Successful winter travel is all about successful navigation of winter weather. We want all our readers to get to and from their destinations with minimum trouble and maximum enjoyment -- and, most importantly, to always arrive safe and sound, no matter what sort of snow, ice, sleet or freezing rain you may encounter. To that end, here are some tips, tactics and ideas to help you avoid spending your winter stuck in airports or on roadsides.
I have written repeatedly and at length about excessive delays and cancellations, passenger strandings, and airport woes, and these can happen anywhere. Although there are now federal regulations to prevent delays in excess of three hours, we are essentially still at the mercy of the airlines when snow and storms strike. Below are some tips to help you avoid some of the worst weather-related air travel problems.
1. I have found that the biggest, meanest problems for travelers frequently occur at connecting airports. If your first outbound flight is canceled and you end up returning to your own home from your local airport, that's one thing; if you are stuck in your vacation hotel hoping to get a flight home, that's a bit worse. But when you're stuck in a connecting airport in Texas calling hotels and praying for a place to stay, you're in what we call yer worst-case scenario, pardner.
For this reason, you should fly nonstop whenever possible. To find nonstop flights, do all your initial flight searches with the "Nonstop Flights Only" button checked. If you also use search options like "Show Nearby Airports" and "My Dates Are Flexible," you'll have a very good sense of how best (and how much) to get from Point A to B without Point C for Connection.
2. If you absolutely must fly with a connection, watch your layover times carefully. If a weather delay causes you to miss your connection, you might be out of luck, as the airline is not necessarily obligated to find you a seat on the next flight, and often cannot logistically do so if flights are full or unavailable. If you have a really tight connection time and your flight is running late, let your flight attendant know, and he or she may be able to make arrangements to hold your next flight, or at least get you off your first flight quickly.
3. Again, if you must fly with a connection, check weather at your connecting cities as well as at your departure and destination airports. We all want to know what the weather is like for the departure and arrival airports (particularly if we're traveling on vacation), but for the same reasons stated above you'll want to know what is going on at your connecting airport as well. If the weather looks threatening, contact your airline to see if it can reroute you; it may be in its best interest to do so.
If it does look like you will need rerouting, your chances of getting on a different flight will be greatly enhanced if you've already done the research yourself to determine which alternate flights might work best. Don't count on a gate agent to know about or search the schedules of other airlines -- it isn't likely to happen.
4. Try to book your connection through a southern city where weather shouldn't be an issue. There are no guarantees here, as northern airports tend to be better equipped to deal with winter conditions, and a snowstorm can almost wholly shut down an airport that more often suffers from too much sun. However, your odds are better in places that rarely see ice or snow.
5. Choose a morning flight, for two reasons: First, you are far less likely to have your flight affected by problems at other airports. Second, if your flight is canceled or badly delayed, your options for alternate flights are greatly increased, improving your odds for getting on a different flight by the end of the day.
6. Consider alternate airports. Very often the problem is not solely weather, but the overall volume at the airport, as many major airports are simply not built to handle the amount of volume they are taking on these days. This can be especially effective when flying out of the biggest cities that offer multiple airport choices -- Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston -- where second-tier airports tend not to be too far out of town, and are tied into the transportation grid. (For more ideas, see Fly Here, Not There: The Best Small Airports in the U.S.)
7. Get ahead of the game at security. Before you even get in line, put all your gear and pocket change in a sleeve of your carry-on bag. With so much valuable stuff getting dumped into plastic bins all day, every day, it's inevitable that some of that stuff gets left behind, dropped, damaged, broken or even stolen. If you take 15 seconds to stow everything, you'll make the time up twice over on either side of the security gate, and won't risk losing cell phones, wallets, keys and the like.
For more tips, see our Airport Security Q&A.
8. The annual holiday gift wrapping rule: Don't wrap gifts -- security will have to rip them open. With the TSA searching checked bags as well as carry-ons, this applies to all of your luggage, not just what you bring onto the plane with you. Consider shipping your gifts ahead of time or wrapping them once you get to your destination.
9. Finally, avoid peak travel dates as best you can, particularly holiday weekends.
When it comes to driving during winter, there is really only one concern you need have: safety. It's not miles of rubber on the road that you should concern yourself over; it's what gets between the rubber and the road that causes most of the problems. Here are some tips on how to get ready for winter driving conditions, and how to handle them once you're in the thick of a winter storm.
1. Put some extra clothing and emergency items in your vehicle; these will come in handy if you break down in very cold weather. It doesn't take much -- assemble a basic kit including a pair of gloves, weather-resistant pants and/or coat, maybe an old pair of boots, a blanket, jumper cables, a flashlight with some extra batteries, and a windshield scraper (and maybe a de-icer), and you should be in good shape. You might also toss a few nutrition bars in as well; those things won't spoil until the next millennium, are packed with calories and can bail you out in a pinch.
2. Make sure your car is checked over for winter weather readiness. In particular, you or a mechanic should check your tires before the first big winter storm. For folks living in northern regions, checking tires during the fall is an almost sacrosanct ritual, and it's a good idea even if you're just a weekender in the snowy parts of the country.
3. Once your vehicle is inspected and equipped, follow this advice we heard a while back from Montana's snowplow drivers: "See and be seen. Keep your headlights and taillights clean, especially in stormy weather. Keep windows clean and make sure defrosters work well. If snow has built up on your vehicle overnight or after a break from driving, clear it away so it doesn't blow off and obscure your windows."
4. Slow down. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends slowing down by about 50 percent in very bad weather; additionally, leave extra space between you and the car in front of you. You'll want to use your best judgment, but the slow tend to survive this race.
5. Remember that not all stretches of road are created alike. For example, many recently built small bridges and overpasses have been designed to blend into the surroundings, with a gradual or nonexistent change in elevation. These bridges nonetheless remain susceptible to icing over much more rapidly than regular blacktop. Look out and look ahead for these short stretches of road when temperatures approach or drop below freezing. If you don't know the ropes of driving on icy surfaces, this primer on how to drive on black ice is recommended reading.
6. Some features of modern automobiles may actually serve you poorly in bad conditions. In some SUV's and four-wheel-drive vehicles, for example, you may have better traction when the vehicle is underway, but the four-wheel drive won't help you stop any faster. Also, skip the cruise control; your cruise control feature may accelerate when you least want it to, such as when you are climbing an icy bridge.
7. Some safety experts recommend putting a bag of kitty litter in the trunk, both for added ballast to offer better traction, and to put under the wheels if you need to get yourself out of a slippery spot. (This can get messy in a minivan or other trunk-less vehicles, of course.)
8. If you are stranded and have to stay in your car, you can run the engine for heat, but make sure the exhaust pipe is not obstructed by snow or mud. If you prefer not to have the engine running the whole time, close the windows to keep heat in, and run the car for perhaps 10 minutes every hour, opening a front window a crack when you do so.
9. If you are parking at your hotel or near attractions in bad weather, opt for a spot in an indoor parking garage when available.
For more tips and tactics this winter, see our guide to Foul Weather Travel.
We hope these tips help you, and may you never need to travel where the sun doesn't shine!