Safe and successful travel in the winter is all about navigating the storm and knowing your options. It’s also about arriving safe and sound, no matter what manner of ice, snow, sleet, freezing rain and black ice you may encounter.
Flights cancellations and delays due to winter weather can turn any trip – routine or otherwise – into a major aggravation and even a logistical nightmare. Airlines typically load their planes to over 80% capacity, so finding an empty seat on another flight can be a problem and cancelled flights can mean cancelled trips. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, weather accounts for over 40% of all flight delays. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has written that cancellations and delays of all types cost passengers an average $16.7 billion (yes, billion!) per year and estimates the price tag for weather-related schedule problems is $6.7 billion. See the article entitled Weather and Flight Cancellations for an understanding of what happens behind the scenes between the airlines, airport traffic control and the FAA when bad weather strikes.
To that end, as people head home after spending their holidays away, here are some of the tips from experts to help you avoid spending too much time in the process of getting from here to there.
1. Fly Nonstop whenever Possible
The ugliest problems for travelers occur at connecting airports. If your first flight is canceled and you end up returning home to wait it out, that’s one thing. If you are stuck at the hotel lobby where you vacationed, that’s another. What’s worse than both of those options is being stuck in a connecting airport with no place to stay and no options but waiting out the storm.
Hint: if you must fly with a connection, keep an eye on the layover times. If the weather delays your first flight, you may miss your connection and the airline is not required to find you an alternative seat (plus it could be tough if flights are already full).
Flying nonstop eliminates the problem of getting stuck midway through your trip. You can find nonstop flights on flight search engines by checking the ‘Nonstop Only’ option. Choosing ‘Show Nearby Airports’ and ‘My Dates are Flexible’ will give you a good idea of the cost differences involved in getting from here to there and then back again with and without the connection.
2. Book the Earliest Flight, Even if it Hurts
As much as we’d all like the extra sleep – especially on holiday and before heading out into the cold – one factor that is in your control is choosing what time you intend to fly. Early morning flights give a traveler these advantages:
The chances of having your flight affected by weather at other airports (i.e., the plane you’re taking doesn’t leave O’Hare and so you’re stuck waiting) is much less
If your flight is affected, your odds of finding another seat the same day is better simply because you got an early start
3. Check the Weather Days Before You Travel
Many travelers wait until the storm hits to start adjusting their travel plans, but this is a mistake. If you can stay ahead of a major storm, you can get your contingency plans in place before everyone else has the same idea. Check the weather even if you’re traveling somewhere warm because the domino effect of flight cancellations in other parts of the country can affect your flight too.
When it comes to travel, winter weather forecasting is really quite reliable (much more reliable than summer forecasting) and storms can often be predicted as early as 72 hours prior. If you know the airport you’re flying out of will be hit, try to modify your flights to leave early if it’s feasible.
Unfortunately, the travel costs due to winter weather delays that haven’t yet happened aren’t covered by a travel insurance plan (because it hasn’t happened yet), but in some cases the airlines are also recognizing the potential and will waive the change fees. Your travel assistance services representatives, however, may be able to help you with flight alternatives.
4. Follow the Airline and Airports on Social Media
Many airports and airlines post speedy updates on their social media feeds – particularly on Twitter – so start following them now. You’ll get airline alerts and flight updates sent directly to your smartphone. Check not only your departing airport but the airport in which you’re making a connection if you had to fly that way. If the weather is problematic at your connecting airport, the airline may be able to help you re-arrange your flight.
Hint: Be sure to share your contact information with your airline too – many will send their customers text messages when delays occur and this can prevent you from traveling to the airport too soon.
5. Make a Hotel Reservation Early – One you Can Cancel
If you suspect that you may be overnighting it in a hotel because of bad winter weather that strikes at your connecting airport, book a hotel reservation ahead of time. Just make sure you book one that can be cancelled in case you don’t need the room. If the weather you suspect strikes and flights are cancelled, every other traveler will be scrambling to find hotel rooms at the same time.
As the saying goes: “the early bird catches the worm” and this one tip could mean the difference between sleeping in a comfy bed versus sleeping on the airport floor. Just remember to cancel according to the hotel’s required deadline to avoid being charged for a room you didn’t need.
6. Keep Your Devices Charged
If you’re one of the travelers who arrived at the airport with a low charge in your phone, you could be struggling for a place in the bank of electrical outlets or waiting behind a trash can for the outlet a family of seven is using to charge every electronic device they own. Keep your devices well charged the night before, keep a car charger with you (you can use it in the rental, a friend’s car, or a taxi) and even pack an extra charged battery just in case.
Having a well charged mobile device means you can make flight changes, get text alerts, etc.
7. Pack Wisely
Think about what you may need if you are stranded in winter weather and pack wisely. If you’re checking a bag, put everything you may need for the next 24 hours or so in your carry-on instead and keep that with you. This includes the basics: toothbrush, contact lens solution, medications, a change of underwear and also the electronics you may need to keep yourself and the kids entertained.
If you check your bag and the flight is cancelled, there will be some delay in getting your checked bags back and the confusion and waiting could delay your getting to the hotel and getting settled in for the night. Having a TSA-approved lock on your checked bags can give you some peace of mind that your bag won’t be pilfered, but having the important stuff with you will make your delay more comfortable.
8. Buy Travel Insurance
A good travel insurance plan can help a stranded traveler by providing a few benefits, including:
Travel delay coverage – which will help you get a hotel for the night, pay for meals, etc. up to a per-day limit and after a minimum number of hours
24/7 assistance services – which can help you with a range of questions and issues related to your travel delay, including finding a hotel room
Missed connection coverage – which will help you catch up to a missed cruise or tour if the winter weather caused you to miss your connection
Remember, if the flight is cancelled or delayed due to severe weather, the airline has no responsibility to help but many will allow ticketed passengers make changes to their reservations for free. What you do after your flight plans are altered is up to you. See the Top Ways Bad Weather Can Ruin Travel Plans for more information.