Snowstorms and hurricanes, thunderstorms and fog. Bad weather is by far the biggest source of flight delays in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. While you can’t control Mother Nature, smart planning can reduce your risk of having to sleep in a terminal.
Try these six tips the next time a bad forecast is looming over your much-needed getaway.
Sniff out delays before anyone else
Don’t stay checked-out until it’s time to check in. Besides signing up for your airline’s flight alerts, there are several ways to know if you’re in danger of a delay.
To get a current snapshot of what’s happening at your airports, visit the FAA’s Flight Delay Information page. It won’t provide the status of your specific flight, but it will tell you if, say, flights from LaGuardia to San Francisco are facing hours-long weather delays.
Use apps such as FlightView or FlightRadar24 to see if your specific plane is running late from its previous assignment. Query Google with your flight number; its machine-learning algorithms have gotten especially good at combining data from multiple sources to predict delays before the airlines get in touch. And keep an eye on the forecast, of course.
If any of these modes of recon give you pause, contact your airline immediately to get ahead of the pack.
Avoid change fees
If adverse weather is predicted to strike on the day of your flight, see if you can avoid it by preemptively changing your plans, whether this means leaving a day early, shifting from a late-night to an early-morning departure, or rerouting your connection. Airlines are inclined to help you do this, as it alleviates the crush of passengers that need to be rebooked if and when a real storm strikes.
But before you pick up the phone, research your options and get a sense of what types of fees might be incurred. If change fees apply to your fare, ask nicely if they can be waived—make your case by mentioning that you’re helping them avoid a potential problem.
Want to cancel altogether? Ask for a flight credit rather than a refund to maximize your odds of success. Then tackle your hotel reservation; cancellation and rebooking policies tend to be more flexible so long as you’re getting in touch more than 24 hours ahead of check-in.
Have the right insurance
Airlines have no obligation to compensate you in the event of a weather delay or cancellation—so they won’t. But good travel insurance will compensate you if bad weather sinks your trip. No, we’re not talking about the pointless plans that Expedia and Orbitz tell you to buy once you’ve purchased your flight; these options are more focused on what you need and are far more likely to deliver a payout.
For instance, Berkshire Hathaway’s AirCare specifically ensures your flight: It pays flat fees for different kinds of disruptions, starting at $50 for a simple, two-hour delay. Prices start at $26 for domestic round-trip flights; you can buy it up to an hour before the flight, as long as you haven’t already been notified of a delay or cancellation.
If the priority is getting to your destination, Freebird can make it happen (for a small fee). In the event of cancellation, significant delay, or missed connection, it lets you quickly find and book another flight for no additional charge and without waiting in customer-support queues. Coverage starts at $19 for a one-way domestic trip.
Some credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Citi Prestige, also provide travel insurance at no additional cost. They will reimburse you for long delays, cancellations, and luggage problems—as long as you paid for the flight with the card.
Carry your essentials
Think an overnight delay is bad? An overnight delay without your toothbrush is worse. Pack a change of clothes, medication, and any other must-have items in your carry-on bag, in case you get stuck sans luggage.
Put more power in the palm of your hand
By the time your trip goes cockeyed and you can’t get a signal in the terminal, it’s too late to download the apps that can rescue you from airport hell. Instead, download them before you pack your bags. Your airline’s app can be surprisingly helpful; some let you rebook flights, instead of having to wait on line or on hold.
Add the carrier’s customer-support line to your phone contacts. LoungeBuddy can help you get day passes to the nearest airport lounge, where the Wi-Fi signal may be stronger and coffee is sure to flow. And HotelTonight, a one-stop app for booking last-minute hotel rooms, can help you compare and book options near the airport (along with better ones that aren’t too far away).
If you’re in Europe, you have further recourse once you’ve exhausted everything else: File a claim with AirHelp, which will litigate on your behalf if it determines that favorable EU passenger-rights laws are on your side. It’s free to use and takes only a small commission if it wins you a settlement.
Have a backup plan
If you think you might get stuck away from home, check in advance whether your hotel can let you stay an extra night. Could a rental car get you where you need to go? If so, book one you can cancel free of charge. How about the train? Having a plan B won’t prevent delays, but it can make them much less stressful.