How to Salvage Your Holiday Travel Plans as Winter Storms Loom

As much of the country braces for severe storm systems and an arctic freeze, experts weigh in on how to handle flight (re)bookings, delays, and cancellations.

Airplane parked at a gate in the snow

Airlines are warning travelers of delays and cancellations due to winter storms.

Photo by charnsitr/Shutterstock

This holiday travel season is gearing up to be a perfect storm, so to speak. Just as the number of air travelers is approaching and potentially surpassing prepandemic volumes for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, severe winter storms and an arctic freeze are bearing down on much of the country, threatening to seriously disrupt travel plans.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported this week that it “anticipates airport security checkpoints nationwide will be busier this holiday travel season compared to last year.” TSA notes that the busiest travel days are expected to be Thursday, December 22, and Friday, December 30.

“We are prepared for the increased volume and expect to meet our wait time standards of 30 minutes or less in standard lanes and 10 minutes or less in TSA PreCheck lanes. However, there may be some situations where the capacity of a checkpoint is exceeded,” stated TSA Administrator David Pekoske.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service on Tuesday reported that “a significant and disruptive storm system is forecast to produce a multitude of weather hazards through midweek, as heavy snowfall, strong winds, and dangerously cold temperatures span from the Northwest through the Plains, the Great Lakes, and the central Appalachians.”

Forecasters are warning of treacherous holiday travel and life-threatening cold for much of the nation as an arctic air mass blows through the country.

“We’re looking at much-below normal temperatures, potentially record-low temperatures leading up to the Christmas holiday,” Zack Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, told the Associated Press.

The winter weather woes combined with ongoing aviation industry operational hurdles and lingering staffing shortages mean that travelers could face delays and cancellations at airports throughout the United States.

For those with plans to head into the skies for the holidays, don’t dismay. Here are some simple actions that travelers can take to minimize the stress and aggravation. Arm yourselves with these pro tips from airline industry insiders.

What you can do before you fly

The Bean in Chicago's Millennium Park during a snowstorm

The Midwest is among the U.S. destinations expected to get hit hard by incoming storms and cold.

Photo by Shutterstock

Rebook your flight

All of the major U.S. carriers have issued flight change waivers leading up to the holidays. This is your chance to pre-emptively rebook your travel before things get very hairy. Here’s a brief summary of the airlines’ current holiday travel waivers.

  • American Airlines: If you are scheduled to fly to or from dozens of airports in the Northeast and Midwest between December 22 and 24 (for the Northeast) or between December 21 and 23 (for the Midwest) and bought your flight by December 19, you can change your flight free of charge as long as you rebook by December 24 (for the Northeast) or by December 23 (for the Midwest).
  • Delta Air Lines: Delta has numerous winter weather advisories and rebooking options in place for customers traveling to and from the Pacific Northwest, Midwest and Central Plains, Atlantic region and Northeast, and Northwest Mountain region.
  • JetBlue: JetBlue is waiving change fees and fare differences for those traveling to and from the Northeast on December 22 through December 23. The carrier is also waiving change fees and fare differences for customers traveling to and from several Midwest cities between December 21 and December 23.
  • Southwest Airlines: The carrier is allowing customers who have booked travel to or from a large swath of destinations throughout the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, Central Plains, and Northeast to rebook in the original class of service or travel standby (within 14 days of their original date of travel between the original city pairs) free of charge for travel that was scheduled to take place December 20 through December 26.
  • United Airlines: United is the waiving change and the fare difference for flights throughout much of the country this week.

When you do rebook, grab the earliest flight of the day

“Early flights have an on-time arrival rate that’s 25 percentage points higher than evening flights. That’s because (a) weather is better in the morning, and (b) the aircraft is parked at the airport overnight and ready to go,” Scott Keyes, founder of flight deal tracking service Scott’s Cheap Flights, advised in a Tweet on Tuesday.

“The sooner you switch, the better your options,” added Keyes.

William McGee, an aviation expert and author of the book Attention All Passengers, notes that delays tend to pile up later in the day. “You should book that 6 a.m. departure,” he says.

Try to book a nonstop instead of a connecting flight

With waived change fees and even fare differences in many cases, see if you can find a nonstop flight instead of a connecting one to reduce your chances of having any issues.

Schedule long layovers

If you aren’t able to fly nonstop, make sure to add some buffer to those connections. One hour won’t cut it. Shoot for at least two hours for domestic layovers and at least three for international flights.

