CNBC correspondent Contessa Brewer has some simple advice when it comes to winter air travel:
"Never check luggage."
Brewer, coincidentally, was emailing from a plane en route to cover a weather disaster. "Bring carry-on luggage. It makes it much easier to rebook flights. And don't take no for an answer."
With winter coming, maybe you're wondering how the experts travel. I'm talking about people, like Brewer, who fly into bad weather to cover stories, and the pros who forecast the weather and document the devastating effects of severe conditions.
How do they fly and drive during the cold months?
A record 107.3 million people traveled during the year-end holidays last year, according to AAA — the highest year-end travel volume on record. If current trends hold, this will be another busy, and perhaps record-breaking, winter for travel.
"I always check the weather before I even begin the process of booking winter travel," Brewer said. "Just to see whether I should expect to encounter travel problems. Especially if I have to book connecting flights, I do my best to find cities that appear to be free from weather issues. Although, truth be told, a big storm can complicate air travel throughout the entire nation."
The importance of research was a common theme among the experts I interviewed. Meteorologists spend a little extra time reviewing weather patterns before they make plans.
"My first concern is always trying to lower my risk of weather-related delays," says Susie Martin, a meteorologist and the director of operations at Praedictix.com, a weather forecasting and consulting company in Eden Prairie, Minn. "I might look up that area's climatology to see what the weather trends are for that time of the year."
There is plenty of historical weather data available online to help you make decisions. For domestic winter travel, one of the best resources is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency responsible for monitoring climate and our environment. NOAA posts historical weather data by zip code on one of its microsites.
As your trip gets closer, Martin advises checking weather alerts through the National Weather Service website.
The meteorologists I spoke with also said they listen to — and watch — one another when they are deciding whether to travel. If one of their colleagues is warning against winter travel and other professionals agree, they pay attention. The same can't be said for regular travelers, many of whom ignore the forecast and push forward with travel plans. (In fairness to the ignorers, the travel industry's strict "no changes, no refunds" policy makes it difficult to cancel plans, even during inclement weather.)
Weather experts also have their "no go" rankings.
"I would be least inclined to travel during an ice storm," says New York meteorologist Jeff Schultz. "Airlines have safety thresholds where flights will be delayed or canceled for all types of weather, so I mostly trust their judgment. When driving, I do trust my abilities on the road but don't trust other drivers to use the same caution, especially in areas that aren't used to certain types of weather."
For example, Schultz has "no problem" driving his Honda CR-V during a blizzard in upstate New York alongside the locals, because people in upstate New York know how to drive in a blizzard.
"I would not drive in the South in the snow," he says. "A one-inch snowfall can bring the Atlanta motorways to its knees."
That's no joke. If you live in Atlanta, you already know about Snow Jam '82 and its more recent sequels, Snowpocalypse '11 and SnowJam '14. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution called these storms "humiliating."
But what if you have to travel? I put that question to Howard Altschule, a meteorologist with Forensic Weather Consultants in Albany, N.Y. Altschule often has to travel directly into severe weather.
"I watch the computer models closely as my trip approaches to see if there is potentially disruptive weather coming," he says. "If I see that storm approaching well in advance, I'll call the carrier and do what I can to change my flight to a day or two before the storm even gets close."
Like other industry insiders, Altschule has discovered a back door to the airline and hotel industries' strict policies on booking changes. These rules become flexible when a winter storm approaches. Sometimes, you can persuade an airline agent to proactively rebook you on a different flight — even when the storm is a distant blip on the horizon and the airline hasn't announced any waivers.
And remember that it's not always the size of a storm that matters. The worst winter travel conditions can occur during or after a seemingly minor snow event. A surprise one-inch snowfall just before rush hour on a Monday morning can wreak more havoc than a well-advertised storm that brings six inches on a Saturday afternoon.