How to Plan Travel in a Climate-Changing World

Hurricanes, wildfires, extreme heat, flooding—travel in a climate-changing world can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for how to reduce the risks.

Airplane parked at a flooded airport

Just this week, flights were diverted from Dubai International Airport due to record rains and flooding.

Bit Investment/Shutterstock

The past year saw extreme heat waves in Asia, Australia, the United States, and across much of Europe; wildfires in Canada and in Maui; and atmospheric rivers and flooding in California, to name just a few of the severe weather events. The summer of 2023 was the hottest on record, the European Union’s climate change service reported. And this past winter was one of the warmest for the contiguous United States, according to a report released last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The planet’s warming trend has been deteriorating ecosystems on land and at sea, devastating populations worldwide, and forcing communities to rebuild in the aftermath of destruction. It’s also, increasingly, making travel more challenging as we are forced to navigate a world with more natural disasters, uncertain of how and when they will strike.

“Disasters don’t discriminate. They don’t choose where they go, when they go, to what state. And while every situation is unique, we need to make sure that the people that are in these situations, whether they are a permanent resident or a traveler, have access to the critical information that helps them evacuate or get help in their greatest time of need,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, director of public affairs and spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), tells AFAR.

You need a plan—even if you don’t think you do, you do.
Paul Doucet, regional director of security, intelligence, and assistance for International SOS

No matter where or when you go, there is no escaping the possible effects of climate change. That is why, according to Paul Doucet, regional director of security, intelligence, and assistance for International SOS, a global health and security risk management firm, travelers shouldn’t be complacent when planning travel in a climate-changing world.

“The complacency is a killer, and a lot of people have to fight that off,” Doucet told me last year when we spoke for an AFAR Unpacked podcast episode about travel and climate anxiety.

“You need a plan—even if you don’t think you do, you do,” Doucet said, adding that his advice for travelers moving about in a world that has become much more uncertain is to look at two factors: “What’s the most likely scenario, and what is a realistic worst-case scenario?”

To that end, this past fall, FEMA partnered with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to issue a public service announcement to travelers, asking them to make a plan before travel and to be prepared in the event of a natural disaster or severe storm.

“We need to do a better job of educating travelers about all the risks,” says Rothenberg. “Just as you’re going to check the weather for a trip to figure out what to pack, we want to make sure that you’re checking where to go in the event of an emergency. Are you bringing your pet with you? Not all pets are accepted into every shelter. Do you know where you’re going to evacuate during a storm?”

Rothenberg recommends that travelers download the FEMA app, which teaches users how to prepare for hazards and disasters. The app provides real-time weather reports and alerts from the National Weather Service, helps users find a nearby shelter if they need to evacuate to a safe space, and has informative articles about what to do in case of emergencies like extreme flooding.

The app shares tips on what to pack in an emergency kit, and the steps to take after a disaster. Rothenberg also reminds travelers to make sure someone at home is watching over their apartment or house and can help secure it should a severe storm strike while they are away.

Her main piece of advice for anyone who encounters a severe weather event or natural disaster while traveling is to listen to local officials and follow their guidance. Along those lines, make sure to always have a backup battery for charging your cell phone in the event that you lose power so that you can keep your lines of communication open.

Another line of defense for travelers is to work with a trusted travel adviser who can help rebook travel, find alternative accommodations, and make other arrangements when disaster hits. After all, when the going gets rough, it helps to have someone working the phones and their contacts to get you to where you need to go.

“Climate change and increasingly unpredictable weather is top of mind for travelers everywhere. But even more than headline-grabbing natural disasters, we are hearing from travelers worried that climate change is making it harder to predict—and avoid—storms that can ruin a vacation, especially as people are spending more than ever on travel,” says Daniel Price, co-founder of WeatherPromise, a company that offers a weather guarantee that refunds the cost of your trip in the event of bad weather.

In an increasingly uncertain world, travelers should consider investing in travel insurance and read the fine print, because weather-related delays, cancellations, and costs aren’t always covered.

A helicopter flying above smoke-filled forest in Canada

The warmer summer months are often a popular time to visit Canada, but in June 2023, our neighbor to the north was battling widespread wildfires, with smoke drifting into the eastern United States.

David J. Mitchell/Shutterstock

Price notes that beyond the inevitable impact of extreme weather events on the destinations being battered, the increasing variability of severe storms and weather can also affect how we get to and from the places we are visiting, whether that’s by flight, train, car, or cruise. “More frequent storms and severe turbulence are leading to a greater number of flight delays and cancellations,” says Price.

One of the most recent examples was earlier this week when flights were forced to divert away from Dubai International Airport (DBX), the second busiest airport in the world. Dubai was inundated with record rainfall, resulting in flooding at the airport, the Associated Press and other news agencies reported.

Price advises all travelers, regardless of which season they are traveling in, to download a flight-tracking app on their phone and to enter airline phone numbers into their contacts so that they know what to expect and can act fast when things start to go wrong.

Some travelers are actively designing their vacations with climate change in mind. As traveling in the summer months increasingly feels unbearable, companies like WeatherPromise are seeing greater interest in travelers looking to explore during the offseason. Australian-owned, eco-adventure operator Aurora Expeditions is promoting “coolcations”—travel to cooler destinations to escape the blazing summer temperatures fueled by climate change—as icy alternatives to the world’s more balmy summer destinations. Aurora operates polar cruises on expedition vessels, with excursions like kayaking among glaciers, chasing Northern Lights, and Zodiac cruising through fjords.

Tips for planning a trip amid extreme weather

Here are the steps travelers can and should take to best prepare for the unexpected before they hit the road:

  • Tap a trusted travel adviser
  • Invest in travel insurance
  • Read the travel readiness recommendations provided by the TSA
  • Download the FEMA app
  • Stay on top of the weather
  • Heed the advice of local officials
  • Bring an emergency kit
  • Pack critical medications
  • Bring a backup phone battery

And when you do go out into the world, armed with your worst-case scenario plan, remember that now, more than ever, our actions as we travel have bearing on the world.

“This is an amazing world, and we should all get out there and see it,” says Price. “For me, personally, I’ve been more and more mindful about my impact on the places I’m seeing. This obviously includes my carbon footprint, but also how crowded tourist sites are and what impact visitors have on local rental markets, retail businesses, and restaurants. It is more important than ever for travelers to think and act locally, even when on the other side of the globe.”

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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