Few Americans can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, but everyone knows it spells trouble for air travelers. The April eruption of the Icelandic volcano spewed ash into European airspace, canceling more than 100,000 flights and leaving millions of passengers stranded around the world. And the troubles may not be over; some scientists are predicting that its sister volcano, the more pronounceable Katla, may erupt soon -- and cause further travel headaches. But take the proper precautions and your summer plans can still take off.
Know your rights. In situations beyond anyone's control, such as a volcanic eruption, you're entitled to a cash refund for the canceled portion of your trip. But don't expect more than that.
Travelers from the U.S. have few government-mandated protections. Airlines are required only to compensate passengers who are bumped because of overbooking. If you're in-voluntarily bumped to a flight that will get you to your destination within an hour of your scheduled arrival time, you get nothing. If you arrive between one and two hours after your original arrival time on a domestic flight, or between one and four hours on an international flight, you get back the cost of a one-way ticket, up to $400. After that, you get 200% of your fare back, but only up to $800.
European rules are a little more generous, requiring any airline flying out of the European Union, as well as EU airlines flying to Europe, to provide delayed passengers with meals, lodging and two phone calls.
U.S. regulations don't require airlines to provide such care for travelers whose flights are canceled due to "an act of God." But in other, less extraordinary circumstances -- say, you're delayed because of mechanical problems -- your airline may be required to help you, depending on its contract of carriage, which you can find on its Web site. Be sure to keep all your receipts in case you qualify for reimbursement. You can recruit Flyers Rights or, across the pond, EUclaim to assist you. (EUclaim keeps 27% of any compensation you win. Otherwise, you pay nothing.)
Get the right travel insurance. That $10 policy you added while booking your flight on an airline's Web site likely won't help under extreme circumstances (see The Case for Travel Insurance). But a standard trip-cancellation package would be useful. "These policies were designed for this exact situation, in which people are stranded because airlines aren't flying," says Jim Grace, founder of InsureMyTrip.com and president of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association.
Such a volcano-proof policy typically goes for about 4% to 8% of your trip's price and covers all your non-refundable, prepaid travel expenses, including airfare and cruise costs. It also includes coverage for travel delays, providing $150 to $250 a day for lodging and meals. Shop for your plan at InsureMyTrip.com or other similar sites, such as TravelGuard.com and SquareMouth.com.
Travel insurance kicked in for many people who were derailed by E15 (as some are now calling it). But unless you bought the pricier "cancel for any reason" package, you must have purchased your policy before April 13 to be covered for anything else E15 spits out because it's now considered a "known event." If, however, Katla erupts and affects travel, it would be considered a new event and would thus be covered by a standard trip-cancellation package.
"Cancel for any reason" insurance costs up to 50% more than a standard policy and reimburses 75% to 95% of prepaid, nonrefundable costs when you cancel at least 48 hours before departure. Every insurance policy comes with a 24-hour assistance hotline, a number you should pack in your carry-on bag, along with a copy of your policy. Operators can help policyholders with rebooking flights, cruises or tours; getting a hotel room or cash advance; obtaining medical assistance; and replacing lost passports or toiletries. "They'll hold your hand through what needs to get done," says Grace.
Don't run out of cash. With an unexpected extension of your vacation, you could run low on cash, bump up against daily limits on ATM withdrawals or close in on your credit cards' limits. Set up an emergency travel fund -- either a spare credit card or a cash reserve that you can transfer into your checking account via online banking or that someone back home can access and deposit into your account. In a pinch, someone could send you money via WesternUnion.com to nearly 370,000 locations worldwide, but fees are steep.
Financial institutions are on high alert for fraud, particularly overseas. If they see an unusual pattern to your spending, they may freeze your account. Let your credit-card issuer and bank know which countries you plan to travel to, and pack the financial institutions' international toll-free numbers in case your plans change.