Nobody wants their vacation delayed before it even starts. But bad weather can sometimes keep planes grounded. Worse, some airlines—and sometimes even hotels and rental-car companies—will invoke bad weather, or "Acts of God" as an excuse for cancellations that may actually be due to mechanical problems or other mishaps.
Why would an airline blame the weather for a delay or cancellation? Airlines are not legally obligated to provide travelers with lodging or meals if a delay or cancellation is due to weather.
But you are not powerless in these situations. Here, The Air Traveler's Take-Control Cheat Sheet:
RESEARCH WEATHER AND CONTINGENCY PLANS
In the days before you fly, check a reliable source such as The Weather Channel for weather forecasts for your departing airport, any connecting stops, and your destination. Also, as a precaution, keep a list of hotels at each of those airports (an app such as Hotel Tonight can put this info at your fingertips). Oh, and stock up on chocolate bars for your carry-on bag (more on that later).
Check on your flight before you leave the house or on your way to the airport. For most people, the nastiest thing about a flight delay or cancellation is that punch-in-the-gut moment when you're standing in front of an airport monitor learning that your vacation is not going to start on time. Use TripAdvisor's GateGuru app to check weather conditions and flight schedules before you get to the airport. (And make sure you've got chocolate in your carry-on!)
YOU'LL GET BETTER SERVICE IF YOU'RE NICE
If your flight is cancelled or delayed, immediately call the airline's reservations number or visit a gate agent. Whoever you speak with, treat them like your new Travel BFF—sure, you're stressed, but a friendly, calm approach (and a complimentary chocolate bar!) may go a long way. Be the customer who isn't throwing a tantrum! Ask to be booked on the next available flight. If you are worried about missing a connecting flight, tell them—airlines can sometimes offer special services to connecting passengers. If no flights are available, politely ask for a hotel and meal voucher—no, they are not obligated to give them to you, but just might anyway because you were as sweet as the chocolate you offered them.
BE A LITTLE NOSY
Some travelers like to ask—politely—whether the delay is purely due to weather or perhaps a "combination of weather and other factors." If your airline rep admits that some other factor, such as mechanical problems, is at play, repeat your polite request for hotel and meal vouchers. (But please don't invoke the legendary "Rule 240," which some travelers believe obligates airlines to book them on the next available flight, or a flight on a competing airline. A holdover from the days when airlines where more heavily regulated, Rule 240 won't mean much to most airline personnel these days.) If you are fairly certain that weather was unfairly cited as the cause of a flight delay or cancellation, you can hire a forensic meteorologist to match your flight data with weather conditions and make the case that you are owed compensation for hotel and meals.
ASK FOR A "DISTRESSED TRAVELER" RATE
If, despite your best efforts, you are stuck checking into a hotel while you wait for a hurricane, blizzard, or volcanic ash to blow over, ask the hotel if they offer a "distressed traveler" rate. The Hotel Tonight app specializes in last-minute bookings and can really help in these emergency situations.
We get asked all the time if travel insurance can protect you from weather-related cancellations. We recommend that you carefully review conventional travel insurance policies due to their high prices and relatively low reimbursement rates. But if you are booking a package tour or cruise, you can often purchase an affordable policy that allows you to cancel for any reason at any time. And if you're traveling anywhere remotely off the grid, appropriate insurance for medical evacuation should be on your list. (Learn more by reading Travel 101: Read This Before You Buy Trip Insurance.)