite status, you are likely to spend hours at the counter at the airport with a sea of grumpy travelers. No thanks.
Being informed=more options to change plans and less time wasting.
5. Book directly with the airline
I know, I know. Heresy. But seriously some of the worst problems we've had is when we've booked through Expedia. As a result, I no longer use Expedia to book flights, though II occasionally still look there for fares (much prefer Google Flights, now). Using a second party to book can be cheaper, but it also can send you to the vicious garbage disposal of "it's not my fault, it's theirs" when there is a problem.
Like when AirTran refused to rebook us because we booked through Expedia, and Expedia refused to rebook us, because AirTran had to do it. Neither were willing to budge, even after 3 managers and hours on the phone. (Needless to say, I don't fly AirTran/Southwest anymore either).
Direct customer=no he said she said BS.
What's your best story of air travel trouble?