Christmas travel, airport crowds
Travelers wait in line to check in for flights at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Dec. 20, 2013. Scott Olson/Getty Images

It’s unlikely to be a white Christmas for most Americans this year, but winter storms will disrupt holiday travel plans nonetheless. Thunderstorms, heavy rains and strong winds are expected to strike much of the United States starting on Tuesday, reports the Weather Channel.

"It's going to be a rainmaker, for sure. There's the threat of locally heavy rain, and this system could be windy enough to disrupt travel at airports in the East," said Roy Lucksinger, lead meteorologist at the Weather Channel.

Forecasters predict heavy rain to start pouring upon parts of the South Tuesday, affecting major travel hubs including Atlanta and Nashville. The storm will head north to the Great Lakes region, eventually striking all up and down the East Coast by Wednesday. The Pacific Northwest is also expected to see heavy rains on Wednesday.

"Especially on Christmas Eve, the rain is going to be heavy enough, and there is going to be wind, so I'd think there will be some delays and a slower go than usual on the interstates," AccuWeather senior meteorologist Dan Pydynowski told USA Today. "Certainly not the ideal travel day."

If you’re flying somewhere this week, here’s what you need to know to survive the Christmas storm crush.

Leave early if you can. If you can pre-empt the storm and get an earlier flight, go for it. Delta, United and American have all waived change fees in recent years before major storms. So call and ask if you can travel Monday night or Tuesday morning.

Sign up for flight status notifications. Get free updates directly from your airline, says travel expert Johnny Jet. You’ll get alerts about cancellations, delays and other changes. Third-party apps from sites like like FlightStats or FlightAware will also send you live updates -- often before your airline even contacts you itself.

Start rebooking right away. If you’re at the airport, don’t just wait in line to talk to a gate agent. There will be a limited number of seats available for rebooking, so get on the phone to your airline right away, even while you’re waiting to talk to a gate agent. For a complete list of airline phone numbers, click here.

Offer alternatives. They probably won’t tell you this, but airlines have the ability to sign your tickets over to another carrier. Use the NextFlight app to search for other options, or visit for its service that searches for open seats on other flights.

Get help via social media. While you’re contacting the airline by phone, tweet at them or contact them via Facebook, as well. Sometimes social media customer reps are empowered to make changes for customers. You’ll increase your chances of getting another flight.

Know your rights. In the case of weather delays and cancellations, airlines all have varying policies about what they owe you in terms of rebooking, accommodations and meals. This chart details the rules for most major U.S. airlines. For example, if a delay exceeds four hours, Delta Air Lines will provide meals and cover hotel and ground transportation if the delay occurs between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Enlist help. The Cranky Concierge is an air travel assistance service that can help you with last-minute snafus, especially if you haven’t booked with a travel agent. For $150, you can get assistance for up to four travelers in finding alternate flights, booking help and more.

Talk to your credit card issuer. If you booked your trip using a credit card, you may be covered by travel insurance protection, even for weather delays. The Chase Sapphire card, for example, covers trips up to $5,000 that are canceled because of severe weather.