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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2008

Coping with air travel: Pack light, know your options

BY BETH J. HARPAZ
ASSOCIATED PRESS

In recent weeks, thousands of air passengers have been stranded by airline bankruptcies and flight cancellations. And there may be more disruptions ahead as older jets continue to be scrutinized for safety and the economy bubbles with trouble.

So what's a traveler to do as the busy summer travel season draws near?

Pack light, know your options, consider buying travel insurance - and maybe even take the train instead.

"Flight delays, schedule changes, canceled flights, bankruptcies, and mishandled baggage are pushing flyers' frustration to an all-time high," Michelle Doucette, content manager at IgoUgo.com, said in a press release declaring that "the summer of '08 just might be the summer of the train."

The travel Web site on Monday posted ideas for train travel at www.igougo.com/travel-blog including scenic rail trips and visiting cities with landmark train stations such as Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

If the train is not an option, here are some strategies for coping with the hassles of air travel in the weeks ahead.

•Limit luggage to one carry-on bag, advises Susan Foster of www.SmartPacking.com, so your "rebooking options are completely open." If you must check luggage, don't do it "until you are positive that your flight is flying and reasonably on time."

•Do your homework. "Make clear notes about other flights operated by different airlines that meet your needs," said Foster. "Program airline phone numbers into your cell phone so you can immediately call to rebook yourself. If you wait for the airline to do this for you, you will not get a seat."

With details on other flights in hand, you can then ask, "for example, 'There's a Delta flight at 4:10 that will get me to my destination, can I get on it?'" said Amy Ziff, editor-at-large for Travelocity.

Staying informed also helps you juggle options. When American Airlines this month grounded 300 MD-80 planes for maintenance, Brett Snyder recommended that passengers find out what type of plane they had tickets for, and "start looking for connections that aren't on MD-80s." Snyder, who blogs about air travel at http://CrankyFlier.com, also urged passengers to "bring a lot of patience with you to the airport. ... Being nice can only help you."

•Consider buying trip insurance, which typically runs 4 to 8 percent of the cost of your trip. If your trip is disrupted by flight delays or cancellations, travel insurance should cover new tickets, hotel stays, and incidentals. Some policies may also provide refunds if your plans change and you stay home. And insurance agents can help you rebook if you're stranded.

The day before Joyce Wehmeier of Pekin, Ill., was supposed to fly home from a two-week vacation in Hawaii, she learned that her airline, ATA, had gone out of business. She and her traveling companion had insurance with AIG Travel Guard and called the company.

"Miraculously this lady came back on and said, 'I found two seats tomorrow,'" Wehmeier said. "We needed to go back to work, so we were just thrilled."

AIG Travel Guard reported more than a 100 percent increase in calls coming in during the week of the airline bankruptcies, according to spokesman Erin McKeon.

Many airlines, cruise lines, and travel Web sites offer insurance as an easy one-click add-on when you book trips online. Other sources for trip insurance include members of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association and www.InsureMyTrip.com.

•If you do get stranded, seek out discounts, refunds, and vouchers.

If your airline has discontinued service, "call your credit card company to see if the charge can be removed," said Anne Banas of www.SmarterTravel.com. "It won't get you rebooked on another flight, but at least it'll help you get your money back."

Also, "look to see what assistance other airlines are offering," Banas added. "For example, when ATA recently closed its doors, Delta and US Airways offered stranded passengers $100 standby fares. JetBlue offered $50 fares to SkyBus passengers."

Airlines with delayed or canceled flights are not required to book you on other carriers. If they do put you on another airline, "the vast majority of passengers - those on restricted discounted tickets - will be forced to pay any price difference in the tickets," Banas said. But, she added, "it is possible that gate agents will make exceptions, so it never hurts to ask."

Banas also advises travelers to "know your rights." The "Contract of Carriage," usually found on airline Web sites and also known as "Rule 240," states that if a cancellation is "due to a problem within the airline's control, the airline will rebook you on the next available flight," or refund the unused ticket.

Airlines will often provide vouchers for meals, hotel, and ground transportation for delays of more than four hours, Banas added.

•Finally, if your airline is in crisis, "take advantage of the relaxed cancellation and change policies and cancel or reschedule your trip," said Travelocity's Ziff. "If your trip is not a mission-critical, it is best to postpone it."



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