What to do if you miss your flight

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MMS readers are travel pros. But sometimes life gets in the way — do you know what happens if you miss your flight? This is a fairly common occurrence, be it from faulty alarm clocks, unexpected bumper-to-bumper traffic or missed connections.

Regardless of why you fail to make a flight, the steps you can take are mostly the same. Your missed-flight strategy should include resources like Google Flights, credit cards with travel insurance, saved airline phone numbers, etc.

Bookmark this post, because you’re going to need it eventually. You could make it for years without any airline incidents, but all good things must come to an end. So here, I’ll explain what to do if you miss your flight. You can subscribe to our newsletter for more travel tips like this delivered to your inbox.

Contact the airline as soon as possible

Immediately when it becomes evident that you’re not going to make your flight, get into contact with your airline. 

Whether you’re late to the airport or you miss a connection, be informed. I like to use Google Flights to research the flights my airline offers for later in the day. I find a flight that would work for me, note the travel times and flight numbers, and I immediately call the airline (or visit a customer service desk, depending on the situation). Knowing the details of your desired flight saves a lot of time and hassle with customer service. They appreciate someone who knows their stuff! 

You’ll run into the biggest problem if any of your flights are in the evening, as some could be the last flights of the day. This happened to me on a flight from Dallas to Cincinnati. The connection I missed was the last flight to Dallas, and unfortunately, I had to arrive the next day. Don’t forget to file a trip delay insurance claim in these situations! 

If you have a tight schedule, you can often request a change in destination to a nearby airport and still get where you’re going relatively on time. For example, if you miss a flight to Tampa, you may still be able to catch a flight to Orlando, Sarasota, St. Petersburg, etc., quicker than waiting for the next flight to Tampa. 

Just last month, I was scheduled to fly into Dallas and drive with family to Oklahoma City. However, my flight to Dallas was delayed by four hours, hindering my original schedule. I called the airline, explained the situation, and requested they book me directly to Oklahoma City instead.

How airlines handle missed flights

If you’ve just arrived at the airport or the horrifying lines at the airline counter cause you to be late by the time you reach the desk agent, the airline will often allow you to catch a later flight (it’s happened to me before). Don’t let that information fuel your negligence — it’s far from guaranteed — but it certainly is a thing. It’s known as the “flat tire rule.”

Here are some examples of flat tire rules by the major U.S. airlines (these are not official):

  • American Airlines – Receive standby for later flights when you arrive within two hours of your scheduled departure
  • Delta – More strict, and will handle each situation separately
  • United Airlines – More strict, but usually accommodating as long as you contact them within half an hour of your scheduled departure
  • Southwest – Receive standby for later flights when you arrive within two hours of your scheduled departure

Again, these are not published anywhere, so be humble and courteous when you’re asking for leniency on your missed flight. The Points Guy has a good article outlining this situation.


What to do if you checked your luggage

This hardly ever happens, but if your checked bag somehow makes it on the plane and you don’t, simply let the airline know. They’re happy to hold your bag at your destination until you touch down. You may just have to rough it without your toiletries for a night.

A more common situation is missing the cutoff point for checking a bag. You may show up on time to get yourself on the plane, but the airline may have stricter policies for checked bags — these policies even vary by airport. In some cases, if you don’t check-in within an hour of your scheduled departure, you won’t be able to check a bag. You’ll be using the flat tire rule to board the next available flight, or you’ll be saying a permanent goodbye to your checked bag.

Pro tip: During a recent trip, I arrived at the airport too late to check a bag. The desk agent initially denied my bag, but when the desk agent saw that I had checked-in and accounted for my checked bag via the airline’s mobile app 24 hours before, she was willing to take it. It’s a wise move to check-in and select your bags before you get to the airport!

What to do if you missed a connecting flight

If the airline is responsible for a missed connection, they will certainly accommodate you on the next available flight. Make sure to check your email or the airline’s mobile app as the airline may automatically rebook you in this case. 

Even if it’s your fault, they often do their best to help you free of charge. Again, knowing flight numbers and departure times will help you in this situation.

What if you missed an international flight?

Missing an international flight is dreadful. You can expect to pay hundreds of dollars to rebook. You may have to purchase a brand new fare, and last-minute fares are exorbitant.

In the best of situations, airlines may give you a deep discount on a new flight. But you’re still sure to spend a lot. Some locations recommend you arrive at the airport three hours early for international flights. It sounds overly precautious, but they’re trying to save you money!

What is the latest you can cancel your flight?

The latest you can cancel a flight without penalty is within 24 hours of booking your flight — and this rule generally applies for tickets booked at least two days in advance.

The exception is Southwest, which allows you to change or cancel your ticket for free up to 10 minutes before departure. That is a wonderfully considerate policy, and it’s the reason MMS readers love Southwest so much. If you find that your plans tend to change at the last minute, Southwest would be your ideal pick.

Bottom line

Unforeseen events sometimes spell a missed flight or two in the career of a travel enthusiast. The “flat tire rule” could be your fall back when you’re traveling domestically. If you’re traveling internationally, however, be prepared to fork it over for your mistake!

Keep yourself informed of alternate flights if you think you may miss your scheduled flight. You can funnel flight numbers and times to reservation agents to help them speed along a new itinerary for you.

Let us know if you’ve got any experience using the flat tire rule. And subscribe to our newsletter to learn how to travel for free. More tips = more trips!

Featured image by David Prado Perucha/Shutterstock.

Sarah Hostetler is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets. She covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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