Traveling in the Caribbean during hurricane (low) season isn't all devastation and disaster. Properties offer rooms at enticingly low rates, and many throw in extras like spa treatments and resort credits to sweeten the deal. More often than not, the weather turns out to be just fine. A good reason to take the risk? Only if you're prepared.
Follow these tips if your tropical getaway ever gets caught in a storm — you may actually learn a thing or two from other travelers' mistakes.
When & Where to Go
Hurricane season officially extends from June 1 to Nov. 30, with August and September as the months that are statistically hit the hardest. The most sure-fire way to secure a storm-free vacation is to pick a destination outside the "hurricane belt." Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire are good choices, says Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com (www.smartertravel.com). Portugal's Azores islands, in the middle of the Atlantic, are also unlikely victims of serious storms.
Tips for Buying Travel InsurancePurchase travel insurance early. Buy within 15 days of making a trip deposit, says Carol Mueller, a spokesperson for Travel Guard (www.travelguard.com). Plans purchased on or after the day a storm is named is too late (you won't be eligible for any hurricane-related compensation, such as a refund for a canceled flight or a deposit on a hotel room).
To make sure your policy includes storm coverage (some won't -- or only with an upgrade), Mueller advises to "first review the plan's covered reasons for trip cancellation and trip interruption, then the definitions of 'natural disaster' or 'inclement weather' to see if hurricanes and tropical storms are included in either definition." A comprehensive insurance plan will set you back 5-7% of your total trip cost; a good place to start are the comparison sites InsureMyTrip.com (www.insuremytrip.com), which posts candid user reviews and SquareMouth (www.squaremouth.com), which breaks out hurricane coverage and conditions for reimbursement (for example, a carrier must be delayed by at least 24 hours or accommodations made uninhabitable before canceling).
Airlines and hotels may offer similar plans, though they won't have the variety of products to choose from. Regardless, when you're shopping around, make sure you take into account coverage you may need for other unexpected circumstances -- medical emergencies, lost or delayed baggage, rental car damage. Another reason to buy far in advance: companies may throw in other benefits like coverage for financial default or a waiver of the exclusion for pre-existing medical conditions.
Hurricane Tips If You're Cruising
Traditionally, the hurricane-wary have opted for cruises. Reason being: ships have only to veer course if a storm threatens. Nifty solution … if you're already aboard when the ship sets sail.
Purchasing airfare with the cruise line may be expensive upfront, says SmarterTravel.com's Banas, but at the end of the day, you'll cash in during an emergency when the cruise line throws you a life ring. Otherwise, peruse your insurance policy for "missed connections," "additional transportation" and "trip interruption" to see if you can make a claim for reimbursement, and don't be afraid to call the insurance provider's service hotline if you're ever in the boat of needing accommodations or other arrangements.
Hotel Guarantees During Hurricane Season
Many hotels in at-risk areas have hurricane guarantees to lure travelers to their properties during the off-peak season. It's always a good idea to book at resorts that offer one, if not for anything else than as a sign of their concern for a guests' best interests.
Many of these guarantees come in the form of a travel credit and/or the waiver of any cancellation or other penalty fees. Some properties — like, in years past, St.Martin/St. Maarten's Sonesta Resorts (www.sonesta.com) — will refund the unused portion of your trip if a storm sweeps in during your stay; others provide protection only for an additional fee. Sandals (www.sandals.com), for example, gives guests the option to tack on a "No Worry Guarantee" (the equivalent of a comprehensive plan) for a modest fee (around $100) per person.
If you do lose a deposit or get slapped with charges along the way, don't expect to get compensated by a third-party travel insurance provider if your hotel already has you covered.
Airport Survival Tips During Hurricane Season
Airlines are becoming more accustomed to handling inclement weather, says SmarterTravel.com's Banas, as was the case when Hurricane Irene trounced on the coastal U.S. and the Caribbean. JetBlue, Delta, US Airways, and United, among others, preemptively canceled flights and waived cancellation and change fees for passengers caught in the storm.
A few words of advice if you're ever in a similar situation: sign up for flight status alerts and don't leave for the airport until your flight is confirmed (you'll avoid the crowds and lessen the chances of getting stranded), frequently check the airline's website to see if you've been automatically rebooked on a flight, and check FlightStats (www.flightstats.com) for real-time seat availability.
If you do get stuck at the airport and need to stay at a hotel, ask the ticket or gate agent for a voucher for a "distressed passenger rate." Because hurricanes and tropical storms are out of the airline's control, you won't be entitled to any compensation from the carrier, so keep the receipts of all your expenses to submit to your insurance company at a later date.
Lisa Cheng is a New York City-based writer. Follow her at @lcmcheng.