Brutal winter storms sweeping across the United States this week are wreaking havoc on travel in regions as wide ranging as the Pacific Northwest, West Coast, Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast. In addition to heavy snowfall resulting in highways being shut down from Arizona to Wyoming, thousands of flights were canceled and delayed on Wednesday and Thursday, with the storms anticipated to continue for several days in select areas.
As of press time, 1,016 flights had been canceled throughout the United States on Thursday, following 1,775 flight cancellations on Wednesday, according to flight tracking service FlightAware. And the flight delays have been seriously piling up—FlightAware reported 7,127 flight delays across the nation on Wednesday and 3,374 flight delays by midday on Thursday.
These are the airports experiencing some of the worst delays and cancellations as of midday Thursday (according to FlightAware data):
- Portland International Airport (PDX): At PDX in Oregon, 32 percent of flights had been canceled, and 9 percent were delayed on Thursday
- Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport (MSP): Nearly one-third (29 percent) of flights were canceled, and 15 percent were delayed at MSP on Thursday
- Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport (MKE): Practically a quarter (22 percent) of flights were canceled, and 14 percent were delayed at MKE on Thursday
- Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF): In Buffalo, New York, 22 percent of flights were canceled, and 25 percent were delayed on Thursday
- Boston Logan International (BOS): At Boston’s main hub, 14 percent of flights were canceled, and 27 percent were delayed on Thursday
Here are some of the latest weather updates throughout the country:
Much of Portland was shut down on Thursday after the Pacific Northwest city experienced its second snowiest day in history. The nearly 11 inches of snow that fell in Portland on Wednesday stalled traffic during the evening rush hour and trapped drivers on freeways. Some spent the night in their vehicles or abandoned them altogether as crews struggled to clear roads.
As of Thursday morning, the National Weather Service had reported 10.1 inches of snow at Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport.
“A prolonged major winter storm will continue to bring widespread heavy snow and blizzard conditions to portions of the West as well as the northern Plains/Great Lakes into Thursday,” the National Weather Service reported on Thursday in its latest winter storm update.
Destinations from the Great Lakes to the Northeast could expect to see an additional 6 to 12 inches of snow on Thursday, and possibly as much as 18 inches in some areas, according to the weather agency.
In Arizona, several interstate highways and other roadways were closed due to high winds, falling temperatures, and blowing snow. The winter storms prompted the Arizona Department of Transportation to advise drivers to delay highway travel this week until conditions improve. The National Weather Service was forecasting whiteout conditions in parts of northern and eastern Arizona this week along with strong winds of 50 miles per hour and greater.
As of Thursday morning, more than 681,000 customers were without power in Michigan; over 84,000 in Illinois; more than 58,000 in Wisconsin; about 42,000 in California, and about 32,000 in New York State, according to the website PowerOutage.us.
In Wyoming, roads across much of the southern part of the state were impassable, state officials said. Rescuers tried to reach stranded motorists, but high winds and drifting snow created a “near-impossible situation,” Sergeant Jeremy Beck of the Wyoming Highway Patrol told the Associated Press.
A blizzard warning was in effect through Saturday in California for higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada, where forecasters predicted several feet of snow, 60 mph gusts, and wind chills as low as minus 40 degrees.
“On Thursday and Friday, the heavy snowfall threat across the West should become more centered over California as a new storm system developing just off the West Coast drops south and begins to edge into the Southwest for the end of the week,” the National Weather Service reported.
As much as three to five feet of snowfall is expected in the Sierra Nevada range, and some snowfall could even accumulate in the lower foothills and interior valley areas along the Pacific Coast where snowfall is less common due to colder than average temperatures.
What to do if your travel plans are affected by winter storms
Rebook your flight
If weather-related delays or cancellations are affecting an airport you are planning to fly to or from in the coming hours or days, it may be wise to preemptively cancel or postpone your travel rather than get stuck somewhere. The major U.S. carriers all issue flight change waivers in response to extreme weather events. You can find the latest flight waiver information at the links below:
The best flight to book? Early and nonstop
The earlier your flight, the lower your chance of weather-related delays and cancellations that tend to pile up over the course of the day. Also, try to book a nonstop instead of a connecting flight to reduce your chances of having any issues. 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.
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. 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 during winter storms, 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, away.com.)
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.
Research alternate flights with the same airline, partner airlines, even competitors
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.
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.
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.
Associated Press contributed reporting.