Hurricane Irene turned out to be more of a Category 5 media event than an actual storm. Yet for the thousands who had plans to fly almost anywhere on the East Coast last weekend, the fallout from the mass flight cancellations is still going on.
More than 10,000 flights were cut over the weekend when the storm bore down on the country's most populated areas, and 2,000 more planes were grounded on Monday as the airlines regrouped, the New York Times reported. In the Caribbean, more than 30 cruises were affected, with some lines going out of their way to accommodate passengers and others abandoning people in port, according to CruiseCritic.com.
Traveling during hurricane season is always a roll of the dice. While technically the season encompasses a wide swath of time -- June 1 to Nov. 30 -- hurricanes are more likely to strike now, in late August through early October. And as Irene proved, you don't have to be in southern climates to be affected by storms.
Travel Insurance Basics: What You Need to Know
If you're heading on a Caribbean cruise or a booking seaside vacation during the height of hurricane season, you should look into insurance. But be careful. Not all insurance plans are alike -- and you need to make sure you know what you need before you buy.
In the case of a cruise, you'll want coverage that refunds your money if a major storm causes your trip to be delayed, interrupted, or canceled. Make sure that hurricanes or "natural disasters" are listed as a covered reason in the policy. You won't be able to make a claim, though, until a watch or warning is issued, said Paul Berger, an attorney with the Florida-based Hurricane Law Group.
"Irene caused bad weather for lots of islands in the Caribbean, and unless an official warning was issued for your destination, it may not be covered," he said. "No standard policy covers a rainy week on a beach."
Keep in mind that most policies exclude compensation that you receive from the cruise line or airlines. So if the cruise line kicks in for a missed day or the airline waives its change fees, you won't be allowed to double dip.
Unfortunately when it comes to cruising, that means you won't get reimbursed by insurance if the line decides to change its route. If you wanted to go to the Bahamas and ended up in Jamaica instead, for example, you're out of luck. While most cruise lines' contract of carriage has a clause to allow itinerary changes due to weather, some cruise lines will reimburse passengers part of their fare or will give onboard credits if ships return home early. But nothing is guaranteed.
You also want to make sure that you buy your insurance early, ideally the same week that you book your trip. Once the storm is named, insurance providers won't sell you a policy.
One more thing about insurance: It's almost always better to go with a third-party instead of the actual company you're traveling with. And that has nothing to do with weather. Instead, you're protecting yourself in case the cruise line, tour operator, or airline goes bankrupt -- which has happened in these stormy economic times.
(Looking for more information on insurance and hurricanes? Try Travel Insurance Review (www.travelinsurancereview.net), an online travel insurance information source. While the site's owner does sell travel insurance, the site does a good job at outlining what to look for and what companies offer specific policies).
Are Hurricane Guarantees Enough?
Of course, you could always hedge your bets even more and book your hotel room or vacation rental with a company that offers hurricane guarantees. Such policies are becoming much more common, as resorts already dealing with flagging sales look to fill rooms during a traditionally slow period.
But is a company's guarantee enough? Again, make sure you read the fine print so you know exactly what's covered. You'll want to make sure that you know what will happen if an evacuation takes place or if the home is damaged or becomes uninhabitable. You'll also want to know what type of reimbursement you'll get if you can't get to the destination.
A Hurricane is Coming: Now What?
If you're scheduled to fly during a storm, call the airline as soon as you can. Many of the major carriers started rebooking customers late last week (even though cancellations hadn't happened yet) without a change fee. Usually you'll have to wait until the flight is officially canceled to get a cash refund, though. Be prepared to hold; a survey by StellaService, a company that monitors customer service, found that callers had an average 90-minute wait for American Airlines reps last Friday.
Once you've called and rebooked your seat before the storm hits, you're one step ahead of the game. But you still could be stuck for a few days in a destination not of your choosing. Unfortunately, the airlines don't owe you anything if the cancellation took place because of weather or natural disasters. And that's when you'll wish you had that insurance (or a friend in town who will put you up).
Going Back: Post-Hurricane Travel Deals
Looking for a cheap post-hurricane sale? Not a good idea if a hurricane has been through an area, as there can still be problems for weeks afterward, said Stephanie Diehl, a travel agent and blogger at Travel Designed (http://traveldesigned.com).
"The pools can be filled with sand and debris," she said. "Also services (tours or sightseeing) in the destination and at the hotels (lack of staff) may be temporarily interrupted. Not the vacation you've been dreaming of!"
On the other hand, islands or resorts that were missed completely may be ready for occupancy sooner than you think. On Monday, tourism officials in Wilmington, N.C. -- where many TV news outlets made breathless Irene prediction just a few days earlier -- sent out notice that many of their beaches would be open for Labor Day. Best advice: Call before you book, and ask specific questions about the condition of the beaches and activities that are available.
And don't forget your insurance.