There has been plenty of news about missed cruise departures, vacation days, lost luggage and hours spent in airports due to canceled and delayed flights that are plaguing travel’s robust return this summer.
But behind the scenes are thousands of travel advisors working overtime to rebook those flights, change hotel and resort reservations, and get clients to their next cruise port.
For Jeannie Cartier Sauleau, owner of Sixth Star Travel in Fort Lauderdale, this has meant regularly answering texts and phone calls in the middle of the night from frazzled clients with canceled or delayed flights.
“I really can’t remember it being like this,” said Sauleau, who has had to calm down panicky clients waiting in “horrendous” airport lines. “I’m at the point where if clients want to go somewhere soon, I make sure people know if they don’t have a lot of patience, it’s better they stay home.”
Sauleau said her clients’ troubles range from rescheduling flights to navigating cancellation and change fee rules that have changed as the pandemic eased.
Turning to cruise lines’ air desks
Flight problems are pushing advisors like Sauleau, who traditionally shopped for the best prices, to book air through cruise lines, whose air booking programs often include policies that ensure clients get to their ships, even if it means a downline port of call, and have their own staff to handle last-minute cancellations and rebookings.
Holland America Line and Seabourn have both bolstered teams that handle guests’ flight cancellations and changes. Celebrity Cruises has seen an uptick in call volume related to flight disruptions, while Royal Caribbean International said it has benefitted from offering many cruises from ports in U.S. drive markets.
Booking through a cruise line doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending. Rhonda Day, a Dream Vacations advisor in Louisville, Ky., said that clients booked on an Alaska cruise tour missed most of the land portion due to a variety of flight problems.
“It’s just very intense, because you’re dealing with all the Covid issues to begin with and all the layers of things that have been added, and then you’re dealing with all of this,” she said.
And even when clients book air through the cruise lines, said Marisel Aleman, co-owner of Cruise Elite, “we’re the monkey in the middle because [clients] are calling us. All they know is we are the saving grace at the end of the line.”
“Craziness” is how Aleman describes flight interruptions this summer. Cruise Elite’s other co-owner, Marc Hayes, calls it “nuts.” They are among advisors who now encourage clients to arrive early. In their case, two days ahead of a cruise instead of one.
“The days of cutting it short are over,” Hayes said.
Michael Hanlon of Ocean Dreams Travel, a Dream Vacations franchise in Wilmington, N.C., said that he recently booked a family of three a day early to spend time in Rome before a seven-day cruise, but their flight out was canceled. They arrived the morning their cruise departed.
“They heeded my warning and booked a day in advance, but these days, it seems like that may not even be enough,” Hanlon said, adding that delays are the worst for cruisers.
“It’s one thing if you’re just staying in a hotel, but if you’re going on a river cruise or an ocean cruise, that’s the last thing you want to see, pulling up to the port and the ship sailing away.”
Missed tour days and hotel check-ins
A number of travelers booked on tours are also inevitably missing days at the start due to last-minute flight cancellations. Luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent said it has been able to respond quickly.
“Our guests have experienced delays and flight cancellations, but in most cases we have been able to quickly assist so they avoid missing the beginning of their journey,” said Stefanie Schmudde, A&K’s vice president of product development and operations.
Hotels are feeling the impact, as well. Barbara Jean Josey, director of business development and hospitality services at Elwood Hotel & Suites in Lexington, Ky., said the property receives calls and messages “almost daily” about guests getting stuck getting there, middle-of-the-night arrivals or trip cancellations.
“I had a gentleman come in at 9 a.m., hoping we could get him a room after flying all night from Vegas, when he was supposed to be here the night before,” she said, adding that the hotel is “remaining flexible and understanding.”
“If they need a date change, we change the date with no penalties,” Josey said. “If they forget to call to change to the next day, we reinstate the reservation and do our best to find them a clean room or get one clean so they can get some rest, regardless of the time of day. We have had a couple of guests who didn’t even set foot in our hotel leave an online review saying how accommodating we are when others are not.”
Some airlines have acknowledged the issues. Delta CEO Ed Bastian offered his “sincerest apologies” to customers impacted by the carrier’s cancellations, delays and other operational failures this spring and summer. “The issues we are seeing are temporary,” he said during an earnings call with investors. “We are already seeing significant improvement.”
Sometimes problems are minor
Of course, the problem isn’t universal. Not every advisor has been as impacted by flight upheavals.
“I have had people all over the place and no canceled flights,” said Valerie Dorsey, a Cruise Planners travel advisor. “Lots of time changes, but not big ones.”
Toni Lanotte-Day, owner of Toni Tours, said that all of her affected clients have been accommodated on flights on their original dates of travel. “But they’re arriving either earlier or later than originally scheduled, which means I now have to notify the tour operator or transfer company picking them up on the other end,” she said.
And some advisors say that the air issues seem to have little to no effect on the will of their clients to book international trips this summer — as long as they eventually get to their destination.
“It’s worth all the hassles,” said Melinda Fortunato, owner of Best Travel, Fairfax, Va., despite what she says is “100%” of clients having flight delays or cancellations in the past month and average supplier hold times of two to four hours to rebook.
Chad Burt, co-owner of OutsideAgents.com, said he coaches agents to prepare clients “for the worst in the hopes they’re ultimately pleasantly surprised.” And his advisors have found at least one silver lining.
“Many agents are using air as a sales tool,” he said. “‘The price will go up dramatically very soon … you’ve seen the news … let’s get you deposited today.'”
Jamie Biesiada and Christina Jelski contributed to this report.