What You Need to Know About Cruises in Bad Weather, According to an Expert

From rough seas to hurricane season, here's how to handle cruising during a storm.

Weather can be unpredictable. And when you plan your cruise vacation months — and sometimes even more than a year — in advance, it’s impossible to anticipate.

Cruises are often planned well in advance of the actual trip and, unfortunately, sometimes even the best plans are thwarted. That’s what happened when a group of passengers on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship staged a protest in 2019 after bad weather forced them to miss several ports on their European voyage.

The cruise on Norwegian Spirit (with a capacity of just over 2,000 guests) left from Southampton, England, and planned to make stops in the Netherlands, Norway, and Iceland — none of which they reached. A spokeswoman for the cruise line told The New York Times that “severe weather conditions” caused the itinerary changes and that the cruise line offered passengers 25 percent off the cost of a future cruise. However, passengers complaining about other issues like clogged toilets staged a protest, demanding a refund.

While weather is as uncertain as playing the lottery, changing an itinerary is a calculated decision, Colleen McDaniel, the editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, told Travel + Leisure.

“[For] cruise lines, their No. 1 priority is going to be guest safety,” McDaniel said. “It is not just the decision of the onboard crew… it’s a team who makes that decision based on the latest weather patterns, based on the options or other alternatives.”

And while it is no doubt very frustrating if you’re forced to miss several planned stops, McDaniel said that cruise lines are often under no obligation to offer a refund.

Storm looming over the sea, cruise ship in harbour
Daniel Day/Getty Images

“When itineraries change, they’re pretty well protected by the contract that every person on board their ships signs,” she said, adding that any refund offered is “actually above and beyond what they’re legally required to do. For some passengers that doesn’t sound great, but they are covered by that contract.”

So what can you do if you’ve packed your bags, booked your flights, and updated your out-of-office message for your dream cruise and the weather decides to rain on your plans? Cruises in storms are never ideal, but here's how to plan ahead and make the most of your trip.

Be aware of what is going on at all times.

McDaniel said it’s important to listen to announcements and be very clear with the situation on board. It’s imperative that you get the most up-to-date information from the staff who know it best and don’t rely on rumors or hearsay.

Though your itinerary may change, cruises are rarely canceled due to storms. Ships are designed to handle rough seas and can be rerouted to avoid danger. Once you're on board, any port updates will be announced over the ship’s intercom or detailed in a notice delivered to your stateroom.

Use a travel agent.

McDaniel said that using a travel agent to book your trip could save you a headache in the end.

“This person becomes your travel advocate,” she said. “They're someone who has relationships with the cruise line — when something goes wrong, they can be your advocate.”

While cruise ships aren't obligated to offer refunds, you'll often get a small reimbursement for missed ports.

Stay organized.

If you are offered any kind of compensation, McDaniel recommends writing down all the information.

“Get people's names and write down what the compensation was,” she said, adding you also have to be patient: “Be aware that there are countless cruise ships out in port at any time and so it might take some time to hear back."

Prevent seasickness.

Cruising in bad weather can lead to seasickness, so you'll want to take immediate steps to ensure you won't be confined to your cabin with a stomach ache. Some options include taking an over-the-counter medication like Dramamine or Bonine, using an acupressure wristband, or applying a patch like Transderm Scop before you step on board.

Plan alternative activities.

Though some excursions like helicopter rides or kayaking tours might be scrapped, you may still be able to go shopping, visit a museum, or go on a bus tour. Your cruise line will likely refund you for any excursions you booked through them, while private tour operators usually issue refunds upon request.

Since outdoor activities on board, such as pools and rock climbing walls, might be unavailable, your best bet is to find something to do indoors. The ship will usually offer additional programming, so pay attention to announcements and do your best to get into the spa, evening entertainment, or specialty restaurants, since these will be more in demand.

Know that you can leave.

If you’re not enjoying the cruise or not doing what you hoped to, you can leave the ship early as a last resort.

“Ultimately, if you feel like you're not getting the cruise you want, you can leave,” McDaniel said, “but it’s going to be on you.”

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