THE BLOG
12/09/2014 09:11 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2015

How to Recover From Weather Delays

Bloomberg via Getty Images

You've packed your bags, checked in online and arrived at the airport on time when you find out your flight is delayed -- indefinitely. Now, you need to map out the best alternative option to get from point A to B. But with inclement weather wreaking havoc on fellow fliers' travel plans, too, you're left competing with huge crowds for a seat on the next available flight.

What's the best way to ensure a seat on the next flight out? U.S. News spoke with Tom Spagnola, a travel expert with CheapOair.com, for tips on preparing for and dealing with flight delays.

See: How to Solve Tricky Airline Customer Service Situations

Plan ahead
Because you'll likely book your flight weeks in advance, it's almost impossible to predict weather-related disruptions. However, Spagnola suggested building an itinerary that avoids areas prone to severe storms during winter, specifically the upper Midwest.

"Connections out of Chicago and Denver can be difficult in the winter," Spagnola explained. "Try to book a nonstop flight if possible."

In the week preceding your trip, check the major weather patterns developing in the regions in which you'll be traveling. If you must fly through an area afflicted by inclement weather, research alternate flights beforehand, Spagnola advised. Be sure to add the number of the airline you're flying with, as well as the numbers of other major airlines in your phone. And before leaving home, call the airline to reconfirm your reservation and your flight status.

"It will save a lot of time and energy and scrambling," Spagnola said.

Come prepared
One way to increase your chances of getting on the next available flight is to avoid checking bags. This will save the airline from having to reroute your luggage and will give you the opportunity to keep some items handy in the event of a delay. If you must check bags, equip your carry-on with one night's worth of clothes and toiletries. "Just the stuff you'll need to make it through the night," Spagnola explained.

A phone charger is another essential, since you'll likely be using your smartphone to check weather services, airline websites and apps for updates. Most airlines have Twitter feeds and automated email services that provide customers immediate messages regarding flight statuses. Spagnola recommended downloading the app of the airline you're flying with, as well as familiarizing yourself with the Department of Transportation's website, which provides information on passenger rights and weather-related delays.

See: 6 Common Travel Setbacks: Tips for surviving a trip that's gone south

Know your passenger rights
Airlines used to adhere to Rule 240 -- the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) regulation that required airlines to put passengers on the next available flight should a mechanical or service-related delay occur -- even if the next flight was offered by a competitor. Though the policy was phased out in 1978, some airlines, such as United Airlines and Alaska Airlines, include their own version of Rule 240 in their contracts of carriage (the terms and rights passengers implicitly agree to upon purchasing a ticket). United Airlines' contract states that in the case of a force majeure incident, "UA may re-accommodate Passengers on another available UA flight or on another carrier or combination of carriers, or via ground transportation, or may refund any unused portions of the Ticket in the form of a travel certificate."

While invoking Rule 240 won't help you get out of every unforeseen weather-related situation, bringing up the policy can't hurt.

"Better to ask and receive than not ask and not receive at all," Spagnola said.

Airlines are legally obligated to cater to delayed passengers in some ways, however. The U.S. Department of Transportation's regulations state that within the first two hours of being stuck on the tarmac, the airline must provide you with food, water and lavatory access. If the plane is parked on the tarmac for three hours, the airline must allow you to exit the plane unless conditions are deemed unsafe.

And if your delayed flight was the last of the night, keep in mind that some airlines might distribute hotel and food vouchers upon request.

Act fast
Once you discover that your flight is delayed, get to your airline's service desk immediately. While waiting in line, call your airline directly (or call the travel agency that you purchased your tickets from).

"So many customers rush to the service desk," Spagnola emphasized. "That's valuable time spent trying to get help from a few individuals." By calling directly, you can snag a spot on an alternate flight before it fills up.

If calling the airline doesn't work and you're forced to wait in line, stay calm. "If you're in the customer service line and you're finally able to talk to someone, there was probably 50 people that have already blamed the airline," Spagnola said. "Much better to keep your wits about yourself and be respectful."

Behaving reasonably will make the process go quicker, and will only help your chances at getting on that alternate flight.

Flying is already hassle-prone, and delays can make the process even more of a headache. But by knowing your rights and strategizing accordingly, you'll be able to handle delays head on and proceed with your trip as planned.

"Preventative medicine is the way to go," Spagnola added.

See: Beat Holiday Travel Fatigue with These 6 Tips

About the author: Stephen Johnson is an intern for the Travel section at U.S. News. You can email him at sjohnson@usnews.com