Everything you need to know about cruising during hurricane season

Aug 27, 2019

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Veteran cruisers know that fall is a great time to snag a deal on a cruise to the Caribbean or Bahamas. Fares for sailings on the big, mass-market ships operated by the likes of Royal Caribbean and Carnival 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, as a few have been this week due to Tropical Storm Dorian.

As of late Tuesday, for example, three Royal Caribbean ships and a Disney vessel have been rerouted westward due to the storm, which is tracking toward Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The Carnival Breeze is skipping its stop in San Juan on Wednesday, and the Carnival Sunrise is rearranging the order of its calls.

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 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, as I like to call it, is the key “iffy zone” for cruises to the Caribbean and Bahamas as well as sailings along the Eastern Seaboard of the US.

(Photo by NASA / Unsplash)
Hurricane season is from mid-August to late October for the most part. (Photo by NASA / Unsplash)

Every year, at least a few sailings during this window are affected by hurricanes and tropical storms. In some years, dozens of voyages are impacted. Still, even during the peak weeks of hurricane season, most sailings in the Caribbean and Bahamas are completed without a hitch. Here’s what you need to know before committing to a cruise during hurricane season:

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Odds of a storm disruption are low

As a quick glance at any cruise booking site will show, there are hundreds upon 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 US 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.

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 Curacao (common stops on Southern Caribbean itineraries) are far south of the typical hurricane track and experience few 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 like Cozumel, Mexico or Falmouth, Jamaica.

Royal Caribbean, for instance, made exactly that switch this week to the schedule of its 6,780-passenger Allure of the Seas to keep the vessel clear of Tropical Storm Dorian.

Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas. (Photo by Sandra Foyt / Shutterstock)
Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. (Photo by Sandra Foyt / Shutterstock)

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)
Hurrican Irma making landfall. (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 The Points Guy, 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 new Symphony of the Seas.

And any rough seas you may experience may only 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.

“The key for us is to make sure our guests enjoy their cruise vacation to the fullest and are safe, far away from hurricanes and tropical storms,” Royal Caribbean’s chief meteorologist, James Van Fleet, told The Points Guy. “I’m regularly communicating with our crew so that everyone is safe and protected from any adverse weather and can keep their focus on relaxing and having fun.”

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.

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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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