Summer travel planned? Pack light, and don't forget patience

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NEW YORK --- In recent weeks, thousands of air passengers have been stranded by airline bankruptcies and flight cancellations, and there could be more disruptions ahead as older jets continue to be scrutinized for safety and the economy bubbles with trouble.

What's a traveler to do?

Pack light, know your options, consider buying travel insurance -- and maybe even take the train instead.

"Flight delays, schedule changes, canceled flights, bankruptcies and mishandled baggage are pushing flyers' frustration to an all-time high," Michelle Doucette, the content manager at IgoUgo.com, said in a news release declaring that "the summer of '08 just might be the summer of the train."

The travel Web site on Monday posted ideas for train travel at www.igougo.com/travel_blog, including scenic rail trips and visiting cities with landmark train stations such as Philadelphia's 30th Street Station.

If the train is not an option, here are some strategies for coping with the hassles of air travel.

- Limit luggage to one carry-on bag, advises Susan Foster of www.SmartPacking.com. That way, your "rebooking options are completely open," she said. If you must check luggage, don't do it "until you are positive that your flight is flying and reasonably on time."

- Do your homework. "Make clear notes about other flights operated by different airlines that meet your needs," Ms. Foster said. "Program airline phone numbers into your cell phone so you can immediately call to rebook yourself. If you wait for the airline to do this for you, you will not get a seat."

With details on other flights in hand, you can then ask, "for example, 'There's a Delta flight at 4:10 that will get me to my destination, can I get on it?' " said Amy Ziff, the editor-at-large for Travelocity.

Staying informed also helps you juggle options. When American Airlines grounded 300 MD-80 planes for maintenance, Brett Snyder recommended that passengers find out what type of plane they had tickets for, and "start looking for connections that aren't on MD-80s." Mr. Snyder, who blogs about air travel at CrankyFlier.com, also urged passengers to "bring a lot of patience with you to the airport. ... Being nice can only help you."

- Consider buying trip insurance, which typically runs 4 percent to 8 percent of the cost of your trip. If your trip is disrupted by flight delays or cancellations, travel insurance should cover new tickets, hotel stays and incidentals. Some policies also might provide refunds if your plans change and you stay home. And insurance agents can help you rebook if you're stranded.

Insurer AIG Travel Guard reported more than a 100 percent increase in calls coming in during the week of the airline bankruptcies, according to spokeswoman Erin McKeon.

Many airlines, cruise lines and travel Web sites offer insurance as an easy one-click add-on when you book trips online. Other sources for trip insurance include members of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association and www.InsureMyTrip.com.

- If you do get stranded, seek out discounts, refunds and vouchers.

If your airline has discontinued service, "call your credit card company to see if the charge can be removed," said Anne Banas, of www.SmarterTravel.com. "It won't get you rebooked on another flight, but at least it'll help you get your money back."

Also, "look to see what assistance other airlines are offering," Ms. Banas added. "For example, when ATA recently closed its doors, Delta and US Airways offered stranded passengers $100 standby fares. JetBlue offered $50 fares to SkyBus passengers."

Airlines with delayed or canceled flights are not required to book you on other carriers. If they do put you on another airline, "the vast majority of passengers -- those on restricted discounted tickets -- will be forced to pay any price difference in the tickets," Ms. Banas said, but, "it is possible that gate agents will make exceptions, so it never hurts to ask."

Ms. Banas also advises travelers to "know your rights." The "Contract of Carriage," usually found on airline Web sites and also known as "Rule 240," states that if a cancellation is "due to a problem within the airline's control, the airline will rebook you on the next available flight," or refund the unused ticket.

Airlines will often provide vouchers for meals, hotel and ground transportation for delays of more than four hours, Ms. Banas added.

- Finally, if your airline is in crisis, "take advantage of the relaxed cancellation and change policies and cancel or reschedule your trip," Ms. Ziff said. "If your trip is not a mission-critical, it is best to postpone it."

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