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Delays can be more than just a nuisance for stranded travelers

Charles Krupa / AP

A traveler waits to rebook a canceled JetBlue flight, on Tuesday in Boston. JetBlue announced that they would halt operations in Boston, New York and New Jersey later in the afternoon, to rest their crews and give it time to service aircraft, due to flight delays and cancellations. Heavy rains in the East, and sub-zero temperatures in the Midwest, threw airlines and travel plans into havoc.

Travelers stranded by the arctic blast hovering over the United States have had to deal with more than just finding a place to plug in their cell phones while they wait for their flights, trains or buses: For many, the delays have resulted in lost time at work, missed classes, and unexpected fees.

The brutally cold air — a "polar vortex" that has caused at least 17 deaths, halted travel, and closed schools — left Jeff Farber, a 20-year-old business major, stuck in an airport in Detroit, writing apologetic emails to his professors because he wasn't going to get back to college in time for the first day of the new semester.

"I start class tomorrow. They said the earliest flight back is 2 p.m. tomorrow," Farber said Tuesday from Detroit Metro Airport — after his luggage (filled with warm clothes) was lost by the airline amid the travel chaos.

Besides a two-hour wait for a taxi to a hotel in negative-digit temperatures, Farber was staying inside the airport, staving off the bitter cold. He plans to sleep in an airport chair overnight because he couldn't find a hotel that wasn't already fully booked.

By the time he returns to West Virginia University, the three classes he has on Wednesday will be over.

"You have to make a good impression [at the start of the semester], and I can't really make a good impression if I'm not there," he said.

For Paraag Shukla and his girlfriend, a one-hour trip home to Boston from Washington, D.C., turned into a three-day endurance test as JetBlue repeatedly canceled or delayed their flight.

"It was just a lot of confusion," Shukla, 31, said of the process. He said airport employees advised him to re-book his flight on the phone or online—while representatives on the phone told him not to book online.

The couple finally got back to Boston late Monday afternoon, having missed most of their work day. That was especially difficult for Shukla's girlfriend, who is a graduate student at a school of social work: She was forced to cancel a string of client appointments at the last minute.

Full coverage from weather.com

In total on Monday and Tuesday, roughly 7,000 flights were canceled. JetBlue — still struggling to catch up from weekend delays — had grounded all flights in New York and Boston on Monday due to the cold weather.

Quan Ta was supposed to be relaxing in Cancun days ago. But his flight was pushed to Jan. 9 — with a return flight scheduled for the following day. In the meantime, he's been stuck at Logan International Airport in Boston.

"We're like a pingpong ball. The vacation ended up being at the airport," he told NBC affiliate WHDH in Boston.

Resolving travel problems proved just as taxing: Travelers reported protracted waits just to speak to airline customer service representatives on the phone. And many passengers, like Shukla, found themselves stranded not for hours but for days.

Gordon Blau, who was on vacation with his family in Park City, Utah, drove six hours from Utah to Las Vegas to catch an American Airlines flight after JetBlue told him his flight was canceled and the soonest one he could be squeezed onto wouldn't take off for another five days.

JetBlue said Tuesday that normal flight schedules were expected to resume Wednesday, with all displaced and stranded passengers expected to be re-accommodated and transported by Thursday.

Those days-long waits have become more common as airlines have cut down on the number of flights in the past several years, guaranteeing most of their planes depart full, said Charlie Leocha, director of the non-profit Consumer Travel Alliance group.

"The airlines have been practicing 'capacity discipline,'" he said. "It's code word for cutting down on flights. If anything goes wrong, there are not a lot of extra seats out there."

With fewer flights, airlines can charge more money for the seats they offer.

"The airlines have been unabashedly capitalistic about it," Leocha said. "Years ago, the airlines were losing billions, now they're making billions."

Trains weren't a more reliable option either.

Amtrak was forced to charter buses for some travelers. Three trains bound for Chicago carrying more than 500 passengers total were delayed Monday night because of the severe weather, a spokesman said.

Aly Andrews, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, was trying to leave Chicago: She was stranded there for two days while trying to return to Ann Arbor, Mich., after a visit with her boyfriend. She missed a day of work while she was there and was hoping her 6 p.m. train Tuesday night would leave on time so she wouldn't miss her first day of classes Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Chicago high school teacher Rob Chambers, along with his husband and mother-in-law, were planning to take the train back to the Windy City after the couple got married in Delaware, where same-sex marriage is legal. But the trio got stranded in Indianapolis for more than a day because the tracks were closed by thick, blustery snow, according to The Associated Press.

"We're calling it the honeymoon ride home and here we are — stuck in Indianapolis," Chambers told the AP by cellphone.

NBC News' Daniel Arkin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.