Travel problems, like delays, slow customs, and missed connections, are a fact of life. When planning an event that includes air travel, here are some things to watch out for.
Why Do Things Go So Wrong with Layovers?
I think it all boils down to too much optimism and too little time. But that’s probably over-simplifying things. Whether you’re planning a meeting, incentive travel, or a destination wedding, it’s worth understanding why we keep underestimating the time needed for connections and transfers. And in my personal experience, most of the avoidable problems and maximum stress happened because of this.
Let’s Talk Minimum Connection Times
When booking a journey that includes a connecting flight, we too often rely on the MCT, or Minimum Connection Time, as a barometer for how much time is needed. See, each airport has an MCT that is sometimes as little as 30 minutes. But reality laughs at bureaucracy, and it only takes a slow de-planing to throw that off.
When arriving internationally, please do not, and I repeat, do not trust the MCT. Clearing customs takes absolutely ages. I’ve missed a two-hour connection because it took over 3 hours to de-plane, collect my luggage, clear customs, go through security again, and get to the gate.
A rule of thumb is 90 minutes to two hours for connections. Still, if you’re managing the travel plans for a speaker or maid-of-honor, more buffer is recommended. I spoke to a destination event planner who recommended that key guests arrive the day or even two days before the event.
Why Flight Get Delayed
There are plenty of reasons why flights are delayed, and these are some common ones you can actually plan around:
- Air traffic control
- Knock-on effect due to delayed aircraft
- Strikes and protests
There are about 20 more reasons, but there’s very little you can do as an event planner about a passenger getting fractious or a broken coffee machine.
But when it comes to weather, well, you ought to know that flights out of Minneapolis in winter are subject to delays. I’ve been stuck in Atlanta when I had a gig in New Orleans because of a hurricane. My connecting flight was canceled, and, well, it was foreseeable.
Air traffic control is another one. Often it’s a by-product of simply being very busy. The worst airports for delays are also hubs. So if your guests are flying to a notoriously busy hub, you’ll want more buffer time.
The knock-on effect is not always straightforward to plan around, but common reasons are lousy weather. So, just like planning for the weather itself, in the winter or a windy season, try to include a buffer.
Strikes are more common in Europe, but they present travel problems everywhere. I recommend checking the news just to be sure, especially in September and October in France, which is dubbed Strike Season. I’ve been caught in strikes and protests before, which resulted in missed flights.
Travel Problems Can Get Crazy
A couple of years ago, I traveled to India to participate in an event – a dinner for about 500 people. However, when we arrived in Delhi, our connecting flight to Dharamsala had been canceled due to high winds at our Himalayan destination.
The biggest issue was not that the flight was canceled, but rather that they only announced the cancelation after five hours of delays. This meant that not only had we lost the day but that it impeded our ability to find a solution fast. The next flight to Dharamsala was a day or two away. In the end, we drove the 12 hours overnight in convoy to arrive in time to set up the event.
I share this as an example of how sometimes, especially in destination events, an advance backup plan can be worth having. See, there was a bus available, but our indecisiveness meant someone else booked it while we dithered. Had we not found 5 independent drivers that evening, we’d have missed the timeline to set up the event. Our lack of a plan B meant stress and sleeplessness.
The Travel Problems Of International Travel
I believe it was Buckaroo Bonzai, or maybe Confucius, who said, “wherever you go, there you are.” And that’s true, I’m sure, but when it comes to travel problems, “there” is often an endless line waiting for a grumpy customs official to stamp your passport.
As someone who often travels international, here are some issues I’ve faced that totally wrecked the best-laid plans.
Probably the biggest delay in missing connecting flights is security. After customs, when one arrives on an international flight, many airports require a second round of security. I mentioned above how long that can take, and it’s influenced by staffing at the airport. I’ve seen many airports be severely understaffed at the international transfers security section.
And don’t discount visa issues or similar regulatory problems. I know someone who was held for hours by border control because the destination had regulations about a single parent traveling with a child.
And don’t discount the headache of groups traveling together for an event. Sure, you can get ushered to your own check-in desk, but one person’s issue becomes the group’s issue. One destination planner I spoke to spends tons of time ensuring every individual in the group has their paperwork together before they get to the airport.
Poor Communication Creates Travel Problems For Event Planners
I’ll share another personal story. I was traveling by train in South Korea, heading to Busan from Seoul with a brief stop at Daegu. The event planner had sent a driver to pick me up in Daegu, but I thought I had to catch a train all the way to Busan. The information wasn’t clear, and it caused a lot of stress and confusion.
So if there’s a pickup, make sure the client knows their name, phone number, and exactly where to wait. And then make sure it makes sense to a stranger to the city. Notes like “exit at the second gate and wait by the 3rd pillar” aren’t helpful.
Similarly, event planners should monitor flight changes and have a mechanism to alert everyone, including guests and ground transport. Don’t rely on the airline to communicate it.
And lastly, make sure ground transport is in constant touch. When travel problems like delays are involved, the drivers might assume the client caught a cab. Or the dispatch sends a different driver who doesn’t have all the information. These seem like apparent issues, but I’ve experienced the confusion first-hand.
Definitely use event planning software to plan travel details and itineraries. A cloud-based point reference, like ThymeBase’s shared schedules, is easy to reference and can be updated in real-time.
Tips For Event Planners To Avoid Travel Problems
- Make sure you leave plenty of time between connecting flights.
- Avoid the last flight connection of the day – if something goes wrong, it means an overnight delay.
- Don’t fly in the client or speaker the day-of-event
- Watch out for local politics. Strikes and protests are common around the world.
- Have transport backups in case the driver is a no-show.
- Have a disaster plan if all flights are all canceled.