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8 ways to ease winter travel woes

By Marnie Hunter and Katia Hetter, CNN
February 5, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
The going is not easy for pedestrians either. New Yorkers had an overnight snowstorm, followed by freezing rain Wednesday.
The going is not easy for pedestrians either. New Yorkers had an overnight snowstorm, followed by freezing rain Wednesday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 2,600 flights canceled by midday Wednesday, tracking site says
  • Year has started badly in terms of flight cancellations, with 40,000 in January alone
  • Pre-planning and getting plugged in with your airline are keys to easing the way

(CNN) -- Winter weather just keeps pounding people on the move.

More than 2,600 flights had been canceled by midday Wednesday out of 26,000 scheduled U.S. flights, according to flight tracking site FlightAware. It's been a bad season for air travelers.

"January 2014 saw 40,000 flight cancellations -- it took until April 11 in 2013 to add up that many flight cancellations," said FlightAware CEO Mark Duell in an e-mail.

No relief: More snow, cold for Midwest, Northeast

Around noon ET Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration was reporting delays of a little more than two hours for flights arriving at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Drivers have no doubt had it worse, with successive storms repeatedly snarling road conditions in many states.

Here are some tips to ease the trip home, but above all else, patience -- and caution -- will be key:

Rebook your flight for free. Airlines rolled out their customary winter weather waivers this week, so most passengers traveling to, from or through affected areas can make one itinerary change without paying a change fee. Delta, American, US Airways, United, Southwest/AirTran and JetBlue have all posted weather policies on their websites.

Act quickly. Rebook your itinerary as soon as possible. Other passengers are snapping up open seats as you mull over a new itinerary. Be sure your airline has your e-mail address and phone number, advises Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare tracker FareCompare.com. If you didn't provide this information when you purchased the ticket, go online and add it.

Follow your airline and airport on social media. Many airlines and airports post the speediest updates to their Twitter feeds, so start following them. Sign up for airline alerts to get flight updates e-mailed to your smartphone.

If you're stranded, multitask. Get online, get on the phone and get in the ticketing line (if you're already at the airport). With thousands of flights delayed or canceled, competition will be fierce for seats when operations start humming again. Get airline apps for your phone and try to contact your airline on Twitter, Seaney suggests.

Elite fliers should use their loyalty program hotlines and head to frequent flier lounges for better access to airline reps. "This might be the time to spring for a lounge day-pass just to gain access to these folks," Seaney told CNN earlier this season.

Use the NextFlight app and type in your arrival and departure cities to get the next flights for the major airlines, suggests Benet J. Wilson, Aviation Queen travel blogger. Then call the airline on your cell phone and give them your preferred options.

Charge your devices. Hopefully, you're not among those travelers stranded at the airport, where jockeying for electrical outlets is inevitable. Charge up before you head out and keep a charger and a power pack or a few battery chargers for your portable electronic devices handy.

Check your flight, no matter where you're going. Think you don't have to worry about bad weather because you're flying from sunny California to sunny Florida? Not so fast.

"Because airlines operate networks, a storm affects not only flights in its immediate location but even those in far-removed locations not affected by the storm," said Cynthia Barnhart, an MIT engineering professor who teaches airline schedule planning.

Check your aircraft's journey on your airline website or with an app such as Flightview.

Don't be a jerk. "The airline representatives did not make it snow," Seaney reminds travelers. "We've heard many anecdotal stories over the years from airline representatives who tell us it's a lot easier to find a good flight for a pleasant passenger than for one who is screaming at you."

Use common sense: Don't drive into a storm. It's treacherous out there. Monitor your local and regional forecasts and don't drive if you don't have to do so.

AAA advises motorists to check tire pressure and make sure car batteries, cooling systems and antifeeze levels are in order. Keep gas tanks close to full, the automobile association advises, so that you'll be able to run the engine for heat in case you get stranded.

AAA suggests keeping the following items in your car: a shovel and a bag of sand, a snowbrush and ice scraper, jumper cables, a spare tire, windshield wiper fluid, a cell phone and car charger and blankets, gloves, hats and food, water and essential medication.

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