Consider using a travel agent for certain trips. If you're booking an international trip or a complicated itinerary, it can really pay off. When widespread cancellations occur, good agents have the know-how to rebook you through other cities or on other carriers. And when traveling to or in Europe, consider flying a european airline. The european Union has stronger regulations to protect stranded travelers than the U.S. does.
Charge your trip. Use a credit card for payment in case your airline delay is because the carrier or any of your other travel providers has gone belly-up.
Know your rights. Go to your airline's website and print out the relevant sections on delays and cancellations in the contract of carriage. Take it with you, as well as your trip-insurance policy, if you've purchased one.
Call ahead and ask for help. Check your flight status online or by phone to avoid getting stranded at the airport if there's a problem. Find out how long a disruption is likely to be and if it's a force majeure situation. That way you can find out if whether you might be entitled to any meals or a hotel room.
Skip lines if your flight is cancelled by calling reservations or your travel agent instead. It may be quicker in some cases than waiting at a customer service counter. Ask about getting rebooked on another airline. You can up your odds of getting on another airline's flight if the carrier is a code sharing or marketing partner.
Use your status, but be nice. If you're an elite frequent flyer or traveling in premium class, or if you booked a full fare ticket, be sure you let the airline rep know that because it may help you get freebies like phone cards or meal vouchers. Airline employees are also empowered to assist unaccompanied minors, the handicapped, and other passengers. Just keep in mind that airlines are not required to offer compensation "damages" in the case of delays, so demanding them can be a waste of energy. But you might have luck asking for a credit toward a future flight. If all else fails, you can always file a complaint with the airline and the Department of Transportation.