Travelers across the country had their plans disrupted by last week’s Super Storm Sandy. From being stranded in a powerless New York City, to getting stuck in airports far away from home, their plights yielded some lessons on how to prepare for disaster and what to do when it strikes. And travelers take note, these tips may be useful sooner than expected; a nor'easter is expected to hit the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic this week.
• Use an excellent travel agent, especially if your trip is particularly complicated or important. (See Travel + Leisure’s favorite agents here.) These travel experts can save you time, headaches, and heartache by taking care of all the rerouting and rebooking on your behalf.
• Buy insurance. We’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating: travel insurance can be a sanity-saver even for the shortest of trips. You can be reimbursed for trip cancellations and expenses incurred because of delays, and (depending on the plan) get emergency assistance in rescheduling flights and changing hotel reservations. Bear in mind that every policy is different and comes with its own exceptions and loopholes; some may not cover you in case of natural disasters. So read the fine print carefully. In general, the insurance that you buy directly through a provider such as Travel Guard or Allianz is more comprehensive than what you can purchase through airlines and online travel agents. Though our recent survey of these third-party policies (which can be purchased for as little $10 when you click through to buy an airline ticket, for example) found that they offered good coverage in case of weather events and natural disasters. To ensure you’re eligible, just be sure to get your insurance before the storm is named.
• Rebook flights preemptively. When airlines see bad weather on the horizon, they often waive rebooking fees for travelers who want to change their plans in advance. Take advantage, if you can be flexible. Be sure to look for flights that are scheduled to depart a few days after the storm arrives—the impacted airports should be back in working order by then, and yours will be among the first flights out (or in).
• Sign up for text and email alerts about flight delays and cancellations from your airline and services such as FlightStats. And be proactive about checking their websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter handles for updates; sometimes it can take a crucial few hours for a text message to arrive.
• Get on the phone and in line. When flights are cancelled en masse, airline toll-free numbers get overwhelmed quickly; some airlines even stop offering you the option of waiting on hold for an agent. If you can get to the airport, you’ll have a better shot at rebooking the flight you want, though prepare for long lines. (Keep trying the toll-free number while you’re waiting.) Better yet, get yourself into the airport lounge and use the agents there; buy a day pass if you have to.
• Consider an alternate destination. Many New York area residents managed to get themselves home last week by flying into nearby cities, such as Boston, and renting cars to drive the rest of the way. (Travel insurance can help deflect these rental costs.)
• Secure a hotel room. Even if you think you’ll get out after a storm, make sure you have a place to stay just in case you’re stuck. Rooms in New York City were scarce last week as travelers—and locals—hunkered down in the storm-ravaged city. So extend your existing reservation, or (if you think you might be caught in transit) make a new one in your layover city. Check with the hotel about its cancellation policy, so there are no surprises. You might also consider alternative lodging options, such as Airbnb, which was offering Sandy discounts on apartment rentals throughout the affected region. And if you anticipate needing a car rental, make that reservation in advance as well. Cars are often in short supply after a storm hits.
• Use social media. Twitter proved to be one of the most vital resources during Hurricane Sandy, providing travelers with up-to-the-minute information about the storm’s approach (@weatherchannel), flight cancellations and delays (@flightstats and the airlines’ own Twitter handles), breaking news (@cnnbrk), and recovery efforts (local officials’ Twitter accounts were particularly useful). Twitter users posted real-time updates on mass transit closures and flight cancellations, offered advice on transportation alternatives, and even sent out alerts on hotel-room availability in Manhattan. If you don’t know where to begin or whom to follow, see who is being retweeted by major news sources; from there you’ll find the most relevant Twitter feeds.