What to Know if the Winter Storm Wreaks Havoc on Your Holiday Travel

Wind, freezing rain and snow are predicted from the Northwest to the Northeast this week. Forecasters say vast swaths of the Central and Eastern United States could be hit with a blast of Arctic air that could ice runways and freeze roadways. Blizzard conditions are predicted for the Central and Northern Plains and Great Lakes regions. Parts of Wyoming will see windchill temperatures drop to 69 and 70 degrees below zero.

And it’s all just in time for the holiday travel rush.

Whether you are planning to travel by plane or by car over the Christmas weekend, you could face delays, cancellations and treacherous conditions.

The weather could create more chaos at airports, which AAA, the automobile association, said will be “packed” during the holidays. Nearly 7.2 million Americans are expected to fly between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, which is 14 percent more than last year and almost as many as in 2019, according to AAA.

Should you cancel your trip? What are your options if your flight is delayed or canceled? Here’s what you need to know if the holiday storm upsets your travel plans.

Know your rights

If the prospect of getting stuck is too daunting, many airlines, including United, American Airlines and JetBlue, are offering to rebook passengers on other flights without additional fees — if they are flying to or from areas that are expected to be hit by severe weather.

But first check the details with your carrier, because each airline has different parameters on when passengers can reschedule their flights.

If your flight is canceled, airlines are obligated by federal law to provide a full refund if the passenger requests it, said Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights, a service that tracks and emails airfare deals to customers. This is true even if a flight is canceled because of the weather.

“It’s still not your fault as a traveler, and you are still entitled to a full cash refund if you want one,” Mr. Keyes said.

If a flight is “significantly delayed,” airlines may also provide a refund if you decide not to fly, Mr. Keyes said, though they are not required to do so. Airlines define what a “significant delay” means though two or three hours for a domestic flight should be a good rule of thumb.

To know what your carrier’s policies are, consult the Department of Transportation’s online dashboard, which features 10 U.S. airlines with green check marks next to the services they offer when flights are delayed or canceled for reasons that the airline controls, such as staffing.

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In August, the agency said that it is working on a rule change that would require airlines to refund passengers whose departure or arrival times are delayed by three hours on domestic flights or six hours on international flights.

Use your leverage

Mr. Keyes said this could be an opportunity to take advantage of the expected chaos. If your airline is dropping change fees, it may be possible to get on a better flight than what you originally booked.

Airlines would much rather keep your money than fork over a refund, so “they will work with you to switch to a better flight,” he said.

Another tip: You can try calling an airline’s international hotline, not the U.S. number, even if the canceled flight was domestic, he said.

“Most airlines have numbers all over the world,” Mr. Keyes said. “They’ll have agents there whose lines are empty. They can all help get you rebooked just the same.”

Passengers who booked with online travel agencies, like Expedia, will have to work through those agencies for refunds or to make flight changes, he said.

Be prepared

Install a flight tracker app on your phone, or use your airline’s app to monitor your flight and set up alerts so that you get information as early as possible.

Knowing a flight is going to be delayed or even canceled can help passengers act quickly, said Kathleen Bangs, a spokeswoman for FlightAware, a flight tracking company.

“Then you can be first in line — or first on the phone or on your app — to make arrangements for another flight,” she said.

Passengers who become stranded at the airport may also be able to negotiate with airlines for vouchers, Ms. Bangs said, even though airlines are not required to offer them when weather causes a delay or cancellation.

Ms. Bangs said more airlines are empowering their employees to make decisions at the gate or on the phone to help customers, a philosophy espoused by Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest, who focused heavily on customer service.

Customer service agents may be willing to upgrade a stranded passenger’s seat, give them more miles on their mileage plan or provide a hotel voucher even if they are not obligated to, Ms. Bangs said.

“They might say, ‘Well this is a weather event so we’re not offering anything,’” she said. But “it never hurts to ask in a polite way.”

What if I’m driving?

There are two reasons your car trip might be delayed: heavy traffic and weather.

Even if the weather is clear in your location, expect congestion, especially on those days when holiday travelers share the road with regular commuters.

About 102 million people plan to drive 50 miles or more from their homes between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2, according to AAA. That’s 3.6 million more than the number of people who drove during the holiday season in 2021 and nearly as many as in 2018, when 102.5 million people hit the roads. (The record was set in 2019, when 108 million people drove between Christmas and New Years Day.)

In major metro areas like New York City and Los Angeles, travelers could face traffic delays that are twice as long as usual, according to INRIX, a transportation analysis agency.

If you can, drive on Christmas Day, said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at INRIX.

But if you have to leave before that, avoid driving between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Dec. 23, and between noon and 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, when regular commuters are still expected to be on the road, he said.

“If schedules allow, leave bright and early or after the afternoon commute,” Mr. Pishue said.

The cold, ice and snow won’t help. In some parts of the country, the warnings about freezing weather are downright frightening.

In parts of Texas, “dangerously cold wind chills” are possible Thursday and Friday, while the Midwest could see blizzard conditions on Thursday.

AAA “strongly recommends drivers pack an emergency kit,” said Aixa Diaz, a spokeswoman for the group.

The kit should include a cellphone charger, a flashlight with extra batteries, a first-aid kit, reflectors, an ice scraper or snow brush, a shovel, drinking water, extra snacks and food for everyone in the car, including pets if they are traveling with you.

Drivers should have warm gloves, clothes, hats and blankets for everyone in the car. They should also clean their headlights, replace old wiper blades and inspect their tire pressure on their vehicles.

Drivers are also advised not to use cruise control in slick conditions and to stay in their lane as much as possible, since there may be patches of ice between lanes.

“If you hit a patch of ice and begin to skid, try to stay calm and resist the urge to slam on the brakes,” Ms. Diaz said. “Instead, look where you want the car to go and steer in that direction.”

Most importantly, she said, “if there is a blizzard in your path, stay home.”

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