By Joe Brancatelli
April 21, 2010 -- I admit it: I never thought being a business traveler meant needing expertise in transatlantic wind patterns or vulcanology. I don't speak Icelandic. I can't pronounce Eyjafjallajokull. And I'm annoyed that I couldn't fly to London last Sunday even though folks at British Airways Terminal 7 at New York's Kennedy Airport were boarding an Icelandic flight to Reykjavik.

The cosmic joke that placed Keflavik International Airport to the west of the volcano and thus out of the path of Eyjafjallajokull's engine-killing plume of glass, sand, and ash is one of the many things frequent flyers couldn't control about this extraordinary travel situation. But I reject the notion that we were helpless or that this was an eventuality for which a business traveler logically could have been prepared.

Business flyers could have and should have done better. There is no reason that any of us should be caught off-guard by a volcano, a strike, a snowstorm, or even a single flight cancellation. In fact, the planning you should do—the planning you must do—is within your control. You might not be able to outwit a volcano, but you should be comfortable while you're waiting to outfly it.

So here are strategies for the next time a vowel-challenged magma dispenser, a wonky aircraft, or simply a blown connection disrupts your travel schedule.

Your Phone Is Your Data Center
In a crisis, it's harder to make alternate arrangements if you have to start by finding phone numbers and Web addresses for your preferred travel providers. Instead, make sure the customer service and/or reservation numbers and URLs of your go-to airlines, hotels, car-rental firms, and travel planners are programmed into your mobile device. It takes a few seconds of advance effort, but saves untold hours in a travel emergency.

Do Your Homework Before You Go
I continue to be amazed by how naive even sophisticated travelers can sometimes be. Why are you headed off on a trip without knowing a good deal about your destination? Before you go, make sure you have researched hotel options at the airport, the car-rental firms located there, and whether public transportation options exist. It's not hard. All the information is freely available on the Web or from your travel planner. A few minutes of prep could save you hours or days of discomfort.

Know Your Alternatives
A simple trip between New York and Los Angeles or Dallas and Chicago may not require a Plan B. But the more complicated your flight itinerary, the more you should plot alternate ways to make your journey. A perfect example: When the volcano began spewing ash, one traveler I know had reservations on a Tel Aviv-Amsterdam-Lyons routing operated by KLM. When Amsterdam closed, she switched to Alitalia because she knew she could book a Tel Aviv-Rome-Nice itinerary. She then took a train from Nice to Lyons. If you know alternate ways to travel before a crisis hits, you can move more quickly when and if things go wrong. And you may beat someone else to the last available seat.

Find Your Own Bed and Board
If your travel is disrupted mid-journey, airlines are generally responsible for arranging accommodations until they can get you to the end point of your itinerary. And in fairness to the major carriers, they have shelled out untold millions in recent days putting up stranded flyers. But waiting for the airlines to get you a hotel room almost always requires an hours-long wait while they arrange lodging vouchers and ground transportation. I say forget the vouchers and make your own accommodations. Keep your receipts and argue with the airlines later over reimbursement. And I practice what I preach: Several years ago, during a Delta Air Lines flight disruption in Cincinnati, I eschewed the voucher queue, booked a room at a nearby Courtyard by Marriott, and took a cab to the hotel. I showered, relaxed for several hours, and then had a leisurely meal. As I was returning from dinner, I saw several dozen bedraggled flyers arrive in the lobby, Delta-issued vouchers in hand. They'd been waiting in line at the airport while I'd been having a relatively trouble-free afternoon.

Pack a Few Carry-On Perks
Whether it's simply a canceled flight, a snow-induced grounding, or a massive disruption like volcanic ash, displaced passengers are rarely lucky enough to be in the same place at the same time with their checked luggage. So regardless of whether you're headed to a hotel or fated to make the best of an overnight perch on a hard plastic chair at the airport, a well-packed carry-on bag is your best defense. It goes without saying that hard-to-replace items (prescription medicines, eyeglasses, etc.) should travel with you at all times. But your carry-ons should contain whatever personal-comfort items you find indispensable while waiting out a delay. Have a fetish for clean socks? Pack an extra pair. Can't wear the same shirt or slacks two days in a row? Pack a backup. Can't live without your favorite shoes? Make sure they are in your bag. Needless to say, a change of undergarments is probably on everyone's list.

The Airport Oasis
Every time there's an inevitable disruption, like a major snowstorm or rain event or an unexpected element like volcanic ash, the amenities and relative quietude of an airport club is in enhanced. As we've discussed in several previous columns, all sorts of airport clubs exist: pay-for-play lounges, airline-sponsored club networks, and private haunts reserved for premium-class passengers. All have their place in the airport firmament. Yet I continue to insist that the one irreplaceable tool is Priority Pass, a trans-national, pan-airline, class-neutral network of more than 600 airport clubs. Prices start as low as $99 a year, and it's a no-brainer choice for business travelers.

Know Where the Information Is
Your advance strategies and tactics need to be aided by actionable, real-time information. The Web is awash in data. Unfortunately, too much of it is filtered through the eyes of commentators with vested interests or journalists who don't really understand the lives of business travelers. So believe what you wish, so long as you have the actual data to form your own judgment. FlightStats.com is the site I rely on for the reality of operations both on an hour-by-hour airport basis and a flight-by-flight basis. And Flightradar24.com, which displays live aircraft movement in European airspace, became the go-to resources when others were falsely claiming that flight operations would quickly return to normal this week.

Don't Go It Alone
If there is a "winner" in this battle of man and machine versus volcano, it is travel agents. Once upon a time, no business traveler would venture past his or her front door without the advice and guidance of a good agent. But as airlines drove bookings to their proprietary websites as a cost-cutting strategy, many travelers abandoned their agents. Bad decision. As airlines forced flyers to overburdened call centers to make alternate plans, travelers with good agents had a faster and more responsive avenue toward reaccommodation. The more often you fly on complicated bookings, the more you need a good travel agent and the more you value their comparatively low-priced service.

The Fine Print…
As they dealt with the volcanic-ash crisis, most carriers refused to allow travelers to rebook flights or request refunds on their websites. The reason? "Reaccommodations are the most complicated transactions an airline has to manage," one expert in airline information technology told me this week. "It's not just finding seats, it's about making sure the money trail is accurate." The complexity is undeniable, but the irony is too. Airlines have spent more than a decade urging travelers to book online as they slashed the budget and staffing levels at their call centers. The inevitable result? In this week's crisis, airline websites were largely useless, and travelers sometimes waited on hold for hours—assuming they could get past the busy signals.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.