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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/16/2009 12:42:49 PM ET 2009-12-16T17:42:49

As British Airways attempts to thwart a labor strike over the busy holidays, travelers booked on BA and its code-share alliance partners are scrambling to figure out how to salvage their holiday plans.

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BA workers are planning a walkout between December 22 and January 2. The strike is threatening the plans of up to 1 million travelers, including many heading to and from the United States.

The airline was in court Wednesday seeking an emergency injunction to stop the walkout.

BA passengers can rebook flights for a different time at no extra charge if they have tickets for flights within the strike window or for 48 hours on either side of those dates, the airline said. (Read the official notice here.)

Refunds are not being offered yet. However, if flights are canceled due to the strike, BA will give passengers ticket refunds or try to rebook or reroute them on another flight or another carrier’s, “subject to availability and agreement.”

British Airways is part of the oneworld travel alliance. Some partner airlines are permitting travelers to make changes to code-share flights. For example, American Airlines “is already allowing changes without penalty or fee, even though BA has not canceled any flights as of this time,” spokesperson Tim Smith said. Customers ticketed to travel on BA flights or American flights operated by BA should check the airline’s Web site for covered dates and for the details of the change policy, he added.

Travelers and their agents “are in a real Catch-22,” said Jeremy Scott, the managing director of a London-based group of travel companies. The best option, Scott said, without spending money, “is to try and hold alternative flights until the last possible moment when we have to make a decision.” If the strike is called or ordered off, travelers will simply be out some time and effort. If the strike actually happens, a travel agent can purchase seats on alternative flights and try to work out the refund issues.

“While BA may refund the ticket, hotels and cruises are likely to impose cancellation charges,” Scott said, “so the passenger is likely to have a loss either on canceled accommodation or in the additional cost of the ticket.”

What are passengers doing?
George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com, says he would “be surprised” if British Airways and the union “don't work something out, since a strike at this time of year would be devastating financially for British Airways.”

Samantha McGarry, self-described “Brit living in Massachusetts,” isn’t so sure. McGarry has tickets to take her family to Britain to spend the holiday week with family, and is worried she’ll have to tell her kids they won’t be able to spend Christmas with their grandparents. “It's an extra stress I could certainly do without,” she said.

McGarry has been in contact with BA via Twitter. “They tell me they’re reorganizing flight schedules over the strike period and that I'll be notified via e-mail or text. I'd like to know sooner rather than later whether we have to change the dates or times or if we are not going to be able to go at all,” she said.

Many others aren’t waiting. Angela Weir, an American studying in Budapest, has five friends scheduled to fly home Monday on British Airways. After calling the airline, each waited on hold for up 45 minutes. “Three were able to change their flights. Now they have to leave Friday morning right after exams. The other two weren't able to get a new flight and they may be stuck in Budapest until the new year — without a place to stay,” Weir said.

What should you do?
Travel expert and msnbc.com contributor Christopher Elliot urges anyone with a BA ticket to call their travel agent or the airline right away. “Be proactive. Don't let this strike ruin your holiday trip,” he said. Some airlines, including Virgin Atlantic, are trying to make room for (and sell tickets to) displaced British Airways passengers by bringing in larger airplanes to fly routes that overlap with those operated by British Airways, he added.

Anne Banas of SmarterTravel.com urges passengers to move quickly. “If you’ve booked a fully refundable ticket, go online and rebook your trip on the British Airways Web site,” she said. “If you’ve booked through an agent, including Travelocity, Orbitz or Expedia, call them. And be sure your contact information with the airline is up-to-date so the airline can contact you with schedule changes or other information.”

Matthew Kent, a Silver Card member of BA’s Executive Club, booked an expensive ticket on an alternate airline so his wife won’t run the risk of being stuck in New York on Christmas while the rest of the family gathers in Britain. In a phone message, BA informed Kent that his wife’s existing ticket could be changed free of charge, but “the phone lines are still grid locked so I've not spoken to anyone to confirm this,” he said.

Travelers may have to wait to get an answer from a travel company or agent. “We don't have any specifics to share right now other than that we're working with BA on behalf of our mutual customers whose travel plans could be impacted,” said Joel Frey, a spokesperson for Travelocity.

Will insurance help?
While a strike may mess with travelers’ plans, travel insurance may cover some expenses. Vikki Corliss of InsureMyTrip.com said different policies have different rules, but many pre-departure trip cancellation and post-departure trip interruption plans include coverage for unforeseen strikes. “Many policies also contain a travel delay benefit in case you’re held up while traveling,”  she said. “As with all insurance, the event in question must be unforeseen. So, in this case, you’re covered if you purchased insurance prior to the strike announcement; there is no longer coverage for the British Airways strike if you purchase your policy after the announcement.”

If you’re concerned about this strike, you might be able to purchase a policy with an optional cancel-for-any-reason benefit. Just be sure to read the coverage criteria before you do.

Other options and advice:

  • Don’t wait. If you’re going to rebook on another flight, keep in mind that there will be a lot of other travelers hoping to do the same thing.
  • In addition to making sure your contact information is current with British Airways or a partner airline, sign up for the airline’s flight alerts, newsletters and e-mails. British Airways is posting updates on its Web site and communicating with many passengers via e-mail and Twitter.
  • If you call the airline, be prepared to be put on hold. Be patient. And when you do get someone on the line, be polite and ready to consider alternative dates and times for your trip.
  • Contact your cruise line, rental car agency, hotel and any other travel supplier to alert them to your situation and find out if they will waive cancellation fees for strike-affected travelers. If they won’t, be sure to note the cancellation cut-off times.

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the “Stuck at the Airport” blog, and a columnist for USATODAY.com.You can follow her on Twitter.

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