Blizzard on the road.
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Tips and Tricks to Make Winter Travel Easier

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Rear view of family with two small children in winter nature, walking in the snow.
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Snow Problem

There are many reasons to set out on a winter trip: Maybe you're heading for a ski resort, chasing elusive sightings of the aurora borealis, saving money with off-season travel, or visiting relatives for the holidays. But winter packs a few challenges for travelers too, like the coast-to-coast winter storm that's already brought avalanche warnings to the West and is forecast to bring blizzard conditions to the Plains and possibly tornadoes to parts of the South. When snow, ice, and cold temperatures set in, a solid plan is your best defense. These tips and tricks from a variety of experts can help to ensure you're ready for your next winter adventure, whether you're traveling by road or air.

 

Related: Spectacular Winter Destinations Across America for Avoiding Crowds


Tourist family walking through passageway in airport
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Fly Larger Planes

Checking your flight status before you head to the airport is well and good, but your choice of tickets minimize disruptions too, according to Alex Miller, founder and CEO of UpgradedPoints.com. He recommends booking your trips in larger planes when possible, because the larger the plane, the less likely it is to be canceled. "Regional aircraft are usually the first to get canceled during inclement weather," he says. Miller also recommends having a backup plan ready in case your flight is canceled: Know alternative routes and schedules, so that you're already a step ahead if you need to rebook. 

 

Related: What Flight Attendants Want You to Know Now

The wait can be quite long
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Book Nonstop If You Can

Nicole Miller of Early Traveler has another tip to reduce your risk of getting stranded at an airport: Book a nonstop flight whenever possible. With this winter's combination of winter weather and staffing shortages, more flight connections equal more opportunities for a flight to be canceled or delayed. Going nonstop means you only have to roll the dice once, and it eliminates the risk of being stranded somewhere in between your destination and home.


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Sunrise flight
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Consider a Morning Flight

AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds offers one more tip for air travelers: "Because of the way routes are structured and crews set up, early morning flights tend to be less susceptible to cancellations and delays. As the day moves along and if disruptions occur, it’s like a domino effect, and flights later in the day will be more directly impacted by changes in the flight schedule." So, consider booking a morning flight to minimize the risk of your flight being canceled and maximize your rerouting options if the worst does happen.


African couple sleep on chairs in waiting room of airport, tired wait for delayed or transit flight
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What If There Is a Cancellation?

Most flights still go through to their destinations with no problem. But no matter how cleverly you planned your route, there's a chance of cancellation. AAA has some tips to help you minimize any disruptions that do crop up in your air travel itinerary.

 

First, purchase travel insurance to protect you in case of trip interruption. Imagine being stuck in an epic winter travel delays and not knowing that some sort of reimbursement is heading your way.

 

Next, check-in online for your flight 24 hours in advance, and keep abreast of flight status as you start to head to the airport. 

 

Finally, if worse comes to worst, remember this advice from AAA's Edmonds: "If your flight is canceled by the airline or there are significant delays, they will try to accommodate you on a later flight; however, you are entitled to a full refund under federal law." 


You could also consider working with a travel adviser who can advocate for you and help you seek alternative flights or accommodation as needed.

Long Layover
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Buy Travel Insurance

Travel insurance isn't only for airline tickets, it can protect your hotel stay too. "Purchase the travel insurance," says Mychal Milian, general manager for Dania Pointe Marriott Hotels in Florida, "especially if you have an advance-purchase rate, because those reservations cannot be canceled. [The travel insurance] is cheap! It's worth it."

Uber and Lyft pick up location
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Schedule Your Rideshare

David Angotti, founder of HawaiianIslands.com, might not be your instinctive go-to for winter tips. But he has a great one: Consider scheduling your rideshare to and from the airport. "In rideshare apps like Uber they assure an on-time arrival, wait a few minutes for free, and guarantee your rate [when you schedule]," he says, which  can save you a lot of time, stress and money, especially if the destination you're traveling to is very busy or underserved.

