How early should you go to the airport?
It’s a question most travelers know to ask during busy holiday travel periods. Crowds of travelers, long check-in lines, gridlocked roads and winding security lines are among the reasons holiday flyers should allow themselves an extra hour or two to get to their gate.
However, this Christmas, travelers may want to consider getting to the airport not just an hour or more earlier than normal – but perhaps by a full day or two.
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Winter weather can affect holiday travel
That’s thanks to a massive winter storm now winding down that’s threatening to bring treacherous weather to airports across a wide swath of the country — including many of the nation’s busiest airline hubs.
The storm — a “potential bomb cyclone,” according to The Weather Channel — was already bringing bad weather to the Pacific Northwest Tuesday, where cancellations and delays were above normal at busy airports like Seattle/Tacoma International (SEA) and Portland International ( PDX) in Oregon.
Travel disruptions are only likely to get worse this week as the storm travels east in the days leading up to Christmas.
Snow is forecast for much of the Great Plains and Midwest Wednesday through Thursday, with blizzard conditions and more than two feet of snowfall expected in some locations. The East Coast is also expected to be hit by a mix of snow, ice and rain. Heavy rain and strong winds could batter busy Northeast airports.
Unusually cold weather will also complicate travel on the backside of the storm, with temperatures dropping into the teens as far away as Houston and Atlanta. New Orleans and Jacksonville, Florida, are also expected to see temperatures in the 20s later in the week. This can lead to icy road conditions or de-icing delays at airports that don’t often experience extreme cold.
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And with the worst of the storm hitting the Midwest and East Coast just two days before Christmas this coming Sunday, there will likely be little opportunity for stranded travelers to find new routes to get home before the holiday.
But there are alternatives to just hoping for the best, as major US airlines have issued flexible rebooking waivers to allow flexible travelers to change their plans to avoid the storm.
When and where will travelers be affected?
The storm is now ashore in the Pacific Northwest, with several cancellations and delays tracking across the region. Nearly one in five flights into Seattle was canceled Tuesday and a similar number were delayed, according to flight tracking service FlightAware.
Forecasters called for the storm to move east, bringing snow to the Great Plains and upper Midwest by Wednesday evening, before expanding into the Great Lakes by Thursday and lasting into Friday. Heavy rain and wind were forecast for much of the East Coast on Thursday and Friday, including at delay-prone Northeast airports in New York and Philadelphia. Freezing temperatures in the Deep South are expected Thursday and Friday.
And while flight delays and cancellations are likely outcomes of this weather system, the impacts are likely not limited to air travel as drivers across the affected regions should also prepare for harsh conditions.
Do you have to fly out early?
Whether you need to change your travel plans this holiday week to leave a day or two earlier than planned will depend on your travel plans and when and what kind of weather is expected for your exact location.
Motorists will face particularly difficult conditions in many areas this week, prompting the National Weather Service to warn travelers to consider adjusting their plans in light of the weather.
“The best Christmas gift you can give this year is to be around for another Christmas,” the National Weather Service said in a storm advisory. “Plan now to delay, change or cancel travel plans.”
Air travelers also face complications, especially if their vacation plans require them to fly through an airport in the storm’s path.
Those with the flexibility to change planes may want to consider leaving early to reach their destinations before the storm travels through the Midwest and East.
Flights are already full this time of year, and passengers displaced by cancellations or missed connections are likely to find few empty seats on other flights. In other words, if you can be proactive and adjust your plans before many flights full of potential travelers try to do the same, you may have more options.
What about those weather stripping airlines?
Most of these waivers allow customers to make a change to their itinerary without paying any additional fees or fare differences. For example, United currently has over 100 airports currently under exclusions spanning the entire country with a rebooking window that extends from December 19 to December 28, 2022.
Dates and airports covered vary by airline, so check the details for your airline to see if a change makes sense for your itinerary.
Santa may still arrive in time for Christmas Eve, but for non-reindeer flights, this may be the year to double-check weather reports and think long and hard about changing your flight plans if your current route places you in a location with an unfavorable weather forecast.