Travelers have long odds of getting on a flight ahead of this winter storm, but they’re not without options to troubleshoot their plans.
Airlines have been pre-emptively cancelling flights ahead of the storm, which is expected to generate blizzard conditions while dumping more than 2 feet of snow between New York and Boston. More than 2,800 flights within, into or out of the U.S. were canceled Monday, according to FlightAware.com, and another 2,500 on Tuesday.
“It’s preordained that it’s going to be a nasty, nasty storm,” said Paul Walsh, vice president of weather analytics for The Weather Channel, an NBCUniversal company. About 28 million people in the Northeast are currently in areas under blizzard warnings, said Walsh. “That’s like Donner-party weather,” he said. “Plan on not traveling.”
If you were scheduled to fly Monday or Tuesday, reach out to the airline about rescheduling your trip, said Patrick Surry, chief data scientist of travel deal site Hopper.com. Don’t wait until your flight is canceled. Major airlines including American, Delta, United and JetBlue have already announced that they will waive change fees for travelers ticketed to fly through affected East Coast airports on Monday or Tuesday. If your flight was already canceled, you’re entitled to a full refund if you opt not to reschedule.
Wednesday morning is likely to be your earliest chance, weather-wise, of getting out, said Walsh. But that assumes airlines are able to redirect planes to avoid a lag in service—and that you’re able to snag an open seat on one of those planes. That’s optimistic, said Jason Clampet, co-founder of travel site Skift.com. “The main reason airlines are more proactive [with change waivers] now is that the planes are so full these days that if one gets canceled … it’s really hard to get those seats on another plane in the next few days,” he said.
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Expect long phone wait times with so many people trying to call airline customer service. Try reaching out to the airline’s Spanish-speaking or foreign call centers, said Brian Kelly, founder of ThePointsGuy.com. “Usually their wait times are a fraction of the time.”
If you’re in limbo at the airport, try calling while you’re waiting in line, said Rick Seaney, chief executive of FareCompare.com. That can help minimize your wait. Or head to the airline lounge. Most charge a fee of roughly $50 for lounge access, but the service is often better there, Kelly said. “It can help you get accommodated a lot quicker,” he said.
Travelers who can be flexible about rebooking may be able to reach their destination sooner. Ask about alternate airports that can get you close enough to finish the trip with a car rental or on public transportation, said Clampet—for example, Philadelphia instead of New York. Indirect flights can also work in your favor. “Making a stop at a hub airport can give you more flight options and a better chance at scoring an empty seat,” Seaney said.
But if that flexibility extends to taking your vacation in a few weeks or months, now isn’t the best time to make new arrangements. A 2014 Hopper study found that travel demand increases 1.9 percent for every 1-degree drop in temperature. “You can see prices for your spring break trip starting to go up,” said Surry. “So it might not be a good time to book that flight.”
Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent of CNBC.