Go to the airport every day for the best shot at open seats
When the ash cloud lifted, I was on one of the first flights out of London. How did I escape faster than most of the 40,000 other Americans stuck in Britain? And even more mysteriously, why did my London-to-Seattle flight have…lots of empty seats? (A lot of them?!) Here's what happened: The passengers holding tickets for those seats were stuck at other airports and had missed their connections. Americans stranded in London could have grabbed those empty seats had they been at the airport, willing to rebook onto an earlier flight at the last-minute. But they stayed at their hotels instead, or had already been re-ticketed on flights later in the week. The few Americans who did slip onto the early flight with me got on because they were waiting at the airport, waiting. The moral of the story: Chance favors travelers who hang around the airport hoping to take advantage of last-minute opportunities.
Write down the names and addresses of everyone you meet while you're traveling
I have zero friends in England. But my laptop happened to have the contact information for a British friend I had met when traveling in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang in 2003, and for another Briton I had met while touring Germany in 2007. When I contacted them, each offered me a place to stay, which, as hotel nightly rates reached about £400 (or roughly $600) per night, was a lifesaver. In the future, I'll jot down names and phone numbers as I go, storing them in my cell phone, computer, or in notebooks—just in case.
Bring extra medications
Most of the horror stories I heard were from Americans with major health issues who were out of medication. Many had brought a few spare pills but simply never imagined they'd be stuck for upward of 10 days. They spent many anxious hours trying to track down additional pills and then paid through the nose for prescriptions. It was a stressful ordeal, even for people whose health care policies will reimburse them for their purchases. And, yes, ladies, this applies to you: Bring an extra month of birth control pills, always.
Have a backup plan…for your family and your pets
The people who were most panicked were those with children and pets at home—and no backup plan. My dog sitter was fantastic, but she also had the name of a friend of mine with keys to my home who is kind enough to take care of Mabel the poodle anytime. Keep an extra house sitter, dog sitter, and babysitter on standby, and make sure they have all of the relevant keys before you go.
Join Skype and Pingo ahead of time
Yes, everyone knows about the free Internet-based telephone service Skype. But old-fashioned discount calling cards, such as those sold by Pingo or Nobel, may be a better way to call internationally, because you don't need Wi-Fi access. I was particularly glad that I was already a member of Pingo (with $5 in my account) the moment the first airports closed. I just picked up any pay phone, dialed the toll-free local access number, and called my boss's cell phone to tell him the situation. As the week dragged on, I reached out to others on Skype, calling people's cell phones and office lines to update them on my predicament and sending text messages for free (because texts on my cell cost 35¢ a pop). Savvy travelers may want to set up Skype Mobile on their phones or iPod Touches before they go abroad to take advantage of free texting-whether there's a crisis or not.
Consider rebooking a flight on an airline with the largest presence at your airport
A travel meltdown in one corner of the globe can create a ripple effect worldwide as planes and flight crews end up scattered far from where they need to be. Airlines make every effort to get their planes back to their hub (or "main airport")—and to get back on schedule. I was booked on British Airways, which was lucky for me because the airline spent the no-fly week running passenger-free flights to get planes back into position at the hub in Heathrow. On the flip side, my boyfriend, who was stranded in JFK en route to London, wasn't so fortunate. He was on an Air France flight, and the airline was trying to get its planes back to its home base…in Paris. Six hours after the airports opened, I was boarding one of the dozens of empty planes at British Airways' hub in Heathrow. My boyfriend was delayed for days. So what's my advice? If you're stuck at an airport, ask an agent which airlines have a hub there. If your airline doesn't have major operations there, consider cashing in your ticket for a refund and rebooking a flight on an airline that has a lot more planes available.