Normally, I’m traveling with kids… which means that I have to bring a lot of stuff with me.  For me that means one big suitcase with all of their clothes and gear, and another large suitcase with all my gear and anything leftover from theirs.

For years, I’ve just gotten into the habit of checking bags because it was a necessity for trips with kids.  Now that I was flying sans kids, I still packed the same suitcase.  I guess I liked the idea of breezing through security without lugging around diaper bags and strollers, so I just continued to feed the habit without really thinking about it.

It’s almost time for me to fly and the snow is coming down.  No problem, I think to myself.  I’m from the Northwest and usually it’s a quick hop and jump to get to my next destination.  Things are different now; we’re stationed just outside of DC and I need to make my way to Vegas for the New Media Expo conference.

The polar vortex had just hit the evening before and had pretty much shut down Chicago.  I should have known to check on my flight leaving out of Dulles, Virginia, but the weather forecast for the next day was a beautiful, sunny day so I thought it would be no biggie to catch my flight out since the rest of the country was faring well.

I’ll let you in on a little secret:  I’m a naïve winter flyer.  Coupled with that fact was the false confidence stemming from Southwest not texting me with any flight impacts. I’ve flown with them before and my profile is set up to get text messages in any event of changes.  I’ve even received texts for gate changes, so I was sure that I would have received a text for a cancelled flight.

I was happily living in my simple perfect flying bubble… until I showed up at Dulles around noon and discovered nearly all the flights had been canceled for every airline.  Now I was desperate for options.

Lesson #1: If you’re flying in the winter, try not to connect in Chicago or other extreme cold weather environments before you book your ticket.

Lessons #2: Check your flight status 24 hours ahead of time.  Then do it again at 12 hours.  If you notice your flight has been cancelled, you have time on your side to call and get another flight.  But what if you’re at the airport?  Call the airlines directly for help, it’ll probably be faster than waiting in line (or call while you’re standing in line!)

My plans were now foiled and I had to be rerouted to another airport since all the Dulles flights were either full or cancelled.  The airlines clerk checked Baltimore (two hours away) and it had no flights.  I started to worry because I’d be out the almost $500 that I had spent on my ticket to the conference.  But wait!  She found me the last seat on a flight out of Reagan, D.C. to Vegas… I’d take it!  She warned me that if they checked my bag and somehow the flight didn’t make it through or go switched, I would be out of luck.  Crap.

Lesson #3: Pack a carry on in the winter.  You need your stuff and now you can make sure it goes where you go.

Lesson #4:  Before you board the bus, ask the bus driver if they are going to the destination desired.I needed to get from Dulles to Reagan now.  Thankfully I had my car in the parking lot… now I just needed to get there.  I parked in the blue lot so I waited for the blue bus.  After a while I started looking around and everyone looked like they worked at the airport.  Hmmm…. Did I miss something?  Yes, I did.  The blue bus is the employee bus that takes you to the employee parking lot… which takes 30 minutes to get back to the terminal.  Now I had to roll around and wait to get onto the other blue bus.

Parking Shuttle at Dulles
This looks like a legit parking shuttle, right? Nope it carries employees. No way to tell.

Lesson #5:  Lesson learned years ago at another airport: If you want the bus to stop at the terminal you’re heading to, simply pull on the metal wire that runs the length of the bus near the roof.  It will make an audible sound to notify the drive the stop; otherwise they’ll just keep on going.

I finally get to my car and head towards Reagan.  I’m thankful for today’s technology and considered all our military families in the past who were stationed in a new area without the ability to look up directions on the fly.  I was able to easily navigate my way there and was thankful that everything had worked out.

After checking in for my flight, it was time to settle in for the long wait. I happily discovered that the airport had free wifi (bonus!) and several charging stations.  Double win.

Lesson #6: If you’re looking to charge your devices, look under the coffee tables as many new seats have slide out charging stations that are hidden.  Also look for charging stations on the foot of the chair between seats and of course wall outlets. A few extra moments of careful scanning can land you a cozy seat without trying to cram for space around the charging stations… especially when people are sick and coughing everywhere.

Now it was time to wait for my flight… really I was just happy to get to Vegas.  I didn’t care what time.  My flight ended up getting delayed more than three times.  It was originally scheduled to leave at 4pm and we ended up leaving at midnight.  We had a quick stop in Minneapolis where quickly changed planes and landed in Vegas at 2:30am (4:30am on my internal clock).  I was excited to get to Vegas, but was exhausted from spending so long in the airport and on the flight.

After my conference had concluded it was time to leave again.  This time I implemented rule #1: I checked the status of my flight 24 hours in advance.  Now the polar vortex had hit and once again, my flight was cancelled.  I was stuck in Vegas now and had time to rebook my hotel room in an almost sold out hotel, but also made sure I had rebooked a new flight home. Many other travelers who didn’t check flights in advance weren’t so lucky and ended up getting stuck in Vegas for a few days, although many would argue it’s a great place to get delayed.

All in all, I hope that you gain learn from some of my inexperience with flying in the winter.  Please share any other tips and/or stories of you winter travels below!