Successful winter travel is all about successfully navigating the weather. In winter, most travelers hope 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 winter travel tips and tactics to help you avoid spending the season stuck in airports or on roadsides.
Winter Travel Tips for Flying
1. The worst winter travel 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 not too bad; 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 I would call your worst-case scenario.
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 on your favorite booking engine. 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 to get from Point A to B without any 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; 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, tell a flight attendant who may be able to make arrangements to hold your next flight, or at least get you off your first flight quickly.
3. Check the weather at your connecting cities as well as at your departure and destination airports. You’ll 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, and save you a lot of grief. 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.
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 alternative airports. Very often the problem is not solely weather, but also the overall volume of passengers and flights. In places like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Houston, second-tier airports aren’t too far out of town and are tied into the transportation grid.
7. Get ahead of the game at security. Before you even get in line, put all your gear and spare coins into a pocket of your carry-on bag. With so much valuable stuff getting dumped into plastic bins all day, every day, it’s inevitable 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 other essentials. Find more airport security tips here and here.
8. The annual holiday travel 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. Find more holiday-specific winter travel tips here.
9. Finally, avoid peak travel dates as best you can, particularly holiday weekends. Find out the best and worst days to travel around the holidays here.
Winter Travel Tips for Driving
1. Put some extra clothing and emergency items into your vehicle; these will come in handy if you break down in cold weather. 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; things that won’t spoil, 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 inspect your tires before the first big winter storm.
3. Once your vehicle is inspected and equipped, follow this advice I heard a while back from a Montana snowplow driver: “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 bad weather. Also leave extra space between you and the car in front of you in case of slippery roads.
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, here’s how to drive on black ice.
6. Some features of modern automobiles may actually serve you poorly in bad conditions. In some SUVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles, for example, you may have better traction when the vehicle is under way, 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.
8. If you’re 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 10 minutes every hour, cracking open a front window 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.
Readers: What winter travel tips would you add? Post them in the comments.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The One Winter Travel Accessory You Should Always Pack
- 7 Lightweight Winter Jackets for Travel
- Quiz: Where Should You Travel This Winter?
Editor’s Note: This story was written in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.