Are hotels obligated to tell you about a red tide outbreak?

Nov 25, 2019

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Last year parts of Florida’s Gulf Coast saw the worst red tide outbreak in 10 years. Now red tide is back in certain areas along the coast of the southern portion of Sarasota county, as well as Lee, Charlotte and Collier counties. The National Weather Service issued a beach hazard statement on Nov. 25, 2019, indicating red tide effects — such as respiratory irritation — may be present throughout the day.

Here’s what you need to know if you have a hotel stay in one of the affected areas.

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, dolphin 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.

Related: Florida hotels where you can use your points to escape winter

And hotels are likely hesitant to contact guests in advance for a few reasons. The first being that red tide ebbs and flows, literally. And, a minor bloom can dissipate quickly. 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, Lee and Collier counties, and didn’t find any that had a specific red tide warning — though Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa in Captiva (Lee County) did have a link to current beach and water conditions.

Again, the current red tide is not as severe as last year’s incident so there’s no reason to panic if you have plans to visit Florida’s Gulf Coast soon. But, you should keep an eye on the situation.

How to find out about red tide conditions

TPG reader Keith is in Naples right now and says that, “There isn’t a person at the [hotel] not coughing uncontrollably — it’s really bad.”

When TPG reached out to Keith’s hotel, The Ritz-Carlon, Naples in Collier County, to inquire about current beach conditions, a spokesperson told us about the county’s red tide hotline. Travelers can call 1-(239)-252-2591 to listen to a recording with up-to-date information.

You can also go online to find a lot of useful data that would help you decide if a vacation in the area is still a good idea. For example, a link to Collier County’s red tide status page talks about current conditions, the forecast and when the next water sample will be tested (Nov. 26, 2019, in this case).

Red tide data courtesy of Collier County, Florida (as of Nov. 22, 2019).
Red tide data courtesy of Collier County, Florida (as of Nov. 22, 2019).

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. A forecast is also provided.

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)
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 resource to check out 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.

The current beach conditions at Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples, Florida. (Image courtesy of MOTE Marine Laboratory & Aquarium)
The current beach conditions at Vanderbilt Beach in North Naples, 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 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.

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. Employees on the ground will have much better information 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, talk to hotel management. 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 the southern coast of Sarasota County or Lee, Charlotte or Collier counties over the next few days, keep an eye on red tide conditions. And know that winds and tides play a major role in what happens on the shore.. If one beach is affected by red tide you may be able to visit a nearby beach that isn’t.

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

Featured image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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