Hurricane Sandy hit New York City five days into our family vacation. My husband and I were stranded in an Airbnb on the Upper West Side - along with our 4-year-old daughter and my 73-year-old mother - as winds felled trees and the storm surge flooded streets and subway tunnels.
My mom, an anxious traveler, panicked while my husband and I ran around town after the storm getting food and water. Because airlines were grounded, we couldn't get back to our home in Northern California for four days. Fortunately, we were able to stay in the apartment we'd rented until we could score a return flight. But the delay put tremendous strain on my mom, who fretted about being stranded and was so distraught over the delays and the news reports about flooding and destruction that she almost wound up in the emergency room.
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If we'd been paying closer attention to the predictions that Sandy would hit New York and New Jersey, we could have cut our trip short or canceled it altogether.
For any traveler concerned about timing, safety or cost, the days of being able to simply make reservations and hope for sunny weather are over. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of certain extreme weather events, said Stephen Vavrus, a weather researcher at the University of Wisconsin. With the warming climate, we're likely to see more heavy rainfall, storms and extreme heat, all of which affect travel, said Vavrus.
You can still be a globe-trotter, but these are some tips that can help minimize your travel risk.
- Before you book: Check your credit cards for travel-related benefits that will cover weather-related events, and use the one that has the best protection to book your trip, said Sara Rathner, credit card expert at NerdWallet.
Several credit cards, including Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer insurance for trips canceled or affected by severe weather. You can also receive reimbursement for costs associated with a trip delayed by weather, such as hotel stays. Otherwise, you'll pay out of pocket, with no chance at reimbursement. "If an airline cancels due to weather, the hotel cost is on you," Rathner said. NerdWallet has a comparison of travel cards and coverage at nerdwallet.com/travel-miles-credit-cards. You can also find comparisons at InsureMyTrip, QuoteWright and SquareMouth.
If you don't have a credit card that offers good travel protection, consider purchasing travel insurance. "More and more people are purchasing travel insurance due to weather extremes," said Christine Buggy, vice president of marketing for Travelex Insurance Services.
Typical premiums for comprehensive coverage average about 7 percent of trip cost, Buggy said. But it's important to read the fine print before you buy. Some travel insurance plans do not cover major weather events such as hurricanes.
Keep in mind that you usually can't cancel a trip just because you see massive clouds on the horizon. "We don't insure the fear of travel," Buggy said. To be able to cancel for a full refund, the storm must have already hit your destination and done severe damage, rendering it "uninhabitable." However, an insurance plan can cover prepaid trip costs if weather interrupts your travels or causes delays, baggage loss or missed connections.
Finally, purchase insurance in advance, especially during hurricane season. Once a storm has a name and a path, you can no longer buy travel insurance for your trip.
- Do your research: Planning is key, says Steve Sintra, regional director of Kayak North America, especially in the case of locales where you are not familiar with weather patterns.
"If you're looking forward to going to Southeast Asia, you may want to avoid the rainy season in May to October," Sintra said. "Hurricane season hits the Caribbean in late August through September." Fire season in the western United States runs from summer to fall, tornado season in the Midwest hits late spring to early summer, hurricanes can pummel the East Coast in the fall, and winter travel in the Great Lakes and East can be delayed by intense snow.
Familiarizing yourself with the seasonal weather, both nationally and globally, can help you avoid travel headaches. Kayak has a guide that allows you to check the precipitation and temperature patterns at top destinations: kayak.com/travelhacker.
However, if you're cash-strapped and not risk-averse, you can consider buying tickets for the offseason. "Weather can create some opportunities to save some money. Take advantage of the deals with that," Sintra said.
- A week before you go: "Travelers really need to be more diligent about getting ahold of good weather forecasts and taking them more seriously," said Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center.
Weather predictions have become much more accurate, but they can tell you only so much. The forecasts are particularly good at showing when a big hurricane or snowstorm will hit, but other extreme weather events, such as tornadoes, can be more challenging for forecasters and travelers to anticipate.
"You can't predict where a tornado is going to happen, but you can predict where they're likely to form," Francis said. For example, when the jet stream takes a big dip in the middle of the country in the spring, the risk for violent thunderstorms that can unleash damaging winds and hail and delay travel increases.
Temperatures are heating up globally, said Francis, and heat waves are lasting longer. Record heat spread throughout Europe in June, even as wildfires blazed in Catalonia.
These are the kinds of extreme-weather scenarios we're likely to see more of in the future, Francis said. "It doesn't mean you shouldn't go, you just need to pay attention and be ready for your travel to be disrupted because extreme weather is increasing," she said.
- Prepare for delays, turbulence: Research suggests that flight turbulence will increase because of climate change, Francis said. A study from 2017 predicted that climate change could lead to a 149 percent increase in severe turbulence. Sometimes these in-flight bumps can be hazardous; in late May, 30 people were injured on a flight from Istanbul to New York.
These days, it's especially important to pay attention to the seat belt signs during flights to avoid injury. And if you want to minimize summer weather delays and turbulence, take a flight in the morning, Francis suggested. Thunderstorms are much more common in the afternoon.
- If you get caught in a storm: Make sure you download your airline's travel app before you go, and sign up for cellphone notifications. But you don't have to wait for news. Be proactive: If you see a big storm on the forecast, contact the airline immediately to see whether your flight is canceled, and get rescheduled on the next available flight. Do not cancel a flight before your airline does; you will be responsible for whatever fees are associated with changing your ticket.
If it looks as though you'll be stranded, secure your accommodations (hopefully with a credit card that has great travel coverage). You don't want to be stuck couch surfing at an airport, especially if you have kids or elderly relatives in tow. If the hotels are booked, look on Airbnb, VRBO and other options. Or reach out on your social media channels to people you know in the area.
Once you've got a place to stay, review your itinerary and make changes to rest of the trip - such as hotel, car rental, restaurant, and tour or activity reservations - to avoid cancellation charges.
When it comes to travel, Rathner said, "you should always be prepared for things to go wrong, and hope everything goes right."
This article was written by Amy Ettinger as a special to The Washington Post.