Hurricane season runs from June 1 through Nov. 30. Statistically speaking, the chances that your particular cruise is going to be affected by a hurricane are very slim, but your travel plans might be changed. Is cruising during this time worth the risk? Absolutely, but with a caveat. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
We've rounded up some of the most commonly asked questions about hurricane season cruising to help you prepare.
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When are hurricanes more likely to hit the Caribbean? Is there any way to avoid them?
Although hurricanes will occur outside the official season, 97 percent of storms take place during this six-month window. Within these dates, the peak months for hurricanes in the Eastern Caribbean and along the U.S. East Coast are mid-August to mid-September, and from mid-August to early November in the Western Caribbean. Early- and late-season hurricanes -- June and mid- to late-November, respectively -- are rare.
You can certainly diminish your chances of encountering a hurricane by sailing outside peak hurricane times. In addition, the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao), Trinidad and Tobago, and Margarita Island in Venezuela lie on the very edge of the hurricane zone and are rarely affected by tropical storms. If you must sail during hurricane season, you can increase your odds of smooth sailing by choosing an itinerary that focuses on the Southern Caribbean -- the more southern, the better.
Of course, you can also avoid hurricanes by choosing a cruise in a different part of the world, such as Alaska, Canada and New England, or the Mediterranean. Just make sure you're not moving from one hurricane zone to another. For instance, the northeast Pacific hurricane season runs from mid-May through late November (it peaks in late August/early September) and can affect Mexican Riviera cruises. Asia can experience cyclones (same as hurricanes) year-round, with the main hurricane season in the northwest Pacific from July to November. Australia's cyclone season runs from late October through early May.
What happens if I'm at sea and a hurricane hits? Will the cruise ship sail into a hurricane?
Ships sailing the Caribbean during hurricane season have an out -- they can move. Cruise ships have sophisticated technology onboard to monitor the weather. Plus, cruise lines can augment the information they have onboard with forecasts from weather assessment companies. If a storm is threatening one area of the Caribbean or Atlantic, cruise lines will simply reroute their ships to a different destination. Cruise ships can typically "outrun" a hurricane -- storms tend to move about 8 to 10 knots, while ships can attain speeds of up to 22 knots and beyond. Passengers might experience rough seas as their ship skirts the edges of a storm. Even stalwart cruisers should pack a favorite seasickness remedy. A good attitude is also important, as frustrations can run high when a Caribbean cruise turns into a Bahamas and Florida (or even a Canada and New England) cruise.
Are seas rougher during hurricane season, even if there isn't a hurricane?
According to Paul Walker, senior meteorologist at AccuWeather.com, the general answer is no. Late summer and early fall is when seas are calmest, other than when there's a hurricane in the basin. Usually it's in the winter and early summer when storms are stronger across Northern latitudes, projecting big waves.
Am I entitled to compensation if my itinerary is altered by a storm?
As a general rule, cruise line passengers are not entitled to compensation for storm-related itinerary changes. But that does not mean you won't get anything. After Superstorm Sandy scattered dozens of ships and interrupted even more itineraries, cruise lines coughed up pro-rated refunds for sailing days missed; excursion, tax and fee refunds for ports skipped; and in many cases, offered future cruise credits. Note: In the event that a scheduled port is replaced with another port, the line isn't obliged to give you anything -- but if there's no replacement port, the cruise line will refund any port charges for missed ports in the form of onboard credit.
Can I cancel my cruise if a storm threatens my sailing?
Standard cruise line policy does not permit passengers to cancel their cruise.
Does standard travel insurance cover costs associated with itineraries changed/canceled by a hurricane?
A good travel insurance plan (remember, not all plans are created equal) will cover you for trip delay, interruption and cancellation in the event of a major storm -- minus any compensation you get from the cruise line or airline. So, if bad weather forces you to miss or reroute a flight, miss part of a cruise because of a travel delay or get stuck unexpectedly in a city overnight, you should be covered under a travel insurance plan. However, if you need to reschedule a flight and the airline has agreed to waive change fees -- or if a cruise is cut short by a day, but the line reimburses you for the missed day -- you won't get additional compensation payment.
