This winter has unfortunately already proven itself to be a tyrant to Travel. Flight delays and cancellations have already affected thousands of Travelers and it's only early January !
When Flights are cancelled, guests are usually re-accommodated on the next available Flight(s) to their destinations. How soon depends on the frequency of service on that route. If there are seven Flights a day it should only be a matter of hours (or less) between Flights. If a service is only once daily, as it is to many sun destinations, it would be 24 hours before a guest would reach his destination. The challenge with re-accommodation during peak Travel periods, especially Christmas, is that Flights are very full. Airlines may try and use a spare Aircraft if one is available, especially in cases where service is less frequent.
Larger Airlines like an Air Canada do add Flights when they have the extra crews and capacity, so if your Flight is cancelled and you try to rebook and cannot find something suitable, it is worth checking back frequently as more Flights can be added.
If the Flight is cancelled, you are entitled to a refund for the unused portion of your ticket on Airlines like Air Canada. When it is peak Travel season like this it can be days before you are able to be rebooked. Most Airlines would refund if you ended up say renting a car and driving rather than flying.
If the Flight is delayed and it is weather related they do not have to provide hotels or meals. Each Airline is different in what they do provide. Check your passenger rights. In the case of WestJet for example, they provide you with hotel vouchers if an overnight stay is required and you are not in your home city, plus they offer a meal and cab vouchers.
At this time of year, it's a good idea to consider interruption insurance. Many of the policies will provide some coverage due to weather delays. Often people decline cancellation and Interruption insurance as they feel it can be too much money but don't realize how valuable this interruption insurance can be at times like this. As we get into cruise season, it's particularly important for people who have made their own Flight arrangements and need to make
connecting Flights to a tour or cruise. Air Canada's On My Way, a trip interruption service gives you priority services in cases of disruption.
Other things to consider to ease the pain of a delayed or cancelled Flight:
Book first Flights out
Bring only carry on if you can
If you must do a connection avoid the northern states and rather if possible connect in Houston, Atlanta or somewhere further south vs. Chicago or Boston.
Check the status of your Flight before leaving for the Airport even if the sky is blue. Weather elsewhere is very important, especially in the winter months. If there is bad weather in more than one city the delay could have a domino effect.
Bring with your phone numbers for the Airline and your Travel agent so you have all these details handy should you need them. Often if there are big storms and cancellations the sooner you can get Re booked the better as space can disappear quickly. Don't rely on one person at the Airline - think outside the box. If you were flying from Ft Lauderdale can you rather get out of Miami or West Palm? Fly home to Buffalo, Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal etc. Don't forget car, bus or trains in extreme situations
Pack your patience
One last tip, if Airlines are changing / re-booking your ticket - make sure you get a new Eticket number, especially if they have endorsed it over to another Airline. Just because you have a boarding pass it does not mean the Airline has reissued the new Eticket.