What to Expect: Cruising in the Caribbean After Hurricanes Irma and Maria

September 20, 2017
Close-up vector map of Caribbean ports most deeply affected by Hurricane Irma

(updated 11:20 a.m.. EDT) -- Hurricane Irma has had an unprecedented effect on the cruising industry, with more than 81 cruise ship sailings canceled or altered in some way, and 25 cruise ports impacted. Subsequently, Hurricane Maria impacted another five sailings and four ports.

Cruise Critic understands that cruise passengers have many questions about upcoming sailings in the Caribbean. While much is still unknown about how the cruise lines will adapt their itineraries to cope with damaged ports, we answer some of the most common questions about cruising in the Caribbean after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

I have a Caribbean cruise booked in October. Will it still sail?   

Yes. Cruise lines resumed sailings from Florida homeports on September 13. San Juan reopened as a homeport on September 9, although it closed September 19 in preparation for Hurricane Maria .

When will the Eastern Caribbean ports reopen?

The short answer is: Nobody knows. Some of the lesser damaged ones will hopefully reopen in October or in early November, but the damage sustained to the BVIs, which includes Tortola; St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as St Martin/St Maarten and Dominica, was so severe that they may be closed for much longer. Tourism officials in Key West say they will reopen on October 20.

But my October cruise was supposed to stop in St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Will it still go there?

Probably not. Both ports, as well as other cruiser favorites like Key West, St. John, St. Bart's and Tortola, as well as Dominica, received serious damage from the storms. It could be weeks or months before these islands are ready to accept visitors.

My cruise is still going to some places in the Eastern Caribbean. Will the beaches and attractions be open?

Some islands were lucky enough to escape severe damage from both storms, including Barbados, St. Kitts and Antigua. In Antigua, you will likely not be able to book a shore excursion to Barbuda, which did receive damage, but there will be other activities and tours available.

If we can't go to those islands, where will we go instead?

Cruise lines are currently revamping their itineraries to reroute ships with Eastern Caribbean ports to stop elsewhere. Norwegian has already announced that it will change all of its Eastern Caribbean cruises to Western Caribbean itineraries through November; changes from other lines will come soon. That means that ships will go to places like Cozumel, Costa Maya, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Belize and Roatan, instead of the damaged islands. The Bahamas also received little damage from Irma, and cruises to Nassau and Freeport resumed in mid-September.

Won't all of those ports get crowded if all of the ships are sent there?

It's still too early to tell exactly what cruise ports will receive more ships, or how many they will get. Ports only have so many berths, for both docking and tendering, and there are limits to how many ships can be in one place at once (although ports like Cozumel can and do often take five or more megaships in one day). If many ships are scheduled into port on the same day, the cruise lines try to stagger times to make sure that the ships only overlap by a few hours.

I don't like those ports! Can I cancel and get all of my money back?

Cruise lines have clauses written into the terms of contracts that allow them to change ports for any reason, not just hurricane and storm damage. Technically, if the cruise isn't outright canceled, the cruise line doesn't owe the passengers anything if they decide to cancel. 

As a good will gesture during the storm, the lines did allow passengers to cancel sailings that were canceled and shortened, and receive future cruise credit. But as regular cruise sailings resume, expect the lines to get back to business as usual, with the standard penalties for cancellation.

I'm upset by all of this. How could I have prevented losing all of my money?

Cruise Critic strongly recommends that passengers buy travel insurance, particularly during hurricane season (which runs from June 1 to November 30). Cancel-for-any-reason insurance, although more expensive than other types of travel insurance, does allow you to cancel your trip if you don't like itinerary changes.

I'm cruising to the Caribbean this fall. How can I help the people who lost so much on the islands?

Immediately after the storm, several cruise ships made humanitarian visits to the affected islands. The cruise lines are heavily invested in these counties, and will be working through organizations like the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association on an ongoing basis. Cruise Critic recommends making a donation to Red Cross Hurricane Relief Efforts.

--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor