Some Florida beaches have a red tide outbreak: Are hotels obligated to tell you about it?

Yesterday

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Following one of the worst red tide outbreaks in the last 10 years in 2019 and a follow-up “bloom” in 2019 in Sarasota County and elsewhere in Florida, red tide is once again back along stretches of the state’s Gulf coast around St. Pete, Tampa and Sarasota. It’s covering parts of the powder-fine beaches here with piles of dead fish in places and impacting beach-goers with side effects that include potential respiratory irritation.

A July 30, 2021, red tide status update by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported red tide at high concentrations in the week prior at beaches in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, with background to low and medium concentrations reported to the south in Lee and Collier counties.

No red tide was reported on Florida’s east coast in the FWC’s most recent report.

Here’s what you need to know if you have an upcoming hotel stay in one of the affected Gulf coast areas.

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What’s red tide?

Red tide is a toxic algal bloom of the organism Karenia brevis. It’s naturally occurring in bodies of water and can make the water appear brownish or reddish in hue. It can kill sea life, such as fish, dolphins and manatees, and it can cause humans respiratory discomfort (coughing, sneezing). Here’s everything you need to know about red tide.

Are hotels obligated to alert you to red tide conditions?

When red tide is present in the water, are area hotels obligated to proactively alert guests before they arrive? TPG couldn’t find any laws or local ordinances that require them to do so. Any decision to reach out to guests would be up to hotel management.

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And hotels are likely hesitant to contact guests in advance for a few reasons. The first being that red tide ebbs and flows, literally. A minor bloom can dissipate quickly, depending on weather conditions that include wind and currents. Secondly, the severity of red tide varies and the effects on the hotel’s property may be minimal (though that assessment can be subjective). Finally, people react differently to red tide. Some people suffer from coughs and respiratory discomfort, while others don’t seem to be bothered at all.

Some hotels will note surf conditions and alert visitors about red time blooms directly on their websites, but that generally happens only after the media has covered the story and properties begin receiving calls from guests with reservations who want to know if they should still plan on visiting.

TPG spot-checked the websites of a dozen hotels in Sarasota, Manatee and Pinellas counties — including popular resorts in Clearwater Beach, St. Pete Beach and Longboat Key — and didn’t find any that had a specific red tide warning.

 If you have plans to visit Florida’s gulf coast soon to spend time on the beach, you should keep an eye on the situation.

How to find out about red tide conditions

Joining local Facebook groups in the beach town you’re considering visiting is one way to get an accurate picture of red tide on the ground.

We contacted one Facebook user in a Longboat Key group on Facebook, Jax Becker, who told TPG that as recently as August 2, 2021, “anywhere near the beach has been dreadful— a pungent dead fish smell that also causes you to cough and sneeze.”

“Basically, I don’t recommend any tourist to come when there is red tide,” said Becker. “It’s really not worth it.”

Calling your hotel directly to ask about conditions is always a good place to start when you’re considering booking a room or wondering about refunds due to red tide.

When TPG reached out to The  Resort at Longboat Key Club on August 3, 2021, to inquire about current beach conditions, a front desk attendant spoke candidly and said that the flag on the beach designating swimming conditions was purple today, which means “you probably shouldn’t go in the water” (red means absolutely don’t swim, he said, and green means go).

He also said the hotel had been waiving deposits when guests decide they need to leave early due to the red tide effects, but that reimbursements need to be “sent off to accounting,” and refunds can take up to two weeks.

A call to The Don CeSar and Beach House Suites in St. Pete Beach on August 3, 2021, was met first with the recorded message saying, “the hotels are open and currently offering complete resort services including dining, spa, retail boutiques and our amazing pools and private beach.”

When TPG asked a front desk attendant how current conditions were, she said, “a few weeks or a month ago, I would have been choking,” but there wasn’t any “real noticeable red tide” in the area at the moment.

“Things aren’t perfect,” she said. “But the air is pretty fresh.”

When asked about the hotel’s cancellation policies due to red tide, the front desk attendant kept things vague, saying that “if it’s an emergency, you would be reimbursed.”

