(5:30 p.m. EST) -- This weekend, Hurricane Ida caused a few cruise ships to make last-minute itinerary changes to avoid rough seas and heavy winds, sending passengers scrambling to research what to do in new ports of call. But, what happens to travelers who pre-book independent shore excursions?
Experienced cruisers know that, if you book a tour through your cruise line's shore excursions department, you get an instant refund if the ship misses that port. However, passengers booked on independent tours don't always have that luxury. Because every tour operator has its own policy, it's important to check the terms and conditions of the contract ahead of time.
Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind:
No deposit, no worries: If you haven't put down any money in advance, you have nothing to lose. Just contact your tour operator to alert them that you're canceling the tour.
Change of dates: If your ship has simply rearranged its itinerary, keeping the same ports but visiting them in a different order, it's likely you can simply reschedule your private tour for a different day. Contact the operator as soon as you learn about the change in plans, so they can check tour availability or arrange for a guide on a new date. It's easier for them to make adjustments with advance notice.
Outright cancellation: If you've paid a deposit on a privately arranged shore excursion, and your cruise ship is unable to call in that port, how much money will be refunded depends on the operator's stated policy. For example, Shore Trips -- a company that helps cruisers book shore excursions in multiple ports -- says that they "refund all excursions if the ship doesn't make port in time or doesn't make port at all," as long as you alert them within 12 days after the scheduled tour's date about the cause of the cancellation. Cozumel Tours has a "No Port, No Pay" policy for cruise travelers. If a port stop is canceled during your cruise, due to unforeseen circumstances, the company will refund 100 percent of your money. If the itinerary is changed in advance of the cruise departure, they will either give you a voucher to reschedule the tour within a year or refund 90 to 95 percent of your tour cost.
Most large tour operators seem to have generous refund policies for missed ports. However, there's always a risk you'll lose your deposit, so be sure to read the terms and conditions (or ask about the cancellation policy) before booking a private tour. If you're not guaranteed a refund, consider purchasing travel insurance that will cover the cost of the tour in case weather or a mechanical problem causes you to miss a port.
For more information on what happens when a storm reroutes your cruise, read our Q&A on Hurricane Season Cruising.
--by Erica Silverstein, Senior Editor
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When Hurricane Cruise Changes Threaten Your Private Excursion
November 9, 2009