NEW YORK (AP) _ American Airlines passengers tried to keep a looming pilots' strike from disrupting their lives Friday by booking back-up flights, rearranging trips and boarding planes with no sure way to get home.

For many it was too late, as preparations for the midnight walkout led to canceled flights and stranded passengers. At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, crews set up hundreds of cots as the strike deadline drew closer.

``Some of us have got children we've got to get back to, jobs, husbands and lives,'' said Mary Toman of Los Angeles after her flight home was canceled.

Major airlines said they would accept American Airline tickets for the same destinations and origins, but they warned of a shortage of seats.

``My problem is not getting out, it's getting back,'' said Andrew Cameron of Warren, N.J., who had to shuffle flights to New Orleans. American agreed to switch his return flight to Continental Airlines.

``I have to work Tuesday. I don't want to get stuck,'' Cameron said.

Clutching a bouquet of roses and a Valentine's gift, University of Miami student Randy Naidoo fretted that his visit to his girlfriend and family might strand him in Dallas _ days before his exams.

``There's supposed to be a lot of love around here. Looks like a lot of animosity,'' Naidoo said.

Ricky Druckenmiller waited with his wife and son at the American Airlines' check-in line at Nashville International Airport, worried that his first meeting with his father would be delayed.

``This is the biggest thing in my life,'' said Druckenmiller, whose parents separated when he was a baby.

And tempers were in check among American Airlines employees.

``I'm kind of numb,'' said Vivian Hall, a flight attendant who wound up flying as a passenger from New York to Dallas.

Emergency preparations were partly to blame for the disruptions. This week American Airlines canceled all overseas flights except to Puerto Rico and London to keep airplanes from getting stranded in distant cities. All of this was in anticipation for a strike that would shut down the nation's biggest airline, grounding 20 percent of the seats in the skies.

Travelers to the Caribbean were hardest hit. American and its American Eagle subsidiary fly seven of every 10 passengers to the winter vacation spot.

Rather than miss his vacation, one wealthy New Yorker chartered a plane for $10,000 to fly Saturday to an island near St. Martin, said Jack Bloch, owner of JB's World Travel in New York.

Others already in the Caribbean took advantage of the situation.

``We're in a pickle, aren't we?'' said a smiling Debbie Healey of Goshen, N.Y., who was playing beach volleyball on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix. She said she didn't mind being stranded a few extra days.

Businesses were more pessimistic.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization more than doubled its estimate of losses to $33 million a day as businesses from hotels to taxi drivers braced for a slump.

Juan Castillo and Heberto Ramirez, who work at an Edy's ice cream counter in the American terminal in Miami, expect a strike will cut their business and their hours.

``It's sort of like a food chain. We feed off them,'' Ramirez said.