Welcome to winter. If you’re like most of the country, one day it was a pretty pleasant late fall, and the next minute it was full-on winter, wind chills, snowdrifts, and everything.
Winter brings with it pretty much the same thing it brings every year – slippery roads, cancelled flights, and a litany of travel woes – though judging by the drivers we witnessed on last weekend’s Christmas-tree trek through a three-inch snowfall, winter-winter travelers have to learn the same lessons every year.
And what are some of those lessons? With apologies beforehand to those of you who know this stuff and don’t need a refresher course, here are some of the most important tips for winter travel, whether you’re flying or driving. If you’re snowmobiling or iceboating, move along. Nothing to see here.
Take your time. In the aforementioned Christmas-tree trek we saw five cars in the scenic ditches of I-39 over a 10-mile span. These cars had many things in common: They were all small silver sedans driven by people who were dressed more appropriately for two seasons previous – and we had just seen them a few minutes before, whipping by us at too-fast-for-conditions speeds. Gang, it just doesn’t pay. You really don’t want to discover your tires’ adhesion limits in the middle of a whiteout. Allow yourself lots of extra time to get where you’re going. If you overestimate the time needed and you arrive early, consider it just another way of showing your family how much you’ve matured over the last 12 months.
If you’re flying, allow even more extra time to get to the airport, because we know this is the time of year the TSA would rather be raiding Whoville. When booking flights in the winter, choose early departure times with proportionally longer connection times than you might choose in the summer – early flights because weather delays pile up as the day goes on, and longer connection times to allow for inevitable delays.
Pack it all. My son, who drives a Pontiac Vibe five miles to school on city streets, never leaves the driveway in winter without a winch, a more robust aftermarket jack, a comealong, tow straps, rope, jumper cables, a collapsible shovel, and a candy-cane-striped spike to anchor the winch in case there’s no tree available. Of course, he thinks of these things the same way he thought of LEGOs a couple months previous, but he has this winter thing figured out more completely than a lot of veteran winter drivers. Winter is nothing to mess with. If you’re traveling long distances through snow and ice, pack what Transport Canada tells you to pack. It really doesn’t take up all that much space, and it could save your life.
Do everything the law allows – and recommends – and don’t do what they don’t recommend. If you’re in an area where studded snow tires are legal, put ‘em on. If you’re driving on mountain roads and the sign says “Tire Chains Recommended,” put ‘em on. If you’re going to be spending any time in International Falls or Fairbanks, do what the local authorities say and install an engine-block heater. This is not an evil conspiracy between the engine-block-heater trust and the government; this is lifesaving advice from the people who deal with this stuff every day. Also, if the sign by that mountain road says “Closed November-April,” don’t go all Top Gear and think, “Oh, it’s okay; I have four-wheel drive, and I can talk like Jeremy Clarkson,” because here’s a little secret: The highway department has four-wheel drive too, and they don’t use that road from November through April. Turn around, go back down the mountain, and take the long way. It’s faster than being stranded for 48 hours and helivacked off a mountain – without your SUV. You can come pick that up in May.
Have alternative plans made before you leave. We’re repeating this tip from our November 2014 winter-weather column because it’s so important. When traveling in the winter, you want to know your Plan B for getting to grandma’s before you leave. If your flights through Denver are cancelled, can you fly through a warm-weather hub to get where you’re going? If all the flights are grounded, can you catch a train? Ride a bus? Rent a car? If the Interstate is closed, what other roads can you take? If everything’s shut down, where are you going to stay? Answer these questions before you leave on your big trip, and then if the inevitable happens, you’ll have your new roadmap all planned out.
Use travel assistance. If you didn’t do the previous tip and you find yourself in dire need of a Plan B, good travel assistance is invaluable. In fact, one of our executives buys AirCare all the time, just for the travel assistance. When we talk about buying travel insurance for a road trip, this is one of the big reasons why.
Buy travel insurance. This goes hand-in-glove with the previous tip. No matter where you’re headed in the winter and how you’re getting there, travel insurance is invaluable. It’s a security blanket that’s every bit as necessary as a real blanket. AirCare is super-affordable flight protection; ExactCare provides trip-cancellation, trip-interruption, medical, and evacuation benefits. If you’re wearing cutoffs and flipflops in the middle of a whiteout and hitting 90 across northern Montana in a small silver sedan with nothing in the trunk but another pair of flipflops, travel insurance won’t make you smarter. But it will help you pick up the pieces.