Monthly Archives: December 2016

All About Winter Travel Tips

Successful winter travel is all about successful navigation of winter weather. We want all our readers to get to and from their destinations with minimum trouble and maximum enjoyment — and, most importantly, to always arrive safe and sound, no matter what sort of snow, ice, sleet or freezing rain you may encounter. To that end, here are some winter travel tips and tactics to help you avoid spending the season stuck in airports or on roadsides.

an older couple looking off into the distance wearing winter hats and scarves
Tips for Winter Air Travel

1. I have found that the worst winter problems for travelers frequently occur at connecting airports. If your first outbound flight is canceled and you end up returning to your own home from your local airport, that’s one thing; if you are stuck in your vacation hotel hoping to get a flight home, that’s a bit worse. But when you’re stuck in a connecting airport in Texas calling hotels and praying for a place to stay, you’re in what we call yer worst-case scenario, pardner.

For this reason, you should fly nonstop whenever possible. To find nonstop flights, do all your initial flight searches with the “Nonstop Flights Only” button checked. If you also use search options like “Show Nearby Airports” and “My Dates Are Flexible,” you’ll have a very good sense of how best to get from Point A to B without Point C for Connection.

2. If you absolutely must fly with a connection, watch your layover times carefully. If a weather delay causes you to miss your connection, you might be out of luck, as the airline is not necessarily obligated to find you a seat on the next flight, and often cannot logistically do so if flights are full or unavailable. If you have a really tight connection time and your flight is running late, let your flight attendant know, and he or she may be able to make arrangements to hold your next flight, or at least get you off your first flight quickly.

3. Again, if you must fly with a connection, check weather at your connecting cities as well as at your departure and destination airports. We all want to know what the weather is like for the departure and arrival airports (particularly if we’re traveling on vacation), but for the same reasons stated above you’ll want to know what is going on at your connecting airport as well. If the weather looks threatening, contact your airline to see if it can reroute you; it may be in its best interest to do so.

Your chances of getting on a different flight will be greatly enhanced if you’ve already done the research yourself to determine which alternate flights might work best. Don’t count on a gate agent to know about or search the schedules of other airlines.

4. Try to book your connection through a southern city where weather shouldn’t be an issue. There are no guarantees here, as northern airports tend to be better equipped to deal with winter conditions, and a snowstorm can almost wholly shut down an airport that more often suffers from too much sun. However, your odds are better in places that rarely see ice or snow.

5. Choose a morning flight, for two reasons: First, you are far less likely to have your flight affected by problems at other airports. Second, if your flight is canceled or badly delayed, your options for alternate flights are greatly increased, improving your odds for getting on a different flight by the end of the day.

6. Consider alternate airports. Very often the problem is not solely weather, but also the overall volume of passengers and flights. In places like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Houston, second-tier airports aren’t too far out of town and are tied into the transportation grid.

7. Get ahead of the game at security. Before you even get in line, put all your gear and spare coins into a pocket of your carry-on bag. With so much valuable stuff getting dumped into plastic bins all day, every day, it’s inevitable that some of that stuff gets left behind, dropped, damaged, broken or even stolen. If you take 15 seconds to stow everything, you’ll make the time up twice over on either side of the security gate, and won’t risk losing cell phones, wallets, keys and the like.

For more tips, see our Airport Security Q&A and 16 Ways to Get Through the Airport Faster.

8. The annual holiday gift wrapping rule: Don’t wrap gifts — security will have to rip them open. With the TSA searching checked bags as well as carry-ons, this applies to all of your luggage, not just what you bring onto the plane with you. Consider shipping your gifts ahead of time or wrapping them once you get to your destination.

9. Finally, avoid peak travel dates as best you can, particularly holiday weekends.

Winter Driving Tips

1. Put some extra clothing and emergency items into your vehicle; these will come in handy if you break down in cold weather. It doesn’t take much — assemble a basic kit including a pair of gloves, weather-resistant pants and/or coat, maybe an old pair of boots, a blanket, jumper cables, a flashlight with some extra batteries, and a windshield scraper (and maybe a de-icer), and you should be in good shape. You might also toss a few nutrition bars in as well; those things won’t spoil until the next millennium, are packed with calories and can bail you out in a pinch.

snowy road
2. Make sure your car is checked over for winter weather readiness. In particular, you or a mechanic should inspect your tires before the first big winter storm.

3. Once your vehicle is inspected and equipped, follow this advice we heard a while back from Montana’s snowplow drivers: “See and be seen. Keep your headlights and taillights clean, especially in stormy weather. Keep windows clean and make sure defrosters work well. If snow has built up on your vehicle overnight or after a break from driving, clear it away so it doesn’t blow off and obscure your windows.”

4. Slow down. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends slowing down by about 50 percent in bad weather; additionally, leave extra space between you and the car in front of you.

