You can't plan for Hurricane Irene any more, but the hurricane season is just beginning and you can plan for the next one. Any time you prepay for any travel service, you have money at risk, and you want to make sure that if a future hurricane threatens your travel plans, you make the best decisions for yourself. Although travel suppliers generally allow you to adjust to a hurricane, they typically limit your alternatives within a tight time frame. If you decide you want to delay your trip for a longer period, switch to a different destination, or even not go at all, you could be on the hook for some big fees and penalties.
If you have an airline ticket to/from an area of potential impact, airlines generally allow you to reschedule your trip with no change penalty, no fees, and no change in fare, but with strict limits: You can change flights originally booked for specific routes and dates (usually 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. When an airline actually cancels your flight, you can get a full refund on even a nonrefundable ticket. Although airlines proactively cancel lots of flights a few days in advance, you usually won't know far enough ahead to do much planning.
Amtrak proactively cancels train service in areas it expects to be hit, and generally allows full refunds. Bus operators must also cancel some trips; rebooking of prepaid tickets varies by supplier
Hotels and Resorts
Each hotel sets its own policies, but on a nonrefundable advance booking prepayment, the best offer may be a credit toward a future stay rather than a cash refund.
One-sided contracts allow cruise lines lots 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. With a major change in itinerary, a cruise line may volunteer 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 Irene hit Puerto Rico, for example, ships on both Royal Caribbean and Carnival departed San Juan early leaving hundreds of travelers behind in San Juan. Carnival put them up in hotels and agreed to fly them to their next port, but Royal made that offer only for the small number who bought their air through Royal and stiffed the others.
Most trip-cancellation insurance (TCI) is pretty strict about "covered reasons" for cancellation, and "hurricane" isn't usually one of them. Yes, weather that makes your destination "uninhabitable" or forces your airline to shut down completely are covered reasons, but not if the weather just makes conditions miserable for an extended period. Again, those covered reasons are last-minute developments that don't give you much lead-time. Of course, the delay provisions in many policies will likely help with expenses incidental to airline delays, but the big dollars are in cancellation—and you want that to be on your terms.
Stay in Charge
Ordinary TCI doesn't give you the flexibility to decide, in advance, that you don't want to risk visiting or cruising in an area likely to be hit. If you want to keep control of your own decision whether to go or cancel, get "cancel for any reason" TCI. Yes, it's more expensive, but it's the only way to cancel without a potentially long squabble with an insurance company and possible denial of your claim.
Obviously, for anyone planning to travel in areas in or near the hurricane's path, the watchword is, "Keep checking your supplier's website." Suppliers are pretty good about posting their current cancellation, delay, and rebooking provisions.