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How to Get Home When Disaster Strikes

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I apologize ahead of time if April 15 is your birthday, but it’s a day that never seems to conjure up fond feelings. U.S. income tax returns are due then, of course, and you may recall that this year it was also the day that erupting Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull sent an ash cloud through European airspace, grounding upwards of 100,000 flights until the skies reopened for business on April 20.

Faster than you can say Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano continues to issue not-so-gentle reminders of its disruptive power. On May 5, several hundred more flights were grounded when the volcano sent another ash cloud into Scotland’s and Ireland’s airspace. And given that Mother Nature never seems to be available for comment, it’s hard to say if and when more volcanic ash might disrupt our travels, but as of this writing, flight reroutings due to more floating ash continue to be a problem.

As a preemptive measure, now may be the time to consider whether you ought to buy travel insurance with decent coverage for trip delays, interruptions, and cancellations, a suggestion offered for this story by several travelers grounded by the volcano as well as, naturally, travel insurers.

Recouping trip costs aside, just how do you get home if your plane is grounded? Read on.

Know who to call first.

While unaffected by the Iceland volcano, traveler Robin Dunlap has been on grounded planes before and points out that your airport’s gate or ticket agent can only help one person at a time. And even if you elect to wait on line at the airport to speak to an agent, you should concurrently be phoning the 800 number for your grounded airline, since its reservation centers can potentially field thousands of calls and can access the same information as your gate agent, Dunlap says.

Depending on how helpful your airline is, you may also want to call the hotline for your credit card. “They will put you with a travel expert - even if you didn't book the original flight through them - and they will work with hotels and possibly other airlines to get you out as soon as possible,” says Dunlap, who adds that a hotline rep might also be able to snag you a “distressed passenger rate so the cost of being grounded doesn't break the bank.”

Your favorite rental car agency also ought to be among your top phone calls. Reserve a vehicle at the airport where you’re grounded and once again, try to avail yourself of an 800 number even while you’re waiting on a competitive line at the airport. And if you end up not needing the car, take an extra minute to cancel your reservation so that other stranded travelers might be able to use it.

Try these online tricks.

Aboard one of the last Newark to Heathrow flights on April 15, traveler Matthew Cheng would later find himself stranded in London for days, but one of his first orders of business once he learned of the ash cloud was to get online and “wait for the airline cancellation email [about his return flight] and immediately rebook at the first available flight. I was extremely impressed that I was able to do this on British Airway's Web site, rather than waiting for hours on the phone,” Cheng says.

Traveler Karen Lundquist was buckled up and prepared to wing out of Amsterdam when the ash cloud grounded her flight and kept her in the city for a week. Among the most helpful tools? Facebook. Lundquist says she “met a Finish freelance journalist who found her lodging through a Facebook posting. Not knowing when we would get home and being disconnected so long was very challenging, and Facebook was definitely a way out.”

Work harder at becoming an elite flier.

If ever there’s a time when it pays to have elite flying status, it’s upon hearing news that your plane’s been grounded, suggests Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, recalling a story about a couple affected by the ash cloud “who was supposed to fly from Istanbul - where airspace was open - to New York via London Heathrow on British Airways and American Airlines. London was closed, but they were able to re-route using Iberia - which like BA is an AA partner - through Madrid, which was open, and they got home barely an hour later than originally scheduled.” Kaplan adds that because they “were elite fliers with American, they were able to bump to the top of stand-by lists and ahead of many other people who might still be stranded.”

Get creative with your Plan B.

Rerouting is one thing, but crazy convoluted rerouting is another. Still, it’s a viable option that many passengers seem reluctant to pursue, says Brett Snyder, head of Cranky Concierge, which provides assistance to air travelers. “We helped several people throughout the [volcano] crisis, sending some along some incredibly strange routings,” he says. “For example, one client had to be in Toulouse to compete in the Theatre on Ice World Championships. We sent her through Tel Aviv and back to Madrid. She then took a train to Barcelona and drove to Toulouse.”

Another seemingly out-there scenario that’s worth exploring if you’re grounded in Europe, Kaplan says, is flying back to the United States by way of Asia. “It's a very long way to get home, but it might beat being stranded for a week,” he says. And you might want to research your Plan B before running it by your airline, Kaplan says, since your airline only has so much time to get creative with each customer.

While you’re sitting on the ground, check schedules at either your airline’s Web site or online travel agencies and "piece your itinerary together on your own. A site probably won't offer you Istanbul-Tokyo-New York as a ‘legal’ routing, but on your own you might find one flight from Istanbul to Tokyo that connects smoothly to another from there to New York,” says Kaplan.

Once you present your self-created route home to your airline “it might or might not work,” Kaplan says, “but if you're stuck anyway, it's worth the time to try to find ways to help yourself.”