Monday, December 7, 2009

"Lemon, Nobody Flies Unmedicated These Days"

So said, Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) to Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) on NBC's "30 Rock."  And, it seems like good advice when you have to fly and one or more of your airports (origin, plane change, destination) is affected by a winter storm.

There are some ways to minimize the pain, however.

If your destination is six hours or less (by car) don't fly if there is train service.  Amtrak is a great way to avoid the hassle of driving or flying in winter storms.  So, if you are going from KC-St. Louis, St. Louis-Chicago, NYC-D.C., etc., just take the train.  [my storm and train story at the end of this post].  You'll arrive far more relaxed than dealing with the airlines when they are at their worst.

If you take nothing else from this post, here is the essential tool for frequent fliers dealing with weather, AccuWeather's constantly updated Flight Delay feature.  If your flight is heading for an airport with a "ground stop" then you are not going anywhere, regardless of what the gate agent (I mean you, Delta!) tells you.  In that case, be the last to board. Relax at the gate. Better still, reroute (more below).

While airlines are always tricky (never know when a "mechanical" will occur, even on a fair weather day), I try to play the odds.  If the AccuWeather Flight Delay Index is moderate to high, try to avoid going there to change planes.  For example, assume you are flying with United from Harrisburg to St. Louis with a scheduled stop in Chicago tomorrow (December 8).  Given that snow is expected in Chicago (see map above), ask United if they will let you change planes in Dulles, instead where the weather is expected to be OK. Usually, they will at the airport. Reservations will let you do this if "waivers" are in effect (check their web sites).

If "waivers" are in effect, they will sometimes let you travel the day before or after so you can avoid the storm entirely.  Personally, if it is an important business meeting, I'll pay for the extra night in the hotel for the peace of mind of knowing I'm there.

When you call them, have a plan.  Check what other hub cities your airline serves and flights from that hub to your destination.  Never automatically accept the airlines suggested reroute if you don't want it -- you don't have to!  Usually, the airport people have more authority to reroute you than reservations unless waivers are in effect.

The airlines hate to put you on another airline, so you will usually have less hassle by sticking with the same airline.

These techniques really do work if you can get the airlines to go along.  Its in everyone's best interest to proactively reroute in these cases.

My Amtrak story.  I had to go from Detroit to Chicago.  High likelihood of severe thunderstorms in Chicago.  Switched to Amtrak at much lower cost AND free internet all the way.  Chicago had 70 mph winds with damage while I was on the train.  I used the internet to keep up with the flight on which I was originally scheduled.  After an eight-hour delay, my flight was CANCELLED.  Of course, by that time I was enjoying room service chips and salsa (there was still a thunderstorm in progress in downtown Chicago, so I didn't want to go out).  I doubt I will fly from Detroit to Chicago ever again, regardless of the weather.  Far more pleasant on Amtrak.

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