Young couple arriving at the airport
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Consider a Private Parking Lot

If you're taking your own car to the airport, do a little research into which amenities, airport parking lots offer. It may be worth a few extra dollars to park off-site with a private service/lot that offers better service in terms of clearing your car of snow and ice, jump-starting or charging a battery that's gone dead in the cold, and even warming your car up for you before you pick it up. 

A woman looking for a car in the parking lot
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Where's My Car Again?

Have you ever forgotten where you left your car at the supermarket or movie theater? Imagine going through that "where the heck is it" process in a crowded airport parking lot, with a layer of fresh snow on your car. 


Or, you can sidestep that process entirely with this tip from Alex Miller, founder and CEO of UpgradedPoints.com. "When parking at the airport, take a picture of your car and any nearby signage," he says. That creates a handy prompt to help you find your car when you return.


Miller also says that many airport parking lots fill up during peak travel times — so your life could be even easier if you instead take a rideshare service or public transit.


man adjusting and cleaning wipers of car in snowy weather b
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Wipers Up!

Let's say that you do leave your car in a wintry airport lot, or maybe you've left it outside at home while you escape to warmer weather. Take this common-sense tip from Matthew Bailey, founder and editor-in-chief of Must Do Canada: Flip your windshield wipers into the air so they won't freeze to the windshield.


Depending on how long you'll be gone, Bailey says that it's sometimes a good idea to disconnect the battery from the car. That can help reduce the chances of your battery draining and needing to be recharged — though if it's cold enough the battery may drain anyway.

Young woman at the airport
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Dress in Layers

Traveling from home to airport to plane, then back again, can expose you to swings in temperatures. Steve Oliverez, CEO of InsanelyCheapFlights.com, has a solution: Dress in layers, which allows you to adjust your clothing to stay comfortable in a range of temperatures.


Woman at the airport
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Consider a Packable Jacket

The big problem with dressing in layers is that you need somewhere to put those clothes when you're not wearing them. For a long time, Paige Haley, owner and author of the adventure and travel blog Paige Outdoors, would just suck up the difference in temperatures between her wintry Midwest home and warmer travel destinations, shivering when she traveled back from warmer climates. She just didn't want to lug her big winter jacket along on those trips. But the switch to a packable jacket allows Haley to easily stow her jacket in a backpack or suitcase when leaving the cold and easily retrieve it when she returns home to the cold.


Hertz car rental
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Skip the Car Rental Lines

So you made it to your destination airport and are ready to get a rental car. "The pandemic has led to [vehicle] shortages and higher prices, especially for larger vehicles during peak travel periods," says Mark Mannell, CEO of CarRentalSavers.com. Get around the hassle by booking your rental as early as possible, especially if you need a larger vehicle.

 

Even if you have a reservation, you might also encounter long lines at the rental counter. But Mannell has a solution for that too: Join free frequent renter and loyalty clubs, which allow you to skip check-in lines and go straight to the garage at many popular rental locations.

Senior man calling for help during snow storm
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Ski and Snowboard Trips

What if your flight was destined for a ski resort? Viktor Dokulevski, co-founder and project manager of Limo to Vail, points out some of the particular challenges for this type of destination, starting with the fact that if you've booked a flight to a ski resort airport, the flight may be diverted to the major nearest city in bad weather. Recognizing this possibility in advance can help you formulate alternative plans if worse does come to worst. 


There's also the hurdle of many car rentals not having appropriate winter tires for traveling into the mountains; consider booking private transportion instead. If you do go that route, Dokulevski recommends booking at least two weeks ahead, which can save you money. Also consider booking your ski or snowboard rental ahead of time to ensure you won't be left out in the cold because of staffing or equipment shortages.


Little boy watching cartoon on digital tablet while driving in car with his dad
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Keep the Kids Warm and Entertained

Is this a family trip? Kyle Kroeger, founder of ViaTravelers, has been to more than 10 countries and 10 national parks with a small child this year alone, so he knows what he's talking about with these tricks to help keep kids comfortable on the road.


