Last week's tropical storm "Andrea" reminds us that, once again, the hurricane season is upon us. And this year, say the mavens, may be a vintage year. So it's time to review the basics of hurricane-season travel. If you're planning travel during the rest of the fall -- especially anywhere near the southeastern United States or the Caribbean -- you need to figure possible hurricanes in the mix:
-- One element of the problem is money: Whenever you prepay for any travel service, you have money at risk, and you want to make sure that you won't lose a lot if a future hurricane threatens your travel plans.
And different suppliers respond to hurricane problems in very different ways.
AIRLINES. If you have an air ticket to/from an area of potential impact, airlines generally give you some outs. If you wait until your airline actually cancels your flight, you can get a full refund on even a nonrefundable ticket. Several days before outright cancellation, airlines typically announce date ranges when you can reschedule your trip with no change penalty, no fees, and no change in fare. But those offers usually provide very little flexibility: You can change flights originally booked for specific routes and dates, but usually just by a few days, and your replacement trip must generally start within a week or so of your original dates. If you'd rather wait beyond the airline's narrow deadlines or make other changes, you'll face some combination of exchange fees and possible fare increases.
HOTELS AND RESORTS. Each hotel and resort sets its own policies. When you cancel a nonrefundable advance booking prepayment, even for a good reason, many offer only a credit toward a future stay, not a full a cash refund. And the future stay may have a tight time limit.
CRUISE LINES. Typically one-sided cruise contracts, called "contracts of adhesion," allow cruise lines lots of leeway in how they respond to hurricanes without giving you the option of a refund. They seldom cancel a cruise outright; instead, they skip scheduled ports, substitute ports, depart early or late, and otherwise adapt. When a cruise line substitutes a major change in itinerary, some volunteer to let you cancel and receive a voucher toward future cruise or a shipboard credit, but no law obliges them to do so. Moreover, cruise lines are generally pretty hard-nosed about changes: When a scheduled cruise alters the itinerary significantly, you may be faced with a "take it or leave" choice with no refund or rebooking option.
TRAVEL INSURANCE. Most trip-cancellation insurance (TCI) is pretty narrow about "covered reasons" for cancellation, and "hurricane" isn't always one of them. Weather that makes your destination "uninhabitable" or forces your airline to shut down completely, are almost always included as covered reasons, but not weather that just makes conditions at your destination unpleasant. And most don't include altered cruise itineraries as covered reasons for cancellation. Moreover, time frames are typically limited: You can't cancel just because of a tropical storm that "might" develop into a hurricane.
Fortunately, however, you have some insurance options:
-- Some policies kick in as soon as an official hurricane warning is issued for your destination or cruising area, but others don't pay until a hurricane actually hits. Protect yourself by searching for a policy that includes a warning as a covered reason.
-- An even better bet is a "cancel for any reason" TCI policy. Although these policies are more expensive, they're your only option to cancel without waiting until it may be too late to do something else.
Obviously, for anyone planning to travel in areas in or near the hurricane's path, the watchwords are (1) avoid as many nonrefundable or high-cancellation-penalty prepayments as you can, and (2) keep checking the weather forecasts and your supplier's website. Suppliers are pretty good about posting their current or anticipated cancellations or delays and your rebooking options, if any.
(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)