The storms that recently slammed through 10 Midwestern states grounded hundreds of airline flights in that region, and also created long delays for flights on both coasts.
And now, long-range forecasters are predicting that rain, thunderstorms, ice, snow and high winds -- a true "nor'easter" -- will pummel the central and eastern states during the busy Thanksgiving travel period , potentially slowing or stopping air travel in those regions and nationwide.
So this is an excellent time to review how to minimize the problems if your flight gets canceled by bad weather.
Know before you go
Check your flight status the night before, and before leaving for the airport. If the airline offers the option, sign up for weather cancellation notification alerts when you buy your ticket. The sooner you know about a problem, the better. If the flight does get canceled, your rights vary depending on the "terms of carriage" of your ticket, so read those in advance, or print out a copy and bring it with you, so you can refer to it in the airport after your flight is canceled. These may seem like a bother, but it's important to know what the airline will and won't do to assist you.
Plan ahead to minimize problems
Book your flight as early in the day as possible; weather-related problems and delays often multiply as the day goes on. Early flights may be delayed while late flights are more likely to be canceled. If the weather looks bad, don't schedule the minimum amount of time between connecting flights -- it's better to assume there might be some delays. If possible, pack light and don't check your baggage. It's easier and faster to switch to a new flight or to a different airline with carry-on luggage, and there's less of a chance of losing things in the confusion.
Try different ways to contact the airline
If the weather seems at all dicey, prepare in advance by having the airline's phone number, website address, Facebook page and/or Twitter hashtag ready to use when needed. Many experts recommend calling the airline on your cell phone while waiting in line at the airport counter, but if all flights have been canceled in a region, you could be on hold for hours and the lines at the counters may seem endless. If you belong to the airline's club, the club lounge is often the best place to get rebooked; typically the most experienced agents are assigned there, and the lines are shorter. Many airports have free Wi-Fi; if you have a mobile device or laptop, logging into the airline's website might give you the quickest access to re-booking information. And most airlines monitor their Twitter and Facebook accounts, so posting your problem on either might get the most immediate results.
Stay calm, don't panic
Yelling at airline personnel won't help. Remember that they didn't cause the bad weather, they have a lot of upset people to deal with, and they're only human. Always have your flight number and confirmation number on hand. Understand that it's simply an unfortunate fact of life that rescheduling and passenger assistance is not typically done on a first-come-first-served basis. First-class passengers usually have top priority, then full-fare coach passengers, then that airline's high-mileage passengers (based on miles flown per year), and then regular and discounted coach passengers. Most airlines will automatically rebook you on the earliest flight possible to your destination, with no extra charge, but if the weather is bad, the options might be limited. Don't expect the agent to necessarily know or anticipate all the possible options available to you. Instead, ask politely about possible alternatives (see below).
Consider all options
An airline will typically rebook you for its next similar flight, but there may be more possibilities available if you switch from a nonstop to one with a layover in a non-weather-affected airport, or If you're willing to fly to a nearby city or airport instead of your original destination -- such as San Jose or Sacramento instead of San Francisco, or New York City or Boston instead of Washington, DC, -- and then foot the bill for a rental car, bus or train ticket. If the airline doesn't have another flight available, most will book you onto another carrier's flight -- always ask if this is an option (and ask specifically if they charge a fee for this service). If all else fails and your budget allows it, buying a ticket on another airline may sometimes be the last-ditch alternative to spending hour after uncomfortable hour at the airport.
Amenities may be limited
If all flights are canceled because of extreme weather, you may have no choice other than waiting out the storm. As a general rule, you're on your own. Bad weather is considered an act of God and the airlines are not legally required to provide stranded passengers with food, lodging, transportation or even a phone call. However, exceptions are made, so if all flights are canceled and you're stranded in the airport, ask the gate agent (politely) if there are any vouchers available to pay for food or to get discounts at airport hotels. If you're in transit, ask if there's a desk providing help specifically for connecting passengers.
Flight cancellations can be difficult, particularly during the holidays. However, being prepared for the worst, staying calm and exploring all the options can help minimize the inconvenience.