Download the FlightAware app

Air industry insiders swear by this flight tracking app, which can tip travelers off to any upcoming changes often before the airline informs customers. If your flight keeps getting bumped back on the departure board, you can check FlightAware to find your aircraft on its journey. If it seems to be stuck at its previous departure city, you may want to start looking into alternative options for your flight.

Stay on top of the weather

If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a meteorologist, now’s your chance. Check the weather radar and forecasts available on sites and apps such as the National Weather Service (and its Weather Prediction Center), the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather. Even if there isn’t a weather issue in the region where you’re traveling to or from, the ripple effect and strains on the system could affect your flight.

Getting to and through the airport

TSA and airlines warn that the lines at the country's airports could be particularly long this holiday season.

TSA and airlines warn that the lines at the country’s airports could be particularly long this holiday season.

Photo by Shutterstock

Leave for and arrive at the airport earlier than usual

Severe winter weather could mean that it takes longer to get to the airport. Once you arrive, you may find that the lines and wait times are longer than you thought they would be. All of the major U.S. airlines as well as TSA are advising travelers to get to the airport extra early this holiday travel season. Aim for at least two hours before domestic flights and at least three for international flights. You can download the MyTSA app for real-time security line wait times at the country‘s airports.

Consider traveling with carry-on only

With increased congestion and flight unpredictability this holiday travel season, those who don’t want to risk their luggage getting lost in the baggage operations vortex should consider keeping their belongings on their person. (One of our favorites is the Bigger Carry-On by Away, $295, If any holiday gifts are coming with you in your carry-on, TSA reminds travelers to make sure the gifts are unwrapped and can be inspected. “TSA encourages those traveling with gifts this holiday season to use gift bags that can be easily opened or gift boxes with lids that can be removed, so that contents can be inspected if required. Fully wrapped gifts may need to be opened if deemed necessary by a TSA officer,” TSA advises.

Checking luggage? Make sure to have some clothes, essentials, and valuables on you

For those who are devoted members of Team Checked Luggage (there are more of us than you might think), pack at least a day or two of clothes, toiletries, and any essentials in your carry-on in case you do get separated from your checked bag.

What to do when things go wrong and your flight is canceled or delayed

As soon as you see an avalanche of delays or cancellations heading your way, start researching alternatives with the airline you are booked on, but also on partner airlines (especially for international flights), and even with competing carriers. Many competing airlines have mutual interline agreements that will allow you to transfer over a ticket.

Call the airline’s international help desk

This is another hot tip from Keyes’s recent tweet. “Airlines’ phones are clogged when there’s bad weather,” wrote Keyes. But, he adds that airlines’ offices in Canada, Mexico, the U.K., or elsewhere might be wide open. “Agents there can handle your rebooking just like U.S.-based ones, but with no wait.” Keyes wrote.

Check to see what kind of trip insurance coverage your credit card offers

A lot of credit cards offer trip-interruption or trip-cancellation coverage. In the event expenses start to mount (meals at the airport, overnight hotel stays, rebooked flights) due to flight delays or cancellations that aren’t covered by the airline (such as those due to weather issues, which are deemed beyond the airline’s control), a credit card with coverage can ensure at least a partial refund, if not full.

Try to remain calm and friendly

“Pack an extra dose of patience, especially during higher passenger volume travel days, and show gratitude to those who are working diligently to get everyone to their destinations safely,” TSA reminds travelers. You can only imagine the amount of frustration fliers have right now, and good ol’ fashioned friendliness can help make headway with a weary gate, airline, or customer service agent who isn’t having an easy day (week? year?)—not to mention is working on or during the holidays. If you’re on the phone with an agent who just does not seem like they want to help, don’t hesitate to make an excuse for ending the call and try back for another person who maybe is more willing to help.

Know your rights

Airlines aren’t required to compensate passengers when flights are delayed or canceled due to problems deemed beyond the company’s control, like bad weather (womp womp). They also aren’t required to provide a refund when the passenger initiates the cancellation or flight change. But a refund is required by U.S. law when the airline cancels, delays, or alters a flight, or passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight that is oversold or due to issues originating from the airline, such as operational or staffing problems. So, make sure to be tuned into whether the issue is a weather-related one or an operational one. (Right now, it’s going to be pretty hard to prove it’s not related to weather, unfortunately.)

That being said, all of the major U.S. airlines have vowed to provide meal vouchers for delays of more than three hours and to provide transfers and hotel stays to passengers affected by an overnight cancellation. They have all also agreed to rebook travelers on an alternate flight at no added cost due to a delay or cancellation and most will also rebook on a partner airline as well.

Michelle Baran is a deputy editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.
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