After Southwest meltdown, experts issue tips on avoiding future airport issues

Travelers impacted by Southwest's operational meltdown last month may have skipped some important steps when trying to recoup their losses, including keeping their receipts, according to online travel insurance agency

Thousands of passengers across the nation found themselves displaced or stranded during the holiday season after a winter storm and technology meltdown led to nearly 17,000 canceled flights

Southwest apologized for the major disruption, and promised to refund passengers and cover "reasonable" bills for hotel rooms, meals and alternate transportation. It has also been offering 25,000 frequent-flyer points to affected customers.   

Even though the company is working on fixing its damaged reputation, the incident left a bad taste in customer mouths. 

To help, InsureMyTrip travel insurance expert Meghan Walch issued a number of tips to help travelers handle issues like this in the future. 

Following news of the mass flight cancelations, Walch said some travelers panicked and re-booked themselves on different flights before even finding out if their Southwest flight was scrapped. 

Some Southwest flights still took off, which meant that a traveler would have unnecessarily shelled out for two plane tickets.  

Walch said back-up plans are vital, but It's important to track your flight first. 

There are no federal laws in place that require airlines to provide reimbursement or vouchers if a flight is delayed. However, the Department of Transportation's new online dashboard shows what kinds of guarantees major domestic airlines offer for disruptions due to circumstances within the airline’s control. 

If a flight is canceled, most airlines will rebook a passenger for free if there are seats available, according to Walch. 

Additionally, if a passenger canceled their trip because a flight was canceled, they are entitled to a refund even if the ticket was non-refundable, she added. 

Airlines are not required to reimburse for things like hotel stays or food purchased if a flight is canceled, but each airline has its own policy on this, Walch added. 

According to the DOT's dashboard, most major U.S. carriers promise to cover certain accommodations, meals and ground transportation for disruptions within their control. 

Passengers need to keep all of their receipts from expenses incurred while their flight was delayed or canceled. This includes any meals or accommodations. 

"You will need proof of purchases in order to file a claim and be reimbursed for those expenses," Walch added. 

Travelers could still be left dealing with expenses they weren’t expecting since there are no official laws requiring airlines to compensate for things like delays, according to Walch. 

With insurance, travelers will be covered for prepaid non-refundable expenses of their entire trip, not just the airfare. Additionally, if a flight is delayed, travelers will be compensated for meals or hotel stays after three to 12 hours depending on the policy. 

On top of that, insurance companies usually have 24-hour assistance services to help arrange airline or hotel accommodations, Walch added.