By Cameron Huddleston
Air travelers could be left high - or perhaps it would be better to say low - and dry if a volcano that's rumbling in Iceland erupts with the magnitude that another one in that country did in 2010. The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano sent so much ash into the air four years ago that European airspace was closed for six days, more than 100,000 flights were canceled and millions of passengers were stranded around the world.
A small eruption from the currently active Bardarbunga volcano system led to a brief closure of airspace over Iceland, but it reopened August 29. If a larger eruption were to occur, it's not expected to be on the scale of the 2010 eruption, according to several news reports. Nonetheless, air travelers need to know what steps to take if a volcanic eruption or other disaster leaves them stranded.
Know your rights. A volcanic eruption (or any natural disaster) is considered a "force majeure" event, meaning that it's not in the airline's control. So if an airline cancels flights because of a natural disaster, it is obligated to give you a refund only for the unused portion of your ticket, says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com. However, most airlines will allow you to rebook without a penalty within a certain timeframe, she says. And it never hurts to ask the airline for more compensation, such as a hotel or food voucher. See the Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement's guide to air travel for more information about what rights you do and do not have as an air traveler.
Be proactive before you head to the airport. Sign up to receive text messages or email alerts about delays or cancellations from your airline. That way you'll be more likely to know about issues before you arrive at the airport and become stranded there. Banas recommends programming the phone numbers of all your travel providers into your cell phone before you depart for the airport. When your fellow passengers are scrambling to rebook at the same time, it pays to be the first in line. And make sure you have a phone charger packed in your carry-on - not your checked baggage - so you can access it while in the airport.
Try all avenues to rebook. If your flight is canceled, visit the airline's site and call its customer service line to book the next available flight - even if you're standing in line at the ticket counter at the airport. You might have better luck with one over the other. If you booked your original flight through a third-party provider, such as an online travel agency, contact it directly because it might be able to rebook you faster than your airline, Banas says.
Don't give up if a customer-service representative denies your request. Thank him for his time and call back later. You may get a more favorable response if you speak with another agent. Be sure to get that agent's full name and direct line in case you don't seal the deal during that call and have to call back.
If all else fails, tweet. Some airlines respond well to customer questions and complaints on Twitter, Banas says. Just don't be belligerent. You also might have luck with other social media outlets. For example, Dutch airline KLM offers 24-hour customer service via LinkedIn, Banas says.
Find a hotel room by using an app such as Hotel Tonight or Last Minute Travel, which can help you get discounted rates on same-day bookings. If you don't have a smart phone or Internet access, your next-best choice is to head to the baggage-claim area and check the hotel board.
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This column was printed in the September 21, 2014 - October 4, 2014 edition.