8 Ways to Survive Being Stranded at the Airport — Without Going Broke

Two people sleep on the floor of the airport.
A pair of travelers sleep while fellow travelers queue up below to pass through the south security checkpoint at Denver International Airport after a winter storm swept over the country Friday, Dec. 23, 2022. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Thousands of tired and frustrated airline passengers are stranded at airports and sleeping in terminals across the U.S. in the wake of widespread flight cancellations due to a deadly winter storm.

The crisis started over Christmas weekend. By Tuesday, thousands of flights all over the country were being canceled or delayed. The chaos and mayhem and piled-up baggage at American airports were expected to continue this week.

Hey, we’ve been there and done that. Over the years, we’ve learned a few handy ways to survive being stuck at the airport — without going broke (or insane).

Here are eight of our best survival tips:

1. Always Carry These 6 Things

Although we rarely check a bag, we know it’s not always an option for many people.

Whether you’re carrying on or checking a bag, never board a plane without these essentials:

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  • Snacks: Airport food = bleh. If you’re stranded for long enough, you’ll of course have to buy some — but healthy snacks can tide you over in a short delay.
  • Empty water bottle: You can’t bring liquids through security — but an empty bottle? You’re golden. Don’t fall victim to the $5 airport water.
  • Warm sweatshirt: It’s like the universal law of airports and airplanes that they’re either hotter than Florida in July or colder than Chicago in January. If you don’t end up wearing it — but let’s be real, you probably will — you can use it as a pillow.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste: When you’re having a rough travel day, brushing your teeth can make a world of difference. Trust me on this one.
  • Phone charger: Do you really need an explanation?
  • Good book: Books don’t need power. So instead of fighting at the outlet with a bunch of randos, you can enrich your brain in your own space.

2. Know Your Rights

If your flight gets canceled or significantly delayed, the airline is supposed to offer you a refund. But they won’t always tell you that. Then they’re supposed to actually follow through and pay you that refund. But it turns out, that doesn’t always happen.

Trouble is, the rules governing flights and airlines can get complicated, and even frequent flyers don’t necessarily know all of them by heart. So our guide here breaks down exactly what rules the airlines are required to follow if your flight is canceled or delayed, or if your flight is overbooked, or if your luggage gets lost.

Let’s say you’re at the airport and your flight suddenly gets canceled or massively delayed. Fuming, you drag your bags to the ticket counter.

Maybe the ticket agent tells you to sit tight and wait. Or maybe the airline offers you a travel voucher, which you can use to buy another plane ticket at a later date.

You don’t have to accept that, though. You don’t have to wait for the next flight. You don’t have to take the voucher. You’re legally entitled to an actual refund — a full refund, no funny business, no random fees taken out or anything. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.

3. Be Nice

Look, be aware of your rights — just don’t be a jerkface about them.

Being stranded in the airport sucks, and nobody knows better than the people who work at the airport.

So don’t take it out on them. Be patient.

Remember: They didn’t wish this snowstorm on you. They probably want to go home to their families as much as you do. The only difference is you aren’t getting screamed at by a merry-go-round of very unmerry passengers.

4. Book Your Hotel

As soon as you know you’re going to be stuck overnight, get a hotel on the horn. Book for that night, and if it looks like a massive delay, a few extra just in case (after checking on the hotel’s cancellation policy, of course).

Thanks to the law of supply and demand, some hotels jack up prices as soon as they find out about travel troubles — so booking right away could mean better rates.

If you don’t find availability near the airport, don’t be afraid to venture farther afield. With the proliferation of ride-sharing services, staying outside the airport’s general vicinity can sometimes save you quite a bit of money.

5. Turn to Your Credit Card

If you paid for your tickets with a credit card, it’s time to read the fine print.

Because you might just get lucky: Some offer reimbursement for travel delays.

Some credit cards reimburse the cost of meals and lodging when air travel is delayed by more than six hours or requires an overnight stay. The policy typically covers a certain amount per ticket for the cardholder, their spouse or domestic partner and dependent children.

6. Jump on Twitter

Not getting any traction with the airline in person or on the phone? Try social media.

It sounds crazy, but we’ve gotten excellent service by sending out tweets and @mentioning the company. Even on occasions when we weren’t having any luck over email or on the phone, they’ve responded quickly via tweet.

And don’t think it’s just because we’re with the media either; even airline reps make the same suggestion.

7. Buy a Lounge Pass

Airport lounges typically cost around $50 per day. That might seem like an exorbitant cost — until you’re stuck for a significant amount of time, that is.

Airport lounges offer outlets, private Wi-Fi, showers, comfy seating, snacks and, most importantly, FREE DRINKS.

If you were planning to spend the next 12 hours posting up at the airport bar, a day pass to a lounge could save you a lot of money.

Lounges also have a dedicated service desk whose representatives can help re-book flights, helping you avoid the Sisyphean lines in the main area.

8. Find a Quiet Place to Sleep

If you don’t want to spend the night on the floor (gross), Sleeping in Airports might become your new best friend.

This website reveals all the best nooks and crannies to rest your head, plus lots of other information that might help you survive your delay unscathed.

Getting stuck in the airport is one of life’s great annoyances. But when your patience is running thin, remember that’s all it is: an annoyance.

It’s still an extraordinary privilege to travel — especially in a giant metal box in the sky.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Susan Shain is a former senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.

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