What to Do if You Miss Your Flight

PHOTO: German airline Lufthansa cabin crew strike continues as Lufthansa and the union failed to reach an agreement in a long-running row over early retirement benefits and pensions on Nov. 6, 2015 in Frankfurt Am Main, Germany. Abdulselam Durdak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
German airline Lufthansa cabin crew strike continues as Lufthansa and the union failed to reach an agreement in a long-running row over early retirement benefits and pensions on Nov. 6, 2015 in Frankfurt Am Main, Germany.

It happens. The alarm fails (or you forget to set it), there's a pile-up on the freeway, or the lines at security stretch out the door. So what are your options if you miss your flight?

The key is first getting in touch with your airline immediately whether you're at the airport, on the road or wringing your hands at home.

If the airline is at fault: If the missed-flight scenario is not your fault because of a delay or cancellation due to storms or aircraft mechanical issues, check out my earlier advice column which explains what airlines will do for passengers and how to move to the head of the line for this help.

If you're at fault: These three strategies should ease some of the pain and maybe save you some money.

1. Be pro-active on the phone

• If you will be late: Call the airline right away or you could be on the hook for the entire cost of the ticket (or whatever remains of your round-trip fare). Bad news: You may have to pay the change fee which can run up to $200 (higher on international flights) plus the difference in price if the fare has risen since your initial purchase. Good news: A call usually salvages some value from a ticket; otherwise, you risk forfeiting the entire thing.

• If you might be late: Call the airline to explain your situation (and if you're an elite miles member, now's the time to mention it). Airline reps may be able to get you through some lines faster to ease your way onboard at the last minute but no one's going to hold the plane for you. In other words, give this a shot, you never know.

• If flying Southwest: This is the sole U.S. airline with no change fee, a far bigger perk than Southwest's free bags. To cancel a flight just call ten minutes before departure, and it costs you nothing. If you don't make that call, you're considered a no-show and your ticket loses all remaining value.

2. Be pro-active at the airport

• Get in line and talk to a gate agent: You may be put on stand-by for another flight the same day but if flights are full, you may not get a seat until the next day (or longer). If you must depart now, ask the agent to check for available seats in first and business class; it can sometimes be cheaper than last-minute coach fares. Another option: If your reason for arriving late is compelling enough, ask a gate agent if you can be put on another airline -- but do not count on this. Finally, ask about the possibility of waiving the change fee; this is rarely granted for non-refundable tickets, but again, if your circumstances are dire enough, it might happen and you'll never know if you don't ask.

3. Tips to avoid future missed flights

• Enroll in the TSA PreCheck program: Zipping through security may mean the difference between getting to the gate on time and waving goodbye to your plane. PreCheck is cheap ($85 for a five-year membership) and you can sign up online; an in-person interview is required but it usually takes only a few minutes.

• No checked-bags: Carry-ons eliminate checked-bag lines and are free on most airlines.

• Plan to arrive at the airport two hours before departure: Most of us like to arrive about an hour before our flights take off but most of us don't expect terrible traffic or other unexpected snafus. Remember, stuff happens.

• Don't park: Airport parking lots can be time-consuming zoos so get a friend to drop you off, or take a taxi or Uber or Lyft.

• Prep your phone: You may never need your airline’s phone number but make sure it's in your phone anyway, and if you’re an elite miles member, put the membership hotline number in contacts. If there's a long line to speak to a gate agent, get on the phone as well; you may get help more quickly.

Flying tomorrow? Check your phone settings again. Be sure that 5 o'clock alarm says "a.m." and not "p.m."

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Rick Seaney and do not reflect those of ABC News.