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Is it worth the risk to plan a cruise to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Bermuda, Mexican Riviera or even Canada/New England during hurricane season? Absolutely, with one major caveat: To paraphrase a cliche, prepare for the worst -- and hope for the best.
Statistically speaking, the chances that your particular voyage is going to be affected by a hurricane are very slim. But changes to your plans are a possibility, and it's important to approach a hurricane season cruise with the right attitude.
Cruise schedules and itineraries may well be impacted by storms, anticipated or otherwise, but the chances you'll actually be caught in one are slim to none. These days, solid engineering and satellite equipment allows cruise lines to follow the paths of storms (and quickly send ships elsewhere); Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises are two lines that have established situation rooms -- which enable staffers to monitor storms and respond to changing circumstances.
Look for a deal. Discounts abound, particularly in the peak period between mid-July and early October. But this is not the time to make a visit to one particular (scheduled) port a crucial element of the holiday (planning a wedding in St. Thomas or a family reunion in St. Maarten, for instance). Itineraries can be disrupted by even the mere threat of a storm.
Be flexible. Know that you may have trouble getting to an airport in south Florida or in San Juan (where many, though not all, Caribbean-bound cruises depart).
Buy insurance. Whether you obtain insurance through the cruise line or through an independent provider, make sure the policy covers disruption in case of weather-related events.
Hurricane Season 101
Hurricane season officially runs from June 1 through November 30. Although hurricanes are generally unpredictable, conventional wisdom has dictated that peak season varies by geography. In the Eastern Caribbean and along the U.S. East Coast, the season tends to be busiest between mid-August and mid-September. In the Western Caribbean, it picks up in mid-September and stretches into early November. Early- and late-season hurricanes (June and mid- to late-November respectively) are rare but not unprecedented.
An "average" hurricane season means we can expect eight to 11 tropical storms; of these five to seven could develop into full-fledged hurricanes. Note, though, that not all hurricanes strike land.
How Safe Are Cruise Ships During Hurricanes?
Most likely you'll never need to know. That's because cruise line strategy across the board is to avoid rather than confront a storm. Cruise lines have been operating in the Caribbean for years and have, by virtue of experience, specific hurricane/tropical storm emergency response plans in effect. These cover everything from outfitting ships with state-of-the-art satellites to designating a bridge officer as the weather monitor during the season -- and to backing up onboard efforts with expanded staff at headquarters.
What's trickiest for cruise lines is finding alternate places to dock or anchor when ships' scheduled ports of call are threatened. It's not always easy to find replacements not already booked up with regular cruise visitors -- particularly when other ships are seeking a quiet port in that same storm. The most common solution is a simple switch -- for example, a ship whose Eastern Caribbean itinerary appears to be in flux will be moved over to the Western Caribbean (and vice versa). And if new port calls can't be sured, the schedule may end up including a couple of extra sea days (in calmer waters, naturally).
Do you get compensated for missed ports? Alas, no. The fine print in your cruise contract, also known as your ticket, gives lines the right to substitute and/or eliminate ports if and when they feel like it. However, you may be entitled to refunds on prepaid port taxes or fees.
Even Ships Outrunning a Storm Can Encounter Rough Waters
When the threat of a storm occurs, cruise ships can "outrun" them -- storms tend to move at about 8 to 10 knots, while ships can attain speeds of up to 22 knots and beyond.
While increasingly sophisticated technology and mechanics can help ships to evade storms, they can't avoid them entirely -- and you may run into rougher-than-usual waters. You may even experience storm remnants where you least expect to, such as on north Atlantic repositioning cruises coming out of Europe (ever wondered where hurricanes go to die? You guessed it, the north Atlantic). While they may be tropical storms or even lesser swirlings by the time they reach far off places like Iceland, the waters can still be rough. Be prepared: Even stalwart cruisers should pack a favorite seasickness remedy.
Can't Get to the Ship?
Sometimes hurricane-related problems don't have anything to do with the ship, and everything to do with conditions at the port of embarkation. As we said before, plan ahead. This is a good time of year to build a day or two into your vacation. Aim to arrive in port a couple of days early in case difficulties arise. Prepare for the possibility -- and it happens -- that you might actually arrive home a day or two late. And bottom line: If you're having trouble getting into your port of embarkation make sure you contact the cruise line (carry their toll-free emergency number in your wallet). Most will do everything possible, even if they are not obligated, to help you get to the ship, but there's no guarantee.
Canceled cruises are rare. For the aforementioned reasons, cruise lines will simply deviate itineraries. Pretty much the only time a cruise will be canceled outright is when a storm is aiming for its major port of embarkation, such as Ft. Lauderdale or Miami -- and even in such cases, it's an unusual outcome. More often, departure is delayed by a day or so, and passengers are generally compensated accordingly. If a cruise is actually canceled, you will obviously get a refund. You might also receive a discount on a future cruise.
Storms on the West Coast ... and Beyond
The East Pacific hurricane season is oft-overlooked because there are simply more people cruising the Caribbean than, say, the Mexican Riviera. However, the western coast of Mexico is also subject to hurricanes and is monitored in just the same manner by weather experts and cruise lines.
Australia/New Zealand and Hawaii deal with cyclones (same concept) -- and the southern hemisphere's seasonal equivalent is just the opposite of the waters up north (their season peaks in March and April).
Start monitoring tropical storm conditions a week before you leave by visiting Cruise Critic's Hurricane Zone or by watching the Weather Channel (or just click on to its Web site at www.weather.com). Be proactive if your cruise seems to be lying in the path of a storm by contacting your travel agent -- or the cruise line directly -- in case contingency plans are necessary.