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When Mother Nature ruins your holiday travel plans, here’s what to do

Make sure to have a back up plan in place just in case your flight is delayed our cancelled, experts say.
Make sure to have a back up plan in place just in case your flight is delayed our cancelled, experts say. Prasit photo / Getty images

It’s the same story every December: a big snowstorm hits, causing hundreds – if not thousands – of flight delays and cancellations across the continent, leaving many stuck and unable to get to where they need to be for the holidays.

A number of factors can influence when we book our trips (like work, for example), however sometimes Mother Nature has plans of her own.

But if you’re prepared and know what to do ahead of time, then you may be able to save your trip, or at the very least your bank account.

READ MORE: Here’s the best time to book your holiday travel

According to a 2014 survey of 1,004 people by Mastercard and Omnibus, 89 per cent of people are stressed out when planning family vacations. The most stressing thing about travelling, the survey found, was getting to, from and through a departing and arriving airport (57 per cent).

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And there’s no doubt that stress can be amped up when nasty weather hits.

“While off-season travel can be appealing given prices are lower, consumers need to be extra prepared when travelling during these times as off-season often comes with weather risks – from snowstorms to hurricanes,” Nuno Guerreiro, regional manager in Canada at travel website Booking.com, says.

“There’s nothing worse than being stuck at an airport – especially during the holidays – for weather delays,” David Solomito, vice-president of brand marketing at KAYAK, adds. “And while you can’t control when bad weather rolls in, there are some precautions you can take in preparation for it.”

That’s why having one or several backup plans in place is important. So here’s what every traveller should know and do during the upcoming holiday travel season according to both Guerrerio and Solomito.

If you’re anticipating a snow storm and you’re worried about your flight or train being delayed or cancelled, what should you do?

What all travellers should do in this situation is track the news, Solomito says.

“Before you decide if you want to re-book or cancel your flight – if you have that option – listen to the experts and stay close to the weather forecast,” he says. “The most important thing is your safety.”

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Also, get travel insurance. Make sure as well that you are covered for trip cancellations, trip interruptions, delays and lost baggage, Solomito advises.

And lastly, track your flight. If you booked with an online travel provider, some of them have flight trackers through their website or an app. You can also check with your airline or consult the airport’s arrival and departures page.

You’ve already booked your travel plans but your destination was hit with a hurricane – now what?

This was a dilemma many were faced with after popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean were hit in September by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

The lead time for cancellation does vary by property and room type, Guerreiro says, so be sure if you’re travelling during hurricane season that you select a property that offers flexibility.

Should you find yourself in this situation despite planning ahead, there are some things you should do.

READ MORE: Top 10 trending holiday destinations for Canadians, according to KAYAK

First, call your airline, Solomito says. Sometimes airlines have contingency plans to help you re-book, like waiving certain fees in these circumstances.

Next, you may want to cancel your trip with your other providers like your hotel, cruise line, tour groups, etc. If phone lines are down, try a general line. Also keep track of who reimbursed you and who didn’t – this may help you determine who you use for future trips.

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You can also reach out to airlines through their social media pages. So follow your airline on Facebook and Twitter as well as the airports you’ll be using. Many of them will post real-time updates in the event of a natural disaster, Solomito adds.

If your flight or train is cancelled due to bad weather, what are you entitled to?

Check your flight policy, Solomito says. Many airlines have a “force majeure” or “acts of God” clause that allows them to cancel or postpone a flight for weather-related reasons, without an obligation to compensate passengers.

If you’ve chosen to book with a travel website, know that it may not be required to reimburse you, but it may be able to rebook your flight once air travel is possible again, he adds.

Is it possible to get a refund on your trip? If so, how?

It all depends on the type of trip you booked, Solomito says.

“Cruise lines will often reroute to another location in the same area,” he explains. “If you’ve put a deposit down, you may lose that upfront but receive a refund.”

However, if you don’t plan on rebooking your trip, see if you can get a cash reimbursement rather than a voucher.

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According to Solomito, vouchers can come with a list of restrictions that make them less convenient.

In any weather-related event, what is something travellers often do that they think will help, but really it doesn’t?

Travellers in these (understandably) stressful situations will get angry – but that’s not a good idea, Solomito says.

“Your safety and the safety of others is tantamount,” he says. “Remember that those in the hospitality industry have families that they care for as we do. Don’t lose your cool when calling the airline and especially don’t put others in danger by going rogue to get to the disaster zone on your own.”

What other tips will help this holiday travel period?

It’s going to be busy at airports and train stations leading up to the holidays, so make sure to get to the airport and train station early, Guerreiro advises.

Also, anticipate lines everywhere – the terminal, security, etc. It is the busiest time of year after all.

When booking your flight in advance, Guerreiro also says to make sure you book a flexible rate. It will allow you to save some money in case you need to change any travel plans.

Also, try not to check bags when you travel. If you can, put everything you need in a carry-on. It’s one less line to avoid, he says.

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Have an idea of alternative routes or travel methods, Solomito adds, in case you need to change any of your plans.

“Can you fly out of Hamilton instead of Toronto? Could you rent a car from Dorval station instead of being bound to downtown Montreal?” he asks. “Knowing these options ahead of time will mean you’ll be able to spring into action and change your travel plans quickly.”

Be aware of fees associated with changing tickets, Solomito points out. And if you’re not in a rush, offer to be bumped from your flight in exchange for cash or a voucher for future travel.

“Sometimes the reimbursement is quite hefty, and can help with the increased spending around the holidays,” Solomito says.