Help! My return flight was canceled and now I'm stuck far from home. What do I do?

Stuck in an airport far from home because your flight was just canceled? Sadly, it's becoming a pretty common occurrence this summer, thanks to pilot shortages, strikes and bad weather

You're not alone. Unfortunately, the bad news also is you're not alone and many other people will be vying to rebook the same flights or snag a room or rental car. 

So where do you begin? USA TODAY has answers to the questions stranded passengers are asking, from what the airline owes you to how to find a new place to stay on very short notice.

The first thing you should do? Before you leave for the airport, sign up for flight status updates through your airline's app or website so you're able to change your plans on the fly and snag a seat on the next available flight.

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Travelers gather in the Delta terminal at Los Angeles International Airport on June 30. Flight cancellations and delays increased before the busy Fourth of July travel weekend amid airline staffing shortages.

Are airlines required to refund for flight delays?

The short answer: no. 

Contrary to public perception, the Department of Transportation "does not require airlines to provide refunds for flight delays," says Erika Richter, vice president of communications for the American Society of Travel Advisors

DOT regulations do say that you may be entitled to a refund if your flight is "significantly delayed," but it doesn't spell out exactly how significant that delay must be to qualify.

"Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on a lot of factors – such as the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances," the agency's website explains. "DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund on a case-by-case basis." 

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Do I get a refund if my flight is canceled?

Yes. According to the DOT, if your flight is canceled and you opt not to be rebooked on another flight, you are entitled to a refund – even if your tickets were nonrefundable. The same goes for any fees you paid, such as baggage or seat assignments. But you must wait for the airline to cancel the flight to qualify. If you cancel before the airline does, you don't get the refund. So keep your eye on your inbox for notices that your flight has been delayed or canceled in the hours leading up to departure.

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Do airlines have to pay for your hotel after a canceled flight?

No, says the DOT. "Airlines are not required to reimburse you for any trip costs affected by the canceled flight, such as a prepaid hotel room, a cruise, a vacation, concert or other tickets, or lost wages," its website says.

That said, "every airline has their own policies on how to handle delayed passengers and the amenities they can offer, which can range from meals to hotel stays," Richter points out. "While some carriers offer these amenities, not all do, and it really depends on the airline. In other words, it depends who you ask."

And if you don't ask, you don't get. Reach out to your airline and ask if any of their contracted hotels are available. If the airline can't book you into a hotel, ask about how to get reimbursed if you book your hotel yourself.

How do I ask for help changing travel plans?

It depends on whether your flight is canceled or delayed due to weather or other reasons, such as staffing shortages.

When a big storm is in the forecast (like a blizzard or hurricane), airlines will often post pre-emptive flight waivers on their websites for flights in and out of affected airports within a certain date range and allow you to rebook a few days later, though some may give you more time. Often, you can rebook through your airline's website and never have to speak to a human.

Perhaps sensing the potential for more airport Armageddon, Delta has offered a system-wide fare difference travel waiver for the entire July Fourth holiday weekend, allowing passengers to rebook by July 8. 

The easiest way to find this information is to Google your airline's name and "advisories" or "waivers."

If you used a travel agent to book your trip, reach out to them as soon as possible to help in your rebooking quest. (Moments like this will make the extra cost worth every penny.)

If you do need to call the airline from the airport and you don't want to let your cellphone battery run down while waiting for an agent, listen to the on-hold instructions. Often, you can request a callback once an agent is available.

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Can my airline book me on another carrier?

While airlines aren't required to put you on another carrier's flight, it is probably worth asking an agent if any others have open seats. If so, ask if they can transfer you so you can get to your destination. If you decide to this route, be as polite as possible. 

If your hotel can't extend your stay, explain your predicament and ask them to help find you another hotel. "When hotels are oversold, the property’s staff typically 'walk' someone to another hotel they have a relationship with," says hotel expert Glenn Haussman.

How do I find a place to stay until the next flight?

First off, don't panic and take action the moment you think there might be a problem, advises Glenn Haussman, founder of NoVanancyNews.com and host of the "No Vacancy Live" podcast

Explain your situation to your hotel and ask to extend your stay. "If not, ask if that hotel can help you find another hotel because of the situation," he says. "When hotels are oversold, the property’s staff typically 'walk' someone to another hotel they have a relationship with. Ask them to leverage that relationship on your behalf."

He adds, "They may be able to assist you find a property in the same family of brands. Or the company that owns or manages that specific property in the area may also have others nearby." 

And if none of those ideas pan out? 

"Check back throughout the day on the hotel company’s website for availability," Haussman suggests. "If you got stuck, others trying to get to that city you’re delayed in may get stuck in another city. That means rooms may become available throughout the day. Plus, those rooms may not show up on third-party booking sites."

Mind your manners

No matter how frazzled you feel, be friendly with any airline or hotel employees you encounter during your saga. They "will work harder for people they feel respect them than those that do not," Haussman says.

Check the fine print

If you purchased travel insurance, check your email for a copy of the policy to see what your policy covers and what it doesn't. That way, you know what you're working with.

And if you booked your trip using a travel rewards credit card, check your issuer's website or app to see what assistance they provide. You might as well take advantage.