First of all, no cruise line will deliberately put its guests, crew and ships in jeopardy. It is in their own best interest to do whatever they must to keep people are safe and comfortable, to make sure they enjoy their cruises, and to protect their hardware.
To that end, all of the major lines have special departments to track the weather. They're either directly tied to weather services, both on board and shore-side; or are paying very close attention to a storm's development, pattern and path. Unlike a resort hotel, a ship can move, so cruise lines are able to get out in front of (or stay behind) the situation and avoid the storm wherever possible. Now, a slight disclaimer: Storms do not always follow a predictable path; they sometimes jump around. Cruise lines always do their best to stay on top of things.
Insurance and Air Bookings
If you are going to be cruising during hurricane season, it might be a good idea to make sure you have insurance that covers ship departure and arrival delays, not to mention changes in itinerary. Even though storms are considered a force of nature and the cruise line is not responsible, having your own insurance -- through the line or on your own -- would add to your peace of mind. Just make sure it covers what you need covered.
This is also a very good time (second perhaps only to winter) when it pays to buy your air fare through the cruise line. If you are part of their air program, they have a responsibility to make sure you get where you're going and can return home as well. If you buy your own air, you're on your own if it becomes necessary to rebook flights.
As Heather Krasnow, Norwegian Cruise Line's media relations manager, says, "For NCL, the best thing a passenger can do is purchase air through us and purchase travel insurance. If a flight is canceled, it's our responsibility to re-accommodate the passenger to make sure they get there. If they purchase on their own, they may be looking at change fees, no availability, etc. In the end, they may not be able to get to the ship at all. Also, if they decide not go on the cruise because a hurricane is pending, or has just wiped out their power, etc. and they don't have travel insurance, they are in 100% penalty. My advice would be during hurricane season, buy travel insurance and book air through the line."
Airlines have their own policies and may be helpful in case of a hurricane; they often will waive change fees. During Hurricane Emily, Delta announced: "Delta Customers Affected by Tropical Storm Emily May Change Travel Plans Without Penalties or Fees: Delta Air Lines' customers booked on flights traveling to or from select cities in the Caribbean may make adjustments to their travel schedule due to the impact of Tropical Storm Emily." Note however that it's not all-inclusive. It's also not tied to cruise lines' schedules. If you have your own air and you're late for a cruise, you're stuck.
If you are going to take a cruise during hurricane season, there are certain things you should prepare for. One, pay attention to the weather reports yourself. Do not rely on your travel agent or the cruise line exclusively. If you have any doubts about your scheduled cruise, check with your agent or the line. According to Vance Gulliksen, Carnival's manager of public relations, "In the unlikely event that a cruise is impacted by a hurricane, each situation is handled on a case-by-case basis. The company frequently posts itinerary updates on its web site, www.carnival.com. Carnival also has a toll-free 24-hour hotline (1-877-885-4856) to assist guests with any travel emergencies." Just don't start checking weeks in advance. They will obviously have no idea of what's going to happen that far out.
Plan for the possibility that the itinerary you booked may not take place exactly as scheduled. The simplest change is heading east if the storm is going west, or vice versa. Or, from New York City during the summer, you may wind up in New England instead of Bermuda. This happens at times, and maintaining a spirit of flexibility is important. This is also a time when it pays to stay in touch. You'd hate to pack for Bermuda and then wind up in New England (a somewhat different climate).
Last year, Carnival did a superb job of changing their schedules and letting everyone know. They had to reschedule things so that one ship left Mobile a day early and another left Tampa a day late. By getting in touch with their guests, they ensured that things went reasonably smoothly. Says Gulliksen, "If weather impacts a guest's flight, Carnival's embarkation department is able to track the flight schedules of Fly Aweigh guests throughout the course of the day, and can identify guests whose flights may be impacted and alter flight arrangements as necessary. Air/sea guests are also given priority on standby flights to the port of embarkation." Working with guests and their agents, Carnival was able to do a great job of getting in touch.
Compensation for changes
Carnival is also quite flexible when a cruise is lengthened or shortened due to a storm: "If a guest spends an extra day on the cruise, there is no additional charge for this day. If a day of the cruise is lost, Carnival typically will provide compensation in some form."
Finally, the big question: What if guests without insurance feel the need to cancel a cruise because of an upcoming storm? Realistically, they may be stuck; it pays to know the policy of the line you're on.
Some are very humane. For example, as stated in its fleet brochure, here's Carnival's policy: "When practicable, Carnival will promptly notify guests of a pre-cruise itinerary change through their travel agents or directly in the case of direct bookings. Carnival will offer such guests an opportunity to cancel their cruise within 24 hours without penalty. No additional compensation for the itinerary change will be offered at a later time. If an itinerary change occurs while a ship is at sea or when notice prior to the sailing is not feasible, Carnival shall attempt to substitute an alternate port. No compensation shall be provided to passengers when an alternative port is offered. If an alternative port is not provided, guests shall be provided a shipboard credit of $20 per person. The Vacation Guarantee shall not be affected by this policy."
Holland America also maintains a flexible policy. Director of public relations Erik Elvejord says, "It entirely depends on the changes due to the hurricane. Whenever a change is made, we determine the offer to be given to guests. If a port is missed or a cruise shortened, usually there is something from a shipboard credit to a future cruise certificate. On extended cruises, we assist with making air arrangements or giving guests a phone call to reach travel agents or airlines to make changes to flights. In extreme cases, this can change day to day. Our prime goal is to make the guests comfortable and keep them safe. We don't want to disrupt their vacation timing any more than they want it disrupted. But hurricanes are nothing to ignore, so we need to adapt. The worst types are the ones that sit and linger. If they go through an area quickly, the changes are minimal. When it lingers, everyone, both on ships and land, wonders where it's going next."
In summary: Would I cruise in the Caribbean during hurricane season? If it's a cruise I wanted to take, I certainly wouldn't be afraid of a hurricane. Would I buy insurance? Absolutely. Would I book air through the cruise line? Absolutely.
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