In just two short weeks, Mother Nature ravaged many of the Western Hemisphere’s most alluring vacation destinations. Some should rebound quickly (Disney World and Universal Studios have already reopened). For others it could be months, or even years, before they are able to accept vacationing visitors.
Which begs the question: What should travelers do if they have paid for a vacation to the Florida Keys, St. Maarten/St. Martin, the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, or the handful of other islands that have been severely damaged?
At this stage, there’s no consistency from airline to airline when it comes to refund policies. Delta Air Lines is currently stating that it will waive change fees for anyone traveling to the places mentioned above before October 31; it will also allow customers to change their tickets’ destinations at no additional charge within that window. After that point, the change fee will still be waived, but customers will have to pay any difference in price. United Airlines has a nearly identical policy for the Leeward Islands (Providenciales, St. Thomas and St. Maarten) and a grab bag of policies for other affected destinations. American Airlines has a longer window—through the end of the year for change fee waivers—but insists that the departure and arrival airport cannot be changed, which will hamstring many vacationers. We suggest you check the websites of other carriers that serve impacted gateways for more information.
In general, one can cancel a hotel reservation without penalty. But what about those who paid for their entire stay when the booking was made? In these cases, the major hotel sites—Hotels.com, Expedia.com, Booking.com and others—have announced that they will waive their own fees for affected areas, but cannot control the fees their partnering hotels might levy. What that means, in dollars and cents, is likely to vary greatly.
We got one tip from Sally Black, the owner of VacationKids.com, a Caribbean specialist. “Many of the big chains are allowing guests to use the money they put down on a stay in an impacted area to go to places that aren’t experiencing problems,” she says. So if your chain is big enough, you can transfer your stay to somewhere else. So far, we’ve seen announcements from the massive AM Resorts and Club Med stating that they will re-accommodate guests, as best as possible.
The bigger losses may come to those who opted for vacation rentals. All require security deposits and those can range from a straight fee of $250 to $500, to 50% of the cost of the rental. Because the money has gone to individual owners, or small property management companies, it may take longer to get that money back (if it ever comes). We hear from HomeAway.com, one of the biggest marketplaces for these types of accommodations, that it has set up a dedicated website and phone number (help.homeaway.com or 888/337-0663), to work with its customers. It won’t be issuing refunds, but it will assist in connecting homeowners with vacation renters, so that they can work out their own agreements.
A number of major ports were damaged in the storms, leading to cancellations, the shortening of some itineraries, and total reworkings of others. In the case of cancellations, all of the major cruise lines have been giving passengers full refunds, plus 25% to 50% off the cost of their next sailing (it varies by line). When the cruise has been shortened, these companies are giving passengers a chance to cancel and be refunded if they wish; they are also refunding, on a per day basis, some of the cost of the cruise.
Where cruisers may be out of luck is on changed itineraries: If you are not interested in the new itinerary you are offered, you cannot legally get out of the cruise. Cruise contracts state that it may change the ports without offering any compensation to you.
The majority of insurance policies cover trip cancellation due to a destination becoming uninhabitable. So those who had bought coverage for upcoming trips to severely impacted places like Key West, St. Maarten/St. Martin and Barbuda, should have little problem getting their money back. The process gets trickier when the destination has sustained some damage, but opens back up for business. So though you may be dismayed that all of the trees are downed and the beach is largely washed away, if your hotel is open for business, you likely won’t be able to get money back from your insurance company.
You cannot buy insurance now for an area hurt by hurricanes Irma or Harvey. Travel insurance must have been purchased well before any named threat arose.
If you didn't get insurance, your credit card company may be able to help you get your money back if you find that you booked a vacation that you won’t be able to take.
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