Slippery roads were blamed for at least 12 deaths and officials cautioned they would only get worse, particularly after dark.
Winter storm warnings were in effect across the the Plains and the Midwest, with a foot or two of snow possible in some areas by Christmas Day.
Scott Blair, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Topeka, Kan., said the wind was becoming a serious issue in central Kansas, with wind speeds of up to 25 mph and gusts reaching 40 mph.
"The wind is killer, especially when you're empty," trucker Jim Reed said during a stop in Omaha, Neb. "Anything that's boxed, like a refrigerator trailer like I have ... becomes like a giant sail in the wind."
Reed said he was heading to Lincoln to pick up a load of beef before he could start his long holiday weekend.
In eastern Kansas, Tony Glaum was traveling with his wife and daughter to his parents' home north of Manhattan. He said they were thinking about staying overnight, rather than making their usual Christmas Eve trip back home.
Glaum, 43, of Leavenworth, said he didn't have any delays -- until he found himself behind a plow salting the highway. He and his daughter noticed a biting chill in the air.
"You can certainly feel the air. It feels like it's stirred up in a weird way," he said. "It just feels wrong."
Still, he said, he's looking forward to a white Christmas: "I think snow would be pretty nice."
Nearly 100 scheduled flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport were canceled Thursday and dozens more were delayed. The Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City shut down one of its three runways and canceled nearly 30 flights.
Many travelers took the disruptions in stride.
David Teater, 58, and Aaron Mayfield, 29, both of Minneapolis, were flying to Los Angeles on their way to Australia for a diving vacation. They had given themselves an extra day for travel, expecting they would be delayed somewhere along the way, and arrived at the Minneapolis airport with reading material and extra snacks.
"I'm thinking the runway should be cleared," Teater predicted.
Nick Shogren, 56, and his 17-year-old daughter, Sophie, of Park Rapids, Minn., were flying to Cancun, Mexico, for a 10-day vacation in Isla Mujeres. They drove to Minneapolis on Wednesday, their usual three-hour drive taking an extra hour because of the snowstorm, and stayed at a hotel.
Shogren said they were looking forward to doing nothing but relaxing "if we can just get out of here."
The storm began in the southwest -- where blizzard-like conditions shut down roads and caused a pileup involving 20 vehicles in Arizona on Tuesday -- and spread east and north, causing weather advisories from the Rocky Mountains to Lake Michigan.
Slick, icy roads were blamed for accidents that killed at six people in Nebraska, four in Kansas, one in Minnesota and one near Albuquerque, N.M. South of Phoenix, a dust storm set off a series of collisions that killed at least three people Tuesday.
Strong winds and ice caused power outages in Nebraska, Illinois and Iowa.
The storm forced the closure of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota and led Gov. Mike Rounds to cancel travel plans and stay in Pierre for Christmas. Rounds declared a state of emergency Tuesday before the storm even hit.
On Thursday, the governor warned people not to be deceived by the lull in the storm, promising "it will get here."