Major winter storm threatens to upend holiday travel

Major winter storm threatens to upend holiday travel
Illustration of a blue suitcase in a pile of snow

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The timing couldn’t be worse: a powerful winter storm is expected to slam the heart of the country this week during the holiday season’s busiest travel days.

Why it matters: The storm is expected to interfere with both passenger travel and cargo transport across a vast stretch of the U.S.

  • Long-awaited family reunions could be interrupted, while last-minute holiday gifts might not arrive in time for Christmas.

Driving the news: Widespread heavy snow and possible blizzard conditions could occur Thursday through Saturday (Christmas Eve) across the Midwest and Ohio Valley.

  • Details remain uncertain, but it’s increasingly likely that heavy snow along with strong and even damaging winds could cause poor visibility and power outages in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and several other states.
  • The storm will be accompanied by dangerously cold air, with wind chills around -30°F in Chicago, for example, by Friday night. This storm will be part of a nationwide Arctic outbreak.
  • The National Weather Service is telling residents in Chicago, parts of Indiana and Ohio to reconsider traveling Thursday through Friday night.

Where it stands: Airlines are closely monitoring the storm and are likely to preemptively cancel flights as the forecast becomes clearer.

  • Delays at big hub airports like Denver, Chicago and Detroit can ripple across the nation, affecting passengers everywhere.
  • Cargo hubs including Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis could also be affected.

By the numbers: AAA estimates that nearly 113 million people plan to travel at least 50 miles away from home this holiday season — close to pre-pandemic levels.

  • Nearly 102 million Americans will drive to their holiday destinations between Dec. 23 and Jan. 2.
  • Air travel will be up 14%, despite higher ticket prices.
  • Thursday and Friday will be the busiest days for air travel, with 3.34 million passengers scheduled to depart U.S. airports each day, according to travel app Hopper.

Be smart: If your plans are flexible, try to rebook your flight, or hit the road early, to avoid the storm’s peak impact Thursday and Friday.

  • Act fast, though — once cancellations start rolling in, it will be harder to rebook, say the experts at The Points Guy, a travel advisory website.
  • “If you have a flight booked for Thursday, you should be trying to get a flight Tuesday or Wednesday to get ahead of the storm,” managing editor Clint Henderson tells Axios.
  • Other tips: Install your airline’s app on your phone for fast rebooking, and check out options on other airlines.

Flashback: More than 14,000 flights were canceled over the holidays in 2021, as a combination of COVID-related staffing shortages and wintry weather slowed travel.

  • It took weeks for airlines to recover, leaving some passengers stranded for many days.
  • This year was supposed to be better, notes Henderson, because airlines have staffed up and haven’t been overly ambitious with their flight schedules.

Yes, but: With fewer flights, planes are packed, making it harder to rebook on another flight.

  • “There’s not enough give in the system,” Henderson says. “So if you throw in a major storm, there’s very little extra capacity in the system to accommodate delays and cancellations.”