The horrors of airplane travel have gotten a lot of time in the limelight this year. But with a mix of common sense and assertive behavior, you may be able to turn many bad situations into opportunities for a better travel experience.

Airlines on the defensive
It all started during a bad weather day this past winter. Huge numbers of customers flying JetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) found themselves stuck on the tarmac for most of a day, trapped onboard and left to fend for themselves under barbaric conditions. JetBlue scrambled to restore its service, but the disruption left it unable to respond effectively, stranding many travelers halfway between home and their destinations. In the aftermath, JetBlue's CEO resigned, and Congress held hearings to determine whether federal law needed to provide a "passenger bill of rights" to set guidelines on how long airlines could keep passengers waiting on planes.

Yet while JetBlue got the bulk of the bad press, its problems are far from unique. The Transportation Department's figures on delays show that Continental Airlines (NYSE:CAL) and AMR Corporation's (NYSE:AMR) American Airlines have been among the worst offenders when it comes to making passengers wait on the tarmac. Bankruptcy is a constant presence in the industry, with both Northwest Airlines (NYSE:NWA) and Delta Airlines (NYSE:DAL) having recently emerged from Chapter 11 protection.

Fight the good fight
No matter what airline you use, you face a host of potential troubles. Planes are often overbooked, opening the possibility that you'll be bumped involuntarily from your flight. Moreover, nearly all airlines now use hub-and-spoke routes, which send travelers to hub cities en route to their final destinations. Often, all it takes is a short delay on your first flight to make you miss your connecting flight -- and if you're not headed somewhere with an extensive flight schedule, you could have a serious problem.

There are many situations, however, in which you can turn potential problems to your benefit. Here are a few examples:

  • Getting bumped. Most airlines push hard to get volunteers before forcing anyone off an overbooked flight. If your schedule is flexible, the rewards for volunteering are often substantial -- a guaranteed seat on the next flight plus free flights, meal vouchers, and overnight hotel stays if necessary. Sometimes, you can get a big payoff and still get where you're going within a few hours of your original itinerary.
  • Missing connections. Many airlines take responsibility for missed connections that result from mechanical problems but not weather-related events. So if bad weather is likely at your connecting city, you could end up stranded with no help. Take the initiative and ask if you can rebook at a later time or through another city. But don't let the airline charge you a fee -- remember, you're doing them a favor by changing your plans.
  • Broken promises. Harried airline personnel dealing with a plane-load of angry passengers are apt to say whatever it takes to get you off their backs. But if an airline representative tells you that you'll get reimbursement for expenses you have to pay because of a problem, be careful -- you may later have to fight with a completely different person who'll deny ever making those promises. Have the rep jot out a quick note in writing and sign it, ideally with a supervisor's signature as well.
  • Keep your cool. As annoying as travel difficulties are for you, it pays to be nice to airline employees. After dealing with dozens of irritable passengers who take out their frustrations on them, ticket agents are hungry for someone to treat them like human beings. For example, after a mechanical problem that canceled a full flight, I was right behind someone who screamed at the gate agent for no good reason. When it was my turn, I just smiled and said, "Tough day, huh?" The agent smiled, and I let her vent a bit while she booked us on the next flight. The result: three first-class tickets for my family, just because I was polite and friendly.

Finally, if you have a bad experience, make sure you let the airline know about it -- including any good points. While a letter that only includes complaints will probably just get you a form letter back, one that also praises anyone who actually helped you will sometimes get a lot more attention -- and potentially, better payback as a result.

Nothing's worse than needing a vacation from your vacation after dealing with travel difficulties. With the right combination of luck and skill, however, you can navigate yourself into a winning trip no matter what happens.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger knocks on wood when he talks about his good luck with air travel. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. JetBlue is a Stock Advisor recommendation. The Fool's disclosure policy won't leave you stranded.