The winter travel season is rapidly approaching, and if it's anything like this past summer, travelers can expect to wait - and wait, and wait.
Big snowfalls at northern hubs across the US can often lead to flight cancellations and delays.
But you can ease that frustration if you know how to negotiate.
Air travelers faced with delays can get additional frequent-flier miles, free meals, an upgrade to first class, a free hotel room, or an upgrade to a suite.
Before you start to negotiate, remember that knowledge is power. "Knowing what your rights are can be a powerful tool when it comes to negotiating with the airlines," says John Hawks, executive director of the nonprofit Consumer Travel Rights Center (CTRC) in Lexington, Ky.
Mr. Hawks says travelers should become familiar with "Rule 240," which defines an airline's obligation to passengers when a flight is delayed or cancelled.
While this federal rule was phased out in the 1980s as America's airlines deregulated, major carriers have kept its spirit alive, including Rule 240 in their "contracts of carriage," with passengers.
But finding a copy of this document can be a daunting task. Hawks points out that airlines are supposed to have copies at the counter, but they rarely do. "Our attorney always asks ... and only twice, in years of travel, have the airlines been able to produce a copy," he says.
Copies of each airline's rules, however, can be found on the Web at www.my travelrights.com.
Once you know your rights, your chances of negotiating better compensation improve dramatically. Travel experts recommend that you don't whine about what an airline owes you. Instead, be diplomatic and work with the gate agent until you are both satisfied.
Some step-by-step negotiating advice offered by travel experts:
* Smile when you get to the gate agent, and immediately empathize - he is not enjoying the delay or cancellation anymore than you are.
Tell him you have observed how professionally he is dealing with the situation and would like to write a letter to the airline to commend him.
* Begin to negotiate by quietly asking what compensation the airline is offering. (Refer to your copy of Rule 240 beforehand, so you know what you can expect.)
After the agent says he will try and get you a seat on the next flight, thank him and politely ask for an upgrade to first class. If no upgrade is available, ask for a meal voucher to be used in the airport while you are waiting.
* If no seat is available until the next day, ask for a free room at an airport hotel. If the hotel is away from the airport, ask for round-trip cab fare and meal vouchers.
* If the agent cannot give you a hotel room, ask for cab fare to stay with a relative or friend, or request a blanket, pillow and cot - most major airports now have these for stranded passengers. Also ask for a complimentary toiletry kit - and don't forget those meal vouchers.
If a flight delay leads to a hotel stay, you may still have to negotiate with the hotel. At times, you'll discover no room is available, even though you have a confirmed reservation. Again, shrewd bargaining can turn this situation around.
Try to empathize. The person at the desk does not enjoy being the bearer of bad news. Ask if there is an upgraded room, or suite, that is open for the night, and ask if you can use that room until one in your price category is available.
"If the hotel cannot provide you with the quality of the room that you reserved, then you should get it free, or at a severe discount," says Budd Barmeyer, front-office manager at the Coronado Island Marriott Resort in San Diego.
And what if there are still absolutely no rooms? "At a minimum, [the hotel] should pay for your first night, and all transportation costs to an equivalent hotel," adds Mr. Barmeyer.
Also: Leverage your status as a member of a hotel's frequent guest program.
"I often go out of my way to stay at a Hilton so I can maintain my Diamond status," says Lance Totten, a field support manager for consulting firm C-Change Inc. in San Rafael, Calif.
"I travel at least 26 weeks a year," he says, "and my loyalty to Hilton goes a long way in helping me when there is a problem."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society