The holidays don’t just kick of a season of celebrations; they also mark the beginning of the winter travel season. It’s the time of year when families and folks pile into cars to head over the hills to Grandma’s. Or when they zip up to their favorite mountain resorts for a taste of fresh powder. It’s also the time of year when people, desperate for relief from the cold and snow (and more snow . . . and sleet . . . and snow. Sound familiar?), hit the roads, rails, and skies for warmer, sunshine-ier pastures.
No matter which camp you fall into, here are a bunch of ways to make winter travel safer, better, and a whole lot more enjoyable.
Winter Road Trip Tips
1. Pay attention to the weather where you’re going, not just where you’re leaving from, up to and including the day you leave. I found this out the hard way a few years ago, when we drove to Rhode Island to visit family over the Thanksgiving holiday. In what must be a first of the ages, the weather was perfectly fine in the Berkshires. (In the Berkshires!) Rhode Island, however, got 14 inches of snow in less than 6 hours, and we were stuck, scrambling on the phone to find a pet sitter.
2. Don’t rent a car. It might seem like a good solution for keeping the mileage low on your own vehicle, but you don’t want to be learning the nuances of a new car on sleet-covered roads.
3. If you’re going to a cabin, lodge, glamping site, or other off-the-beaten path accommodation, make sure it has heating. Sounds like a no-brainer, but some sites don’t have gas or electric heat, while some make do with a simple pellet or woodstove. It’s also smart to ask whether the hosts will plow or otherwise dig out the driveway and walkways if a storm blows through during your stay.
4. Do a pre-trip survey of your car. Check the tire pressure; levels of antifreeze, cooling fluid, and windshield-washer fluid; and the battery. Replenish as needed.
5. Make sure you’re locked and loaded with road trip essentials. In addition to jumper cables and a spare tire, tuck away an ice scraper and brush, a foldable shovel, and a bag of sand or kitty litter, for extra traction in slick conditions. A packable fleece or space blanket doesn’t take up much space and will provide needed protection is you get stranded.
6. Take some snacks and water. As with the previous set of emergency extras, these will keep you going if you’re stuck on the road. Self-contained cooking systems or cups, like those made by Jetboil, are handy for quickly warming drinks or soup.
7. Pack wisely. Arrange the heaviest items at the bottom of the cargo area and toward the front of the car; this will help with weight distribution in case the car fishtails or spins. Keep sightlines out the back windshield clear; never pack a cargo area higher than the height of the rear seats.
8. Fill up before you leave, and don’t allow the gas level to dip below a half tank before you park, especially in extremely cold temperatures. Keeping the tank close to full also means you’ll have a better chance of using the engine to heat the car if you get stuck.
9. Once you’re on the road, keep your windows clean and defrosted, and clear your headlights and taillights of snow any time you stop for a break. Cars, particularly smaller ones, become harder to see once the snow, rain, or sleet start flying. Give yourself the best chance of being seen by snowplows and other drivers.
10. Don’t use cruise control. It’s tempting, but it may accelerate at questionable times, like on slippery highways.
Winter Air Travel Tips
11. Book direct flights whenever you can. If this isn’t possible, choose connecting cities where weather delays are less likely. The worst offenders for storm-related delays and cancellations? Chicago and Newark. For obvious reasons, Southern airports fare better in the winter.
12. Pick only morning flights—for the way in and the way back. Morning flights don’t run the same risk of delay and cancellation as afternoon and evening flights. And if you are delayed, your chances of getting on a different flight on the same day are much higher.
13. Follow your airline and airport online. Sign up for their e-mail updates, and keep a close eye on their social media. Many post updates to Twitter first.
14. Check the weather forecast for your departure and destination airports. If there’s a storm on the way, most major airlines offer winter weather waivers and will help you find an alternative flight or route, without additional charge.
15. Choose a suitcase with a strong, water-resistant exterior. Hard-sided cases are ideal for trudging through slushy winter sidewalks, but any well-made bag will do. To fit more in your suitcase, use packing cubes. (Keep in mind that the more you pack, the heavier your bag will become.)
16. If you’ve driven yourself to the airport, park in the indoor garage. It costs extra, but it’s worth ponying up the bucks. There’s nothing worse than getting home from a long flight, only to find that your car has been buried behind a plowed wall of snow. (Looking at you, Albany International Airport.) Alternatively, use an off-site parking facility where they clear and start the car for you before you arrive.
