There are no guarantees when you purchase the airline ticket for that big vacation you've been saving up for. Your flights can be canceled for bad weather or for mechanical issues -- or because the airline has fizzled.
That happened most recently with Iceland's WOW Air. The deep-discount airline ran out of money and abruptly shut down, stranding passengers around the world.
Airlines don't often fail, but it happens. Follow these tips to reduce the likelihood of that kind of very unpleasant surprise next time you fly.
1. Face it: Your airline could fail
Almost all airlines experience financial problems at one time or another. The industry is a competitive one and faces numerous challenges, including fluctuating fuel prices and safety issues.
Delta, American and United have all recovered from at least one bankruptcy.
But Monarch, Air Berlin, Primera Air and WOW Air just couldn’t make it work. All four, along with several other carriers, abruptly ceased operations in recent years.
Industry experts who had read the signs weren’t all that surprised, but few ticket holders suspected that their means of transportation would suddenly collapse. Don't you be caught unawares.
2. Always pay with a credit card
If your carrier suspends your planned route or goes bankrupt, you probably won’t lose your money if you paid by credit card in the U.S.
Under the Truth in Lending Act, you're entitled to dispute the charge with your credit card company and seek reimbursement, because you paid for a service (namely, a flight) that you didn't receive.
Debit cards don't offer the same consumer protections, so never book flights using your debit card.
Many credit cards also come with free trip cancellation and interruption insurance, which typically covers up to $5,000 in costs if your plans are disrupted by the "financial insolvency" of a travel supplier. Look for that when you shop for a credit card.
3. Buy travel insurance
If your credit card doesn't appear to have built-in travel insurance, you can purchase your own policy from a travel insurance provider. The best time to do this is immediately after you book your flight.
Look for trip cancellation and interruption coverage, and read the small print. The policy should cover something called end supplier failure, as opposed to "bankruptcy."
Failed airlines don’t always go through bankruptcy, so be sure the contract uses a variety of alternate words such as default or failure.
Keep documents and receipts handy in case you find yourself with a reason to file a claim.
4. Be wary of prices that seem too low
In May 2007, a startup airline called Skybus started offering flights from Columbus, Ohio, to destinations throughout the U.S. for as little as $10 each way. Lots of people wondered: How can they do that?
Well, they couldn't. Skybus shut down after less than a year — and left passengers stranded all along its route.
A business model built on rock-bottom prices is rarely sustainable. Passengers face either the risk that the airline will go bust, or astronomical fees to offset the ridiculously low fares.
WOW Air charged as much as $201 to check one bag, and even made travelers pay for a cup of water on board. When you browse airfares, consider value as well as cost. Stable airlines offer reasonable amenities — they don’t nickel-and-dime.
5. Read the reviews
Air travel predicaments can be avoided by choosing the right carrier in the first place. In general, smaller airlines come and go at a faster clip than larger ones with deeper pockets.
If you want to save money by booking with lesser-known startups, try to choose subsidiaries of established carriers. Examples include British Airways’ Level and Lufthansa’s Eurowings.
Read plenty of online reviews, and search for ratings and awards on sites such as AirlineQuality.com, J.D. Power, TripAdvisor and Zagat.
6. Look for other warning signs
You can get a feel for how a company is doing just by following the news. All airlines struggle when fuel prices soar or competition heats up, but long-term financial woes are red flags.
Think twice if a young airline can’t secure additional financing. An unsuccessful merger should give you pause.
Widespread layoffs are another telltale sign of instability. Watch out if your carrier starts scheduling fewer flights each day or eliminating certain destinations. It wouldn’t make sense for a profitable airline to downsize or cut back on service.
If you don’t like what you're seeing or hearing, try to cancel your ticket. Make other arrangements before it’s too late.
7. Check safety ratings
Explore safety records, too. Any airline you use should pass the stringent operational safety audit conducted by the International Air Transport Association, or IATA.
AirlineRatings.com publishes an annual Top 20 list based on the IATA reports and other factors such as crash records and fleet age.
An inability to maintain safety standards can be another sign of an airline in trouble.
Plus, safety ratings are a reminder that there are worse things than an airline going out of business.
8. Have a backup plan
What happens if your airline collapses midtrip? You may not mind being stranded in a tropical paradise, but other scenarios aren’t as appealing.
Before you leave home, read up on other carriers that service your destination. This is especially important if you’re flying a smaller, newer airline serving smaller outlying airports.
Becoming familiar with competitors’ routes and schedules will give you a head start over other marooned passengers. Bookmark relevant pages on your phone.
9. Be ready to scramble (calmly)
If your airline does indeed go belly-up, it's no time to panic. You’ll get home eventually, so take a few deep breaths. Focus on happy things such as retrieving your dog from the sitter, sleeping in your own bed or tearing into a big box of cheese crackers.
Obviously, you’ll need to make other travel arrangements. Can you expect a little sympathy from rival airlines? It depends.
When WOW Air failed, competitors offered stranded passengers discounted "rescue fares." Bear in mind that you’ll have to cough up the extra air fare long before you get your refund for the original ticket.
Being disgruntled in your situation is understandable, but taking it out on airline employees isn't cool. When airlines collapse without warning, representatives suddenly have to accommodate thousands of passengers. Courtesy and patience go a long way.
10. Know your rights
Under U.S. Department of Transportation rules, you're entitled to a refund "if the airline cancelled a flight, regardless of the reason, and the passenger chooses not to be rebooked on a new flight on that airline."
The European Union's air passenger rights say travelers also can be entitled to assistance and additional compensation.
Of course, if your airline has gone bust, there's no money for refunds or any other payments for passengers. You might eventually have some money coming via the bankruptcy process, but that can take a matter of months — or years.
It's another reason you'll want to rely on your credit card to recover what you're owed.
11. Pursue refunds and reimbursement
Once you’ve secured another ride home or a place to stay, check the website of the airline that left you on the ground. See if it's able to offer any information on potential refunds.
Then, call your credit card issuer. An agent will help you initiate the dispute process, and you’ll get reimbursed faster.
An airline failure may be far more inconvenient than your favorite dry cleaner closing or the drive-through forgetting your french fries, but it's not the end of the world. If it happens, you can get through it!