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What to do when a volcano disrupts flights

In this Sunday, March 27, 2016, photo, Pavlof Volcano, one of Alaska’s most active volcanoes, erupts, sending a plume of volcanic ash into the air.
Colt Snapp | AP
In this Sunday, March 27, 2016, photo, Pavlof Volcano, one of Alaska’s most active volcanoes, erupts, sending a plume of volcanic ash into the air.

Some unlucky travelers can now say a volcano disrupted their plans.

Ash from Alaska's Pavlof Volcano has resulted in a slew of flight cancellations and delays this week, after the volcano began erupting Sunday evening. The ash cloud rose as high as 37,000 feet, with winds spreading more than 400 miles.

By 12:30 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, FlightStats.com listed seven canceled and 24 delayed flights into Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, four canceled and two delayed flights into Fairbanks International Airport, and one canceled flight each into Nome and Bethel. Seven flights departing out Fairbanks and Anchorage each had been canceled, with a few delays at both airports.

That follows substantial cancellations on Monday to and from Alaska airports, although it's unclear how many of those were due to reasons other than Pavlof's ash. The more than 100 inbound cancellations alone included 30 flights to Bethel, 28 to Anchorage, 14 to Fairbanks, eight each to Aniak and Nome, and four to Prudhoe Bay, among others.

Air travel is a key transportation link between many cities in Alaska.

"We simply won't fly where ash is present," John Ladner, Alaska Airlines' director of operations, said in a statement. The airline canceled 14 flights Tuesday, affecting 1,400 passengers. On Monday, it canceled 41 flights to and from six cities in northern Alaska, including Fairbanks, Bethel, Nome and Prudhoe Bay. The cancellations affected an estimated 3,300 passengers.

An Alaska Airlines spokeswoman said the airline was continuing to monitor the situation to determine whether to cancel additional flights.

It's unclear how long travelers will see an impact. Late Monday, the U.S. Geological Survey downgraded its Pavlof advisory from warning to watch, citing a decline in seismic activity and ash emission.

For any event disrupting travel, consumers' first step should be to check the cancellation and change policies for hotel, airfare and other travel components, Jason Clampet, co-founder of travel site Skift.com, told CNBC.com earlier this year. You may not need to cite a particular reason — many hotels, for example, still allow penalty-free cancellation with just a few days' notice.

Alaska Airlines has said it will relax change policies for passengers scheduled to travel March 29, waiving the change fee and the difference in ticket price for travel rebooked and completed before April 2.

Call customer service to plead your case even if a travel provider doesn't have a waiver on offer and the return policy seems ironclad. Representatives may have some leeway to offer a refund or change waiver on a case-by-case basis, Clampet told CNBC. "Humans can always make choices at these travel brands," he said.

If you bought travel insurance before Pavlof erupted Sunday, check to see if your policy will kick in to cover nonrefundable costs of rescheduling or cancelling your trip. Travelers who paid extra for cancel-for-any-reason coverage typically have the most leeway.

"You definitely would want to take a look at your specific policy, because they are going to differ," said Megan Freedman, executive director for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association.

Keep documentation of any airline communications related to your itinerary, as well as expenses incurred as the result of any delay or cancellation — say, an extra night's hotel stay in Fairbanks, Freedman said. That can help streamline the claims process.