Nothing throws a wrench into your travel plans quite like a big, hairy airport delay. And there's no shortage of reasons your flight might be late: unpredictable weather, technical glitches, airport security problems, congested airways ... even U.F.O.s. According to China Daily, an unidentified flying object that appeared above China's Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport disrupted 18 flights this July. The U.F.O., which has still not been identified as of this writing, hovered in the air above Hangzhou City, causing all inbound and outbound flights to be delayed for several hours.
Whether flying saucers or snowstorms are keeping you grounded, it's important to know how to protect yourself in the event of a flight delay. First, you need a backup plan. Make sure you have options, like a hotel reservation or an alternative flight, in case you're stranded. Second, you need to know your rights as a passenger. Airlines aren't required by U.S. law to compensate passengers for delayed or canceled flights, and each carrier has its own policy on this. Read -- or at least have access to -- your airline's contract of carriage in case of emergency.
For more on what rights you have as a flier, check out "Passenger Rights," and get up-to-date information on new federal laws protecting passengers in "Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights."
Let's get on to what you can do if (hopefully not "when") an airport delay happens to you. Here are a few tips to help you cope in the event of software switches, winter storms or other airport snafus.
Watch the weather. When it comes to the weather, you don't need to be Jim Cantore to know when a storm might affect your travel. If you are flying in winter, there's no excuse not to know at least a couple of days ahead of time that your flight could be threatened. Particularly in the case of a winter storm, weather forecasting is pretty reliable 48 to 72 hours out. Summer storms can be less predictable, as thundercloud formation can occur fairly quickly. But forewarned is forearmed, and it's not as if you need to look for red skies in the morning these days to know that you might have a problem.
Consider getting a hotel reservation. Many hotels don't charge your card until you show up at the front desk, so you can usually book a room safely and cancel if your flight does take off reasonably on time. If you're stuck in an airport without easy Internet access, a good tactic is to have on hand the phone number of your preferred booking website.
They're usually pretty easy to remember: 800-EXPEDIA, 888-TRAVELO, 888-656-4546 (for Orbitz -- I can't figure out a good mnemonic for this one), etc. If you use this tactic, check out airport hotels first. Then look for off-airport hotels that offer shuttle service to the airport so you can ditch your rental car or otherwise count on a ride to the airport without too much trouble or expense.