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Storm Warnings

Beach8 Has the idea of vacationing in hurricane-prone areas such as Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean during storm season given you pause? It should, especially after the record-setting year of 2005, which saw the formation of 27 named storms. Fifteen of those storms became hurricanes, and of those, four reached Category 5 strength, the highest level for Atlantic hurricanes. Katrina may have been the most destructive, but Wilma was the most intense hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic. And the National Hurricane Center has predicted a "normal or above normal" season for 2008.

Putting aside the misery that these storms inflicted upon local residents, consider the thousands of travelers who found themselves stranded, their hotels uninhabitable, the local airports closed. And for thousands of other travelers, their problems began after the hurricanes. What to do, for example, if you had planned a vacation in the affected areas for a week or a month after the hurricanes struck? Would your hotel be open? Would the airline refund your tickets? Many travelers found themselves out of pocket and out of a vacation.

What should a vacationer do? Keep alert, of course, to potential problems. Know before you go about hotel and airline cancellation policies and contingency plans in the event of a hurricane. And yes, it’s one of the best times to consider a travel insurance policy. If you’re heading for the Caribbean in hurricane season, here’s how to avoid trouble in paradise.

Beach4 How about avoiding hurricane season altogether? Alas, it isn’t all that easy. For starters, hurricane season technically extends from June 1 to November 30, nearly half the year. And it encompasses the Caribbean, Mexico and Florida, places that are among the most desirable for North Americans to visit. What’s more, these sunny locales have evolved into year-round destinations that flaunt their attractions in the face of potentially stormy weather. And they tempt us with lower rates during this prolonged season.

It’s amazing, but apart from a simple refund policy, many hotels had poorly conceived or nonexistent contingency plans in the event of a hurricane before 2005’s onslaught. Well, clearly, the lawyers have been busy. Many hotels have amended their policies, and some have published these policies in an effort to head off problems and misconceptions. But they vary considerably in what they will and won’t do for you.

For example, Club Med has a optional enhanced travel insurance called "Total Peace of Mind". It’s available at the time of booking confirmation for an additional $79 per adult and $49 per child. It allows you to cancel for any reason 48 hours priors to departure and receive a credit equal to 90 percent of the cancellation fees for the land portion of your trip.

Beach3 Tesoro Resorts and their three properties, Tesoro Ixtapa, Tesoro Los Cabos and Tesoro Manzanillo, now have a Hurricane Proof vacation package. When the National Hurricane Center classifies weather in any of the areas surrounding Tesoro properties as a subtropical storm or worse, the Tesoro Hurricane guarantee goes into affect. Once weather conditions have been declared, guests can call their travel agent or Tesoro’s toll-free number to be reimbursed for airfare, hotel and transportation to and from the Manzanillo airport, or reschedule at no penalty. That’s good through Oct. 31.

But it always pays to read the fine print. At the all-inclusive SuperClubs resorts in Jamaica and the Bahamas, the hurricane policy for 2008 states that "should a hurricane happen to strike the resort, guests at the resort will receive a reimbursement for the total value of disrupted nights. In addition, a voucher for a future stay will be issued for the same number of disrupted nights for use during the same month the following year, excluding airfare."

Fair enough. But the Dominican Republic property is not covered. And if you’re on your way to a SuperClub? The print says:"In the event that guests are unable to arrive as scheduled, we will offer them the following options: Guests may arrive after the storm passes. Either for the same number of nights, in which case, we will make every effort to confirm the dates and categories, but guarantee no (hotel) rate increase – OR – stay for fewer nights, in which case they will be provided a voucher for future travel equal to the interrupted nights."

Beach Should you persist in coming, note that "guests who elect to arrive, despite our recommendations, do so with the implicit understanding that no compensation will be forthcoming for any disruption in services and/or inclusions that may occur as a result of the storm."

CHECK WITH YOUR AIRLINE AND/OR CRUISE LINE

When WILMA was threatening landfall, the major airlines issued weather waivers for passengers ticketed to travel to Mexico and Florida. In general, these waivers permitted travelers with flights over a five-to-seven-day period when disruptions were anticipated to either reschedule their trips within a couple of weeks, choose an alternate destination or get a flight credit equal to the value of the traveler’s original ticket. But they couldn’t cancel and get their money back. Typically, when it comes to hurricanes, airline refunds are given only to customers whose flights have been directly affected by a storm. But policies vary from carrier to carrier, so check the airline’s Web site for the latest information.

In cruise contracts, the fine print states that the cruise line reserves the right to change itineraries for any reason. This legalese is largely aimed at hurricane season, when ships do alter itineraries and skip ports after severe weather is forecast. Passengers who are inconvenienced are sometimes offered discounts on future cruises, sometimes not. If you spend an extra day on board because of a storm, you are not charged. But you are not reimbursed for missed ports. And the itinerary shift is frequently dramatic. There have been cases where Bermuda-bound cruises wound up visiting cities along the New England coast to escape harm. As for why anyone would sail to the Caribbean, the Bahamas or Bermuda during hurricane season, the answer is simple: It’s cheap. This is the most affordable time of year to cruise in these waters.

Beach7 IS INSURANCE THE ANSWER?

There’s little doubt that travel insurance can help in some instances. "We arranged for one couple stuck in a shelter in Cancun after Wilma to take a 300-mile cab ride to get to the nearest airport with an available flight," explains Dan McGinnity, a spokesperson for Travel Guard International, one of the major travel insurance companies.

Travel insurance is often touted as a cure-all for every possible problem. And a typical policy does covers trip cancellation, delay and interruption. Policies also take care of baggage loss and include accident and sickness insurance as well as flight insurance, but medical evacuation may be an extra. The amounts of coverage vary with each policy, but even a basic one should reimburse you for whatever deposits you’ve paid. And a policy should have 24-hour emergency service, to help you if you’re on vacation and a storm strikes. But while they can bail you out financially, travel insurance policies are not bulletproof.

"For your losses to be covered, you have to purchase insurance before the hurricane is forecast," says McGinnity of Travel Guard. "Once a storm like Wilma is predicted to hit Cancun, it’s too late to insure your trip to the area."

But what if you already have travel insurance, you’re getting ready to leave home, and you’re worried about a hurricane that’s approaching your destination?

"If you cancel your trip because you’re afraid that a hurricane might hit," notes McGinnity, "you’re not covered by your policy. Your travel plans need to be directly affected. If the government of Mexico, for example, suggests that you should stay away, that doesn’t count. But if there’s damage to a local airport or your hotel, that’s a specific reason."

Then there are cruise departures and arrivals. Ports like Fort Lauderdale were affected by last year’s hurricanes, and airports were shut down for several days. What if you couldn’t reach the embarkation port? Well, if you’d purchased airfare with your cruise, you would be covered for both the air and the cruise cost. But if you bought air independently or used miles for your tickets, you’d be out of luck and a lot of money, since the onus for getting to the cruise is on you. In other words, if you miss the cruise, that’s your problem. On the other hand, a travel insurance policy would have bailed you out.

As for the price of an insurance policy, it’s not bad, considering what it might save you. Travel Guard’s basic Travel Guard Essential policy for a 40-year-old on a $2,000 trip in September runs $89. And while travel insurance can’t cover you for every circumstance, it can rescue you financially, and possibly physically, in many cases.

What else can you do? Stay informed and follow weather reports. Cruise lines often post itinerary updates on their Web sites. Check out the National Hurricane Center, the National Weather Service and the National Climatic Data Center. And cross your fingers for fair weather.

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