TEN TIPS FOR BETTER WINTER TRAVEL
By Joe Brancatelli
January 9, 2014 --Know how bad you think flying has been so far this year due to the endless storms and the dreaded Polar Vortex?
It's much worse than that. Much, much worse.
According to FlightStats.com, daily on-time ratings for the nation's commercial air-traffic system plunged as low as 47.7 percent during the first seven days of 2014. Some flight delays stretched for 16 hours. Since New Year's Day, Southwest Airlines' daily on-time rate has averaged 40 percent. Last Sunday, JetBlue Airways' on-time rating was a nearly unimaginable 11.2 percent.
More than 21,000 flights have been cancelled since New Year's Day. Twenty percent of all the flights scheduled last Monday were scrubbed, an astounding number when you consider a 2 percent cancellation rate on a normal day is considered unacceptably high.
Southwest last Thursday stranded more than a dozen planeloads of passengers on snowy tarmacs at Chicago's Midway Airport. Earlier this week, JetBlue simply shuttered its hubs at New York's Kennedy Airport and Boston's Logan Airport for nearly 24 hours. A Bloomberg News reporter documented her marathon 12-hour wait for help from a United Airlines call center.
How do we fix this craziness? Here are ten tips to make your winter flying less painful and annoying. Will it change the weather? Of course not. Will it make airlines act rationally? You know better than that. But these tips will save you time and aggravation and make the ice, snow, delays and cancellations a bit less burdensome.
Have a Plan B. When things go wrong, don't expect airline call centers or ticket-counter agents to have the time, inclination or resources to help you devise an alternate routing. Do it yourself and prepare a Plan B (and even Plans C and D) itinerary before beginning your trip. There's almost always another way to get where you're going, so have the options ready when the snow hits the metaphoric fan.
Budget extra time. Snow, wind, ice, rain and extremely low temperatures play havoc with schedules. Assume there will be delays for anything you use on the road: flights, airport shuttles, trains and even hotel check-ins and check-outs. The worse the weather, the more time you should block to get from Point A to Point B. And never forget that roads to and from airports may be dicey in inclement weather. What good is an on-time flight if you missed it because of a weather-related traffic jam on an airport access road?
Avoid regional airlines. "Regional airlines" now operate half of the nation's commercial flights, most of them cloaked in the colors and computer codes of legacy carriers such as United, Delta, American and US Airways. Unfortunately, these so-called commuter flights are notoriously unreliable, especially in winter months. Prime example: ExpressJet, which flies as United Express, Delta Connection and American Eagle, cancelled an industry-high 6,155 flights in the 30-day period ended January 6. That's nearly double the combined number of cancellations recorded by United, Delta and American in the same time frame. Although their ubiquity makes them hard to avoid, try not to book winter itineraries that include regional carriers.
Update your airline profiles. Airlines have stratified their attempts to re-accommodate disrupted travelers. The higher your frequent-flier program status, the better response and faster service you get. So make sure your online profiles are completely up-to-date with your mobile numbers and email addresses. Even if they're willing to do so, airlines can't help you if they can't contact you.
Book hotels along the way. Don't be one of the bedraggled travelers we see on television looking haggard because they spent the night on the floor of an airport terminal. There's no excuse for not having a hotel room when the weather throws you a curve. Always have contingency hotel reservations at or near all airports you'll use on a trip. If you don't need them, cancel. And even if you must eat the cost of an unused room once in a while, it's much better than the cold comfort of a plastic chair at an airport food court.
Travel lighter. As recent days have proven, airlines do lousy jobs moving passengers in lousy weather. You'll only exacerbate the problem if you check luggage. If a flight cancels after you've checked your bags—a common winter occurrence—you might spend hours waiting for your luggage to be liberated. That could cause you to miss a back-up connection or alternate flight. In winter, travel only with what you can carry on. If you need more, ship it ahead via UPS, FedEx or a specialty service such as Luggage Forward. If you insist on checking bags, at least pack a change of clothes in your carry-on.
Apps are your new BFFs. I've already forgotten what it's like to travel in winter without a fully loaded smartphone. Make sure you have the latest weather apps; apps for the airlines and hotel chains you use; car-rental and limo apps; specialty apps like Gate Guru, and any trip-planning and organizing apps you prefer.
Aggregate real-time information. Regardless of where you aggregate your on-the-fly travel intelligence—smartphone, tablet or laptop—maximize your reliable, real-time sources. The Global Cancellations and Delay Tracker from FlightStats.com is excellent. So is a similar page from FlightAware.com. And FlightAware's worldwide Airport Delays page is superlative. Bookmark the county-by-county weather alert map from the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, make sure you know how to reach the Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of airlines and airports you use. Updates often appear on social media before they are posted on websites.
Load up on diversions. Airport newsstands are beehives of activity during weather delays and they remain reliable sources of reading material. But why rely on retail kismet when you can fill your laptop and tablet with books, movies, music and other digital entertainment? Unless you plan on working nonstop during a delay, have plenty of diversions loaded onto your digital device.
Airport clubs are crucial. The boom in pay-per-visit airport lounges makes it easier than ever to have a comparatively quiet retreat to work or relax while waiting out delays. Never be clubless. Whether you join directly, get access via credit cards or use Priority Pass, buy as many club memberships as you can afford. One or two winter delays more than amortizes the entry fees.
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 © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.