By Joe Brancatelli
December 29, 2010 -- Just when businesspeople think they've mastered the art of business travel, reality slaps us upside the head and reminds us that we're just pawns in the game of life on the road.

The big Boxing Day Blizzard that paralyzed the East Coast and Europe's unseasonably nasty weather that crippled travel just before Christmas left millions of flyers out of place, out of sorts, and out of goodwill toward men. In New York alone, more than 5,500 flights were canceled in the three days after Christmas. Thousands more from coast to coast were unceremoniously dumped. And as many as one in five flights to, from, and around Europe were scrapped every day for a week as snow and ice paralyzed unprepared parts of the continent.

To put it simply and colloquially, you can't fool Mother Nature, no matter how many frequent-flyer miles you've banked or how many elite-status membership cards you can flash at a ticket counter.

But bowing to the forces of nature doesn't mean you need to be its willing slave. It doesn't mean standing by helplessly and hopelessly as your travel plans are disrupted. Especially in winter, you can—no, you must—take action to protect yourself.

Here is a commonsense plan of attack to help you smooth the way during the next few months.

Know Who's Responsible
Thanks to consumer-friendly "passenger's rights" initiatives in the United States and Europe, airlines and airports do have some responsibilities to inconvenienced flyers. But weather-related disruptions almost always let carriers off the hook. And there's a good reason for that: Government regulators never want to encourage airlines to operate unsafely in dicey weather. Besides, ultimate responsibility for your travel plans and your on-the-road comfort is yours. If you're going to travel in winter, take care of yourself. After all, who's got your best interests at heart? Only you.

Go Early, Go Nonstop
There are times when business travelers can justify a connecting itinerary when a nonstop option exists. But winter is never one of those times. Your first, best winter option is always the nonstop flight simply because it minimizes the chance for disruptions, eliminates missed connections, and avoids any intermediate weather hassles.

Generally speaking, there's also a best time to fly: early in the day. Statistics repeatedly show that airlines and airports operate most efficiently in the morning hours, before delays pile up and cascade through the tightly wound and intricately balanced commercial aviation system. There's another benefit of early-morning flying: There are more chances to rebook during the day if there is a disruption.

Airports Aren't Created Equal
The business traveler's equivalent of an old wife's tale is the belief that you should avoid snow-belt airports in winter. Not necessarily. Snow-belt airports actually handle winter weather better than airports where snow and ice are less prevalent. Historically, airport hubs such as Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City operate more efficiently in winter than hubs like Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta. A little ice or a dusting of snow often cripples those sun-belt airports.

Or look at the atrocious performance of London's Heathrow Airport this month. Just a few inches of snow on one day essentially closed the world's busiest international airport for 96 hours, while hubs such as Helsinki and Copenhagen worked without disruption. I don't suggest that flying toward snow and winter weather is a sound plan. But if you must use a hub to connect, don't automatically assume snow-city airports must be avoided.

Have a Plan B—and Plans C and D
Airlines have cut their support staffs to the bone in an effort to shore up profitability, so their ability to assist passengers during a weather-related crisis has been severely reduced. Airport-based agents are quickly overwhelmed and, when you can make your way through the lines, the service you get is naturally stressed and curtailed. Lightly staffed telephone reservation centers can no longer cope with regular call volumes, let alone the spikes that occur when weather intervenes. And airline and airport websites have been know to crash under the volume during "flight irregularities."

The solution: Research your alternatives before you fly. Print out (or forward to your smartphone) all of your logical flight options so you know what can be done. It's better than hoping a frazzled and overworked airline employee can help you efficiently in a crisis situation. And remember: Most airlines are now members of one of three global alliances: Star, SkyTeam, or Oneworld. That will expand your opportunities to travel on your original ticket.

Get Your Head on a Bed
As the weather crisis in Europe deepened in the days before Christmas, television networks worldwide showed throngs of "stranded" travelers bedding down on terminal floors while they waited for flights. The worst and most supposedly heart-wrenching scenes were from Heathrow Airport. I was unmoved and unsympathetic, however, because I did a little homework. There were plenty of good hotel rooms in central London available at ridiculously affordable rates for anyone willing to climb on the London Underground or the Heathrow Express train.

Bottom line: There is almost never a reason to sleep on the floor of an airport terminal during a flight disruption. If airport hotels are sold out, look just a little further out for properties that are quickly and conveniently reached. And make sure you know your lodging options before you travel. Print out (or send to your phone) a list of hotels at your departure airport and any connecting airport you may be visiting. It's one thing to gut out a long interruption in your travel plans. It's something else again to do it without sleep after trying to tough it out on an airport floor.

Pay Now, Argue Later
In times of weather-related chaos, money does talk. Most of the madding crowds will be waiting for airlines to find them alternate flights for free or complimentary accommodations. But paying now and arguing later over reimbursement is the best strategy. If the free options are not to your liking, ask about paying more or paying up to a higher cabin of service. It may free up an airline seat faster. You can argue with the airline (and your credit-card company) about what you should have not had to pay for later. And never wait for an airline to arrange accommodations for you. Get a room on your own and get it fast.

Pack Tactically
Business travelers have learned the hard way that it's never smart to check luggage. It's imperative that you avoid checking luggage when you travel in winter. The reason: If your flight is canceled, your bags may have already been loaded on the aircraft. It could take hours to retrieve them. If you're flying a connecting itinerary, your bags may not even be on the same flights. And the only thing worse than dealing with a flight disruption that may last days is dealing with a flight disruption and trying to track down your "mishandled" belongings.

Carry a Survival Kit
If you must check luggage in winter, packing your carry-on bag wisely is even more important. Make sure you have a change of undergarments and appropriate toiletries to get you through an unexpected layover. And easy-to-pack, shelf-stable sustenance can be a godsend. Think about stuffing a few energy bars or snacks in the corners of your carry-on. Security permitting, extra bottles of water or energy drinks will also help.

Know What Won't Happen
All too often, unreasonable expectations cloud a business traveler's thinking when they are trying to manage a disrupted itinerary. Airlines aren't required to give you a first-class seat on the next flight out if you were originally booked in coach. They aren't required to give you passage on another carrier. And they certainly are not going to bump a confirmed passenger on a later flight to accommodate you. (Sadly, airlines aren't required to run so-called "relief" flights to pick up stranded flyers, either.) If your original flight is canceled, understand that you'll almost always be competing for the empty seats on the next regularly scheduled flights operated by that airline. And with average load factors hovering north of 80 percent range these days, that makes for slim pickings.

Know When to Surrender
Almost by definition, road warriors think of themselves as tactically and strategically smarter than the average traveler. And we may be. But travel savvy won't always beat Mother Nature and an airline system that is often ill equipped to deal with the vagaries of the weather. Sometimes the smartest response to a travel crisis is to surrender to the inevitable. Fall back, regroup at a hotel, and make the best of the situation rather than fight vainly to resume your travels. Sometimes the most productive and cost-effective choice is to ride out a disruption rather than rage against it.

The Fine Print…
Knowing the proper jargon is often the key to getting accurate information when flights are disrupted. Rather than ask, "Is my flight on time?" try this question: "Where's the equipment that's due to operate my flight?" Asking the first question will often yield a useless answer like, "Sure, it's on time" or "It's just an hour late." But asking the second question will lead airline employee to check on the status of your aircraft. You'll learn whether it is at the airport or en route to your airport or if the system is so out of whack that the airline itself hasn't figured out when or how or with what plane it will operate your flight.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.