Do you know what to do if a hurricane strikes your vacation destination? The course of action for canceling a trip and/or trying to get a refund vary depending on the trip. From buying travel insurance to rescheduling flights, here’s everything you need to know about hurricanes and travel.
All airlines follow the same general pattern. If your scheduled flight to/from an airport within a specified impact zone within a stated period is cancelled due to a hurricane at either end of the flight, you have two general options:
- If you want to get on with your trip, you can rebook an available seat to the same destination in the same cabin with no change fee and at the same fare, within a limited time, usually just a few weeks. If you want to reschedule a flight beyond that date, you face paying at whatever the going fare is at the time—and maybe a change fee. Airline policies generally say you “may” be subject to a change fee rather than you “will” be charged, but that sort of vague proposition doesn’t help with post-hurricane planning. My guess is that most travelers “will” have to pay. In effect, you’re no better off than if you had cancelled the flight, yourself.
- If you want to abort your trip, you are entitled to a full refund, even on a totally nonrefundable ticket.
Airlines have become quite pro-active in severe weather events, cancelling trips as soon as a threat is recognized rather than waiting until the event actually hits.
Although all airlines follow the same general policy, details differ. The most significant detail is how much time the airline gives you for a replacement flight without triggering a fare difference or change penalty. Even the most generous of these policies is too tight for many trips. If your cancelled trip was to visit friends or relatives, for example, presumably they would need more than a couple of weeks to recover from any substantial damage to their homes or disruptions of their lives. And local hotels and resorts may well take months to recover.
Obviously, if you need to get to your destination ASAP, even up to a week or two late, and if your original ticket is at a good fare, take the airline’s no-fee, short-term rebook option. The downside may be limited availability of replacement seats. But if you don’t have a great fare you want to lock in, by all means, forget about immediate rescheduling and get your refund: You have a lot more flexibility about rescheduling.
Cruises During Hurricanes
Hurricanes can hit almost any Atlantic, Caribbean, or Gulf coast port. If you’re on a cruise scheduled to leave from an impacted seaport, or scheduled to visit an impacted port, presumably your cruise line will reschedule your cruise for another time, reschedule your itinerary, or offer you a credit toward a future cruise.
Unlike airlines, cruise lines have wide loopholes in their contracts that allow them to change itineraries without your right to a refund. Accordingly, they’re unlikely to offer an actual refund, instead limiting you to a future cruise credit. And that can be sticky: Some cruise credits require that you rebook a substitute sailing within six months, which is not practical for many travelers.
Given how stingy cruise lines are when dealing with irregular operations, consider trip-cancellation insurance (TCI) when you buy a cruise, even if you don’t normally buy it.
Hotels and Vacation Rentals
No rules or regulations other than general contract law cover your rights with hotel and rental bookings. And big hotel chains and resorts may or may not make proactive cancellations and re-bookings due to severe weather. An inquiry to one giant hotel chain asking specifically about cancellations and refunds returned a bland statement about support for victims and nothing at all about cancellations and refunds. A website statement at HomeAway, the giant vacation rental agency, simply suggests you contact property owners or managers.
Clearly, I found nothing specific or even reassuring from any hotel or vacation rental source. That means, realistically, you’re on your own to negotiate the best deal you can with the property. Although you should get a full refund, the supplier might not offer it, instead offering credit toward a future stay. Fighting in court may or may not be justified by the amounts involved. Instead, buy TCI.
Travel Insurance and Hurricanes
TCI can minimize financial risks of having a hurricane hit your flight, cruise or vacation destination. Natural disasters such as hurricanes are a “covered reason” for cancellation on almost all policies, and they pay whatever you can’t recover from an airline, cruise line, hotel, or vacation rental. TCI is especially important in the case of a cruise, resort, or vacation rental, where your right to a refund, if any, is limited by a supplier’s typically unilateral and self-serving policies
One problematic area in TCI is common to most policies: Typically, TCI policies limit coverage to circumstances, even covered reasons, that are “unforeseen” at the time you buy the policy. So if you buy TCI when a tropical depression in the Atlantic or Gulf has already headed toward landfall somewhere along the coast, maybe even with a diagram from the National Weather Service, “foreseeable” is problematic. And if you wait to buy it until after a hurricane or major storm has been identified or named, insurance won’t cover you.
For maximum protection and minimum risk, buy TCI as soon as you make a substantial nonrefundable payment, and buy it from a third-party insurance agency, not from the airline, cruise line, or tour operator—the coverage is better. If you really want to minimize risk and be in full control of your options, buy a “cancel for any reason” TCI policy.
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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.
This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.