Winter Travel Survival Guide: How to Avoid Being Stranded By Snowstorms and Blizzards
Neither rain, nor snow, nor strikes have kept Jonathan Spira from his appointed rounds
Winter travel brings with it special challenges. The obvious one is snow, but it isn’t the only issue to contend with. Blizzards have already battered the Midwestern United States, and more inclement weather is expected, especially now that winter season is officially upon us.
Remember, as soon as flights begin to cancel due to weather, there will be fewer open seats in flights that are still running. This is particularly important to keep in mind because airlines have been cutting the number of flights to individual destinations and keeping the remaining flights relatively full.
A year or so ago, a snowstorm hit New York, and my flight to London was cancelled after I was already comfortably on board. It took an hour for the airport to plow a path for us back to the gate, and I exited the aircraft with my pillow and blanket from first class, as well as a meal, not knowing what I’d find at the airport, which had been shut down while we were on the tarmac. Instead of going home, I waited out the storm and ended up on one of the first flights out 24 hours later.
Here’s what you can do to minimize delays when problems due to weather arise.
Travel to Your Destination Early
If you absolutely, positively have to be somewhere on a specific day, don’t leave anything to chance. Plan to arrive at least one day early, if not two. If you’ve already booked your flight, you can still change your reservation, although most airlines charge a hefty fee. But that’s better than not going at all. If you change your flight for an earlier flight on the same day, the fee is usually lower, and airlines typically waive the fee completely for elite members of their frequent-flyer programs.
If the Storm is About to Hit
In February of this year, practically every major U.S. airline waived change fees and other restrictions for travelers impacted by a massive winter storm. If you find you cannot travel due to weather, and it’s close to departure time, check if the airline has issued a waiver, which will allow you to make changes or cancel without incurring any fees.
Take a Train
While trains aren’t completely exempt from winter weather cancellations, they still tend to be a more reliable means of transportation than planes when bad weather hits.
Consider using a service such as Expert Flyer, which gives you the same information airline agents and travel agents have access to, to check availability on other flights. If a storm is impacting travel en route, but not at the departure and arrival points, ask about alternate routes.
When flights cancel, most passengers simply get on line to get rebooked. Skip the line and turn on your laptop, tablet or smartphone, and do the legwork yourself. While everyone else is standing on line for an hour or two, you might be able to rebook yourself in minutes. You can also try making requests via Twitter, but, while social media tools promised quick results when only a few travelers were using them, some passengers report long delays in responses now. Alternatively, if you are an elite member of the airline’s frequent-flyer program, call the secret number for the program and make sure to enter your frequent-flyer number so your call is routed correctly.
Keep Track of Local Issues
As I write this, a strike by airport security staff in France is about to enter its seventh day. The strike has caused numerous delays and cancellations of as many as 30% of flights at some French airports including Roissy Charles-de-Gaulle Airport and Lyons. Transiting via Charles-de-Gaulle may at best be time consuming and at worst, next to impossible. The Internet makes it possible to read up on local news before you leave home and, while you can’t read everything, browsing headlines could very well make the difference between getting there and getting stuck.
If You Do Drive
If part of your trip is by car, make sure you have the appropriate tires (in many regions, local laws require winter tires at this time) and keep extra supplies on hand including a fully charged mobile phone, ice scraper and brush, blankets, at least one flashlight, a battery-operated radio, and several bottles of water.