The appeal of a white Christmas may wear thin for those travelers planning to fly over the holiday weekend.
Meteorologists are already warning of potential travel problems. The storm behind blizzards in the Midwest is currently moving east, resulting in forecasts of rain, sleet and snow as far south as Atlanta and as far North as Boston. More winter storms are expected to hit Colorado, New Mexico and the Northeast heading into the weekend.
That's bad news for the 92 million or so Americans that travel group AAA estimates will travel 50 miles or more this weekend. Air travel is down nearly 10% from last year, according to the group, but airlines have also cut capacity in recent months. "Planes are flying full," says Anne Banas, executive editor for travel-advice site SmarterTravel.com. "If there is a delay or cancellation, there are going to be fewer available seats to rebook passengers."
If the weather is bad enough, a flier's only recourse is to sit tight. During last year's crippling Dec. 26 "snowmageddon," for example, some East Coast passengers waited as long as a week for a flight, says Tom Parsons, chief executive of fare-watcher site BestFares.com.
But experts say there are plenty of tricks for easier rebooking and a better chance of making it out before storms move in:
Sign up for airline alerts
Airlines are getting better at cancelling flights early instead of leaving uncertain passengers waiting at the gate or on the tarmac, Banas says. Most also offer some kind of email or text alerts that let fliers know minor details like gate switches, or big changes like delays and cancellations. Travelers that have signed up will be among the first to know, which might mean they're among the first reaching out to get rebooked, she says.
When a storm rolls in, often it's only the earliest flights that make it out, Parsons says. Many airlines offer travelers the chance to get a confirmed seat on an earlier flight the same day they are flying for a smaller-than-usual change fee. United, for example, charges $75 for same-day travel changes -- half its usual $150 change fee. But with seats scarce, it's best to make arrangements from home rather than waiting until you get to the airport, he says.
Or wait for the change fee to disappear
Airlines typically waive change fees when there's bad weather or some other event that affects flights, says Harriet Baskas, the author of "Stuck at the Airport." You might still have to pay a higher fare for the new flight, but you can at least avoid the average $150 domestic change fee, she says.
Ask about alternative routes
The hub-and-spoke system of airlines means they may be able to route travelers around storms. Parsons recommends asking about alternate routes, even if there's a stop included, as well as alternate airports within a few hours' driving distance of your planned destination. Your airline may also be able to book seats on a partner carrier's flights. Passengers on cancelled flights are entitled to a full refund, which leaves at least some cash available for a last-minute flight on a competing carrier.
Be ready to rebook
Arrive at the airport armed with a fully-charged smartphone in case of flight problems. That way, passengers can be on hold with the airline's customer service line at the same time they're waiting for a gate agent to help them rebook, Baskas says. She also suggests knowing which friends or family members might be at home, to help hunt for an available, affordable flight via computer. And don't forget social media, adds Banas: Many airlines are responding quickly to queries on Facebook and Twitter.