Cruising Through the 2011 Hurricane Season

Cruising through hurricane season means taking a chance that your itinerary may be changed unexpectedly, but rarely does it mean you will be in any danger.

The headlines are full of Hurricane Irene news already. The articles generally talk about the changes to itineraries that Irene is creating. But for the most part the itinerary changes have been minute, such as changing the order in which certain ports are visited.

Here is an example:

Royal Caribbean has changed four itineraries: Oasis of the Seas will reverse its itinerary and now visit Cozumel, Mexico, first on Monday; stop at Falmouth, Jamaica, on Wednesday; stop at Labadee, Haiti, on Thursday; and return to Fort Lauderdale on Saturday. Freedom of the Seas will also reverse its itinerary and will visit Cozumel on Tuesday, followed by Grand Cayman on Wednesday, Falmouth on Thursday and Labadee on Friday. Allure of the Seas will now stop at Nassau, Bahamas, on Saturday instead of today. The rest of the itinerary remains unchanged. Serenade of the Seas will reverse its itinerary as well. It will visit Aruba on Tuesday, Curacao on Wednesday, St. Kitts on Friday and St. Thomas on Saturday.

The only way this will affect your vacation is if you booked your shore excursions through an outside tour provider who expected you to show up on a certain day. On the other hand, if you book your tours on the ship then these itinerary changes make almost no difference at all.

Now, Carnival's recent changes due to Hurricane Irene:

Carnival Miracle, which left New York Thursday on an eight-day voyage, will skip San Juan and St. Thomas, and will shift its itinerary to visit Grand Turk today and Half Moon Cay Tuesday.

Carnival's changes are obviously more significant - completely different destinations than what was advertised. In these cases we hope you know that the cruise lines do not bear any responsibility for changes to any specific ports of call due to weather. In other words, if you book during hurricane season you are personally responsible for knowing that hurricanes can cause cruise ships to change itineraries and the cruise lines will not be made responsible for the changes.

In any year hurricane season typically starts in June but tends to peak in August and September. Hurricane seasons typically get more active during years of La Nina, which is defined as a lower surface temperature, typically three to five degrees Celsius. The effect of these conditions is a typically wet winter in the U.S. particularly in the Midwest, and an increased likelihood of hurricanes as these weather systems head towards the Atlantic and combine with tropical air coming from Africa. 2010 was such a year.

La Niña is the opposite weather pattern to the better known "El Niño" which is defined as a higher sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean and a strong current heading East close to the equator.

What does it mean to predict an active hurricane season? The average hurricane season contains 11 named storms (top winds of 39 mph or higher), six hurricanes (top winds of 74 mph or higher) and two major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of at least 111 mph).

For 2011 the NOAA has predicted an "active" (but not "very active") hurricane season, as follows:

  • 12 to 18 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which:
  • 6 to 10 could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including:
  • 3 to 6 major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of 111 mph or higher)
Each of these ranges has a 70-percent likelihood, and indicate that activity will exceed the seasonal average of 11 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes. "The United States was fortunate last year (2010). Winds steered most of the season's tropical storms and all hurricanes away from our coastlines," said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. "However we can't count on luck to get us through this season. We need to be prepared, especially with this above-normal outlook." Climate factors considered for the 2011 outlook are: The continuing high activity era. Since 1995, the tropical multi-decadal signal has brought ocean and atmospheric conditions conducive for development in sync, leading to more active Atlantic hurricane seasons. Warm Atlantic Ocean water. Sea surface temperatures where storms often develop and move across the Atlantic are up to two degrees Fahrenheit warmer-than-average. La Niña, which continues to weaken in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, is expected to dissipate later this month or in June, but its impacts such as reduced wind shear are expected to continue into the hurricane season.

Now - to be perfectly clear, the NOAA is often somewhat wrong; not because they don't know what they are doing, but because predicting weather is incredibly difficult. In 2006, for example, NOAA called for "a very active 2006 season, with 13-16 named storms, 8-10 hurricanes, and 4-6 major hurricanes."

During the 2006 hurricane season there were only nine named-storms, five hurricanes, and two major hurricanes - none of which hit the U.S.

It sounds odd, but we normally do recommend booking cruises during hurricane season. Why? Because hurricane season is no secret, especially to the number one cruise market - Florida, but the main reason is that we often see bargain prices. Now, I realize price alone isn't a good reason to recommend taking a cruise during a major storm, but the point is that cruise ships are experts at avoiding these storms, so you should still have a great cruise. You just have to accept the possibility of a little uncertainty.

In the event of any hurricane the cruise lines will substitute different ports of call for the scheduled itinerary and avoid the storm entirely whenever possible, which is the majority of the time. For example, if a cruise is scheduled to leave from Miami and sail to the Eastern Caribbean a raging hurricane in the Atlantic will send the cruise ship to the Western Caribbean instead.

People who are new to cruising need to understand that this choice to substitute different ports of call is completely at the discretion of the cruise line. The captain and the cruise line are ultimately responsible for your safety at sea, and they will not choose to sail into a hurricane.

The worst consequence of any hurricane under normal conditions is a delayed departure or return to the home port at the beginning or end of a cruise. The only reason for this would be if the storm was in that home port the same day as the ship was scheduled to be there. But taking Miami as an example, hurricanes only hit about once every decade or less, statistically.

In extreme cases a very large storm has meant a cruise line was not able to deliver any ports of call. In these situations they might offer an onboard credit during the cruise, or a discount on a future cruise. But this is also at the discretion of the cruise line and should not be expected.

We do understand that it is disconcerting to have your plans changed at the last minute, but ultimately the best you can do is adapt to the changes quickly and just make different plans for your ports of call. You don't want to be sitting on the ship thinking about what you would have been doing otherwise.

Remember, the cruise experience is usually better when the ship diverges from the proximity of a hurricane as much as possible. For the most part hurricanes are very contained storms - depending on your relative position. You can sail ahead of one and not even know there is a raging inferno just over the horizon. But you don't want to be trailing a hurricane because the winds are sure to have whipped up the seas and such conditions can last for days past the time the storm has passed.

Bottom line, when it comes to hurricanes it is a pretty good idea not to second guess the cruise lines' or captains' decisions on where the ship should sail. The cruise lines want to give you best experience possible. Cruising is a competitive business and they want you coming back. You can be pretty sure they made the best decision under the circumstances.

Yes, we actually receive letters from people who are adamant they should receive a full refund because the cruise they were on did not sail to the scheduled ports of call due to a hurricane. We do understand that people spend a lot of time pre-planning a cruise and may already know exactly what beach they want to snorkel months ahead of time. But if there is a hurricane it is not the cruise line's fault.

One actual letter we received said, "Our cruise did not go to the islands they promised us due to a force four hurricane the same week. I feel they broke our contract and we want a 100% refund of our cruise fare." This is after they spent a full week eating the ship's food, sleeping in their beds, watching the entertainment and visiting other ports where they probably did very similar activities to what they had planned anyway.

When I get these letters I just can't help myself. I write back to ask them, "Did you really want to go to an island experiencing 130 mph winds?"

I suppose another alternative would be to cancel the cruise at the last minute, but I doubt most people would want that either. In the end, substituting ports of call always makes the most sense.

To discuss Hurricane cruising in our forums, go to "Hurricane Cruising."

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