What to do if you’re flying before a blizzard or hurricane

While I just wrote a series on what to do if your flight is cancelled, I thought it might be worth visiting how to strategize if you have travel booked near an impending blizzard, hurricane or massive storm.


I managed to take the last flight out of JFK on Monday. Friends were urging me to switch to an earlier flight, but since my ticket was booked on Singapore and I had already flown the outbound, I couldn’t make changes until my flight was cancelled, which never actually happened, even though it was scheduled mere hours before the airport was to shut down.

Watch for travel waivers and act fast

As you hear reports of impending doom, watch for your airline to issue a travel waiver. This absolves you from all change fees, but everyone is going to have the same idea as they try to avoid the storm too. Consider calling an overseas call center like Singapore, Hong Kong or Australia to skip the queue and get rebooked before everyone else.

Regional Jets cannot “do” weather

If you’re on a regional jet, you WILL be the first to be cancelled. They simply don’t have the instrument ratings larger aircraft do. If you’re flying to a smaller airport connected by only regional jet services, you may be out of luck.

Aim for before, not after the maelstrom

You have options to change your flight, but you don’t want to cut your vacation short. Ok, stay the extra days, but remember that airport operations are going to be highly variable and crowded after the storm and many people will be be camping out on standby hoping to get out.

Conversely, switching to an earlier flight will be competitive, but due to the flights preemptively cancelled and people who cancelled their trip outright, operations will be pretty smooth.

Don’t chase itineraries

Don't chase itineraries like these snow plows chasing a 757. Have one or two backups and stick to them instead of continuously optimizing.

Don’t chase itineraries like these snow plows chasing a 757. Have one or two backups and stick to them instead of continuously optimizing.

If you fly a lot, you’ll be tempted to continuously optimize, chasing better and better itineraries. Slightly earlier departure, slightly better connection, lie flat transcon vs. recliner, switching coterminal airports. Generally, unless your flight is already cancelled, don’t fret and over-think it.

If you aren’t cancelled, the best thing you can do is set an alert with the airline and with Flightaware.com and go about your business. I’d rather have more time with friends and family and occasionally check my phone for updates than pitching a tent at the airport for 12 hours, calling the airline 8 times and changing my itinerary every hour up to minutes before departure. That’s a great way to screw up a ticket and lose a lot of hair.

Have pre-emptive backups - but don’t get offloaded

This is where award miles come in handy. Many carriers have 24 hour cancellation policies and free date changes, so you can have a confirmed seat and still be able to cancel for free. If you have status or can sweet talk a phone agent, they might be able to “protect” you on other flights, putting you on standby or even blocking a confirmed seat on alternate flights. Just be sure they don’t offload you from your original flight unless the new one is far less likely to be cancelled or misconnect.

Unlike the hang-wringing activities above, this can all be done by calling a carrier once (maybe a different one you aren’t flying — out of an alternate airport). In my case, I had a backup on AA an hour before my flight on UA.

Outgoing flights may have delays, so pad extra time at connections

If you do decide to switch itineraries, keep in mind that delays will stack up as the storm moves in (inbound aircraft, de-icing queues). While it generally is much better to leave before the weather hits, be careful of itineraries with sub-1 hour connections that you may miss.

You goal is a seat over a cabin or product - Decide in advance what your tradeoffs will be

Stay the course with your flight if it isn’t cancelled, but give yourself outs that don’t threaten your original itinerary or trade your weather problems for others. It’s important to remember that the energy you expend rebooking is going to take a massive toll on you and if you keep optimizing too much, you’ll wear yourself out and make suboptimal decisions. Decide if you’re willing to fly in coach over business, fly another airline or have a crazy connecting itinerary so if faced with a split-second choice, you’ll know what you want in advance.

Gather intel from contract workers and lounge agents at the airport

Contract workers, like those that work for Swissport, Airserv and Servisair are invaluable sources of information in these cases. Because they handle operations across several airlines, they often have a more holistic view of airport operations (“Delta cancelled all of their flights out, AA only regional jet service”) and since they don’t work for any of the airlines, they also won’t necessarily feed you a party line. Lounge agents often hear a lot of chatter and can be more forthright about tradeoffs on itineraries.

They also tend to know several airline reservation systems and quirks and can switch you in a pinch if they have authorization to do so.

Conclusion - Should you stay or should you go?

Not a good sign when you get to an airport, but now you know what your options are.

Not a good sign when you get to an airport, but now you know what your options are.

At the end of the day, your goal is to get out. Decide in advance under what circumstances you’re willing to fly in a lower cabin, plan in advance alternative options and use your mileage to hedge across multiple airlines. And if the options don’t look good, consider hunkering down or not taking the trip at all. It may be the least stressful option (My friend and I were going to urban camp and binge watch TV if we didn’t escape the blizzard).

You can cancel for free and claim mileage differences back on sub-optimal itineraries. The worst thing you can do is panic.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply