|Heavy snow at home on March 21, 2010|
As the intro alluded to, while bad weather can strike anywhere, anytime, there are two primary seasons that cause problems in specific areas: winter storms in the Midwest and Northeast, primarily from November through March, and severe thunderstorms in the Midwest, South, and Southeast, primarily from April through September. I don't include hurricane season in the above, because while a strong tropical storm or hurricane can indeed cause significant disruptions, they occur much more infrequently than winter storms and severe thunderstorms. Which brings me to my first tip...
1. Where possible, when flying, avoid booking connections through areas that are prone to severe weather. The issue here is pretty simple. If you end up having to connect somewhere, and your onward connections are canceled, you could be stuck in your connecting city for a long time; during the early January snow/extreme cold episode, for example, some people were stranded for upwards of 5 days before they could be flown home. And because it's weather-related, the airlines will offer you no compensation for out-of-pocket expenses, and furthermore, even if you have trip insurance, your coverage may max out if you're stranded that long. Certain airports are more prone to problems than others for various reasons. During winter, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington DC airports tend to have the most problems during snow, while during spring and summer, Atlanta, Chicago, and DFW can grind to a halt due to severe thunderstorms (DFW, in particular, is prone to "training thunderstorms", where storms sit and spin around the airport for several hours - and since flights and ground crews can't operate during such conditions, the airport has to shut down until the weather passes).
The solution: if you are flying from, say, Phoenix to London, and you can't get a direct flight, try to avoid connecting through, say, Chicago in the winter, or Atlanta in the summer. If you do have to connect through one of those cities, make sure to build in enough connecting time to give you a cushion in case of delays. As an aside, you might think that places like Denver, Detroit, or Minneapolis are horrible places to go through during winter, but I've found that it takes some pretty darn serious snow to cause problems at one of those airports. You might consider connections through these cities instead.
2. If you are traveling to a severe weather-prone area during the bad season, start watching the weather several days in advance. If the weather looks like it could be bad, and you're driving, this might be a good time to consider arriving a day early to beat the weather, or rescheduling until after the storm passes. If you're flying, many airlines will start offering penalty waivers a few days before especially severe storms, allowing you to change your departure dates without a fee or a fare difference. Be aware, however, that a penalty waiver does NOT entitle you to cancel your flight for a refund. If you want a refund, you'll have to hope that your flight is eventually canceled by the airline.
3. If you are traveling somewhere for a critically important purpose, ALWAYS schedule your arrival for the day before. I read and hear about far too many people who miss a critical business meeting, or an important personal event like a cruise or group tour, because they planned their arrival for the same day, and their flight then gets canceled because of weather. Yes, getting in a day early means you'll have to fork over more money for a hotel and some meals if nothing goes wrong, but if something does, you now have an entire extra day to figure out another way to get where you're going. This is especially critical if you are traveling overseas - there are a limited number of flights going out each day, so if your flight gets canceled, you are most likely going to have to wait until the next day to try again. And there's really nothing worse than dropping several thousand dollars on a cruise, only to miss the first couple of days because your incoming flight got canceled.
4. If you are traveling home from a city where bad weather is expected either where you are or at home on your departure day, consider booking a hotel in advance as "insurance". If you can't reschedule your departure and your flight ends up being canceled because of weather, there is a very good chance that area hotels will be completely full by the time you get out of the customer service line to be rebooked. That means a lovely night sleeping on some chairs in the terminal, or on the floor. What I'll often do is book a room at a nearby hotel a few days prior, at a rate that can be canceled up to 4 P.M. or 6 P.M. the day of arrival. If weather ends up not being a problem, I just cancel it before the cut-off time. If weather strikes, I skip the mile-long rebooking line, head straight to the hotel, and try to re-arrange a flight home from there. If you're driving and can't get out before the weather hits, you now have a place to hunker down until the roads improve.
If weather hits unexpectedly, or you just didn't have time/didn't want to book a hotel earlier, as soon as flights start getting severely delayed or canceled, get on the phone or the internet and book a hotel room BEFORE you get in the rebooking line. You're going to be standing in line or waiting on hold for 2-3 hours regardless, so you might as well have peace of mind that you have a warm bed to sleep in afterwards.
5. If you do end up stranded, get creative. The friendly airline customer service representative might tell you that they can't get you home for 5 days, but you don't have to take that as the last word. Weather might have DFW shut down, but you might be able to fly to, say, Houston or Oklahoma City instead. Yes, you'd still have to find a way home from there, but even a one-way car rental might be more palatable than sitting at the airport for 2 days (and remember, as long as you are in the U.S., renting a car and driving home from wherever you happen to be is always an option, if not a particularly pleasant or cheap one). Or, just because the airline you're on doesn't have seats doesn't mean that other airlines can't get you home. Ask nicely, and that friendly agent just might be willing to book you on another airline to get you back the same day. If you're driving, of course, you have infinitely more options. If there's bad weather on your planned route, just whip out a map, and you can probably find a way around the weather, though it might add some miles to the trip.
If you used a travel agent or have travel insurance, I wouldn't even bother standing in the rebooking line. Call your agent or the insurance company instead. Your agent may have the power to re-route you to a different airport or on a different airline, even if the airline won't cooperate with you (my company's agency once helped me get to India on a different carrier after my flight was canceled because of snow in Chicago). If you have insurance, call them immediately. After all, your insurance company is going to have to pay your expenses if you're stranded for more than a few hours., so they'll be that much more motivated to get you home as soon as possible.
Above all else, don't be rude to the airline agents, either in the rebooking line or on the phone. They're going to be taking abuse from pretty much everyone ahead of you, so a little niceness just might prompt them to give a little extra effort to accommodate you.