Tips to avoid stress when a flight is canceled.
Tips to avoid stress when a flight is canceled. Radius Images/Getty Images

You hate that sinking feeling when you hear "flight canceled." Even more disappointing is discovering that laws mandating that airlines provide things like food and hotel vouchers are total myths. Today, each airline makes up its own rules, and the level of assistance varies depending on whether the cancellation is caused by a so-called act of God (i.e., weather) or the airline (i.e., a mechanical problem). Here are some tips to help minimize the stress and hassle of a canceled flight.

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1. Know Your Rights

You can find your rights by reading the Contract of Carriage section on your airline's website. This is especially important if you decide to fly El Cheapo Airline (you get what you pay for). You'll quickly forget the big savings if you have to spend the night in the hard upright airport chair when your carrier refuses to help you during a snowstorm. It's also not a bad idea to bring a printout of your airline's Contract of Carriage with you so you have written proof of an airline's policies.

2. Do Some Homework

Research airline on-time-arrival and canceled-flight records. Do the same with airports, checking not only how many annual cancellations there are but also when they most often occur. The websites of the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation can help with this research. Also find out about other airports in the vicinity of your destination. (Don't expect airline personnel to know: I've jumped flights to alternate airports even after airline employees have told me there were no alternatives.) Finally, have schedule printouts for other carriers flying to your destination, so you can give airline personnel alternate booking options.

3. Book Flights Smartly

Book the first flight of the day. The later in the day, the greater the backlog if there are weather or mechanical problems. Plus, first flights are often cheaper. Also, book nonstop flights, which cost more but are worth it: the more connections you have, the greater the chances of running into problems. If you're traveling for a special event, allow for delays. If Suzie's wedding is late on Saturday morning, book a flight that arrives on Thursday or very early Friday, rather than one that gets in late Friday or early Saturday. Finally, when you book, sign up for flight-delay notifications. That said, notifications aren't always timely, so you should also manually check on your flight.