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Grab your iPhone — the Internet is a stranded traveler's best friend

Travel tip: Don't get caught in the Northeast during a nor'easter.

That's easier said than done, of course. Weather is just one of the uncontrollable factors that can bring any trip to a screeching halt, or at least a detour.

Here, then, is my harrowing tale of being trapped for two extra days — in Manhattan.

Yeah, yeah, I hear you playing a sad song on your tiniest violin. But even if you're visiting a place you love, having your travel plans wrenched out of your grip can be stressful, expensive and disruptive.

What did I learn? Stay calm, stay connected — and I mean that in the online sense — and stay flexible.

My husband and I were in New York City for business (and a little pleasure) for four days in mid March. It was raining the night before we were scheduled to leave, not a downpour but just enough to make Times Square look like a cool scene out of Blade Runner.

Thanks to decades of Florida hurricane vigils, we've learned to keep an eye on the weather forecast. A quick check that night told us the rain was the forward line of a potentially major storm, and sure enough, on Saturday morning it was pouring as we packed up for our midday flight. I fired up the laptop to check our flight status.

Canceled.

I called JetBlue, waiting on hold for about 20 minutes for customer service and finding out in the meantime via TV and Web that the storm was spawning 75 mph wind gusts at Kennedy Airport and otherwise wreaking havoc.

The woman who eventually answered told me all the airline's flights that day were canceled, but she booked us on a flight at 8 a.m. Sunday, with no change fees — JetBlue had suspended them for the storm's duration.

One weekend day wasn't a problematic delay for us, so at that point we didn't seek travel alternatives. We were glad we had discovered the cancellation before we left for the airport, where we would have ended up standing in long lines to plead with harried counter clerks.

We arranged to stay another night at the hotel, then plotted our extra day in the city.

We love to walk in Manhattan, but it wasn't that kind of day, so we took a cab to the Museum of Modern Art. Thousands of other people had the same idea for a rainy Saturday, as we discovered when we saw the jam-packed foyer and were told the wait just to buy a ticket would be about 30 minutes.

Figuring there wasn't much chance of communing peacefully with Monet's water lilies, we went to Plan B. The museum's beautiful restaurant, the Modern, is one of our favorites. Would it be packed? Totally, but we squeezed in.

By that evening, there were reports of 4 inches of rain in Central Park, flooding all over the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area, half a million households without power and five people dead, most of them killed by trees blown down in high winds.

But the forecast gave us hope we might get back to Florida on Sunday, so we made it an early night. After all, we had to get up at 5 a.m. to make our flight.

At 5:05 a.m. I was online checking that flight status.

Canceled.

At 5:15 (after a 10-minute break to curse and get a cup of coffee) I was dialing customer service. This time, I was on hold for an hour and a half.

I whiled away the time checking JetBlue's Web site and other airline sites. No flights available Sunday out of JFK. Or La Guardia. Or Newark. Renting a car and trying to drive out of the storm seemed like a bad idea, given news reports of flooded and closed highways all over the area.

Maybe we could take a train to Washington? Amtrak's site informed us all routes in the Northeast corridor were suspended. Good grief, had we wandered into a remake of Escape From New York? Or Armageddon?

A pleasant but tired-sounding woman finally came on the line. The soonest she could get us on a flight to Sarasota, she said, was midday Tuesday — more than two days later.

How about Tampa? We could call a friend or rent a car. Earliest flight to Tampa would be Tuesday, she said. Fort Myers? Tuesday. Orlando? Thursday.

I told her to book us for Sarasota on Tuesday, then asked whether JetBlue would refund our tickets if we found an earlier flight on another airline. She said we could request a credit, good for a year, for the amount.

As soon as I hung up, we started scouring online travel sites. The first few were discouraging: No Sunday flights, and the few Monday flights to anywhere in Florida involved two, three or even four stops and an average of 13 hours travel time — and cost as much as $600 per person.

I was afraid we'd be spending an involuntary spring break in Manhattan, but our luck returned at Orbitz.com. A 6 a.m. Monday flight on US Airways would get us to Washington, then another flight would land us in Sarasota before noon. And it cost less than $200 per person.

Sold. Then came another round of being sure we could keep our room, alerting the petsitter and calling my editor to let her know why I wouldn't be at work on Monday (and maybe Tuesday). We didn't yet cancel the JetBlue flight we had booked for Tuesday — we were too afraid of waking up to another canceled status.

Sunday was slightly less stormy, so we took a walk, had a cozy lunch and made it an even earlier night. When we woke at 3 a.m. Monday, flight status was the first thing on our minds.

On time.

Only when I saw the palm trees did I cancel that JetBlue flight (online — I had had my share of hanging on hold) and request a credit, which was granted instantly.

The delays bent our budget, but the lessons I took away were worth it: Your computer (or smart phone or whatever device can connect you to the Internet) can be your most useful travel companion.

And wherever you go, watch the weather.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Grab your iPhone — the Internet is a stranded traveler's best friend 04/03/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2010 6:50pm]

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