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Here Come the Hurricanes, Again

No, I don't mean the University of Miami's football team—although they're coming, too.

I mean real hurricanes. Tropical storm Isaac, with its potential escalation into a hurricane, ushers in the 2012 hurricane season. And if you're planning travel during the fall—especially anywhere near the southeastern United States or the Caribbean—you need to add the possibility of hurricanes to your travel-planning mix. Part of the problem is money: Any time you prepay for any travel service, you have money at risk, and you want to make sure that if a hurricane threatens your travel plans, you make the best decisions for yourself. But the other part of the problem is your travel experience: Even if your travel plans aren't interrupted, bad weather may be enough to make you reconsider your trip. And different suppliers treat hurricane problems differently.

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AIRLINES. If you have an air ticket to/from an area of potential impact, airlines generally allow you to reschedule your trip with no penalty, no fees, and no change in fare. But they offer very little flexibility: You can change flights originally booked for specific routes and dates, but typically by just two or three days, and your replacement trip must generally start within a week or so of your original dates.

If you'd rather wait beyond the airline's narrow deadlines or make other changes, you'll face some combination of exchange fees and possible fare increases. If you wait until departure time and your airline actually cancels your flight, you can get a full refund on even a nonrefundable ticket. But you have less flexibility if you decide several days in advance that you'd rather abort the trip.

HOTELS AND RESORTS. Each hotel and resort sets its own policies. But on a nonrefundable advance booking prepayment, many offer only a credit toward a future stay, not a full cash refund. And the future stay may have a tight time limit.

CRUISE LINES. Typically one-sided cruise contracts, which are called "contracts of adhesion," allow cruise lines a lot of leeway in how they respond to hurricanes without giving you the option of a refund. They seldom cancel outright; instead, they skip scheduled ports, substitute ports, depart early or late, and otherwise adapt. When cruise lines substitute a major change in itinerary, some will volunteer to let you cancel and receive a voucher toward a future cruise or a shipboard credit, but no law obliges them to do so. Moreover, cruise lines are generally pretty hard-nosed about changes: When a scheduled cruise alters the itinerary significantly, you may be faced with a "take it or leave it" choice with no refund or rebooking option.

TRAVEL INSURANCE. Most trip-cancellation insurance (TCI) is pretty narrow about "covered reasons" for cancellation, and "hurricane" isn't always one of them. Weather that makes your destination "uninhabitable" or forces your airline to shut down completely is almost always included as a covered reason, but not weather that just makes conditions at your destination unpleasant. And most don't include altered cruise itineraries as covered reasons for cancellation. Moreover, time frames are typically limited: You can't cancel just because of a tropical storm that "might" develop into a hurricane.

Fortunately, however, you have some insurance options:

  • Some policies kick in as soon as an official hurricane warning is issued for your destination or cruising area, but others don't pay until a hurricane actually hits. Protect yourself by searching for a policy that includes a warning as a covered reason.
  • An even better bet is a "cancel for any reason" TCI policy. Although these policies are more expensive, they're your only option to cancel without waiting until it may be too late to do something else.

Obviously, for anyone planning to travel in areas in or near a hurricane's path, the motto is "Keep checking the weather forecasts and your supplier's website." Suppliers are pretty good about posting their current cancellation, delay, and rebooking provisions.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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