Tips For Winter Driving Journeys


Somewhere east of Providence, R.I., the winter finally caught up with me.

I was driving up toward Cape Cod after a week of reporting work that had taken me around the mid-Atlantic. About halfway down the New Jersey Turnpike, those depressing, muddied mounds of snow had given way to blessedly clear roadways; the city streets were dry in Philadelphia, where I parked my Civic with ease, though the wind chill made for some uncomfortable walks.

As soon as I hit Connecticut, however, the Interstate was enclosed in walls of snow that grew ever-taller as I plowed my way north. Highway exit ramps became narrower; parking lots, where I stopped to fuel up or grab a snack, were increasingly dodgy with piles of slush, ice, or both.

By the time I started hunting for a motel around Fall River in Massachusetts I knew I’d gone too far. It was past 10 at night, a light snow was falling and I felt like the only traveler still braving the elements.

A week and a half after the blizzard, the highways were clear — but the small South Coast towns, buried under nearly four feet of accumulated snow, looked more like rural Alaska. Main roads were piled helplessly with slushy drifts; parking lots were frozen over like skating rinks. At one Quality Inn, I saw cars literally buried under snow.

The Civic fishtailed one too many times, and I knew I had to backtrack to Providence, where somewhere in the snow-battered downtown there had to be a garage. And that’s where I took refuge — gratefully forking over $25 to a valet parking attendant, sparing both my Civic and my badly frayed nerves. I’d had an Econo Lodge budget, but as I sipped my coffee in the vaulted dining room of a historic hotel, I considered the cost of repairing either a twisted fender or a twisted ankle — and concluded it was a splurge well earned.

Winter travel requires strategy, patience, flexibility, and a budget for contingencies. From roughly April through November — barring the occasional hurricane or violent thunderstorm — travel is relatively uncomplicated from a weather perspective. Heavy rain rarely derails travelers for more than a few hours; heat waves can be managed. And if you’re crossing hemispheres, the winter is, as a rule, far milder in Santiago and Cape Town than in Boston or Kiev.

But once the December solstice sets in above the 40th parallel, travel gets dicier. A January or February itinerary is never as firm as one set for, say, June. Any transit plan — be it by car, bus, plane or even train — should be taken with a grain, or a hefty supply, of salt.

And since the groundhog predicts another six weeks of winter, it seems appropriate to pass along a few things I’ve re-learned the hard way on my recent peregrinations.

♦ Build extra days into your schedule, especially if you have an important event on the calendar. I missed the wedding of a very good friend when the first leg of a Spain-to-U.S. flight was cancelled due to snow … and because it was the week of Christmas, there were no other flights available for days.

♦ Budget for bad-weather contingencies. Depending on the country and the circumstances, there are varying rules for who pays for a hotel when you’re stranded at the airport. But whether it’s a cancelled flight, an unexpectedly bad snowstorm or a worn-down car battery, winter weather can force even the most determined traveler to recalibrate — and often at a cost.

♦ Learn to interpret the forecast. Since sometime in early January, I’ve been scanning on a near-hourly basis in an attempt to determine exactly how the confluence of temperature, precipitation and wind speed might affect my plans. Here’s what I’ve learned: While no prognostication is a sure bet, if there is precipitation somewhere in the forecast, there will be precipitation somewhere along your route. Temperature trends are usually accurate, too. It’s just the specifics that vary — exactly when, how much, and what kind of precipitation will fall.

♦ Stock up on supplies. If using mass transit, lay in snacks in case you’re stranded on a tarmac or in an airport or train station after the concessions close. If driving, along with food, water (not in the trunk, please) and a reliable cell phone charger, it’s a good idea to stock the trunk with cold-weather battle gear: rock salt (or even kosher salt) for ice and kitty litter, which — spread liberally around spinning, snowbound tires — is a low-tech miracle.

♦ A good blanket, gloves, and a flashlight are also trunk essentials for cold-weather road trips. And it always amazes me how many people aren’t members of AAA, whose roadside assistance service has bailed me out of calamities — from locked doors to dead batteries — more times than I care to count.