Did something go bump in the flight? Here are some common air travel woes, and how to prevent, and fix, them.
I was bumped from my flight
How to prevent: Bumping (involuntary boarding) is relatively rare, but some airlines are worse than others (you can see recent bumping statistics, along with lost bag and airline on-time performance online. JetBlue is the least likely to bump you (they don't overbook flights). Avoiding peak travel days (Tuesday and Wednesday are the slowest) and peak holiday periods also helps. Don't be the last person to check in for your flight. Get to the airport as early as possible, and if you have status in the airline's frequent flyer program that helps too.
How to fix: Ask to be put on another airline's flight if that will get you to where you're going faster than your original airline (some airlines still offer this option—do a web search for "Rule 240"--if there are seats available). If you'll be delayed more than an hour, you're entitled to cash compensation (refuse to accept an airline travel voucher). To lessen the pain, ask for a free pass to the airline's airport lounge if you're not already a member. If you're on Twitter, many airlines try to fix bumping issues there (see their Twitter "handles").
My checked bags (or contents) were stolen
How to prevent: Other than not checking bags in the first place, there's no sure way to prevent theft. Bags and their contents can be pilfered by baggage handlers, TSA agents, and even by thieves who hang around the luggage carousels. Some bags are taken from carousels by accident because they all look alike, so choose one in a bright color rather than black. Locks help, but only so far. Never pack valuables or electronics in checked bags, because airlines won't compensate for these if they’re lost or stolen. If traveling internationally, consider buying "excess valuation" coverage from your airline (it's inexpensive), since airlines offer paltry compensation for international travel. Make sure you have receipts for any expensive items in your bag. And make sure you don't lose your checked bag receipt. It's also not a bad idea to lock your carry-on bag while in the overhead compartment. Also, some bags are taken from the carousel by mistake since they all seem to look alike now. Getting a bag in a distinctive color (mine is lime green) helps prevent errors.
How to fix: Even if your bag arrives at the bag claim safely, it's a good idea to open the bag and check the contents. If there's a problem, file a claim with the airline before leaving the airport. Airlines are required to cover up to $3,400 for domestic travel, but much less for international flights, and they will depreciate the value of the contents. If the airline denies your claim or only pays part of the bag's value, check with your credit card company: most cards offer lost or damaged bag insurance for free, even for carry-on bags, and some even cover electronics such as cameras and computers, as long as you paid for the trip with the card.
My flight was cancelled or delayed
How to prevent: Every U.S. domestic flight is required to have an on-time performance score assigned to it and some flights are more prone to cancellations or delays than others. For example, in August, United flight 5714 from New York JFK to Washington Dulles was cancelled 6 percent of the time and on-time (defined as within 15 minutes of schedule) just 45 percent of the time—not very reassuring if you're making a connection. Some airlines, such as United, post this information online or you can call the airline and ask for its on-time and cancellation numbers. Avoid flights with dismal performance statistics, and naturally you up your chances of success by avoiding connecting flights. If you must connect, avoid doing so in winter through cold weather airports that are prone to snow storms such as Chicago and Minneapolis, opting for Phoenix or Houston instead.
How to fix: Have a plan B. Keep a list of alternate flights, even if it is on a competing airline, and ask to be rebooked. It's often faster to use Twitter (@AmericanAir is especially responsive) rather than waiting in line at the airport. If all else fails and you have to overnight, ask, nicely, for hotel accommodations (airlines are not required to provide rooms or meals, but many do). Again, your credit card may include free compensation (usually $100 per day) if you incur expenses due to a delay or cancellation.
I couldn't find seats next to my traveling companion(s)
How to prevent: Book seats as early as possible. If you're traveling with a child 12 years of age or younger, be sure to indicate that when you make your reservation since airlines do attempt to sit children together with companions if they know the child's age. Or call the airline's reservation number and request adjacent seats.
How to fix: If all else fails, get to the airport super early and ask for seat re-assignment. And if that doesn't work, bring along some Starbucks gift certificates or movie passes to bribe passengers to switch seats with you.
I can't find frequent flier seats for the dates I want
How to prevent: The best strategy is to look for seats way ahead, or at the last minute. Airlines open up frequent flier seats close to departure if it looks like they won't be able to sell them.
How to fix: If all else fails, don't hesitate to call the airline's frequent flier service number rather than just looking online. Ask them to look for seats on partner airlines.
And check for seats often, since inventory changes frequently as people holding seats release them or change their plans.
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.