You can also go online to find a lot of useful data to help you decide if a vacation in the area is still a good idea. For example, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s red tide status and updates page displays a map of Karenia brevis concentrations and current beach conditions, showing the highest concentrations as of the August 2, 2021 report in Clearwater Beach, Madeira Beach, Indian Shores and Indian Rocks and North Redington and Redington Beaches.

The report also classifies respiratory irritation at area beaches as slight, moderate or high to help you decide how pleasant a day on the beach might be.

Florida Gulf Coast red tide map
Screenshot courtesy of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater

For red tide information throughout the state of Florida, visit the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It has specific insights relating to a variety of topics, including fish kills and where respiratory irritation has been reported. Daily sample maps from around the state covering the last eight days of sampling are updated at 5 p.m.

Florida red tide map
Check the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission map to see if Karenia brevis (red tide) cells are present anywhere in Florida. (Image courtesy of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

Another excellent resource to make use of in your own research is the MOTE Marine Laboratory & Aquarium Beach Conditions Reporting System. You can look up specific beaches and get information like water color, if drift algae is present on the water, if dead fish are on the beach, the level of respiratory irritation and the wind speed and direction.

Florida red tide map
You can find current beach conditions destinations across Florida. (Image courtesy of MOTE Marine Laboratory & Aquarium)

How to protect your trip

Red tide and other types of algal blooms can happen unexpectedly, so your best defense is to book refundable vacation plans whenever possible. Most hotels will not refund prepaid reservations, but in the case you find yourself on vacation and suffering the effects of red tide, it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.

But don’t feel that you must cancel your trip during a red tide bloom. Investigate the situation on the beaches before you cancel. Red tide can be detected in the water even when it isn’t causing major problems. So, be sure there’s a reason to cancel your trip before you do so (this is where contacting people in local Facebook groups or posting a question there about the conditions can really help to get an unbiased answer).

If you’re concerned about possible red tide conditions near where you’re staying, contact the property directly and not the chain’s (800) number. Be sure to ask to be transferred to the resort’s front desk or someone on property–employees on the ground will have much better information about local conditions than the headquarters.

Related: Are hotel stays booked with points refundable?

If you decide canceling the trip is the right thing for you — and it’s past the date for free reservation cancellations — try to negotiate with the property directly. Ask if you can change your reservation dates or negotiate the cancellation fee. Hotels want to keep their customers happy while effectively managing their occupancy rates, so it doesn’t hurt to talk through the possibilities with management.

If you’re already at a resort and red tide is putting a damper on your vacation, go directly to hotel management with your concerns. See if you can be moved to a room away from the beach or if your reservation be transferred to a nearby property in their chain that isn’t affected by red tide. Ask if you get a discount if you stay or refund if you check out — or perhaps they’ll offer you some loyalty points as a goodwill gesture?

No one wants to be in this position but, if you are, negotiate with management while you’re still on site. And, remember that a calm, measured approach almost always gets a better result than being combative.

If you’re worried about the potential of red tide for a future trip, consider purchasing a trip insurance policy. Just call the insurer to discuss whether or not the policy you’re looking at would cover a red tide outbreak. You may need to upgrade to a “cancel for any reason” policy.

Related: The best travel insurance policies and providers

And, of course, certain premium rewards credit cards offer travel protection benefits. Again, study the terms to see if plans canceled due to red tide would trigger the benefit. And find out if credit card travel insurance is sufficient on its own.

Bottom line

No one wants their vacation ruined by red tide — or any other act of nature for that matter. If you’re traveling to any of the affected counties on Florida’s gulf coast over the next few days or weeks, keep an eye on red tide conditions. And know that winds and tides play a major role in what happens on the shore and that conditions can quickly change. If one beach is affected by red tide, you may be able to visit a nearby beach that isn’t. And on the east coast–for now, anyway–the coast is clear.

What responsibility, if any, do you think a hotel has in this type of scenario? Tell us in the comments section below.

Additional reporting by Terry Ward

Featured image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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