Air travel is something of a gamble during really bad weather. And that's not likely to change very much, or very fast, over the next year or two. If you're planning a winter trip that involves heading to or passing through a bad-weather area, the watchword is simple: anticipate. Here are eight rules of winter-weather travel—none new, but all worthy of repeating.
Pad Your Schedule
Balance the possibilities of delays or cancellations against the importance of your arriving on time. If you have a can't-miss meeting, celebration, or secondary departure, pad your schedule to allow for a major air-travel snarl. That may even mean traveling a full day early. Recovering from delays or cancellations can involve a minimum of several extra hours, and an extra day is not out of the question.
Try to arrange nonstop flights. Even if most flights to or from your home airport or destination airports require connections, consider driving up to several hours at either end of your trip to catch nonstop flights. Here in my home area of Medford, Oregon, for example, lots of winter-season travelers drive the four-plus hours to Portland or Sacramento to avoid connecting through fog-prone San Francisco.
Schedule Flights to Minimize Risks
Delays and cancellations have a domino effect throughout the day. Avoid tight hub connections. On most routes, book yourself on flights as early as possible—the later in the day, the worse the situation gets. In a few places, however, local weather patterns may dictate a different strategy: Our airport here in Medford is prone to early-morning fog, for example, so savvy winter travelers try to book themselves on mid-morning or midday departures. San Francisco travelers face the same choice.
Avoid Trouble Hubs
If you can't avoid hubbing entirely, you can at least minimize hubbing risks by routing yourself through a hub not likely to encounter severe winter weather. During the first quarter of the year, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, and Phoenix generally report the lowest percentages of late arrivals. Despite lots of snow, Denver and Salt Lake City also do pretty well—at least they know how to cope with heavy snows. Even though it's in the South, Atlanta doesn't do quite as well as other Sunbelt hubs. The dishonor roll of hubs to avoid is obvious: Chicago/O'Hare, the New York airports, and San Francisco. For travel to Europe, Washington/Dulles is a better winter-gateway bet than airports to the north, and Los Angeles beats San Francisco for travel to Asia.
Have a Plan B
Figure that something might go wrong, and be ready with your own alternative schedule rather than waiting to see what your airline offers. The earlier you start to change, the more likely you are to avoid extended delays. In any major weather event, you airline is likely to waive re-ticketing fees, so be ready.
Keep in Touch with Your Airline
These days, airlines may proactively cancel flights to avoid upcoming problems. And they often waive change penalties several days before an anticipated storm.
Check the Forecasts
You can sometimes spot delays before your airline officially lets you know about them. That means keeping tabs on weather forecasts several days in advance for any airport you plan to use—departure, hub, or destination. Especially check inbound arrivals at any originating airport where you plan an early-morning departure: If the plane can't get in the night before, it won't be there for your morning departure.
Use a Travel Agent
During bad weather, your departure or hub airport will likely be a madhouse, with thousands of travelers trying to find alternative flights. Instead of standing in line at a customer-service desk, have an agent working on your deal as soon as a problem arises.
No matter what, you can't avoid all problems. But at least you can minimize the risks. Anticipate.
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(Photo: Woman at Airport via Shutterstock)