5. Remember that not all stretches of road are created alike. For example, many recently built small bridges and overpasses have been designed to blend into the surroundings, with a gradual or nonexistent change in elevation. These bridges nonetheless remain susceptible to icing over much more rapidly than regular blacktop. Look out and look ahead for these short stretches of road when temperatures approach or drop below freezing. If you don’t know the ropes of driving on icy surfaces, read this primer on how to drive on black ice.

6. Some features of modern automobiles may actually serve you poorly in bad conditions. In some SUVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles, for example, you may have better traction when the vehicle is under way, but the four-wheel drive won’t help you stop any faster. Also, skip the cruise control; your cruise control feature may accelerate when you least want it to, such as when you are climbing an icy bridge.

7. Some safety experts recommend putting a bag of kitty litter in the trunk, both for added ballast to offer better traction, and to put under the wheels if you need to get yourself out of a slippery spot.

8. If you are stranded and have to stay in your car, you can run the engine for heat, but make sure the exhaust pipe is not obstructed by snow or mud. If you prefer not to have the engine running the whole time, close the windows to keep heat in, and run the car for 10 minutes every hour, cracking open a front window when you do so.

9. If you are parking at your hotel or near attractions in bad weather, opt for a spot in an indoor parking garage when available.

Important Things to Pack When Traveling Alone

In many ways, packing for a solo trip isn’t that different than packing for a trip with someone else. If you and your partner always use packing cubes, you’ll probably still rely on them when you’re by yourself. Can’t travel without your Kindle, no matter who you’re with? Of course you’ll bring it along.

woman traveler with view of verona italy
But there are certain concerns that become more pressing when you’re traveling alone — particularly when it comes to personal safety. If you don’t have a companion to watch your back, you’ll want to take a few extra precautions and consider packing the following six items when you travel alone.

1. Door Stopper

Because deadbolts and other security features vary widely from hotel to hotel, packing your own door stopper can help you add an extra layer of protection. (This is especially true at many motels, where doors open to the outside, and at budget properties with shoddy locks.)

The DoorJammer Portable Door Security Device weighs just eight ounces and can be wedged under your hotel door to keep an intruder from opening it. The SABRE Wedge takes it a step farther by including an alarm that goes off when pressure is applied to the door.

2. Dummy Wallet and Money Belt

When you’re traveling with a companion, you can split your money and credit cards between the two of you so there’s less impact if one of you is robbed. But if you’re alone, you’ll still want your valuables to be in more than one place.

We recommend carrying the bulk of your cash and cards in a money belt hidden under your clothes, while keeping only what you need for the day in an inexpensive wallet, which you can put in a front pocket or in a crossbody bag that’s difficult to steal. If you’re mugged, you can toss this dummy wallet away from you without giving up all your valuables.

You may also want to keep some emergency money (perhaps a $100 bill, or the local equivalent) in a place that a mugger would be unlikely to access — tucked away in your shoe or bra, for instance.

One money belt we like is this RFID-blocking option from PEAK. (RFID stands for radio frequency identification; passports and some credit cards have RFID chips in them with sensitive data that could be skimmed by opportunistic crooks.) If you’re looking for crossbody bags with anti-theft technology (such as slash-proof straps), Travelon offers a number of options.

3. Medical ID Card or Jewelry

If you become incapacitated during a solo trip, you won’t have a companion to speak on your behalf to medical personnel — which could be life-threatening if you have allergies or health conditions a doctor needs to know about. That’s why it’s vital to have your medical information in a place where first responders can find it easily.

NomadSOS is a medical ID card that you can customize with information about your blood type, allergies, medications and emergency contacts. Or try a service called My Important Information, which gives you a card with a QR code on it that first responders can use to access your medical and other essential data.

You may also want to consider wearing a medical bracelet or necklace engraved with important health conditions such as heart disease, severe allergies or diabetes. (Amazon offers numerous medical necklaces and bracelets.) And, of course, we strongly recommend purchasing travel insurance.

4. Inexpensive Wedding Band

Wearing a wedding band may help deter unwanted attention, even if you’re not actually married. And some travelers who are married buy cheaper wedding bands to wear on the road in place of sparkling engagement rings and diamond-crusted bands. A plain band will attract less attention, and if it’s lost or stolen, it won’t be a big loss.

Plain stainless steel bands are available for less than $10. Titanium bands are also sturdy and very affordable.

5. Whistle/Personal Alarm

We don’t recommend carrying pepper spray when you travel, as it’s illegal in many countries (as well as on planes). However, having a whistle or other noise-making device can help scare away an attacker or draw the attention of others in an emergency.

This personal alarm has a backup whistle that you can use even if the battery dies, and it clips onto a purse or backpack. You can also buy a simple safety whistle such as this one from Fox 40.

6. First-Aid Kit

We recommend that every traveler bring a few medical necessities, but it’s even more essential when you don’t have a travel buddy to run down the street to the nearest pharmacy on your behalf.