More importantly, you will not be covered for a change of cruise itinerary. Say you booked a seven-night cruise to the Western Caribbean, but to avoid a storm, the cruise line changes the itinerary to the Eastern Caribbean. If you're onboard for all seven nights, you will receive no compensation from your insurance provider.
Also, travel insurance covers only unexpected events. If you've neglected to pre-book insurance, your cruise departs in a week and the weatherman is suddenly reporting on an upcoming storm, don't bother calling up an insurance broker. It's too late for you to be covered. The best time to sign up is right before or within 24 hours after the final payment due date. That's because you're committed to going on the cruise and can't back out without penalty, but it's early enough that you'll still be covered by the insurance for unforeseen events that crop up at the last minute.
A word of warning: Cruise line protection plans are technically not insurance plans, as in they are not backed by a government agency. You will have better coverage and an outlet for help in case of a dispute with the plan provider if you book through a third-party provider. Read the fine print to determine what circumstances are covered before committing to a plan.
I like to book shore excursions on my own instead of through the cruise line. If my cruise misses a port because of a hurricane, will I get my money back for my pre-booked shore tour?
All tour operators have different policies, so be sure to check the fine print or ask about cancellation policies before you put down a deposit or pre-pay your excursion. In general, bigger tour operators that cater to cruise travelers or shore-excursion reservations agencies (such as ShoreTrips, Viator or PortSide Tours) will provide a full refund if your ship misses a port of call. Smaller operators or private guides may ask for nonrefundable deposits. If your contracted guide or tour company doesn't give full refunds for missed port calls, you might want to invest in travel insurance (see above) to cover you if you must cancel the excursion for weather delays.
What happens if the port I'm supposed to cruise out of is closed?
In most cases, a ship that is scheduled to return to a port that has been closed will remain at sea until the port reopens and it is safe to return. In such cases, the cruise line will be in touch to let you know when it's OK to come to the port. Until then, you will be responsible for your own accommodations. In the rare cases when a cruise sailing is rerouted to another port for debarkation and embarkation, the cruise line will provide ground transportation to take passengers from the original port to the new port at no charge.
What happens if my flight is canceled and I can't get to the port because of the storm?
Hurricane season is a good time of year to build an extra day or two into your vacation. Aim to arrive in port a couple days early in case difficulties arise. If you're having trouble getting into your port of embarkation, however, make sure you contact the cruise line (carry the toll-free emergency number). Most will do everything possible, even if they are not obligated, to help you get to the ship, but there's no guarantee.
How will the cruise line assist me with travel plans if we arrive back home late because of the storm?
According to Chuck Flagg, owner of The Flagg Agency, a cruise travel consultancy, a cruise line will typically make the Internet and phones available for free or at a reduced rate if a ship's arrival back in port is delayed so passengers can make plans. Remember though, many others will be trying to change their plans all at once. Having a travel agent to assist you with these changes could be immensely helpful. Also, remember that you likely will have to pay any airline change fees, which might not be covered by the cruise line. A good travel insurance policy will reimburse you for such costs.
What happens if my car is damaged in port while I'm at sea?
Unfortunately, you're pretty much out of luck if your car is damaged in a port parking lot while you're at sea. Many passengers experienced this very thing during Superstorm Sandy when they returned to find their cars parked in Brooklyn and Bayonne had been flooded or otherwise damaged. Neither the port, nor the parking lot operators took responsibility for the damage, leaving the owners to take care of filing police reports, contacting insurance companies, filling out paperwork and making upfront payments. Passengers at the Brooklyn terminal, in particular, were not permitted to even try to turn on their cars and were required to get the cars towed out of the parking lots.
Should I pack or prepare differently for a hurricane cruise?
Flagg said flexibility is key, adding it might not be the best idea to plan a beach wedding on an island in the Eastern Caribbean when a hurricane may cause your ship to reroute to the Western Caribbean. A Bermuda cruise can become a New England/Canada cruise, so make sure you've got at least one sweater and a long pair of pants no matter where you're supposed to be going.
Am I likely to get a deal during hurricane season?
That depends on which part of hurricane season you're talking about. For the most part, cruises during early hurricane season will not net you any savings because those summer months (June to August) tend to have higher demand, and thus higher prices, a spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines said. Flagg said you can definitely find values during peak hurricane season (mid-September to mid-October).
--By Dori Saltzman, News Editor