UPDATE, Dec. 26: Draco moved on, and a more aggressive driver than my sister might have made her original flight. But with a new storm system snarling holiday travel east of the Mississippi, my advice is still timely.
ORIGINAL POST: If the doomsayers are right and the world ends tomorrow, I won't be spending it with my sister.
With a blizzard taking aim at central Wisconsin today, her chances of making the hour and a half drive to Milwaukee in time for an early afternoon flight to Washington, D.C. seemed dicey, at best, and since most affected airlines were offering penalty-free changes in advance of the storm, I advised her to switch her AirTran flight from Friday to Saturday.
Granted, I'll take some familial heat if winter storm Draco fizzles or the roads clear. (An aside to The Weather Channel: When and why did we start naming snowstorms,anyway?)
But I still stand by my No. 1 tip:
1. Watch the weather and be proactive by checking your airline website and booking alternative flights ahead of a major system, rather than wait for the inevitable cascade of cancellations and delays.
RELATED: Travel agents' tips for stormy weather journeys
Other storm strategies:
2. Have a backup plan, and be persistent. Airline weather policies can change at the drop of a mitten, and a sympathetic agent may be able to circumvent the rules. One highly-rated free tool, FlightStats, lets you check both flight and seat availability. Research car rental rates and train or bus schedules, and consider making (refundable) reservations, just in case. (Note: One reason my sister opted for AirTran was because it offers multiple flights a day between MKE and DCA, which made it easier to snag an alternative, even during the peak of the holiday season.)
3. Know your rights (or lack of them). If you're flying domestically and hit with weather-related problems out of the airline's control, your legal options are limited. (If your flight is canceled, however, you typically do have the right to a refund.) But as some fliers discovered during Hurricane Sandy, European Union regulations go further: If your flight originates in Europe and is canceled or delayed at least three hours, you are entitled to "assistance when necessary" which could include meals and a hotel while you're waiting for an alternate flight.
4. Plan for extended delays with electronic chargers and extra food in your carry-on bag. (Of course, avoiding checked luggage in the first place is a good tactic for minimizing headaches on unexpected tight connections.)
5. Appeal for help through social media. Many airlines won't tackle customer-service issues through Twitter or Facebook, but others - including JetBlue and Delta - have used Twitter to assist passengers in previous storms. And, as Hurricane Sandy proved this fall, social media channels are becoming the go-to source for the latest travel updates.
6. If you're caught in the middle of a major storm, bypass lengthy airline hold times by using Skype or another low-cost phone option to call an international reservations number (check airline websites for alternatives).