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01/14/2016 05:43 pm ET

So Your Flight Got Cancelled. Now What?

Welcome to your game plan.

So your flight got cancelled (or delayed), and now you're stuck in a terminal with precisely two duffel bags, one overpriced airport salad, and NO idea what to do.

Ready? Here's what to do, in order.

1. Get on the phone while you get in line.

During a delay or cancellation, you'll likely see passengers lining up by the dozens in front of the airline info desk. (Spoiler alert: That line is NOT going to move.) So get on the phone as soon as you can. Call the airline's general reservations line, or better yet, call the separate number for rewards members if you can. You'll essentially skip the line toward getting a new flight.

2. Start tweeting.

Airlines respond to all kinds of complaints on Twitter -- a reply on this public platform is important for maintaining an airline's positive image. So when you run into a snag, tweet at your airline asking for a new flight, a hotel, a snack... whatever you might need.  

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3. Quickly research your rights.

Contrary to popular belief, airlines are NOT legally required to compensate you in any way for travel within the U.S., the Department of Transportation states. (Things are a bit different for international flights.)

Instead of government guidelines, each airline has its own contract of carriage, which explains what it will do for travelers when flights are cancelled or delayed. Find your particular airline's contract online to learn what you're entitled to: Most promise to book you on the next available flight for no charge.

4. Check other airlines, and/or get a voucher.

If your airline books you on another flight that doesn't leave for a looong time -- or even if you're still waiting for an answer -- check other airlines for flights to your destination. Some airlines' contracts of carriage state that they'll book you on another airline -- and if you present this option to the airline rep on the phone, they may be all too happy to take you up on your alternative plan.

Otherwise, you can 1) go with the flight they assign you, 2) accept a voucher for credit toward future flights or 3) get a full refund. Again, read your airline's contract of carriage to find out what they will and won't give you. 

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5. Ask for a hotel and food if you need it. 

Some airlines promise to pay for traveler lodgings and meals, though the delay or cancellation may have to meet certain time constraints (time of day, length of delay, etc.). Again, read your airline's contract first so you know what to ask for.

6. Complain if your needs aren't met. 

The bad news? Your complaint may not be answered while you're still stuck in an airport. The good news? Airlines are legally required to "acknowledge a written complaint within 30 days and send a substantive response within 60 days of receiving the complaint," according to the Department of Transportation. Include as much detail as you can in a written complaint, and feel free to cite the airline's contract of carriage for additional oomph.

7. If your complaint isn't answered, then complain again.

Much of the time, a written complaint will elicit a response from your airline. But if things still aren't resolved, submit a complaint to the Department of Transportation. The last resort is small claims court... but hopefully, with these tips, you'll won't have to go there.

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