17. If your flight is delayed or cancelled, get on the case immediately. You’ll be among several hundred people trying to book new flights, so if you’re already at the airport, get in line at the help desk and get on the phone at the same time; use whichever option can serve you first. Be polite at all times. It’s not the airline representative’s fault that the weather went bananas, and your chances of getting booked on the flight you want increase exponentially if you’re nice.
18. Skiiers, take note: some airlines consider a ski and boot bag to be a single item, whereas others count it as two. Know your airline’s checked-baggage policy before you head out. Pack your ski coat and pants in the bag with your skiis to give them a little extra cushioning from rough handling.
19. Take “naked” gifts. If your bags are spot-checked, you’ll be asked to remove the paper and bows from wrapped gifts. Skip the wrapping, and ask your host or destination hotel if they can help you find wrapping supplies when you get there.
What to Wear for Winter Travel
20. Bring clothes you can layer. Most Northeasterners are layering pros. But if you’re not accustomed to dressing for our tundra-like breezes, don’t just rely on a heavy coat to do all the work. Instead, include a couple each of: sweaters, midweight wicking layers like long-sleeve T-shirts, and pants of a different weights. Flannel-lined jeans and chinos are your winter saviors if you’re planning any sort of outdoor activities or sightseeing. If you’ll be doing any kind of adventuring, long underwear will help block the chill.
21. If you’re traveling by plane, wear your thickest, heaviest layers and boots on board. Not only will this allow you to regulate your own temperature during the flight, peeling off and pulling on layers as needed, but you’ll also save premium luggage space.
22. Keep your feet warm and dry with waterproof shoes or boots. You can use a spray-on protective coating on most shoes (test an inconspicuous area first) that don’t have manufacturer-made protection. Also a good idea: crampons or ice grips. Both are inexpensive, attach easily to most boots, and provide invaluable spill protection while walking around on icy surfaces.
23. Stash some extra socks. Put an extra pair of cozy socks inside your day bag. If you wind up tromping through snow or puddles, you’ll be grateful for something dry to comfort your frozen feet. They can also double as “slippers” for walking around your hotel or lodge room.
24. Remember the extras. A scarf, hat, and gloves are musts for winter travel, even if you don’t need them all the time.
25. Rent your gear. Many ski resorts offer gear rentals, and some even rent heavy-duty clothing like jackets and snow pants. This saves you the headache of packing bulky items.
How to Stay Healthy & Happy during Winter Travel
26. Bring your own “go bag” of health essentials. Some travelers swear by Emergen-C and antibacterial wipes and sprays to prevent the transmission of colds. While these can help, particularly during air travel, they’re not a sure thing . . . and nothing is worse than feeling lousy while you’re traveling. Pack a small kit of over-the-counter cold and flu remedies, just in case you do catch something along the way.
27. Combat dryness. Winter air is the driest of all seasons, and this is amplified on planes. Tuck some travel-size moisturizer, eye drops, saline nasal spray, and lip balm in your carry-on. Bonus: keeping the eyes and nasal passages moisturized will also help fight off infection.
28. Protect your skin. The winter sun is no less damaging than summer’s. Make sure you face, ears, neck, and any other exposed skin are protected with sunblock. This goes double if you’ll be hiking or skiing; as the sun reflects off the snow, its effects on skin are intensified.
29. Rest up and chug down. In the days leading up to your trip, get as much rest and hydration as possible. Both will keep your immune system performing optimally when confronted with nasty viruses and bacteria.
30. Get charged. Charge your electronics fully before you leave the house, and pack a spare power pack. Don’t count on the airport to have enough outlets for you to charge up, or for your relatives to have a spare iPhone cord.
31. Take something that makes you happy. Whether it’s a pair of fuzzy slippers, a favorite sweater, a fleece blanket, or a notebook you can journal or doodle in, having something that makes you feel good when you’re away from home will encourage you to relax.
32. Try to be patient and flexible. Crummy weather can bring out the inner crankypants of the most even-tempered person. Even if there’s two feet of snow on the ground and no sign of it stopping, try to remind yourself of the positives. First of all, you’re not at work. Second, you’re not at work. Kick back and try to enjoy your time off, and remember that being flexible with your arrival and return plans will make everything feel a whole lot easier.
Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.