Kroeger recommends keeping blankets handy to bundle kids up if (or when...) they get cold, and having a car adapter or external power source on hand to keep tablets charged on a plane or in the car, to help keep your kids entertained.


"Download videos on the tablet that they will enjoy but won't drive you crazy while you are driving," he says. "Tuck them in with their blanket and tablet. When the tablet loses their interest, put on a cheerful playlist to sing along to songs for winter cheer."

heavy snow storm
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Pack a Road-Trip Emergency Kit

Let's say you're going on a road trip instead of a plane trip. Ellen Edmonds with AAA recommends packing an emergency kit before hitting the road. "A well-stocked emergency kit is a lifesaver if you end up stranded while traveling," she says, and that's even more true during the extreme conditions that winter can produce. Her must-have list includes:


  • Cellphone car charger.

  • Flashlight with extra batteries.

  • First-aid kit.

  • Drinking water.

  • Extra snacks and food for travelers and pets.

  • Triangle reflectors.

Winter-specific items:

  • Traction aids (sand, salt, non-clumping cat litter or traction mats).

  • Ice scraper or snow brush.

  • Tarp.

  • Raincoat or winter coat and gloves to keep you clean/dry while working at the roadside.

  • Shovel.

  • Warm clothes, hats, gloves and blankets for all passengers in your car.

tow truck towing car
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Keep Your Roadside Service Current

Whether you're in your own car or a rental, having current roadside service is another way to enhance your safety. It's not perfect — if lots of other people around you are stuck too, you could end up waiting hours for help. But in most situations, knowing someone is on the way to replace a dead battery, fill your empty gas tank or tow you out of a snowbank is a huge relief.


You might also have roadside coverage through your car insurance or dealership, or you can often purchase roadside assistance for a rental vehicle.


Not now!
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Get an Inspection

"AAA suggests travelers visit a trusted repair facility for a full inspection before embarking on a long road trip," Edmonds says. But even if you can't make it for an inspection, she says there a few things you might be able to do yourself. "Start by checking the key components of the vehicle. We say make a good B-E-T before traveling — battery, engine and tires." 


Other simple checks she recommends include checking coolant levels, and looking for warning signs like coolant pooling underneath your car when parked, or the check engine light coming on; ensuring your air filter has been changed per recommendations; checking your battery and charging system; and cleaning any corrosion away from battery posts and cable connections for better performance in cold temperatures.


Female Driver Broken Down On Country Road
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Check Your Tires

Edmonds also recommends checking the tread depth on your tires by inserting a quarter headfirst into the tread. "If you can see the top of Washington's head it's time for new tires," she says. Check the pressure on all four tires, too; there's a label on your driver's side door jamb that'll tell you what's right for your vehicle. Keep an eye out for any uneven wear on the tire tread, and make sure you have a spare that's aired up and ready to go.

Young Asian business woman wear facemask using mobile phone at the car parking lot planning to connect her business
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Schedule Your Parking in Advance

Getting to a destination by car is only half the battle. Once you're there, you'll have to find parking. Aman Chheda, lead of Way.com's Airport Parking Division, recommends using a mobile app or other service to reserve parking in advance. Whether you're leaving your car at the airport or just looking for parking during a road trip, this can save you both money and time, as you're not stuck trolling around for the next available spot. 

Snow plow salting street in winter time. Orange truck deicing.
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Plan Your Drive With Winter in Mind

Think all roads are created equal? Think again: As Richard Reina, product training director at CARiD.com points out, local two-lane roads may not be as well-plowed as the major roads. So stick to the big roads if you can when planning a route through winter weather, and stay open to the idea of finding a hotel to stay at until weather improves if necessary.

