On September 11, 2001, at 8:45am Eastern time, I was on an Icelandair jet between Glasgow and Reykjavik, heading for New York City. When we landed in Reykjavik, we heard a charming female voice tell us over the PA system that "America is closed," leading me to run up to a ticket counter and say, befuddled, "What do you mean? We never close!"
I stayed in Reykjavik for three and a half unplanned days. I got in some hot-tubbing, did a tourist flight over the dramatic Westman Islands, and saw some live music. Then I was given two hours' notice to get onto a flight that was bound for New York until the airspace closed again, and we ended up stranded at Mirabel Airport north of Montreal. I banded together with other passengers for a taxi ride to the city, ate smoked meat at Schwartz's Deli, crashed with a friend, and took Amtrak home the next day.
Needless to say that wasn't the trip I had expected to have.
Thousands of travelers had similar experiences recently when ash belching from an Icelandic volcano grounded thousands of flights across Europe. And the dis-ash-ter is still going on: this week, airports in Scotland and Ireland closed because of a new ash cloud.
Airlines' responses varied widely, just as they did in the days after 9/11. Delta covered 24 hours' worth of expenses for stranded travelers, but only 24 hours, according to USA Today. Icelandair helped out people stuck in Iceland.
"The passengers [in Iceland] were given Reykjavik City Cards, there were given accommodations, and they were given constant updates on their options -- they just weren't always the options they wanted to hear," said Icelandair spokesman Michael Raucheisen. "But they realized there's really no one to blame."
What can you do in such circumstances?
1. Have Insurance
Most travel insurance policies cover acts of God like hurricanes, floods and ash clouds, said Jim Grace, CEO of travel insurance clearinghouse InsureMyTrip.com (www.insuremytrip.com). Look for a policy with a "travel delay" benefit if you're more worried about being stuck mid-trip than having to cancel your trip entirely. Insurance companies don't just pay you money, either. Their toll-free assistance lines can rebook your flights and find you hotels while you're stranded. But if you're leaving soon, make sure the policy covers the volcanic ash cloud; some policies don't because it's an "ongoing" situation.
For more tips on travel insurance, see our articles:
- Top 8 Travel Insurance Providers
- 10 Questions To Ask Your Travel Insurance Provider
- Travel Insurance: What You Need to Know Before You Buy
If you haven't left yet, most airlines will let you rebook or delay your travel. But policies and time limits vary from airline to airline, and they aren't consistent; one airline could be better in one crisis, while a different one gives you more time in another. If you're really paranoid, "cancel for any reason" insurance is a good idea (see above).
3. Keep Cash on Tap
It's a good idea to have access to at least three days' worth of funds at any time. Make sure your ATM card works at your destination and move some additional money into your checking account before your trip so you aren't caught out.
4. Know Your Rights
The EU and Canada both have laws that can help stranded travelers. The U.S., notably, doesn't.
The EU has the strongest protection for flyers. EU protections apply if you are flying out of an EU airport, or if you're flying into the EU on an EU-flagged carrier -- which makes it useful to fly, say, Air France rather than Delta. If a flight has been cancelled or subject to a "long delay" (which is 2-4 hours depending on destination), passengers are required to be allowed to contact two people outside the airport and get refreshments and hotel rooms at the airline's expense. There is no limit on the amount of time they have to put you up.
In Canada, if your flight is delayed more than four hours, airlines must provide passengers with a meal voucher. If it is delayed more than eight hours and overnight, the airline must pay for a hotel -- but only if you're in the middle of a trip, not at your destination or arrival point.
But beyond those countries, you're basically at the mercy of your airline. Many countries subscribe to the international Montreal Convention, which provides for up to $6,176 in compensation for travel delays. But the treaty says carriers "shall not be liable" if they "took all measures that could reasonably be required to avoid the damage or that it was impossible for it or them to take such measures." Extreme circumstances like volcanoes usually fit in the "impossible" category. And if you want to get compensation, you may have to sue the airline.
You can find your airline's customer commitments in its Contract of Carriage, which an airline should provide to you on request. Many global airlines follow the IATA's Recommended Practice, but that won't get you too far when you're trapped waiting for a flight.
"If the flight is delayed or cancelled the airline will reroute the passenger or refund the ticket. There are no provisions for 'care' of the passenger (meals, phone calls, overnight accommodation) which doesn't mean that airlines can't or don't provide these, it just means that they are not contractually obligated to do so," said IATA spokesman Steve Lott.
5. Move Fast or Stay Put
Alternative modes of travel fill up very quickly when there's a major disaster. If you can pull yourself together to find an alternate route swiftly, you can get yourself out of the trouble zone, but understand that your jury-rigged train or bus trip may not be reimbursed by your carrier. Otherwise, sit tight. Unless you are in immediate physical danger, staying where you are until flights resume is almost always cheaper than trying to find your own way around a problem.
6. Or Just Be Flexible
If you're willing to change your plans, you may discover new destinations. A trip from France to Spain to catch a new flight sounds great, if you're not in too much of a hurry.
Flexibility matters, both for airlines and for travelers. At different times during the crisis, Icelandair moved their hub to Glasgow and to the northern Iceland city of Akureyri so they could route connections around the ash cloud.
"We're a small enough airline that we can change direction very quickly," Raucheisen said. That flexibility let them clear the backlog of stranded passengers within a few days, he said.
Passengers who were flexible could enjoy a treat, too. I've been to Akureyri, and it's a beautiful area that relatively few tourists see. The town itself straddles a glittering fjord, and it's near both the whale-watching center of Husavik and the beautiful Myvatn national park.
About a quarter of the Icelandair and Iceland Express passengers rerouted into Akureyri decided to stick around, a representative of Akureyri's tourist board told me in an e-mail. They got free flights or bus transportation a day or two later down to Reykjavik, and assistance booking hotels in the busy town.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies and collecting Lowell Thomas awards from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for his Frommers.com columns in 2007 and 2009. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.
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