Traveling by plane during winter months – particularly with kids – can sometimes be a risky proposition. One good winter storm and your best laid travel plans may quickly go down the tubes. Young kids aren’t exactly patient with travel delays (or patient with anything, for that matter) so these situations can be especially stressful for traveling parents.
When you travel as much as I do, winter air travel and it accompanying risks are an inevitability. My kids and I just returned from a long President’s Day weekend of cross-country travel where we had a very narrow winter weather miss. I can’t take full credit – luck played a role – but keep reading for more on how you can improve your winter air travel chances too!
Our Winter Air Travel Narrow Miss
For this trip, we flew from the Oakland airport in the San Francisco Bay Area to Raleigh, North Carolina to visit my grandmother and extended family for a family birthday weekend. Although we had a snow-filled trip on our last visit to North Carolina this same time last year, the weather for our travel days in and out of Raleigh looked to be clear so I was not worried this trip. I should have been!
On the day before we were due to fly home, the weather report suddenly showed an unexpected ice storm headed our way. Things didn’t look good for our flights. Southwest Airlines announced a waiver for all passengers booked out of Raleigh, meaning that we would be able to change to another flight with no penalty if we wished. Since we were connecting in Atlanta onto the only ATL to OAK flight of the day, I knew that things could quickly go south with my travel plans if we missed our short one hour connection due to weather delays out of Raleigh.
I quickly jumped onto my Southwest app (tip: you should always have the apps of any airline you fly on your phone) and looked at options. My first thought was simply to change to another itinerary the same day that connected in an airport with more frequent flight service into the Bay Area. That way, if we missed our connection due to a late departure from Raleigh, we would have backup connecting options to get home on a non-stop flight later that day. There was one itinerary that changed in Denver (which has a lot of service into all three Bay Area airports – SFO, OAK, and SJC) but it required a painfully early morning departure. It also meant driving on icy roads to RDU for 60 miles before the sun came up, when the road conditions were likely to be at their worst. By the time I considered the options, seats on that flight were gone and I was stuck with either my original itinerary or going a day later and having my daughter miss a day of school.
We decided to gamble with what we had. On our travel day, we left for the airport with more than an extra hour to spare so we could drive slowly for the 60 miles to Raleigh. I’ve never seen so many accidents on the roads and it turns out we were smart to have not taken the early morning flight option as the roads were indeed quite bad earlier that day. We got to RDU and we were one of the few flights not showing a delay or cancellation. What luck, right? But things quickly went south when it began sleeting during boarding. Boarding was halted because our flight would need de-icing and the de-icing truck Southwest used at RDU was out of service.
We waited as the extra minutes of that one hour layover ticked down. But then – success! The de-icing truck was fixed and boarding started again 30 minutes later so there was still room to make our connection. We boarded but then had to wait until another plane ahead of us was de-iced. More minutes ticked down. Ultimately, we left Raleigh 55 minutes late. Knowing we had a 1 hour layover, things were going to be tight. I prepared my kids for having to make a run for it in ATL and even tweeted Southwest (mostly in jest, but not entirely) to hold that plane for us!
— Leslie Harvey (@TripsWithTykes) February 15, 2016
Upon landing, I again checked my Southwest app to find more welcome news and good fortune. Our connecting flight was delayed about 15 minutes. That was just enough additional cushion to make our connection easily. My kids and I walked briskly down to our gate and found boarding of our Oakland flight not quite started. Minutes later, what do you know… the very same flight attendants that had been on my Raleigh to Atlanta flight walked up and boarded my Atlanta to Oakland flight! That was the reason for the slight delay. There was no way for me to know that the two flights were going to be staffed by the same crew, but it ultimately saved the day for my kids and me. Unless my RDU to ATL flight had been delayed by a number of additional hours or canceled entirely, the fact was that I was probably going to make that ATL to OAK connection because of this staffing coincidence. What luck.
— Leslie Harvey (@TripsWithTykes) February 15, 2016
For once, this travel day was a total gamble that paid off, but I know things don’t always turn out quite so perfectly. I doubt I’ll be able to bet on having the same flight crew on a delayed connecting flight ever again!
For that reason, it’s important to prepare for these kinds of winter weather circumstances as best you can. If you are traveling with kids during winter weather, here are my best tips for handling air travel issues as much as possible.
Winter Weather Air Travel Tips for Traveling Families
- Book the right flight in the first place. When traveling during winter months, I try – whenever possible – to avoid connecting in airports that are notorious for winter weather. That means no Chicago if it can be helped. Cities like Denver and Detroit can be rough too. Of course, this strategy doesn’t always work, as evidenced by my Christmas trip a few years ago when I was stuck in Dallas during a freak Texas snowstorm. Snow and ice are possible a lot of places. And of course – don’t book the last flight of the night if it can be helped. In my case, there was only one flight a day on my second leg but I could have booked a less risky itinerary in the first place.
- Check the weather early and often. If winter weather does arise, you want to be the first person to know about it so you can call the airline and get flights changed. For family travelers, re-accommodation is often hardest because the airlines have to find 3, 4, or more seats on another flight to make space for your traveling group. You improve your chances by being the first to call when there are more seats to work with.
- If you can change, do. If your travel plans are flexible, it’s best to take advantage of airline waivers and avoid traveling in bad weather altogether. In my case, a change of waiting a day would have certainly meant that my daughter would miss a day of school, so it was worth it to gamble for us. But if we had been traveling during the holidays and had extra time, I would have made a change in this situation.
- If you can’t change your flights, be prepared for delays. If you can’t cancel or change your plans, be prepared before you go into your travel day. Bring a carryon bag with a change of clothes and any other items you might need for an overnight stay if the worst happens. If you are traveling with a baby or toddler, make sure you have plenty of diapers and any formula, milk or food that you might not be able to get in an airport.
Have you ever been stranded during a winter storm? Share your experiences and tips in the comments!
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