Pouring Antifreeze Washer Fluid into Windshield Washer Tank
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Be Ready to De-Ice Your Car

If the mercury is plunging, ditch the summer windshield washer fluid and opt for a winter-ready fluid that won't freeze in your lines, says Reina with CARiD.com. "Like radiator coolant, washer fluid must be rated to the lowest local temperature to prevent freezing, or windshield washers will not work." Some winter fluids also help actively remove ice from your windshield, though they're no substitute for getting your windshield defroster — and maybe a good ice scraper – going. 

Blizzard on the road.
MarianVejcik/istockphoto

Winterize Your Car for Real

If you road-trip through cold weather frequently, consider investing in proper winterizing gear for your car to ensure it starts and runs reliably during the winter. Reina recommends a battery blanket — a device that helps extend your battery's charge in cold weather and boost its starting power. Block heaters can warm antifreeze and keep it circulating through your car's engine block. Oil pan warmers help by keeping your car's engine oil free-flowing.

Young woman drive a car in winter
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Bring Your Shades

Winter might not seem like the time to whip out your sunglasses, but Michelle O'Donnell, owner of the Brit Adventures travel blog, says that low winter sun reflects off of snow and ice, which can leave you squinting and even temporarily blinded. Leave a pair of sunglasses in your car so you don't have to remember them every time you head out for a winter trip, she says.

Car under snow
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Prep for Winter Traction

Michelle O'Donnell of Brit Adventures has another suggestion, gleaned from moving to Toronto from the U.K.. "My  No. 1 tip is if you know your car will be outside during a snowstorm and you need to go out afterwards, put cat litter or sand under your tires if it is below -7 or -8 Celsius," she says. (That's 18 or 19 degrees Fahrenheit.) This little trick means that you'll be prepped with better traction when you're ready to move the car.

Winter Driving - Commuter Traffic
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Beware the 'Wreck Pedal'

One of the best tips for winter driving is to treat the brake pedal as if it's the "wreck pedal." That doesn't mean you never use it. Instead, try to drive in a way that you won't need it, because if you do need to step on the brakes suddenly while winter driving, you're already in imminent danger of a wreck. That means leaving plenty of space between you and the car in front of you, and keeping in mind that the "stay back" distances prescribed in driver manuals and websites usually apply to dry, clear roads. It takes longer for your vehicle to slow down on ice or snow, and ice isn't always readily visible, especially at night — so give yourself and the driver in front of you plenty of space as a precaution.

Putting on Snow Chains
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Check Your Tire Pressure

Jen Moyse, TripIt's senior director of product, has spent some time in the mountains during the winter. She writes, "For those headed to northern states or the mountains … Make sure the car you’re renting is equipped with four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive, and plenty of windshield wiper fluid. Travelers going through mountain passes should also have snow chains, as they’re required during snowstorms. Check with your rental car provider to learn how to obtain proper equipment for your winter drive."

 

The guidance on checking your tire pressure and having chains or other appropriate traction devices applies when using your own car too.

 


Woman in sleeping bag looking at Kirkjufell mountain from camper van
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RV Travelers Need Emergency Kits, Too

Cars and trucks aren't the only vehicles used for road trips. Joel Holland, CEO of Harvest Hosts, says that winter RV travel presents its own challenges and benefits. He recommends making sure your RV has a full emergency kit that includes water (one gallon for every two people), plus extra snacks and blankets to combat hunger and exposure.

RV Camper Van Accident
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Be Ready to Communicate

Holland also suggests carrying a satellite SOS device like the Garmin Inreach — in case you have the bad luck of an RV breakdown when in a place without cellular service. "It costs about $10 a month for the ability to text friends and family, or click the SOS button to send an emergency request to 911 that also transmits your exact location," he says. "Think of it as an inexpensive insurance policy that provides tremendous peace of mind when you are outside of cell coverage areas."

 

(Prices vary according to the device and subscription plan you choose.)


Smart apps make for smarter financial planning
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Beware Modified Business Hours

Holland has one more useful tip, though it doesn't apply only to RV users: "Before you head out, call ahead to your destination to make sure they are open and operating." COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue of businesses and attractions having modified winter hours that aren't always reflected in a quick Google search. If a restaurant, store, or attraction is really important to you, it's worth a quick call to ensure you can stick to your plans.


