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Braving the Storm During Hurricane Season

This year’s hurricane season, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is shaping up as “active to extremely active.” That season extends from now through November in both the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific, so many vacations could be at risk. I certainly can’t predict the weather—and I don’t want to discourage you from traveling for the rest of the year—but I do suggest you assess the possible risks when you make your travel plans. Here are some factors to consider:

The main hurricane zones are also among the most popular cruising areas—the Caribbean and the coasts of Mexico and Central America. And cruise lines vary quite a bit in the way they accommodate hurricanes. Last year’s experience is probably typical. When a hurricane approached, the most common approach was to continue the cruise but reroute to avoid the affected areas. Even though they seem huge, hurricanes in any one area of the Caribbean leave plenty more hurricane-free Caribbean Sea and ports. Ditto Mexico. Where possible, cruise lines substituted ports as close as possible to the original itineraries. For hurricanes in the Eastern Caribbean, the ships headed to the Western Caribbean instead. When a hurricane hit Baja, the cruise either stayed to northern ports or headed south to Acapulco. Only rarely did you see changes as great as sending a scheduled Mexican cruise into Alaska instead. Outright cancellations were even rarer.

Most cruise line contracts allow the line to skip or substitute ports without any price adjustment or waiver of cancellation fees. At best, some lines give vouchers toward a future cruise or modest onboard credits, only a few allow no-fee cancellation and rebooking.{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}Airlines must obviously cancel flights to/from destinations when a hurricane is actually hitting there, but they resume service as soon as possible, usually in a day or two. Typically, they allow limited no-fee cancellation and rebooking, but within very short time windows.

Resorts are typically out of business for a lot longer. If they’re in a storm’s projected path, they board up a day or two in advance and take an extra day or so to reopen. But they try to reopen as quickly as possible, even though some damage—eroded beaches, flooded golf courses, and such—takes longer to repair and reopen. Again, rather than refunds, you’re likely to get nothing more than credit toward a future stay.

Vacation rentals are hard to assess—how quickly they close and reopen often depends on individual owners.

Unfortunately, most trip-cancellation insurance is not as useful as you might think. As long as your airline is operating, policies typically won’t reimburse airfare if you cancel because of conditions on the ground. It kicks in if your resort is “uninhabitable” because of a hurricane, but as long as the rooms and restaurants are open, insurance typically does not compensate you if post-hurricane problems preclude some of the activities you planned. As long as your cruise operates—somewhere—insurance won’t cover cancellation.

Given these conditions, what are your best bets? If you plan on a trip from now through November:

  • Try to find arrangements that require a minimum amount of advance prepayment, entail reasonably low cancellation charges, or offer some sort of weather “guarantee.”
  • Buy sufficient trip-cancellation insurance to cover any large prepayments, but get a “cancel for any reason” policy—it’s the only way you can guarantee that you can cancel when you decide you don’t want to go, not when the insurance fine print says you can cancel.
  • Keep in mind that, even an “active” hurricane season impacts only a small number of destinations or cruise areas, each for a small number of days.

But the last thing you want is months of constant worry from the time you plan your trip until it’s over. If you don’t want to accept even a minimal risk, you have plenty of alternatives: I can’t remember a time when a hurricane shuttered Las Vegas casinos or cancelled a Danube River cruise.

Has a hurricane ever interrupted your travels? What did you do? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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