How to Have a Hurricane-Proof Vacation
When Hurricane Wilma—the most intense Atlantic hurricane on record, with maximum wind speeds of 175 mph—cut a swath of destruction across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in October 2005, thousands of travelers in the region’s popular Caribbean-coast resorts were left terrified and stranded. Hotels were destroyed, roads were made impassable by fallen trees and debris, electricity and running water were disabled, and commercial flights were grounded.
Although the Mexican government, tourism authority, and local business owners all mobilized to help travelers cope (the New York–based tour agency Travel Impressions, for example, chartered its own Airbus to fly 150 of its Wilma-stranded customers home), even six years later, remembering Wilma’s devastation has been enough to make some travelers think twice about visiting hurricane-prone destinations.
Peak hurricane season, which runs between August and October in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and the U.S. south Atlantic coast, is certainly nothing to take lightly. And this year’s season may see a fair bit of storm activity: according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there’s a 70 percent chance that in the next few months 14 to 19 storms, with winds of at least 39 mph, will be generated. Seven to 10 of these storms may be hurricanes, with winds of 74 mph.
Still, the lure of these warm-weather destinations, especially during the off-season, can be hard to resist. Crowds are thin, prices are excellent, perks—like free meals and spa treatments—are numerous, and very often, the weather winds up being perfectly fine (if slightly more humid than in high-season months). So, the question is: are there ways to “hurricane-proof” a vacation—to minimize the chances that a storm will ruin a low-season trip to the tropics?
Indeed there are—although most of the tricks for lessening hurricane risks require some research on the traveler’s part. There are websites devoted to tracking local weather patterns, for example. And booking accommodations and flights with companies that offer hurricane guarantees (most often in the form of penalty-free rebooking) is a good way to safeguard a vacation; so is shopping around for and purchasing traveler’s insurance (the further in advance, the better).
Other “hurricane-proofing” methods are less obvious, but can be just as helpful for ensuring a tropical holiday. Many travelers don’t know that booking a cruise, for instance—or vacationing at one of a handful of Caribbean resort areas and islands that fall outside common storm paths (like Bonaire and the San Blas Islands)—can make a big difference in hurricane risk.
While these strategies may not be foolproof, they can go a long way toward protecting travelers' tropical vacation plans (and, worst-case scenario, the travelers themselves). There may not be any way to control the weather, but there are plenty of ways to maximize security—and the likelihood that a dream vacation won’t become a nightmare.
Tip #1: Stay onTop of the Weather
The most important step in planning a tropical vacation during hurricane season is to stay abreast of weather predictions. There are many Web sites that can help you do this, including nhc.noaa.gov, the site of the National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center. For a local weather perspective in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, check out caribbeantravel.com, cdema.org, and stormcarib.com.
Tip #2: Buy TravelInsurance Early
Trip cancellation package policies can protect you if your vacation is disrupted by a hurricane. Depending on their coverage, they can protect you if your airline or cruise line stops operating; if your destination becomes uninhabitable because of a storm; or if there is a hurricane warning (NOAA issues these warnings five days before a hurricane is expected to hit). You can also buy travel insurance that lets you cancel your trip for any reason, including just the threat of a hurricane (although such coverage is costly, as much as 50 percent higher than regular trip cancellation policies).
A good place to start comparing travel insurance policies is insuremytrip.com, a portal that sells U.S. travel policies from 19 different insurers (including American Express Travel Insurance and Global Alert, two of the most popular). Remember to buy early. According to Jim Grace, president and CEO of insuremytrip.com, the terms of any policy kick in only if you buy it before the hurricane that could disrupt your vacation appears on NOAA’s weather map.
Tip #3: Look IntoYour Airline’s Hurricane Policy
Airline policies in the case of a hurricane vary quite a bit, so make sure to do some research before you book your flight to the tropics. American Airlines, for example, has a policy that lets travelers change flight plans without penalty if they rebook before their first scheduled flight and begin their trip by the date specified by the airline.
Tip #4: Find aHotel with a Weather Guarantee
Many individual hotels and hotel chains have policies to protect guests who are on vacation when a hurricane hits, or whose vacation plans are disrupted by hurricane threats. For example, Solé on the Ocean just north of Miami Beach offers guests a perk or discount whenever a storm is named, such as a waived resort fee, a free room upgrade, or 30 percent off the room rate. To receive these deals through November 30, call the hotel (786/923-9300) and mention the name of whichever storm is on the horizon.
Tip #5: Pick aTour Operator That Will Protect Your Package
Plenty of tour operators have hurricane policies, but some protection guarantees are more meaningful than others. For example, Chukka Caribbean Adventures—a Jamaican company that sells outdoor adventure tours in Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, and Belize—allows customers to reschedule or cancel their tours without penalty if a named storm with winds 45 mph or higher is forecast for the destination.
Travel Impressions sells insurance policies, starting at $49, that let travelers cancel their tours for any reason, including the threat of a hurricane.
Tip #6: Choose aDestination Outside the “Hurricane Belt”
One way to almost guarantee that a Caribbean trip won’t be disrupted by a serious storm, according to San Diego-based travel agent John Clifford, is to vacation in a spot outside the “hurricane belt,” which covers the mid-Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. According to Clifford, safer destinations that have not sustained serious hurricane damage in decades include Aruba and Curacao.
Tip #7: Consider aCruise
Instead of settling in on one Caribbean island, why not cruise through several? Doing this will automatically hurricane-proof your vacation, since cruise lines can and will change ports on a ship’s itinerary if a storm is looming. Start browsing your options at cruiseweb.com, an online travel agency offering dozens of Caribbean cruises—all for travel before Thanksgiving. For more Tips, visit Travel + Leisure’s online Cruise Guide.
Tip #8: Read theFine Print
When a hurricane disrupts the course of a normal vacation, travel companies and insurers frequently apply a lot of red tape to whatever changes follow. So it’s important that you ask questions up front, and make sure you fully understand all conditions and requirements of your intended travel insurance policy, tours, flights, hotel stays, or cruises before you book.
Tip #9: Just inCase...Be Prepared
If there’s any chance your trip might be disrupted by a serious storm (and during hurricane season in the tropics, there’s always a chance), remember that ATM access won’t be possible if there’s a loss of electricity. In other words, make sure to bring extra cash or traveler’s checks with you. Also, if you and your family take any medications, bring an extra supply—in their original prescription bottles—in case you don’t get to return home as initially scheduled. To ensure long-distance communication, you may want to splurge on a satellite phone, which can cost upward of $1,000 (try Iridium or Globalstar).