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How to prepare for weather-related delays

The Presidents? Day weekend storm that buried the Eastern seaboard with two feet of snow shut down airports from Washington, D.C. to Boston and wreaked havoc on flights throughout the country.

Though airlines resumed operations to all of the snow-covered airports by the end of Tuesday, their schedules remained erratic for several days longer. The impact of this storm was so large because airlines were forced to cancel thousands of flights during the holiday weekend, creating a ripple effect throughout the country. It usually takes several days to get operations back to normal after an event of this magnitude because the airlines need to reposition their equipment and crews in a complicated sequence of chess-like moves.

The next time a storm hits, hope for the best but expect the worst when it comes to cancellations and delays. The most important thing to do is to check with your airline for any updates to your scheduled departure or arrival time. Since you may experience long delays in reaching airline customer service representatives on the phone, you can also use the Web to find out current weather and flight status information.

Airlines? “contracts of carriage” provide few rights when your flight is canceled or delayed due to bad weather. The only thing that the airlines guarantee is a refund of tickets that you can’t use. In most situations, however, even though they’re not required to do so, airlines will attempt to book you on the next available flight, either on your original airline or an alternate carrier. In addition, no carrier will offer you a hotel room or a free meal, but some, including Continental and United, may supply a free calling card so you can make a short phone call.

If your travel plans were affected by last weekend?s storm, several airlines have announced that they are relaxing rules on nonrefundable tickets to allow you to rebook without paying an extra fee.

  • American says that travelers headed to 12 states affected by the storm, plus Washington, D.C., may change reservations scheduled between February 15 and 21 to flights as late as February 21. Only one ticket change is allowed without extra charges.
  • Delta is allowing customers whose flights were delayed or cancelled between February 14 and February 18 to rebook without extra fees for travel within five days of their original itinerary. This policy applies for flights to/from 30 airports in the Northeast, Southeast, and Midwest.
  • Northwest is offering passengers to/from the East Coast the opportunity to reschedule flights that were originally booked for February 16 through 19 to flights through February 21. You may also revise your itinerary to include new airports within 300 miles of your original departure or destination.
  • US Airways is allowing passengers to reschedule delayed or cancelled flights within seven days of their original travel date, or to request a refund.

The next time a storm strikes, the best way to prepare is to anticipate where you might be stranded, and book yourself a hotel room that you can cancel at the last minute if you don?t need it. Then stay in touch with your airline, either by phone or on the Web, to get the latest information on how your travel plans may be affected.

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