Preprogram your cell phone. While we're talking about phone number mnemonics, you really don't need an elephant's memory to be able to call a reservation site, a hotel, your airline or any travel service outfit; you just need to program these numbers into your cell phone before your trip starts. Save your airline contact number (use the frequent flier program phone number if you have elite status of any kind, as the service is better), reservation sites, car rental companies that permit drop-offs near you, and your travel agent if you have ever used one -- even if the agent didn't book you into your current jam, he or she might be able to get you out of it.
Know your options. If it looks like things might get ugly, make sure you know some of the alternative flights on other airlines. If this is too much to remember, just try to remember on which airlines the best flights are available. This way, when 100,000 people are on hold to the US Airways 800 number, you're on the phone with another airline figuring out whether they will honor your tickets and can book you onto the next flight.
If you know a few flights on a couple of airlines within a few hours of your original flight, you're way ahead of the game when you try to transfer your ticket to another airline. Ultimately you'll have to get your original airline to sign off on the transfer, but at least you'll get to the airline desk armed with information and maybe even a tentative reservation on the other airline.
A good way to do these searches is to use one of the aggregator sites, such as Kayak.com or Mobissimo.com. The best of these allow you to adjust several parameters on the fly, including airlines displayed (in case your original airline will grant exchanges only on select airlines), flight times (so you can see flights close to your original departure time first, then expand from there) and alternate airports (perhaps you can get within a reasonable drive of your original airport).
You can also filter results by the duration of your itinerary, in case you are looking at absurd routes, connections or layovers on some of your results. These sites can offer a very fluid and customizable view of what is available to you airline by airline, hour by hour, airport by airport.
Check the airline website. In the past, airline call centers have been utterly crippled by the high call volume that happens when there are masses of flight delays. Most airlines have figured out that the Web is a much better way to distribute information, and will have alerts, updates and sometimes even suggestions on how to proceed.
Call ahead to the airline. This is likely to be your least effective tactic, as in all but the most extreme cases (and sometimes not even then), the airlines won't tell you that your plane is delayed even when the entire airport is about to shut down. This is because the airlines fare better if you show up and sleep on the floor than they do if they let you stay in your hotel room an extra day.
As soon as they let you off the hook by saying you don't have to show up at the airport, they're on the hook for refunds, vouchers, hotel rooms, ticket transfers and a huge host of things they simply don't want to give you.
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