Worried how storms like Ida could affect your cruise? Everything you need to know about hurricane season cruises

Aug 30, 2021

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Veteran cruisers know that fall is a great time to snag a deal on a cruise to the Caribbean or the Bahamas.

Fares for sailings on the big, mass-market ships operated by the likes of Royal Caribbean and Carnival Cruise Line often drop by hundreds of dollars per person starting around Labor Day through December. The markdowns on luxury vessels can be far more.

But the deals come with a big caveat: There’s a chance your sailing could be disrupted by a hurricane or tropical storm.

While there weren’t any notable disruptions to cruise itineraries in recent days due to Hurricane Ida — the handful of cruise vessels operating in the Gulf of Mexico as the storm approached New Orleans weren’t close to its track — cruisers sailing in the fall aren’t always so lucky.

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During most years, at least a few fall sailings are affected by hurricanes and tropical storms. In some years, dozens of voyages are impacted.

Still, even during peak “hurricane season” weeks (more on that below), most sailings in the Caribbean and Bahamas are completed without a hitch. Here’s what you need to know before committing to a cruise in these regions during the fall.

The odds of a storm disruption are low

While, in theory, a hurricane or tropical storm can develop at any time in the Atlantic, the vast majority of such storms — about 97%, according to the National Hurricane Center — occur between June 1 and Nov. 30 of any given year. This is what’s known as hurricane season in the Atlantic, and it typically brings about 12 named tropical storms, half of which become hurricanes.

Within this timeframe, the peak period for tropical storms in the Atlantic, by far, is the stretch of weeks between mid-August and late October. This is the key “iffy zone,” as I like to call it, for cruises to the Caribbean and Bahamas as well as Bermuda.

As a quick glance at any cruise booking site will show, there are hundreds of sailings in the Caribbean and Bahamas each fall. But in most years, only a small portion of these are affected by tropical storms.

Even during the busiest of hurricane seasons, there will be many weeks without a single tropical storm in the Caribbean or Bahamas. But even when there is a large storm in the Caribbean or Bahamas, it’ll likely only impact a small portion of the region, and thus only a small number of cruise ships.

One thing to keep in mind is that the Caribbean is enormous in comparison to the size of the typical hurricane. The distance between Belize, on the western end of the Caribbean Sea, and the easternmost Leeward Islands is nearly 2,000 miles. The hurricane-force winds of a typical small hurricane, by contrast, extend just 25 miles out from its center. The hurricane-force winds from a large hurricane might extend as far as 150 miles from its center.

Even a giant hurricane that is bearing down on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (a common port on Eastern Caribbean sailings), for instance, is likely to have little or no impact on a Western Caribbean or Southern Caribbean sailing.

The hurricane-force winds of Hurricane Ida this week as it approached New Orleans only extended out about 50 miles from its center. That meant it didn’t pose much of a threat to the two cruise ships sailing with passengers in the Gulf of Mexico, both of which are based in Galveston, Texas. As Royal Caribbean’s chief meteorologist James Van Fleet noted in a tweet on Sunday, the port city is 250 miles to the west of New Orleans.

The two vessels — Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas and Carnival’s Carnival Vista — sailed well to the West of Hurricane Ida over the weekend as they traveled to and from Galveston.

Trying to predict where tropical storms will hit in any given year is a fool’s game. But if you’re playing the odds, one area that is known for seeing fewer storms on average is the southern part of the Caribbean. In particular, the southerly islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao (common stops on Southern Caribbean itineraries) are far south of the typical hurricane track and experience few fall storms.

Your itinerary could change

When a tropical storm does appear in one part of the Caribbean or Bahamas, the standard response from cruise lines is to reroute ships in that area to other parts of the Caribbean or Bahamas that are well clear of the storm. This can mean a last-minute change to your cruise itinerary.

Depending on the forecasted track of the storm, the change could be relatively minor — a port stop being pushed back by a day, for instance, or one port being swapped for another port. But it also could be far more significant. To avoid storms, cruise lines sometimes will completely rework an itinerary. A ship on an Eastern Caribbean sailing to such stops as St. Thomas and St. Kitts might instead be rerouted to such Western Caribbean ports as Cozumel, Mexico or Falmouth, Jamaica.

In some cases, a port will be dropped from an itinerary with no new port added as a replacement. Occasionally, you’ll see cruises shortened or extended by a day or two or even three. The latter situation can occur when a storm is forecast to pass in between a ship and its home port around the time the vessel is scheduled to be heading home. The ship either will return to the home port early to arrive before the storm or stay out at sea to wait for the storm to pass.

In rare cases when a home port closes due to a storm, ships have been known to sail to an alternative port to drop off passengers. In such situations, the vessels sometimes will depart on their next cruise from the alternative port. Alternately, cruises occasionally are canceled when a home port experiences disruptions related to storms. But this is very rare.

You aren’t entitled to compensation for itinerary changes

Cruise lines aren’t obligated to offer you compensation if they change an itinerary due to weather. The fine print in cruise contracts allows them to make such changes when they see fit. But that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes give you something.

In the case of a port swap — when one port is substituted for another — there typically isn’t any compensation offered. But when a port is missed without a substitute, there’s a chance you might be offered an onboard credit as compensation. Just don’t count on it. Lines also will refund the cost of any prepaid shore excursions scheduled for the missed port, and the portion of port taxes and fees associated with that port.

In the case of a shortened voyage, lines typically will offer a prorated refund for the lost days. And when cruises are extended, lines generally won’t charge passengers anything more for the extra days — at least for room, board and entertainment. Passengers usually still will have to pay for such onboard extras as drinks and spa treatments.

