Meteorologists share their winter travel advice

winter weather advice

Never check luggage. That’s the winter travel advice of CNBC correspondent Contessa Brewer, who, coincidentally, was emailing me from a plane en route to cover a weather disaster.

“Bring carry-on luggage,” she told me. “It makes it much easier to rebook flights. And don’t take no for an answer.”

With winter just around the corner, maybe you’re wondering how the experts travel. I’m talking about people, like Brewer, who fly into bad weather to cover stories. And the pros who forecast the weather and document the devastating effects of severe conditions. How do they fly and drive during the cold months?

A record 107.3 million people traveled during the year-end holidays last year, according to AAA — the highest year-end travel volume on record. If current trends hold, this will be another busy, and perhaps record-breaking, winter for travel.

Want winter travel advice? Start with research

“I always check the weather before I even begin the process of booking winter travel,” Brewer told me. “Just to see whether I should expect to encounter travel problems. Especially if I have to book connecting flights. I do my best to find cities that appear to be free from weather issues. Although, truth be told, a big storm can complicate air travel throughout the entire nation.”

The importance of research was a common theme among the experts I interviewed. Meteorologists spend a little extra time reviewing weather patterns before they make plans.

“My first concern is always trying to lower my risk of weather-related delays,” says Susie Martin, a meteorologist and the director of operations at Praedictix.com, a weather forecasting and consulting company in Eden Prairie, Minn. “I might look up that area’s climatology to see what the weather trends are for that time of the year.”

Where to find winter travel data

There’s plenty of historical weather data available online to help you make decisions. For domestic winter travel, one of the best resources is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency responsible for monitoring climate and our environment. You can find historical weather data by Zip code on one of its microsites. As your trip gets closer, Martin advises checking weather alerts through the National Weather Service website.

The meteorologists I spoke with also said they listen to — and watch — one another when they are deciding whether to travel. If one of their colleagues is warning against winter travel, and other professionals agree, they pay attention. The same can’t be said for regular travelers, many of whom ignore the forecast and push forward with their travel plans. (In fairness to the ignorers, the travel industry’s strict “no-changes, no refunds” policy makes it difficult to cancel plans, even during inclement weather.)

When not to travel

Weather experts also have their “no go” rankings. It’s a key part of their winter travel advice.

“I would be least inclined to travel during an ice storm,” says New York meteorologist Jeff Schultz. “Airlines have safety thresholds where flights will be delayed or canceled for all types of weather, so I mostly trust their judgment. When driving, I do trust my abilities on the road, but don’t trust other drivers to use the same caution, especially in areas that aren’t used to certain types of weather.”

For example, Schultz has “no problem” driving his Honda CR-V during a blizzard in Upstate New York alongside the locals, because people in Upstate New York know how to drive in a blizzard.

“I would not drive in the South in the snow,” he says. “A one-inch snowfall can bring the Atlanta motorways to its knees.”

That’s no joke. If you live in Atlanta, you already know about Snow Jam ’82. Or its more recent sequels, Snowpocalypse ’11, and SnowJam ’14. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called these storms “humiliating.”

What if you have to travel?

But what if you have to travel? I put that question to Howard Altschule of Forensic Weather Consultants in Albany, N.Y. As a forensic meteorologist, Altschule often has to travel directly into severe weather.

“I watch the computer models closely as my trip approaches to see if there is potentially disruptive weather coming,” he says.

“If I see that storm approaching well in advance, I’ll call the carrier and do what I can to change my flight to a day or two before the storm even gets close,” he says. “It has worked like a charm so far.”

Like other industry insiders, Altschule has discovered a back door to the airline and hotel industries’ strict policies on booking changes. These rules become flexible when a winter storm approaches. Sometimes, you can persuade an airline agent to proactively rebook you on a different flight — even when the storm is a distant blip on the horizon and the airline hasn’t announced any waivers.

Speaking of distant blips, it’s not the size of the storm that matters. Sometimes, the worst winter travel conditions occur during — or after — a minor snow event. A surprise one-inch snowfall just before rush hour on a Monday morning can wreak more havoc than a well-advertised storm that brings six inches of precipitation on a Saturday afternoon.

That may be the biggest takeaway from this winter travel advice: Pay attention to the weather this winter. Any weather. Listen to the experts, and remember that the most disruptive weather may seem insignificant at first notice. You don’t want to be a cast member in Snowpocalypse ’18 now, do you?

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
Posted in The Navigator Tagged

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

Underwritten by

Underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Underwritten by Enterprise

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

Underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

Underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Underwritten by Sungard Availability Services

Leveraging more than 35 years of experience, Sungard AS designs, builds and runs critical IT services that help businesses manage complex IT, adapt quickly and build resiliency and availability. A leading provider of critical production and recovery services, Sungard AS partners with customers across the globe, delivering resilient IT systems, infrastructure and recovery services tailored to achieving desired business outcomes.

Underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.