Traveling by air requires advance planning, no matter when you fly. Winter air travel, however, carries the extra risks of weather delays and flight cancellations. You'll need to pack with care and prepare for unexpected layovers.
If possible, choose a nonstop flight. This is the most effective way to avoid weather-related delays. If you must change planes, allow at least two hours, preferably three, between flights. Under the best of circumstances, given the fact that you must be in your airplane seat 20 – 30 minutes before takeoff, an hour is barely enough time to get to your gate. Building extra time into your itinerary will compensate for de-icing delays and allow you to buy food or visit the restroom before you board your plane.
Familiarize yourself with the airports you will be using. Look at each airport's website and find out what services are available. If your airport is small and you will be there early or late in the day, you'll probably need to bring some food with you, as concessions may be closed.
If you are staying in a hotel after your flight, guarantee your room for late arrival. This will remove the risk that your room will be given away before you get there.
Today's baggage restrictions and fees have turned packing into an art form. As you prepare your packing list, set aside some carry-on space for the following essential items:
- Blanket. Many airlines no longer offer blankets in economy class.
- Travel pillow. They don't offer pillows, either.
- Credit card. You will need this for in-flight services as well as for an emergency overnight stay. Some airlines have stopped accepting cash for headsets and alcoholic beverages.
- Food. Bring energy bars, trail mix or other portable snacks to tide you over in case of delay.
- Medications and medical supplies. Bring all of your medications with you in your carry-on; do not put them in your checked baggage.
- Extra clothing. At a minimum, pack a set of underwear and socks in your carry-on. If you are stranded overnight, you'll be glad you did.
- Contact information and confirmation numbers. Pack a list of telephone numbers – tour operator, cruise line, airport shuttle, rental car office, discount hotels near the airport – you may need to call everyone associated with your trip to tell them about weather delays.
- Your contract of carriage. If your flight is delayed or cancelled, you'll want to know your rights and your airline's obligations.
- Cell phone and charger. You might want to toss in a phone card, too.
On Your Travel Day
Dress in layers; winter weather delays usually involve cold temperatures, and even the nicest airports can get chilly.
Make sure your cell phone is fully charged.
Use the restroom before you board; you will not be able to get out of your airplane seat for 20 to 30 minutes after takeoff. If your airplane must be de-iced, you could be stuck in your seat for two or three hours.
During a Weather Delay
As soon as you deplane, check the status of your connecting flight. If you discover it has been cancelled, go straight to the airline's customer service desk to rebook. This may mean that you have to go to the main ticket counter, outside the secure area, and go through security screening a second time. If there is a long line, call your airline's central reservation number while you're waiting; this may be a quicker way to rebook your ticket.
Once you've been rebooked, find a comfortable place to wait for your next flight. Possibilities include a restaurant, your airline's frequent flyer lounge, if you are a member, or a USO lounge if you are a military retiree. Wherever you wait, be sure to check your flight's status frequently, as gates and departure times may change.
Move to your departure gate area well before your flight is scheduled to board. This will allow you to hear weather-related announcements and ask gate personnel about your flight.
Call your tour operator, hotel, rental car agent and airport shuttle office to advise them of your new arrival time.
Charge your cell phone if you've used it during your layover.
Above all, be patient and try to be friendly and polite when talking with airline staff. You'll get far better service if you smile and speak calmly.