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Smart strategies to get you through winter travel

The ugly season of travel has arrived, with snowy runways, ice storms and other winter-weather related delays nearly certain to plague countless air passengers through the holidays and beyond. But, say experts, there are some smart strategies that can help make bad situations more workable for travelers, even if they can’t stop the snow.

It begins as early as purchasing your tickets. “When booking, when you can, book the earliest flight of the day,” said Jeanenne Tornatore, senior editor for the Internet travel company Orbitz. “The reason being is that typically, the early morning flights are usually on time — those flights are already at the gate and have already been de-iced, so there’s no back up yet. Also, if your flight is canceled, you have a better chance of a flight out.”

It’s the snowball effect: As more and more flights are canceled throughout the day, competition becomes fiercer for rebooking the remaining open seats, she said. So if you were originally scheduled to fly out in the afternoon, but your flight is delayed or canceled, there’s a much greater chance you’ll have to wait until the next day for a flight because all the open seats will be gone.

Also, it may be worth the extra money during winter to book a nonstop flight, rather than one with connections, to minimize the possibility of weather delays, Tornatore said. And, if you have a choice, try to avoid connecting through regions that can be hard hit by storms; Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis come to mind, though these airports are usually pretty good at dealing with snow and ice, she said.

Winter travelers should carry smartphones with key selected apps for airlines or ticket services and important phone numbers loaded and ready to go should their flight get canceled, recommends Mike Benjamin, CEO of FlightView, a service that provides real-time flight information for travelers. At that point, everyone else will be headed to stand in line at the airline counter for service, something you should do also, just in case. But while that line is inching along, you can use your phone to rebook online because you've got that app waiting, Benjamin said. “Gate agents are pretty overwhelmed at that point, so I would use the phone. The online option is faster and gets you to what you want quicker. Once the problem arises, this is really a time to put your smart phone to test.”

Of course, you can also just call from your phone, but sometimes call centers can quickly become overwhelmed as well, he said. Tornatore agrees: Using your smart phone “can make the difference between getting one of the last few seats on the next flight versus potentially being stuck for the night.”

Another thing to keep in mind when buying a ticket is where you buy it, Benjamin said: “Back to planning ahead, it’s generally easier to rebook if you booked with the airline in the first place ... The airlines like to deal with tickets of their own.”

Have more than just apps for the airlines available, Tornatore said — make sure you have info about any car rentals and hotel reservations you may have made available on your phone. That way, if you are delayed, you can “let them know you’re going to be a day late so they don’t give away your room or car.”

Both experts say it’s important to remember that airlines don’t have an obligation to provide accommodations in the case of weather-related delays. This is where having the ability to book a hotel from your phone can also be of great help. “With weather cancellations, there are a lot of people scrambling to get in a hotel around the airport, so you should definitely download apps [to] find hotels near where you are, so you can purchase directly from your smartphone,” Tornatore said.

If you’re traveling to or from a sunny destination, don’t think you’re off the hook for weather problems, as storm delays can affect the whole system, delaying or preventing planes from traveling from one airport to another. That means it’s a good idea to sign up for any flight alert services available; at Orbitz, for example, passengers can choose voicemail, e-mail or text alerts on flight status. Most airlines offer similar services.

Which brings Tornatore and Benjamin to another important point: don’t put chargers for your electronics in checked baggage. You might be at the airport quite a while and need to power your phone.

“Always pack chargers in your carry on, medication you might need for you or your kids,” Tornatore said. “And I would even bring extra essentials for your kids, an extra change of clothes, easy and light.”

If you have a baby, carry formula and diapers to get you through 24 hours, and plenty of snacks, she added.

And most of all, stay calm, Benjamin said, because despite your best efforts, things might still go awry: “It’s the weather that’s causing it. Life is too short to get upset about it.”

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