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Seek Alternate Routes When Storms Hit

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Travel is miserable in bad weather—really miserable in really bad weather. That’s nothing new, but it bears repeating, along with a few other reminders I experienced last week.

The first rule of bad-weather flying and traveling is “stay home.” But that’s not always possible: I had to make an appearance in New York, so I experienced some of the typical problems of air travel in winter and of visiting New York.

Despite bad weather forecasts, the trip from my home airport in Medford, Oregon, was just as it should have been: Medford-Denver-Chicago-Newark, with on-time departures and arrivals on all flights. But returning was a totally different story. The weather throughout the Northeast had turned decidedly worse, with snow through the region. The flight board (and online display) for my flight from LaGuardia to Denver on a LaGuardia-Denver-Medford itinerary still showed “on time” until well after I got to the airport. But shortly afterward, the display changed to “see agent,” and by the time I got through the line to an agent, the display read, “canceled.” Most other LaGuardia departures eventually showed “canceled” as well.

The agent immediately started poking her computer, and surprisingly quickly rebooked me on a different JFK-San Francisco-Medford itinerary that was showing as still operating. I schlepped over to JFK, waited a few hours, boarded, made my San Francisco connection, and arrived home—four hours late, but still the same day. Lots of folks didn’t do anywhere near that well.

I was lucky: More than half the flights out of JFK were canceled, including both earlier and later trips to San Francisco. At the next gate, one of the few flights to Los Angeles still operating was oversold, and the bidding for volunteers to take a “later flight” was then at $600 vouchers and climbing. I have no idea how high the airline finally had to go to get enough folks to accept.

Some conclusions:

  • When bad weather threatens major delays, airlines are now making wholesale “proactive” cancellations. That means (1) cancellations are more likely than before and (2) they’re made earlier than before, but (3) your airline will probably be very generous in allowing you to rebook your trip without extra fare collection or change fees. If you have time to wait out a storm, you’ll probably be better off rescheduling.
  • If you aren’t bound to a tight itinerary, you can probably make out very well by volunteering to get off a flight that really operates.
  • Despite a major crunch, most airline personnel generally remain helpful. They really do want to solve your problem.
  • When your flight is canceled and an agent offers anything like a reasonable alternative, take it. Waiting around for something “better” is asking for additional delays.

As to New York, I re-learned some useful lessons:

  • Even though LaGuardia is the closest New York Airport, the rail connections to Manhattan from JFK or Newark are much less expensive and more reliable than taxis, especially in bad weather. But they drop you off at Penn Station, so they work best if you’re staying on the West Side. LaGuardia, with cabs, is probably a better bet for the East Side, despite the likelihood that a taxi will take you for a “ride” over the Triborough Bridge.
  • Ignore the hype for the city’s latest “trendy” and “hip” (and expensive) boutique hotels; you can still find plenty of comfortable rooms in Manhattan for under $150 a night, and even quite a few under $125. If you’re flexible, you can do even better on Hotwire or Priceline or through a private sale website.
  • Good restaurant meals don’t have to cost a fortune. Forget those high-rated, high-cuisine places, just walk along 3rd, 2nd, or 1st Avenue anywhere between the 10s and 70s, and in much of that area, you’ll pass three of four attractive small restaurants on every block. Or browse through Chinatown, Little Italy, Alphabet City, or the East Village.

(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Hotwire.)

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