Young guy driving a luxury caravan in the winter
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Are Your Rv's Storage Compartments Ready for Winter?

Just as your car should be properly winterized before a cold-weather trip, your RV's water pipes and tanks may need some special attention too. "Many storage compartments in an RV are located outside in storage bays or under the RV," Holland. "These areas are exposed to the elements and need to be protected in the event of a hard freeze."

 

Some ways of protecting those RV components include an insulating RV skirt (with or without heaters), heat tape or heated hoses for pipes, and adding antifreeze to inner sewage/wastewater pipes in your RV. 


Family on road trip
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What Type of Heating Do You Have?

Another tip from Holland: If you have the option, heat your RV with a furnace, not a heat pump. That's because heat pumps might break if pushed too far; they're not made to heat an RV during extreme (low) temperatures. Need more warmth? Holland suggests using thermal curtains to insulate your windows. 

Parked in the Snow
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One Thing Not Do With Your RV in Winter

Make sure you don't make this big mistake with an RV during winter: "An RV should never stay hooked up to a sewer connection during freezing temperatures," Holland says. "Instead, stay disconnected and dump when necessary."


Cleaning my recreational vehicle
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Keep It Clean on the Inside

If you're traveling by RV or campervan this winter, keep things clean inside your mobile home with this tip from A.J. Turner, marketing director for OffHighwayVan.com. "Keep a separate set of slippers within the van that never see snow. This helps keep down the amount of moisture, mud, and dirt that makes its way into the van." Store those snowy boots without creating a mess by keeping them in a reusable grocery sack or bag.


Coronavirus gas oil prices dropping man pumping gasoline at gas station wearing medical blue glove as COVID-19 spreading safety protection for touching germs
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What about COVID?

Nobody wants to think about COVID-19 during a trip, but it's still a factor in many places. No matter how you're traveling, Edmonds with AAA has a few suggestions to help:

  • Start by talking to your health care provider to understand if traveling is the right choice for you.

  • Consult the most recent CDC guidelines for your destination, whether domestic or international.

  • Before you leave, understand the impact COVID-19 has on cities and states you are traveling through, and if there are any restrictions in place.

  • Contact hotels ahead of time to ensure they're open.

  • Pack plenty of snacks, water and disinfectant spray/wipes.

  • When you have to stop to fill your gas tank, select a pump located at the end to minimize close contact with others.

  • Use disinfecting wipes to wipe down shared surfaces like gas pumps, and use wipes and hand sanitizer to wipe down your hands and credit card after filling up.

African American boy having PCR test at doctor's office during coronavirus pandemic.
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Be Prepared to Extend Your Stay

Here's a hard reality of traveling during a pandemic: Be prepared to extend your stay involuntarily. As travel-preparedness expert Cheryl Nelson of Prepare with Cher explains, if you test positive for COVID-19, it's best not to travel. She recommends setting aside extra funds for unexpected lodging and food and other expenses, just in case you're forced to stay longer than you expect.

Mature woman in a mask showing her vaccination passport on her smart phone
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If You've Got It, Flaunt It

Some travel destinations don't care if you've had a COVID-19 vaccine, but at other venues it really matters. "Some cities are requiring vaccine cards to do pretty much anything," says Milian, the hotel manager. He recommends taking a photo of your vaccine card or scanning it and sending the file to yourself, because if you lose your card, you'll be pretty much out of luck. But many places accept digital copies, and if you have a photo of your vaccine card or a copy in your email, you may be able to print it out.

Wait staff of a luxury restaurant is welcoming business guests
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Book Ahead

No matter how you're traveling, choosing restaurants or entertainment events spontaneously can be part of the fun of traveling. But with some venues still severely impacted by staffing and supply shortages, consider making your dinner reservations and buying entertainment tickets before you arrive. That way you won't be left out in the cold if your favorite restaurant is full or a show is sold out.