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Don’t let hurricane season blow your vacation plans away

SmarterTravel

If you’re looking for a great price on an island vacation, you can often find slashed rates for Caribbean cruises, resorts, and vacation packages in the off-peak summer and fall months. But you should be aware that this period is also hurricane season, with the highest chance of storms in August, September, and October. Should the risk of encountering a hurricane prevent you from taking advantage of these low rates? Not if you choose your vacation wisely and protect your investment.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that in 2004 you’ll see 12 to 15 tropical storms, with six to eight of those storms turning into hurricanes. With fewer than 10 hurricanes forecasted for a six-month period throughout the Atlantic, the chances that your vacation will be interrupted by a natural disaster are fairly low, making low-season Caribbean discounts sound rather appealing. However, if a hurricane does happen to hit, read on to learn how you can salvage your trip and vacation dollars.

Where do hurricanes hit?

NOAA reports that most hurricanes and tropical storms are likely to hit between the latitudes of nine and 21.5 degrees North, roughly corresponding to the southern tip of Florida, the western edge of Latin America, and the northern tip of South America. This area encompasses the entire Caribbean; however, the islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao are typically outside the hurricane belt. If you want to take advantage of low-season rates without taking a risk, you’ll do well to plan a vacation on one of these ABC islands.

Cruise vacations

If you are planning to visit the Caribbean during the summer and fall, a hurricane is least likely to interrupt your fun if you opt for a cruise vacation. Unlike resorts, cruise ships are outfitted with advanced weather-forecasting technology and are mobile, allowing them to identify hurricane-force winds and sail away to calmer waters. Should a hurricane hit, you will still get a complete vacation.

We spoke with representatives from Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines to find out their hurricane policies. Both spokeswomen told us that should a hurricane prevent a ship from calling at a scheduled port, the captain will almost always decide to alter the ship’s itinerary, either swapping the days scheduled for each destination or diverting to alternate ports not included on the original itinerary.

However, sometimes you get a vacation very different from the one you booked. For example, Royal Caribbean’s Jaye Hilton tells of a time when Bermuda was hit hard with storms and the Bermuda cruises had to switch to Canada itineraries. In less extreme cases, the captain may substitute an island or port-of-call not on your original itinerary, or you might get a less desireable extra day at sea. If you have your heart set on a specific itinerary, you’re less likely to be disappointed if you book your cruise for a less risky time of year.

This is especially true because cruises won’t refund your money just because you’re unhappy with your vacation. As cruise contracts account for itinerary switches, you will receive no additional compensation should your cruise take you to destinations other than the ones you originally selected. Furthermore, you will receive no reimbursement and little help if your flight to your departure port is delayed due to weather and the ship sets sail without you. However, if you book your flights through your cruise line, the line’s travel agents will usually make the arrangements and cover the expenses of getting you to the next port-of-call to join the cruise. You might not get the lowest priced flight this way, but you may get greater peace of mind.

The rule of thumb with cruises is that the cruise line is responsible for providing alternatives if the ship is affected, and you are responsible if only you are affected. If you do opt for a low-season Caribbean cruise holiday, read your cruise contract carefully for full details regarding your lines’ policies.

Land vacations

Land vacations tend to suffer more than cruise vacations when hurricanes hit, and there are more disparities in the hurricane policies of the various tour operators and resorts. The first thing to note is that you’ll rarely receive cash back as compensation for an interrupted trip—resort or vacation vouchers are more likely—and unless hurricane force winds actually occur at the resort, you are unlikely to receive any compensation at all for bad weather.

If you choose a land vacation, you’re not completely out of luck. Several resorts and vacation providers do have reasonable hurricane protection policies, often for no extra charge. For example, if hurricane-force winds affect any of the Sandals Caribbean resorts, you will receive a complimentary replacement vacation, including round-trip airfare, that is valid for one year after your interrupted trip. In the same situation, SuperClubs (Grand Lido, Breezes, and Hedonism properties) will reimburse you for the entire value of the unused portion of your hotel stay, and you’ll receive a voucher for a future stay (not including airfare) for the total number of disrupted nights, valid one year later during the same month as your original stay.

Some resorts will also help you out if you can’t get on or off the island. For example, SuperClubs allows you to rebook your stay for alternate dates without incurring a penalty if your flight is canceled due to weather. Should a hurricane prevent you from leaving the island, SuperClubs will offer you its lowest category of room for deeply discounted rates; some resorts may provide accommodations for free.

If you book your vacation through a packager or tour operator, some offer protection plans while others leave reimbursement to the discretion of the actual travel providers. TNT Vacations, a charter vacation provider, promises a free replacement vacation, including airfare, for the same number of nights as originally booked. Pleasant Holidays, on the other hand, leaves reimbursement up to the actual hotel, resort, or airline. However, if you purchase its customer protection plan, you will receive a full reimbursement for any unused days of your vacation.

As every resort or packager has a different hurricane policy, be sure to check with both your vacation packager and the actual travel providers to make sure you understand what is and what is not covered in case of a hurricane before you book your trip.

Travel smart…Buy trip insurance

While cruises, resorts, and travel providers all have policies to deal with vacation interruptions due to hurricanes, most of these policies won’t reimburse you if bad weather prevents you from reaching your destination, or if you decide to cancel your trip at the last minute. Because most people book and pay for cruises and all-inclusive vacations several months in advance, trip cancellation insurance is the best way to protect your vacation dollars against unforeseen future events.

For example, if you purchase insurance through Travel Guard, you’ll receive a full refund if your trip is canceled due to a hurricane in your destination or if your resort is damaged in a storm and can’t provide alternate accommodations. If your trip is delayed, perhaps because an airport must close down, your insurance will cover “reasonable, additional accommodations and travel expenses until travel becomes possible.” However, you will only be covered if you purchase insurance before the hurricane is predicted. Once a tropical storm or potential hurricane is identified in your destination area, you forfeit your right to coverage for trip cancellation or delays due to that particular storm.

Each insurance company covers different circumstances for different amounts, so it’s best to compare rates and coverage. You’ll find the biggest differences in total cost, plus amounts covered for lost baggage, medical care or transport, and other expenses. Two websites that will help you compare policies quickly and easily are InsureMyTrip.com and QuoteTravelInsurance.com. When you enter your trip details and ages of travelers, the sites will list the prices and descriptions of several policies that fit your needs.

In most cases, travel insurance will not cover you if you decide to cancel your vacation because the weather is likely to be rainy due to a nearby hurricane or because you change your mind and don’t want a Caribbean vacation after all. But if you are prevented by forces outside your control from reaching your vacation destination, trip insurance will come to your rescue. Plus, you can apply the money you save when you pay low-season prices to help cover the cost of the insurance premium.

Make the most of your vacation

Many people plan low-season trips to the Caribbean and enjoy bright sunshine and warm weather throughout their stay. However, if you take advantage of off-peak rates, you should be prepared to encounter bad weather, hurricane-strength or otherwise. The Caribbean in the summer and fall is not the place for travelers who cannot enjoy themselves should the sky turn gray and cloudy or those who must have perfect weather during their vacation. But if you’re willing to be flexible, snatch up the low-season discounts and know that you won’t lose everything if a hurricane decides to rain on your holiday.

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