When cruises are shortened or extended due to weather, cruise lines also often will aid passengers who need to change post-cruise travel plans. They might offer free phone calls from the ship or free internet access to make it easier for passengers to call airlines and hotels to make changes.

You won’t get a refund if you cancel

As a rule, cruise lines don’t offer refunds to passengers who cancel a voyage on short notice, even if there’s a big storm brewing in the area where the cruise is scheduled to take place.

If you see there’s a hurricane churning toward the Caribbean a few days before your departure, you can’t just call your cruise line and cancel the trip and expect to get your money back.

From the cruise line’s point of view, the cruise will go on. It just might be adjusted a bit. Or not, depending on the way the storm tracks over the coming days. As far as the line is seeing it, you’re still about to get what you paid for: A wonderful cruise vacation.

That said, there are exceptions to the rule. When a line knows in advance that a storm will cause a significant alteration to a voyage (for instance, lost days due to a delayed departure) it sometimes will allow passengers to cancel for a refund or credit toward a future cruise. This happened in 2017 when some lines delayed departures out of Florida as Hurricane Irma approached. The lines that delayed departures allowed passengers to cancel for a refund in the form of a cruise credit. Alternately, passengers could go ahead with the shortened trips and receive a prorated refund for the missed days.

Hurrican Irma making landfall. (Photo by Mia2you / Getty Images)
Hurricane Irma making landfall in 2017. (Photo by Mia2you / Getty Images)

When a line cancels a departure outright, it’s sometimes the case that it will offer passengers not only a refund for the trip but additional credit that can be used toward a future trip. This sort of response also was on display in 2017 as Irma’s approach prompted some lines to cancel itineraries altogether.

Each line approaches compensation issues differently, and some are historically more generous than others in offering compensation when storm-related disruptions occur. The responses from lines also can vary depending on the circumstances surrounding any given storm.

To avoid remorse, my advice is to go into any hurricane-season booking assuming you will not be compensated for storm-caused itinerary changes and not be able to get a refund if you cancel the trip at the last minute.

Build wiggle room into your travel schedule

If you’re booking a cruise during hurricane season, you’ll want to keep in mind that tropical weather can affect not only cruise ships but airplanes, too.

If you’re flying to your cruise departure point, you’ll want to build in plenty of wiggle room in case air travel is impacted by a big storm and flights are delayed.

At TPG, we always suggest that cruisers head to their departure ports at least a full day in advance of their sailings, just to be safe, and this is doubly important during hurricane season. You don’t want a delayed flight to be the reason you miss your cruise.

Maximize your travel insurance coverage

While it’s always a good idea to book flights and cruises with a card that provides travel protections, this is especially important during hurricane season.

Some cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve will reimburse you for at least some of the costs of trip delays, cancellations and interruptions related to severe weather if you have booked the trip on the card. The travel protection benefits provided by such cards also can reimburse you for expenses when your baggage is lost or delayed.

Just be warned that these benefits often come with a lot of fine print that can make it tough to collect in some circumstances.

You also can buy separate travel insurance just for the single trip that will provide reimbursement if you experience trip delays, cancellations or interruptions. These plans also come with a lot of fine print that limits the circumstances where they are valid, and they vary widely in what they offer.

You may face some rough seas

Cruise lines will reroute ships by hundreds of miles to avoid tropical storms and hurricanes. But that doesn’t mean you always can expect smooth sailing during hurricane season.

If a big storm is present in the Caribbean or Bahamas, there’s a chance you’ll feel some motion on your vessel even if it’s far from the center of the storm. Swells from big storms can travel thousands of miles.

(Photo by johnnorth / Getty Images)
Rough seas are never fun but that won’t always be the end of a cruise. (Photo by johnnorth / Getty Images)

If you’re particularly sensitive to motion, hurricane season might not be the best time for you to cruise. But don’t panic. Cruise ships these days are built with sophisticated stabilizers that tamp down the effects of waves. As ships have gotten bigger, on average, they’ve also become more stable. It takes a lot to move a giant vessel like Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas.

Any rough seas you may experience due to a nearby storm are likely to be temporary. Many of the cruise ships operating in the Caribbean can sail at speeds up to 22 knots, or about 25 miles per hour. That means they can move as much as 300 miles in just one day. And move they do. You can be somewhere stormy and rough one day only to find yourself in sunny and clear conditions just a day later.

Just as airline pilots maneuver to avoid turbulence, cruise ship captains and their headquarters-based overseers are keenly aware of passenger comfort as well as safety, and they’re not shy about pulling the trigger to reposition a vessel to calmer seas.

Be careful booking shore excursions

Not all cruisers book shore tours through their cruise line. Some book excursions through alternative tour companies such as Viator.com or PortSideTours.com. If you go this route for a hurricane-season cruise, be sure to check cancellation policies before prepaying for excursions.

While cruise lines automatically will refund you for prepaid shore excursions you’ve booked with them in the case of a canceled port call, it isn’t a given that an outside tour company will do the same. Some will, for sure, but others require a nonrefundable deposit that may be hard to get back even in the case of a storm-caused itinerary change.

How to Book a Cruise Using Points and Miles

Bottom line

Cruises that take place in the Caribbean and Bahamas during the height of hurricane season can be an incredible deal, and many are completed with nary a problem. But before booking one, you want to be sure you’re OK with the idea that your itinerary could change on short notice or be disrupted in some other way. While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen.

If you’re booking a cruise to the Caribbean or Bahamas to see a specific destination — St. Kitts, for instance, or the British Virgin Islands — a hurricane-season cruise may not be for you. But if you’re flexible, and just want a fun and inexpensive getaway at sea, there’s no reason to fear the fall.

Featured photo by NASA / Unsplash.

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