Devastating fires in Maui, Rhodes and Tenerife; hurricanes and earthquakes in California; hazy skies from Canadian wildfires across the Northeastern US. The summer of 2023 has seen its fair share of natural disasters that have disrupted daily life in numerous places around the globe.
And cruises are not exempt. From hurricanes to wildfires, catastrophic weather and natural disasters are understandably able to alter and even cancel cruise itineraries. Cruise lines know this and try to place their ships in destinations where the weather is less likely to affect the itinerary, but avoiding inclement weather is never guaranteed. If inclement weather prevents you from getting to your cruise or affects a destination in the middle of your itinerary, knowing what to expect can help you have a better handle of the situation.
Having your travel plans affected by natural disasters and severe weather is disappointing, but not nearly as devastating as what the locals are going through. It's important to keep this in perspective and understand that the priority should always be to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of everyone on the ship -- and everyone on land, too.
Instead of investing time and energy into getting upset about your travel plans, spare a thought to those affected. Or better yet, find out how you can help.
Even when you embark your cruise and are safely onboard, you may not know if a port of call will be affected. In some cases, such as with hurricanes, you'll probably know at least a day ahead of time. Other times, a captain may actually attempt to dock, but be unable to and thus elect to skip the port call. This can be due to weather conditions like fog or anticipated storms (we've had both cancel port calls in years past), or due to other non-environmental factors like labor or civil unrest.
If the captain of your cruise decides it's too dangerous to proceed with the scheduled itinerary, he or she might implement any number of alternative plans. You might get one or more extra days at sea, or the captain could swap out the missed port for a new port, should one be available.
Sometimes, the entire order of ports is rearranged so that all are still visited but at times when the weather will be less disruptive. Norwegian Cruise Line did this in Hawaii, rerouting Pride of America from Maui around the time when the wildfires struck. The ship instead overnighted in Hilo and Kauai, while the itinerary was modified for the near-future to allow time for the island to recover.
While not common -- but not unheard of -- cruise ships may sometimes be forced to switch entire destinations. For example, your Eastern Caribbean itinerary could be changed to a Western Caribbean one, or your entire Caribbean cruise could be replaced by a Bermuda or New England and Canada sailing in the event a hurricane makes the original itinerary impossible.
Because cruise ships can move around bad weather, full cancellations are rare. But they can and do happen. Cruise lines are loath to cancel sailings and try to wait as long as possible before making a decision, while still trying to give passengers enough lead time to make alternate plans if necessary. If a cruise line does cancel, it will offer compensation -- usually a full refund of the cruise fare and possibly an additional percentage of your fare paid, given in the form of a future cruise credit.
You're always free to cancel your cruise before the cruise line does, but in most cases, you will lose the full price you paid for the cruise (minus port fees). In instance of extremely severe storms (like hurricanes), cruise lines will typically allow passengers to cancel without penalty. Cruise Critic always recommends buying travel insurance that covers weather disruptions. This might not allow you to cancel because of impending storms, but it will cover you for travel disruptions caused by a storm or other significant weather events and natural disasters.
When it comes to storms, one of the advantages of cruising is that ships can move away from the affected weather. Cruise ships have a slew of sophisticated technology onboard to monitor the weather. On top of that, cruise lines augment their onboard information with forecasts from weather assessment companies. If a storm is threatening the area a ship was scheduled to sail to, cruise lines will reroute the ships if the forecast is severe enough. While cruise ships can typically "outrun" most storms, passengers may still experience rough seas as their ship skirts the edges of a weather system.
When a port is skipped, the only compensation you are entitled to is that destination's port fees. This is usually a minimal amount (think $10 to $20) and will be given to you in the form of a shipboard credit that will be applied toward your onboard spending. Occasionally, a cruise line will offer a little extra spending money (in the form of an onboard credit), especially if multiple ports are missed or the entire itinerary has to be changed. Either way, it's important to remember: the cruise line is required to keep you safe, not meet the published itinerary.
While there are some regions, like the Antarctic, that are susceptible to weather disruptions year-round, most areas of the world contend with bad weather on a seasonal basis. For instance, Caribbean cruises are most likely to be disrupted during hurricane season, which runs from June to November. Asia can experience cyclones any time, but the most active period is from July to November. The Alaskan low seasons are April to May (small-ship line Alaska Dream Cruises offers Alaska itineraries as early as March) and September because there is a greater chance of rain, cold weather and even snow. For a complete roundup of the best times of year to cruise to any particular region, check out Best Time to Cruise.
Sometimes, however, severe weather can be unpredictable. Southern California is not known as a target for hurricanes, yet Hurricane Hilary made landfall in the Golden State in August 2023. On top of that, the region suffered a 5.1 earthquake. While these occurrences are indeed rare, they can still happen and are practically impossible to predict.
For the most part, however, if you keep your eye on weather forecasts or any local news, you should be able to predict potential issues with your cruise vacation. If there is a significant weather threat, the cruise line will also keep you up to date, but it never hurts to stay one step ahead. And finally, investing in travel insurance can always provide that extra peace of mind, especially if you're sailing during hurricane season or any other potentially problematic season.