Tips to Pack for a Winter Vacation

If you read travel publications and trawl the web for packing tips, you can find millions of words of sometimes commonsensical, sometimes scolding and generally somewhat vague advice on how to pack for a winter vacation. Don’t pack too much stuff, dress in layers, pack a hat and gloves — but you know all that stuff already.

winter vacation travel car suitcases packed
To help convert general packing advice into a usable packing list, I have some tricks you can use to help figure out where to start. We’re not talking about packing for a ski trip — that is its own special challenge — but most travelers should find these winter travel packing tactics simple, straightforward and useful for a more general vacation.

Hats — the Secret to Staying Warm

Back when I used to go to concerts that weren’t scheduled on Saturday mornings at 11 a.m., I went to a LOT of concerts, year round, mostly in the northeastern U.S. Wearing bulky clothes into a music bar, concert hall or jazz club isn’t that different than doing the same on an airplane. I learned that a light fleece and a warm hat were all I needed to get from car to club, through the line and back again without freezing on a city street in February — the same goes for sprints through airports, short walks for breakfast in the morning cold and more. If you don’t want to freeze your bum off, wear a good hat.

Requirements for a good travel hat:

– Covers your ears
– At least partly covers the back of your neck
– Has no flaps, fluffballs or other wasted mass
– Is made of thin, modern materials for maximum warmth

There is nothing quite so brutal as a freezing cold noggin, so if you choose one item very carefully, make it your hat. Amazon offers numerous options, such as this Carhartt watch hat for men or this fleece cap for women.

Shoes — Your One Heavy Item

Given that your feet are on the front line of most weather you will encounter, this is the one area that I recommend you be unafraid to go big. A solid, decent-looking pair of low-frills winter boots that you wear right onto the airplane will come through for you again and again during a winter trip.

Requirements for good winter travel shoes:

– Weatherproof — Gore-Tex gear can be pretty styling these days
– Light on lacing — you still need to get through security, so a pair of shoes or boots that can be worn loosely and don’t require a lot of tying and untying will help
– Dark colored, so they won’t show stains from mud, slush or getting thrown on filthy security belts

There are plenty of decent boots that hold up well enough to hike through snow in, but look good enough to wear to dinner; find them and wear them when you walk out the door for the airport. Examples include this option for women and this pair for men.

Gloves — Thin, Light, Breathable and Waterproof

The days of massive mittens and wool gloves are gone, at least for smart travelers; you can get a great pair of warm, waterproof, yet very thin gloves that weigh only a few ounces and will take up only a few square inches of your luggage. The breathability makes them wearable across a wide temperature range, the waterproofing makes them useful in the worst weather, and the tight packaging makes them very low impact both when packing and when carrying them around.

I use Sealskinz Waterproof Gloves (available for men and women). They’re great for everything from taking photos in the predawn cold to making good, strong snowballs.

Requirements for travel gloves:

– Weatherproof
– Breathable
– Extremely light and low bulk
– Quick drying
– Have some type of grip

Between your hat, boots and gloves, your vulnerable extremities are covered.

Clothing — Morning Paper Trick for Layering Up

Almost every collection of tips on how to dress/pack/stay warm/etc. in winter includes advice to dress in layers — which sounds great, but how do you go about it? Where do you start, and where do you stop? Without a plan, you could layer yourself up until you look like the Michelin man. To get a handle on how to pick and choose from the clothes you already own, try this trick.

winter couple
When traveling during winter, use a “morning paper” approach to figure out what to pack:

– Light long- or short-sleeve shirt (or T-shirt) for reading the paper indoors
– Long-sleeve top over that for grabbing the paper from the stoop
– Fleece (or sweater, though wool tends to be bulky) over that for getting the paper from the curb
– Light wind- and waterproof outer shell over that for getting the paper from the curb in the rain

If you pack such that you can get the paper in any weather, and then add and remove items as you go in and out of doors, you will have enough and the right clothes to layer up for pretty much any weather you will encounter, indoors or out.

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Some Accessories to Consider

– Polarized sunglasses: Even weaker winter sunlight, when reflected off snow, can be rough on your eyes. In addition, the sun is lower in the sky, so is more likely to be in your line of sight or become a problem when driving during the short daylight hours. In those conditions, polarized glasses perform extremely well.

– Sunscreen: Sunscreen in winter? Absolutely. A windburn, or a sunburn from reflection off of snow or ice, is every bit a rival of a summer sunburn.

– Lower-body base layer: If you are going to be spending extended time outdoors, consider packing a base layer to keep your legs comfortable in the cold. They are harder to shed than a top layer, but don’t take up much packing space and are essential if you’ll be outside for hours at a time.

– In harsher weather, a scarf can be a small and light but very effective addition.

Resist the Urge to Pack Your Favorite Gear

I have an oversized black wool jacket that I would take around the world if it didn’t weigh about eight pounds and take up enough space to half-fill a suitcase. Every winter trip I look at it and think, yeah, it won’t be that bad if I carry it on … then I wise up.