Its the holiday season again and flight schedules are even messier than usual this time of year. The worst is getting stranded. It is a stressful experience, one which can be lessened by being meticulously organized.
Before departing, know which airlines partner or have agreements with the one you are flying on. Have a list of alternate flight times for your desired return date and those of the day after. Then make sure you have the customer service number handy. By doing this you are preparing for immediate action should you encounter a delay or cancellation. Often, airlines have a function that you can set up on their website to be called or emailed in the event of a delay or cancellation, but don't rely solely upon those mechanisms, because the stress-free traveller always is prepared!
Make sure you check the website if you are able to not only the week of, but the night before and the day of to see if your flight is scheduled for the same time. If you are at the airport and your flight is delayed or cancelled, its time to work the system. First, pull out your customer service number and your list of airlines with a share agreement with your airline and your alternative flights. Second, make the call as you are on your way to the customer service line (which will be undoubtably long). Why do both you ask? Well, if delayed or cancelled airlines will often provide food vouchers, hotel vouchers and/or transportation vouchers, which can only be handed out at their customer service desk, thus the need to stand in line. Additionally, you will more than likely get in contact with a customer service representative more quickly on the phone than waiting in the ungodly line, which gives you an advantage over other passengers. Other flights will undoubtably fill up quickly by those who qued up early, so by calling you essentially cut to the front of the line and can get a replacement flight more quickly and if not, no harm, you are standing in a line doing nothing else with your time anyways.
If you find out that your flight is cancelled prior to arrival at the airport, first call customer service (which you have so smartly kept handy) and see if you can be helped by them or if you must go to the airport to be helped. If you can't get through to customer service due to overwhelming call volumes, check out their Twitter page (or post your short sob story to it requesting their help asap) Facebook page (again, the sob story, just not as limited by the number of characters here) or if the website has a click to be connected with customer service agent here button try that. You can always try the old-fashioned email as well. Worst case scenario, persistence is key. Keep calling, Tweeting, Posting etc until you get a response. Speak to your hotel about extended availability and request the same pre-booked price. If they won't try bargaining it down--it is likely that if their beds aren't filled already they more then likely won't fill them by that evening so it works out in your favor. Finally, make sure that if you have used an intermediary website to book that you have hounded them as well and keep doing so until the problem is fixed.
Just remember, the key is being organized. Keep phone numbers handy and know your stuff so that you can get the best deal worked out for you in a bad situation.
May you have happy travels in this new year, with few delays and cancellations.