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You hate that sinking feeling when you hear "flight canceled." Even more disappointing is discovering that laws mandating that airlines provide things like food and hotel vouchers are total myths. Today, each airline makes up its own rules, and the level of assistance varies depending on whether the cancellation is caused by a so-called act of God (i.e., weather) or the airline (i.e., a mechanical problem). Here are some tips to help minimize the stress and hassle of a canceled flight.
1. Know Your Rights
You can find your rights by reading the Contract of Carriage section on your airline's website. This is especially important if you decide to fly El Cheapo Airline (you get what you pay for). You'll quickly forget the big savings if you have to spend the night in the hard upright airport chair when your carrier refuses to help you during a snowstorm. It's also not a bad idea to bring a printout of your airline's Contract of Carriage with you so you have written proof of an airline's policies.
2. Do Some Homework
Research airline on-time-arrival and canceled-flight records. Do the same with airports, checking not only how many annual cancellations there are but also when they most often occur. The websites of the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation can help with this research. Also find out about other airports in the vicinity of your destination. (Don't expect airline personnel to know: I've jumped flights to alternate airports even after airline employees have told me there were no alternatives.) Finally, have schedule printouts for other carriers flying to your destination, so you can give airline personnel alternate booking options.
3. Book Flights Smartly
Book the first flight of the day. The later in the day, the greater the backlog if there are weather or mechanical problems. Plus, first flights are often cheaper. Also, book nonstop flights, which cost more but are worth it: the more connections you have, the greater the chances of running into problems. If you're traveling for a special event, allow for delays. If Suzie's wedding is late on Saturday morning, book a flight that arrives on Thursday or very early Friday, rather than one that gets in late Friday or early Saturday. Finally, when you book, sign up for flight-delay notifications. That said, notifications aren't always timely, so you should also manually check on your flight.
4. Prep For Your Flight
Check the weather in both your final and connection destinations. A week before your flight, start to watch for storms. (You can also check for delays with flights similar to yours leaving a few days earlier; such delays indicate weather or other problems.) Input your airline's toll-free reservation number and website into your cellphone so you can reach out immediately upon learning of a cancellation. Pack your carry-on with items you'll need if delayed — not only a change of clothes, but also electronic chargers, food, and contact information for your hotel and rental-car agency. Finally, check in early — 24 hours in advance, if possible. If your flight is overbooked, you'll be recorded as having checked in early.
5. Manage the Crisis
As soon as you learn of a cancellation or delay, get in line to rebook. While waiting, check to see if the airline has already rebooked you. If not, try to book online or via the airline's toll-free reservation number. Also, go ahead and tweet while you're waiting — the airlines monitor and seem to respond faster to Twitterthan to any other form of information. If you end up needing help at the counter, show your frequent-flier card, in case that gives you priority. Note, though, that there's a rebooking pecking order: full-fare first class, elite frequent fliers, full-fare business class, full-fare coach, discount coach, passengers using miles.
6. Whatever Happens, Be Polite
Repeat: Be polite. It's not the airline employee's fault that your flight is delayed or canceled. Help the employee help you by sharing the fruits of your research: information on alternative airports close to your destination and schedules of other air carriers serving your destination. Regardless of the outcome, remember to take a deep breath and smile.