© NOAA via Getty Images
In this satellite image provided by NOAA last week, Hurricane Florence churns through the Atlantic Ocean toward the East Coast, followed to the east first by Hurricane Isaac and then Hurricane Helene. Once a storm is named, you can’t buy travel insurance to protect against it.
Hurricane season officially begins in June, but by fall it seems as if storms are rolling off an assembly line near the African coast, barreling (or sometimes meandering) toward the Caribbean and the Southeastern United States with frightening winds and waves the height of eight story buildings. It’s also the time of year when travelers begin to panic as vacation plans are inevitably washed away in hurricane-driven rains.
There are ways to make sure your carefully planned vacation doesn’t turn into a disaster. The easiest way is to plan a trip to hurricane-prone areas before or after the season. But if that’s not an option, here are a few ways to ensure you don’t wind up stuck in a vacation disaster.
Purchase travel insurance
“Most policies are fairly comprehensive and include coverage for trip interruption and trip cancellation,” said Steven Benna, marketing specialist for Squaremouth, a company that compares travel insurance plans. “They also include emergency medical and medical evaluation when you travel.”
That means the plans cover expenses such as airfare and hotel. Unfortunately, once a hurricane is named, you can’t purchase travel insurance to protect against it. Policies purchased after Sept. 1 (the date Florence was named) did not cover any Florence-related disruptions. Currently, no policies will protect against future named hurricanes, such as Helene, Isaac, or Joyce as well.
Chris Carnicelli, CEO of Generali Global Assistance, said his company’s plans provide coverage for several weather-related events, such as mandatory hurricane evacuations, flight delays or cancellations, lost baggage, and expenses incurred due to delays like meals and hotels.
Benna said policies generally cost between 5 to 10 percent of the trip. So if you’re planning a $3,000 escape, add $150 to $300 for travel insurance. Many plans also include some level of concierge service.
“Your travel investment is significant, so you should want to protect it,” said Amanda Klimak, president of Largay Travel, a Virtuoso agency.
Carefully monitor your flight status
When storms begin threatening a destination, airlines are usually quick to offer refunds or opportunities to rebook without a change fees. Airline policies can vary widely on rebooking, so carefully read your carrier’s website or call customer service. It’s important to do this several days before the storm nears and not wait until the day it’s scheduled to strike.
“The airlines have done a tremendous job to keep customers happy around weather delays,” said Tom Spagnola of CheapOair, a travel booking site. “With web updates and push notifications, it would be very difficult for someone to say they didn’t know there would be interruptions.”
There are also several apps available that can keep you updated on flight status. Download GateGuru and Flight Board. Also, download the app of the airline that you’re traveling with, and make sure push notifications are turned on for updates.
Be proactive with hotels and tours
“Even though your hotel or tour operator may have strict cancellation policies, they may be flexible, given the circumstances,” said Klimark. “Give them a call in advance, be nice and explain your situation. Ask if they could make an exception to the rules or simply modify the dates for you. Always get the name of the person you spoke with or, even better, have them confirm via e-mail, so you have details in writing.”
If a hotel is facing the brunt of a storm, or will be rendered inoperative, management will likely refund your room, or give an opportunity to rebook. No hotel or tour company wants a string of negative online reviews from customers. If you’re able, choose a hotel with a lenient cancellation policy, just be sure to cancel by the deadline.
Let someone else do the work
Reputable travel agents and advisors will often take care of details for you if your trip is derailed by a weather emergency.
“We are available round the clock when our clients are traveling,” said Marc Hayes, president of Cruise Elite Inc. “We serve as their advocate when things go wrong. We have rebooked our clients when flights have been canceled or missed connections. Sometimes before they have gotten the news.”
If decide you go, or to stay in the destination, be prepared
A severe storm may cut power to ATMs, so make sure you have cash, and take out more than you think you may need. If you have a car rental, Kurt Stahura, dean of Niagara University’s College of Hospitality & Tourism Management, suggests that you have a full tank of gas in the event that you need leave on short notice and travel a distance to reach shelter. Bring sealable plastic bags to hold passports and important papers. Pack a carry-on with essentials.
But Stahura’s final bit of advice is likely the most logical.
“Stay home if you think there’s a major chance of being caught in a severe storm,” he said. “You’ll save yourself a great deal of inconvenience and you will not add to the responsibilities of first-responders who will have their hands full with local residents and other travelers.”
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