I flew out of New York City during Christmas week, when the temperature was in the 70s. I landed in southern New Mexico, hours before a giant snowstorm.
The governor, Susana Martinez, declared a state of emergency. My flight back to New York was canceled. Even if it hadn’t been, I was snowed in. At the same time, nearly a dozen tornadoes slammed the Dallas area in Texas, the deadliest to sweep through since 1927, according to the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, in the Midwest, there was deadly flooding in Missouri and Illinois.
Severe weather events such as floods, storms and heat waves appear to be happening with greater frequency. There have been an average of 335 weather-related disasters each year between 2005 and 2014, up 14 percent from the previous decade, and nearly double the level of the decade before that, according to a November report issued by the United Nations.
Travel in an age of uncertain climate means that at some point, your plans are likely to be upended by weather. Still, with a bit of preparation and the right attitude, it doesn’t have to proverbially rain on your vacation. Below are some tips on how to be ready for whatever comes your way.
Be among the first to learn your flight’s been canceled. Every minute of lead-time counts when trying to rebook. To that end, you should set up flight alerts before leaving for the airport, no matter what the weather (flights can be delayed or canceled for any number of reasons). The websites of major airlines allow passengers to sign up for information about trip changes, be it through texts, emails or notifications from their smartphone app. However, it’s not unusual for third-party apps to relay such information faster than the airlines themselves. For that reason, I have TripIt Pro, an app ($49 a year) that has pinged me about gate and flight changes before the airline itself. In a pinch, you can just Google your flight number (for example, “AA 1621”) to see the latest status.
Know what your airline will (ahem, not) give you. To save time and eliminate confusion if your flight is canceled, know this: In all but the most extreme circumstances, you’re not getting anything from the airline. United States carriers typically do not provide passengers with amenities such as hotel rooms or food vouchers if a flight is canceled because of weather, although they may sometimes help you get a discounted rate at a nearby hotel (you still foot the bill). Each airline has a “contract of carriage” or “conditions of carriage” that lays out what, if anything, you’ll receive if your flight is canceled. Delta , American and United all have contracts that say they have no liability if a flight is canceled owing to weather.
When that happens, airlines usually just rebook you on the next flight with available seats, or give you a refund for the unused portion of your flight. For the fine print about cancellations and delays, Google your airline’s name and “contract of carriage.”
Air passenger rights are stronger in the European Union, where you’re generally entitled to more amenities when things go wrong, but there’s no compensation for cancellations for bad weather.
Decide if you want to be rebooked or refunded.Whether you want to be rebooked or receive a refund depends on various personal factors, but one consideration should be how much money you’ll get back for the leg of the trip that was canceled (just ask the airline). If there’s another flight leaving soon, it probably makes sense to have the airline put you on it. (Keep in mind that it’s easier to get on a flight at the very last minute if you’re not checking bags.) Another option is to pocket the refund and, if you can, buy a cheaper one-way flight on another airline. Or use the refund money toward some other form of transportation to get where you’re going. It helps if before your trip you figure out if your destination has a nearby train or bus station, or a car rental office. No available flights for a day or two? An often-forgotten possibility is simply not to sweat it: Stay put and enjoy your mandatory timeout.
Note: If you’re standing in line at an airport counter hoping to be rebooked, call the airline while you wait. You may reach someone on the phone faster. Check out GetHuman.com now to find the best numbers for the airlines you fly, and keep them handy in your phone or address book.
If delayed on the tarmac, know your rights. The Department of Transportation’s rules state that within two hours of the flight being delayed, United States airlines must provide passengers on the tarmac with food, water and access to bathrooms. Airlines cannot allow tarmac delays longer than three hours on domestic flights without giving passengers an opportunity to leave the plane.
Have the tools to book a room on the fly. Keeping hotel apps — Priceline.com, Booking.com, Hotel Tonight — on your smartphone makes it easy to book in a pinch. That said, don’t assume that inventory is always up-to-date online. I once wanted to book a room in a hotel that appeared to be sold out online, but when I called, it turned out it had availability. Rates too high? If you belong to a hotel rewards program, consider using points to get a free or less costly night.
Work the lounge. If you don’t need a night’s sleep but want to clean up, have a snack, charge your devices and get some work done, consider purchasing airport lounge access if you don’t already have it. One-time passes for major United States carriers are around $50. That’s cheaper than a hotel room.
Layer up. I keep finding myself in places where it’s warm when it’s usually cool, and cool when it’s usually warm. Layers are the new normal. I didn’t think there would be a foot of snow outside the door in New Mexico, but I’m increasingly treating each trip as an all-season adventure. I had prepared for chilly desert nights with fleece jackets, gloves, a winter hat and scarf, and, boy, am I glad. When the snow began to fall, I wasn’t stuck indoors longing for warm weather. I could go with the flow and watch snowball fights amid the cactuses.
Pack for a longer trip. One reason people feel stressed when they’re stranded is they don’t have their personal essentials. Bring what you need to be able to work remotely (laptop, chargers, documents). Have extra days of your prescription medications, along with additional cash, underwear and socks (or laundry soap sheets so you can wash and rewear clothes). And bring a few “comfort” items, like noise-canceling headphones and an iPad.
So, yes, there were icicles on the palm fronds in New Mexico. Flights were canceled. I had a lot of work to do. But I was safe. I had a laptop. And to paraphrase a friend, you never know what will work out for the best. I saw a historic snowfall, spent a little more time with loved ones and polished off a few more homemade enchiladas.