Act fast when bad weather crashes your vacation plans

Summer Hull
Personal Finance Writer
Summer Hull writes the weekly "Get to the Points" column for CreditCards.com

Get to the Points

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This year has been particularly brutal in terms of winter weather. While we normally expect some wintry mix, especially in the northern half of the United States, snow and ice have hit as far south as Texas and Florida.

We also have seen travel in the New York City area brought to a complete halt thanks to a “bomb cyclone” that hit with gale force winds, snow and several days of single-digit temperatures.

When severe winter weather strikes this hard, thousands of flights are delayed, diverted or outright canceled.

While we can’t control the weather, we can control our response when it strikes at the heart of our vacations. How you respond both before and while winter weather is bearing down will make the difference on whether your trip can go forward or whether it is another casualty of the season.

Be proactive when winter weather is in the forecast

While a few snowflakes at the airport in Denver can probably be handled reasonably well, a few snowflakes in Houston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, Florida, or anyplace else it doesn’t normally snow will likely result in hundreds of delays and cancellations.

These southern airports don’t have the systems in place to de-ice planes and roads at the pace northern airports can, so any wintery precipitation at a southern airport should be taken seriously.

At the same time, forecasts of severe winter weather at even northern airports is a reason to pay attention if you have a trip planned, as these airports cannot keep up at the height of a winter storm with all scheduled inbound and outbound planes.

Even if some planes do operate as scheduled, many will be proactively canceled. Those that do make it out as planned are often the larger planes heading to international destinations.

Airlines now are very good about allowing you to make free changes to your flights in the event of forecasted severe weather. These free “weather waivers” don’t usually take effect until you are within 24 hours of the weather event, but once they are posted on the airline’s website, you are free to change your flights within set date parameters without an additional fee.

If you are scheduled to fly from, to or even through an area that is included in that weather waiver, you can change your plans for free to potentially reroute yourself around the storm, speed up or even delay your trip until after the storm is over.

In my experience, it is usually best to take the airlines up on this offer to change your plans unless you are really OK rolling the dice on severe delays or last-minute cancellations.

If you wait to change your flight until you have no choice as it has been canceled or you can’t safely make it to the airport, you may find that flights are full for days as everyone else has already filled those seats.

In the case of the recent bomb cyclone, I helped some friends change their flights to get home from Newark, New Jersey, to Houston the day after the worst of the weather had passed, and the only reason they were able to get on that flight is that we acted immediately.

Had we waited even a few more hours after the weather waiver was released, my friends would have been stuck in New York City for several additional days as flights filled up almost immediately.

Pick up the phone or tweet for help

While the online airline reservation systems have become much better about letting you change your plans without making a phone call, not everything can be done online. In the event of serious weather, sometimes an airline will allow more lenient changes than the prescribed parameters if you give them a call and explain your situation.

With some airlines, especially Delta and to a slightly lesser extent American, you may have some luck getting additional assistance with your flights by sending a direct message on Twitter.

As an example, my husband was scheduled to fly from Los Angeles to San Diego on Delta just as Hurricane Harvey was set to hit our home in Texas last August.

Obviously, flights in California were not covered by the Gulf Coast hurricane weather waiver, but a quick direct message to Delta where we explained that he needed to ditch that flight in order to get home to Houston in advance of the storm was met with understanding. Delta allowed him to cancel that flight without penalty and get credit to use on a future flight.

If you need to make a call to an airline because of weather-related issues and the main U.S number has a very long wait time, you can try one of the airline’s international numbers. You might get through much faster.

Lean on your credit cards to cover additional expenses

Even if you get a free flight change from the airline, that won’t necessarily cover every aspect of your vacation that can be impacted by winter weather.

You will want to contact your hotel, car rental agency and other related travel providers to change those plans, too. They will often work with you for weather-related changes, but for the expenses that you do incur due to a weather-related trip delay or cancellation, certain popular credit cards have your back as long as you paid for the airfare with that card.

Each credit card is different, so check your benefits guide. The Citi Prestige, for example, picks up the tab for the additional meal, hotel and transportation costs if your trip is delayed at least three hours, up to $500 per covered person, per trip.

That would have really come in handy for my friends who were stuck at JFK for an entire week after the bomb cyclone before they could eventually get home to Scotland.

That same card will provide up to $5,000 per person per trip toward nonrefundable expenses if the trip is canceled, interrupted or extended for a covered reason such as severe weather. To submit your claim, you will need to save receipts from additional expenses and document your delay or cancellation.

To do this, take screen shots of your canceled flight and/or get documents from the airline if you are at the airport.

The term “military excuse” should get you what you need in terms of a written document. A military excuse is a term you can use to get a written document from the airlines that shows the flight information and why it was canceled. It is a document that is good enough to be used for the military, but in this case it is a way to document the delay outside of your control for the purposes of making a claim with your credit card.

Other credit cards that are better than average at providing built-in travel protections include the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi ThankYou Premier. Currently, the American Express issued products don’t have very strong built-in trip delay and cancellation coverage.

There’s nothing good about having winter weather mess with your travel plans, but by being proactive and using a credit card with good built-in trip protections, you could eventually get yourself out of the cold and back into vacation mode.

See related: Compare credit card trip cancellation, trip interruption coverage, How your card may reimburse canceled trip costs


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Updated: 02-25-2018