Winter travel can turn a short hop into a long, frustrating journey. Here are some practical ways to get where you're going with fewer problems.
I tend to travel heavily for both business and pleasure. In the last year alone, I visited 17 countries and every continent except for Australia. One thing that has always remained consistent is that traveling in the winter can be difficult. So I thought it might be helpful to share a few pointers for winter travel.
1: Leave extra time in your travel plans
The number one rule of traveling during the winter is to leave some extra time in your plans. The airlines are notorious for delaying or canceling flights when snow or ice is in the forecast.
If you need to be somewhere to do a job, you might consider arranging your flight to get you there a day early. That way, if your original flight is delayed or canceled, you still have a reasonable chance of getting to your destination in time to do the job.
2: Don't assume that the airlines are telling you the truth about your flight status
Once a flight gets canceled, there are usually a limited number of seats on other flights that will get you to your destination without forcing you to wait until the next day. As soon as word gets out that the flight has been canceled, the seats tend to go quickly. So it's important to be proactive and start making arrangements the minute you know that the flight is going to be canceled.
It has been my experience that the airlines often know the flight will be delayed or canceled long before they tell the passengers. You can't trust the flight status that is posted on the boards in the airport. A better way to know whether your flight will be on time is to see whether the plane is at the gate. If it's not, try to find out where it's coming from. Once you know that, you can use a mobile app called FlightAware to check the status of that flight. If the plane is still sitting on the ground in another city, you probably aren't going anywhere.
3: Get a pass to the airline lounge
If it looks like your flight is going to be delayed for several hours, ask for a pass to the airline's lounge. The lounge typically has more comfortable seating than the terminal has, and depending on the airline, it usually has free drinks and snacks.
Some airlines will give you a complimentary lounge pass (if you ask for it) if your flight has been delayed for several hours. Other airlines will require you to pay for a lounge pass. Even so, the price might be worth it if you're going to be stuck in the airport for a long time.
4: Try to avoid connections in cities with the potential for snow
When you're traveling in the winter, it's always best to get a nonstop flight if you can. That way, you don't have to worry about missing a connection if your first flight is delayed, and you don't have to worry about getting stranded if the connection is canceled. Sometimes, however, connections are unavoidable. If you have to take a flight that requires a connection, try to get a connection through a city that is unlikely to have snow or ice. My personal preferences are Miami (American Airlines) and Houston (Continental Airlines). Those who live on the West Coast might do well getting a connection through Los Angeles or Las Vegas.
5: Drive to a nearby city if it means getting a nonstop flight
As I just noted, your odds of making it to your destination go way up if you can arrange for a nonstop flight. But if you can't find a nonstop flight, you might be able to get one out of a nearby city. For example, I live in South Carolina, but I have been known to drive to Atlanta just so that I can get a nonstop flight.
6: Remember that the south is ill-equipped for snow
If you are traveling to the south (in the United States), keep in mind that it's ill-equipped to handle snow. It doesn't snow very often in the deep south, but when it does, even a slight dusting is enough to shut down everything. A couple of years ago, I had a flight out of Atlanta and the airline canceled my flight the day before I was supposed to leave just because someone mentioned that it might snow.
Even if you are able to reach a destination the south during a snowstorm, it is critically important to remember that most southerners have no idea how to drive on ice or snow. Snow accumulation that would be considered trivial in most other parts of the country turn southern freeways into a demolition derby.
I'm not saying that you should avoid the south during the winter. Most of the time, traveling to the south is fine. The lesson here is that if there is snow in the forecast, it is definitely something you should pay attention to.
7: Go ahead and spring for the rental car insurance
Regardless of where you're traveling to, if there is snow on the ground (or in the forecast) it's a good idea to go ahead and get the rental car insurance. I usually advise people not to get rental car insurance because your own car insurance policy will typically cover rental cars. However, if you find yourself having to rent a car in icy conditions, the chances of being involved in an accident go way up (even if that accident is the result of someone else who doesn't know how to drive in the conditions).
Many rental car companies will offer you full coverage for about $30 a day. The advantage to getting this insurance is that if you are involved in an accident, it won't affect the rates on your own auto policy. Furthermore, the post-accident paperwork probably won't be as messy if you are using the rental agency's insurance.
8: Remember to watch for black ice
While I am on the topic of driving in bad weather, I want to point out that black ice can be an issue during the winter. Black ice essentially refers to a frozen roadway that doesn't appear to be frozen. This occurs most often on bridges and overpasses, which can freeze even if the rest of the road is not frozen.
9: Take along a few extra essentials
Winter travel by its very nature tends to be plagued with delays and cancellations. If you have to make a trip during the winter, it can be beneficial to take along some extra essentials in case you're gone longer than you plan to be. For example, many times I've flown to another city to meet with a client and then flown home that same day. Normally, I don't even bother packing a bag (except for my laptop) for these types of trips. But in the winter, you never know when a day trip might turn into a multi-day trip because of airline delays. Therefore, it isn't a bad idea to bring along a change of clothing, a cell phone charger, and a few other essential items in case you're gone for longer than you plan.
10: If you really have to be somewhere, be prepared to make alternate arrangements
If you have an important job to do, and that job involves traveling in the winter, you may need to be ready to make alternate arrangements for getting to your destination. A few years ago, I had to travel to Louisville, KY, to help a client. Unfortunately, Louisville was snowed in and every flight was canceled. Since my client was having an IT emergency, I couldn't just call them and say I wasn't coming. Instead, I got the airline to switch my ticket from Louisville to Nashville (they also threw in a first class upgrade for my troubles). Upon arriving in Nashville, I rented a car and drove the rest of the way to Louisville. It wasn't a fun experience, but I kept my client happy.
What other steps do you take to make winter travel go a bit more smoothly? Have you ever run into serious problems getting around during the winter months?