Summer activities are winding down. Kids are back in school. The unrelenting heat of summer has started to fade. Sounds like the perfect time to book a Caribbean cruise. Then you turn on the weather report only to learn that Mother Nature is sending a wallop of a storm right where you planned to sail.
This story is retold every year, mostly from August through October. Although the six-month Caribbean hurricane season officially begins June 1 and ends November 30, the peak of activity usually falls toward the beginning of September -- at the exact time the cruise lines lower their rates. It's a heady combination to consider.
There are also the odds to consider. Hurricanes and tropical storms tend to affect the Bahamas, Bermuda, the eastern Caribbean, the East Coast of the U.S. and even Canada a bit earlier -- between August and mid-September. Mexico and the western Caribbean seem to be a magnet for storms a bit later in the summer, from mid-August through October. Rarely does the Caribbean or U.S. get hit with a hurricane in early June or late November, but it can happen.
If you hope to avoid rough weather and save a little money, plan a cruise to the southern Caribbean. For years, islands in the southernmost Caribbean (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago) promoted themselves as being out of the hurricane zone. Historically, that is correct. Although there's no 100 percent guarantee, this area could be your best bet to avoid a hurricane. But you still have to cruise to get there.
Getting there and home again
No matter if you leave from Florida, Texas or fly to the Caribbean to begin your cruise, there's always the possibility that a major weather scenario may interrupt your plans. It's yet another reason why it's important to arrive at your departure port at least one day in advance of your cruise.
The good news is that hurricanes travel very slowly and can take up to two weeks to meander from their formation off of the west coast of Africa to the eastern basin of the Atlantic Ocean and beyond.
The bad news? While cruise ships never sail into a hurricane, they scurry like rabbits to find safe harbor. And here's where cruising during peak hurricane season can get tricky.
Airports and ports can be closed. You've received notice from your cruise line that despite the impending possibility of a major storm or hurricane, your ship is still heading out to sea on the scheduled date of departure. There's a slim chance that the ship may not be able to return to the port of embarkation. The same port where you've parked your car or booked your return flight home.
When something like this occurs, the cruise line makes arrangements to return guests to their original point of embarkation, usually by motor coach if it's only a few hours away. Wi-Fi and phone charges are usually dropped so guests can make new air travel arrangements. Conversely, passengers departing on a ship whose embarkation isn't where it was supposed to be will find themselves on buses going to the port where the previous passengers left the ship.
Itinerary changes. If you choose to cruise during hurricane season, be prepared to sail to ports that may not be on your original itinerary. Cruise lines can easily rearrange itineraries to change course or bypass a port based on weather conditions. They certainly do not want to risk running headlong into a full-blown hurricane. It doesn't take a hurricane to churn up waves; a tropical storm can do it just as well.
Refunds and cruise credits. With simple port changes, passengers are rarely entitled to any refund, which is why it's so important to read your cruise line's terms and conditions before you make your final payment.
For example, if at the last minute your ship's captain decides that it's too risky to make it into port, you may spend a day at sea or on another island out of harm's way. Whether or not you are eligible to receive a refund or cruise credit is clearly spelled out in the cruise line's policy. Generally, there's no compensation whatsoever that covers missed ports, shorter stays in ports or a totally new itinerary. Rough seas do not constitute a claim for compensation.
Strongly consider travel insurance
Hurricane and severe weather cancellation refunds are available with some cruise lines' insurance policies, as well as through third-party companies. But again, you need to read the fine print. If you're sailing during peak hurricane season (September and early October), purchasing trip cancellation insurance can save you from forfeiting the entire cost of your vacation.
Almost every cruise line sailing from the U.S. uses the Transamerica Casualty Insurance Company, though coverage can vary between cruise lines. Private insurers may offer comprehensive coverage for only a slightly higher rate and offer a "cancel for any reason" waiver. Most cruise line insurance policies do not offer the same coverage nor the same procedures for filing a claim or in-transit assistance.
Most insurance policies, cruise lines and third-party insurers, offer some sort of cancellation fee protection if the area to which you are sailing is under a hurricane warning issued by the National Hurricane Center. But note the cancellation period from when the warning is issued varies for each cruise line and insurance company. Do your research, discuss it with your travel agent and decide whether purchasing a policy through a third-party insurance company or via your cruise line is best for your needs.
Do your homework to prepare
You've booked your cruise and purchased travel insurance -- what's next on the list?
About two weeks prior to your cruise, start checking the weather across the Atlantic; the National Hurricane Center website and Weather Underground are resources to bookmark. While the majority of tropical storms and hurricanes materialize off of the coast of Africa, it's always possible for something to form in the Gulf of Mexico, too. Hurricanes form off the coast of Mexico and make their way toward the Hawaiian Islands, meaning your California and Mexico coastal cruises are nearly as likely to be affected as the Caribbean.
If it looks like a storm is brewing, consider what to pack. Since it's already rainy season in most of the Caribbean, a poncho and a sturdy umbrella should be in your luggage. If cruising with children, bring a few familiar toys, games and playing cards from home. If rain keeps everyone indoors, make it family time rather than sending your young ones into what could be an overcrowded kids club.
Cruising the Caribbean during hurricane season can be like any other time of year, especially in the early weeks of June and July. After that, when cruise prices drop, it's important to realize there's a chance that unforeseen weather conditions could spoil your vacation. Or, you might end up visiting a surprise port, have more family bonding time and relax knowing that if something unforeseen arises, your travel insurance has you covered.
Sherry Laskin hasn't set foot on an airplane in more than 20 years and relies on ships, boats and trains to explore the world. Her cruise and travel site, Cruise Maven, covers everything you need to know for a cruise vacation, from planning and packing to dining and destinations across the globe. You can follow Sherry's cruise adventures on Twitter @CruiseMaven, Google+, Facebook and Instagram.