“Never check luggage.”
That’s the winter travel advice of CNBC correspondent Contessa Brewer, who, coincidentally, was emailing me from a plane en route to cover a weather disaster.
“Bring carry-on luggage,” she told me. “It makes it much easier to rebook flights. And don’t take no for an answer.”
With winter just around the corner, maybe you’re wondering how the experts travel. I’m talking about people, like Brewer, who fly into bad weather to cover stories and the pros who forecast the weather and document the devastating effects of severe conditions. How do they fly and drive during the cold months?
A record 107.3 million people traveled during the year-end holidays last year, according to AAA – the highest year-end travel volume on record. If current trends hold, this will be another busy, and perhaps record-breaking, winter for travel.
“I always check the weather before I even begin the process of booking winter travel,” Brewer told me. “Just to see whether I should expect to encounter travel problems. Especially if I have to book connecting flights, I do my best to find cities that appear to be free from weather issues. Although, truth be told, a big storm can complicate air travel throughout the entire nation.”
The importance of research was a common theme among the experts I interviewed. Meteorologists spend a little extra time reviewing weather patterns before they make plans.
“My first concern is always trying to lower my risk of weather-related delays,” says Susie Martin, a meteorologist and the director of operations at Praedictix.com, a weather forecasting and consulting company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. “I might look up that area’s climatology to see what the weather trends are for that time of the year.”
There’s plenty of historical weather data available online to help you make decisions. For domestic winter travel, one of the best resources is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for monitoring climate and our environment. You can find historical weather data by Zip code on one of its microsites. As your trip gets closer, Martin advises checking weather alerts through the National Weather Service website.
The meteorologists I spoke with also said they listen to – and watch – one another when they are deciding whether to travel. If one of their colleagues is warning against winter travel, and other professionals agree, they pay attention. The same can’t be said for regular travelers, many of whom ignore the forecast and push forward with their travel plans. (In fairness to the ignorers, the travel industry’s strict “no-changes, no refunds” policy makes it difficult to cancel plans, even during inclement weather.)
Weather experts also have their “no go” rankings.
“I would be least inclined to travel during an ice storm,” says New York meteorologist Jeff Schultz. “Airlines have safety thresholds where flights will be delayed or canceled for all types of weather, so I mostly trust their judgment. When driving, I do trust my abilities on the road, but don’t trust other drivers to use the same caution, especially in areas that aren’t used to certain types of weather.”
For example, Schultz has “no problem” driving his Honda CR-V during a blizzard in upstate New York alongside the locals because people in upstate New York know how to drive in a blizzard.
“I would not drive in the South in the snow,” he says. “A 1-inch snowfall can bring the Atlanta motorways to its knees.”
That’s no joke. If you live in Atlanta, you already know about Snow Jam ’82 and its more recent sequels, Snowpocalypse ’11 and SnowJam ’14. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called these storms “humiliating.”
But what if you have to travel? I put that question to Howard Altschule of Forensic Weather Consultants in Albany, New York. As a forensic meteorologist, Altschule often has to travel directly into severe weather.
“I watch the computer models closely as my trip approaches to see if there is potentially disruptive weather coming,” he says.
“If I see that storm approaching well in advance, I’ll call the carrier and do what I can to change my flight to a day or two before the storm even gets close,” he says. “It has worked like a charm so far.”
Like other industry insiders, Altschule has discovered a back door to the airline and hotel industries’ strict policies on booking changes. These rules become flexible when a winter storm approaches. Sometimes, you can persuade an airline agent to proactively rebook you on a different flight – even when the storm is a distant blip on the horizon and the airline hasn’t announced any waivers.
Speaking of distant blips, it’s not the size of the storm that matters. Sometimes, the worst winter travel conditions occur during – or after – a minor snow event. A surprise 1-inch snowfall just before rush hour on a Monday morning can wreak more havoc than a well-advertised storm that brings 6 inches of precipitation on a Saturday afternoon.
That may be the biggest takeaway of all: Pay attention to the weather this winter. Any weather. Listen to the experts and remember that the most disruptive weather may seem insignificant at first notice. You don’t want to be a cast member in Snowpocalypse ’18 now, do you?
Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.