As Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, airline travelers braced for major disruptions in schedules not just along the East Coast but in large swaths of the country.
And stranded travelers bearing room confirmations could discover that in the hurricane's chaos, their rooms have gone to someone else.
Several major carriers -- Continental, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, US Airways and AirTran -- reported that many of their flights in the region were canceled or delayed yesterday and that their operations will probably continue to be affected at least through today.
"All of our flights in and out of New Orleans are canceled through noon (today),"American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said yesterday afternoon. "And that could easily get pushed into later in the week."
Atlanta-based travel editor Chris McGinnis warned in his newsletter, the Ticket, that travelers should expect trouble this week.
"Bad weather is expected all week up and down the East Coast, with concomitant flight delays and hassles, so if you don't have to be out there in the slop, stay home," McGinnis wrote.
Several airlines, including US Airways, Delta and American, waived their $100 fee to change flights. The deadlines for making the changes vary: American's passengers have until today to switch flights without penalty, while Delta's customers have until Thursday. Airline officials said the deadlines could be extended if the effects of Katrina are prolonged.
With so many flights affected, airports outside of the Southeast could feel the ripple effect. Travelers in the Midwest and Northeast stranded by the wave of cancellations could find airline service severely disrupted and hotels near airports quickly booked up.
Travel expert Tom Parsons, publisher of Bestfares.com, reminds travelers that if their flights are delayed or canceled due to weather, they are entitled to receive a 100 percent refund of the unused portion of their ticket, if they opt not to fly. Airlines are not required to pay for hotel rooms when travelers are stuck because of weather.
Getting on the next available flight may prove difficult for stranded travelers because planes are mostly full during the high-load summer season. And getting an inexpensive hotel room at the last minute may also prove to be a challenge.
My friend Tonya Brewington, a District-based Web designer, discovered just how difficult it is to find a hotel room in a city just hit by a major storm, even when you have already paid for the room and have a confirmation number. Guaranteeing a room with a credit card on an online travel site does not necessarily guarantee you'll get the room, especially during chaotic events, hotel experts say.
On Sunday, Brewington's flight from Barbados arrived late in Miami and she missed her connection to Washington. So, stuck in Miami, she contacted me for help in finding a room for the night.
I immediately went to Hotels.com and found a room at the Days Inn Miami Airport. I booked the room in her name and charged it to my credit card. At 10.01 p.m., a confirmation e-mail popped into my computer from Hotels.com.
Nearly an hour later, my weary friend arrived at the hotel only to be told that, even though she had a confirmation number, there were no rooms available.
In a frantic, three-way conference call, Brewington and I talked to an agent at the Hotels.com site, Mark Stretcher, who was apologetic and found a room nearby at a different hotel.
During weather emergencies and other unexpected occurrences, travel Web sites may not be able to update information fast enough to keep up with events. When demand is high, a hotel can ignore booking confirmations and give rooms to travelers who call directly or walk in off the street, says travel expert Parsons.
"It happens all the time. A confirmation number doesn't always assure you a room, especially during chaotic times such as during a hurricane," he said.
Hotels.com spokeswoman Nicole Hockin said the site is working on a new reservation system that would allow it to get more up-to-date information from more of its hotels. She said its system is in sync with the reservation systems of about 5,000 of the 10,000 hotels that appear on its site. In the next two months, Hockin said, the site will have a new system that will give more accurate room information on more of its hotels.
"We have been migrating our hotel booking system that will give real time availability and rates," Hockin said.
During weather-related problems, Hockin suggests calling a hotel directly and confirming that a room is available. "When you're dealing with a hurricane or major event, it's always better to check with a hotel directly," she said.