Surviving the Delta Debacle with miles and luck

Delta Debacle

Last week’s storms in the US southeast, potentially mixed with IT issues, led to massive flight cancellations and delays.  And, it wasn’t just the areas hit by bad weather that were affected.  The hub cancellations caused a domino effect across the country.  And problems persist even today, nearly a week later.

I was with my family in Austin when the news about the Delta debacle broke.  And, on Friday, a friend who was also visiting Austin contacted me. She was in trouble.  Her flight home had been cancelled and Delta was completely unresponsive.  But she had to get home that day.  She was scheduled to fly to Costa Rica with her kids a day later.  Was there any way I could help?

My first step was to check Google Flights to see what options were available.  Same day flights from Austin to Madison were available via both United and AA, but they started at over $600.  Flights to Milwaukee were more reasonable, but I kept that as a backup plan.

Google Flights AUS-MSN

Next I searched for award availability on United.com.  Happily, saver level awards were wide open:

United Saver Available AUS-MSN

12.5K miles is a cheap price to pay, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about the quoted $86.20 in fees.  Those fees reduced to $61.20 when I logged in, thanks to my United Silver status (which, in turn, is thanks to my Marriott Platinum status).  But I knew I could do better.

I found a similar flight with saver level award availability more than a month away.  That flight had much more reasonable $5.60 in fees, so I booked that one.  I knew that within 24 hours I could change the flight for free.

United Saver Available AUS-MSN Month Out

Once booked, I tried to change the flight online, but got an error saying to call.  So, I called.  After a short wait a friendly agent answered and quickly changed the award flight to the date and time we really wanted.  Since it was within 24 hours of booking, there was no additional charge for the change.

A few hours later, my friend was at the airport and learned that the award flight hadn’t actually ticketed.  I called United again.  Fortunately, the phone agent was able to push it through to ticketing, and my friend was on her way!  Thanks to United (and airline miles!), she arrived home just a short time later than Delta originally planned to deliver her.  Awesome.

Returning to Detroit

We were scheduled to return from Austin at 7:15 am Sunday morning on… you guessed it… Delta.  Saturday evening, though, we received an email and text stating that our flight wouldn’t leave until 9:35 am.  Then, another message came.  The new departure time would be 10:46 am.

The new departure time was great for us (we could actually sleep in), but it didn’t leave us with a lot of confidence that our flight would actually happen.  I tried to use miles to book flights on another airline, just in case, but no awards were available on any airline to get us home same-day.  How about to Chicago?  Nope, nothing.  We decided to chance it.

We were extremely lucky.  Our flight left as re-re-scheduled at 10:46.  And, even though it was closer to lunchtime, they catered breakfast in first class.  It was actually really good!

Delta Breakfast Sandwich

I’ve become a fan of Delta’s new first class breakfast sandwiches. Yum.

Even though we were lucky and avoided trouble, thousands of people were not so lucky. I feel awful for the passengers and crews who have been stranded for days due to Delta’s poor handling of this situation.  Hopefully Delta will learn from their mistakes and handle things better next time.

How about you? Did you survive this Delta debacle?

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

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  1. Spent 8 hours in Detroit Friday night heading to Boston. Ended up leaving out at 3am after endless delays. We felt lucky compared to some who we were cancelled after hours of waiting and Delta tried to rebook them for 48 hours later. What a mess…

  2. That looks like a nice breakfast sandwich. Last time we flew delta in domestic first, our breakfast choices consisted of cereal or nothing. And my vegetarian daughter’s breakfast was . . . Different cereal.

  3. Does the united free 24 hour change apply to everyone or united silver status? Confused since you mentioned that earlier…. Thanks.

  4. Wow, great move Greg to help out a traveling friend in distress! (and will remember that this strategy to workaround those nasty United close-in fees still works. Ironically, Delta ff program doesn’t charge those close-in fees — one of the reasons I’d warmed up to Delta….)

    Alas, my daughter this past week hit multiple delays / snafus on trip from Va to SLC (Utah)…. and yes, sure enough, they were stranded on the way back in Atlanta for two days. (worse, without their luggage – which Delta arrogantly “froze” — then sent onward on a flight, without them!) After two days of multiple false starts — of being told they had a flight, then somehow they didn’t, their family gave up and rented a car….

    As for Delta learning its lesson…. nope, they haven’t….. sigh, I was stranded in Bay Area during last August’s massive IT meltdown. After two days of freezing in OAK, then SFO, Southwest came to our rescue and got us home cheap. Rather disconcerting to watch the Delta chaos unfold, as veteran pilots quite literally “took charge” (without computers), cobbled crews together in the waiting areas — then scrambled to find planes to fly…. amazing, if wildly disconcerting….. one of the rumors flying among crew was that the recurrent Delta IT systems meltdowns were being caused by something other than…. IT….. but that was the “cover story” they were being fed….)

    • Escot, until a couple of years ago, Delta did not charge close-in fees. Now they’ve found a sneaky, non-transparent way to de facto charge close in fees – they charge more miles for close-in bookings.

      For example, if I try to book an award flight now from SFO-ATL, the cost is at least:

      -32,500 miles from Apr 11-13.
      -25,000 miles from Apr 14-23.
      -17,500 miles for Apr 24.
      -12,500 miles starting April 25.

      That’s equivalent to at least a $200 close-in fee for bookings within 3 days.

      One more example why I make much less effort to earn Skypesos than other airline currencies (and why I never expect to have a DL credit card or participate in a DL mileage earning promotion).

  5. We got delayed 2 hours in DTW going to LAS because we were short 2 flight attendants. They said Atlanta wasn’t even picking up the phone and they had to message them from the plane to try to get a response. We stole 2 from an Amsterdam flight. There was another flight leaving after us 10PM that they canceled at 2AM and said they could rebook them for sunday evening (this was at 2am sat morning). The people I talked to paid $700 for one way on spirit for a 6am flight saturday. Delta gave them each a $100 voucher – truly pathetic. I told them to contact them and ask for $500 a person or at least their money back for the one way flight.

  6. I really like your strategy, Greg! Good job!

    Two questions for this strategy:
    1. Will this strategy apply to AA flight reservation too? AA also has $75 close in fee for award.

    2. Do you think the UA un-ticketed issue was due to this strategy? Or it was just one time unluck?

    Thanks.

    • 1) I don’t believe this strategy works with AA. For direct domestic flights, I’ve used British Airways Avios to book an award seat on AA as they have no close-in booking fee. Whether that will make sense depends on your itinerary.

      2) I don’t think the un-ticketed issue was due to this strategy. I’ve used it and had the new itinerary ticket without an issue. If Greg thinks differently, I’m sure he’ll reply — but I think that was probably just unluckiness.

      • Nick, good point (and you can transfer Chase UR points to BA immediately; you need to log out of your BA account, then back in, to see the new point balance).

        You can also use Alaska points to book AA flights with no close-in fee (and can even book a free stopover).

  7. My husband got to DC from SFO Thursday am but trying to return on Friday was not happening !! He was on 4 standbys for DC to Detroit and at midnite cancelled after 16 hours at the airport and an unused hotel room in Detroit ! Then got DC hotel then back at Airport at 6 am standby times 2 no luck then got to JFK then SFO sat nite

  8. Greg,
    I have a question from your article. You said that you found a flight with a fee of $61.20 but then ended up booking a later (more than a month away) flight with a fee of $5.60, only to change the flight within 24 hours.
    were you implying that you ended up changing back to the flight with the fee of $61.20 at the new reduced fee of $5.60, that you were able to keep the fee at $5.60 (even though it should have been $61.20)? That is not clear to me. Thanks for your clarification.

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