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Fiona's rain, winds hit Caribbean: What to know when booking hurricane season trips

September 17 2022
9 min read
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This story has been updated with new information.

Significant storms have complicated travel and fueled dangerous conditions this weekend as a hurricane brought heavy wind and rain to several Caribbean islands and the remnants of a typhoon battered parts of Alaska.

In the Caribbean, Fiona, initially a tropical storm, was upgraded to a hurricane Sunday. After moving through U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) and British Virgin Islands, the storm hit Puerto Rico Sunday, leading to massive power outages and concerns over what the National Weather Service called potentially "catastrophic flooding."

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San Juan Airport (SJU) shuttered its operations Sunday and urged travelers not to make their way to the terminal as those on the island were urged to take shelter from the storm.

Meanwhile, both major USVI airports, in St. Thomas and St. Croix, remained closed Sunday evening, 24 hours after shutting their doors. It will be at least midday Monday before any flights resume, tourism officials said Sunday afternoon. The Virgin Islands Port Authority also kept all seaports closed as of Sunday evening, until further notice, and pending an eventual inspection by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Cruise lines have been busy rerouting ships this weekend, as is customary and fairly common during hurricane season. Royal Caribbean's chief meteorologist, James Van Fleet, shared updates on Twitter Sunday on steps Royal Caribbean took to move ships away from the path of the storm.

In Alaska, where the remnants of a typhoon hit parts of the state, Van Fleet had said Saturday that Royal Caribbean’s ships were well outside that storm’s projected path.

Back in Puerto Rico, government social media accounts continued to warn residents and visitors alike to pay close attention to forecasts and take cover as the storm moved through.

Throughout the weekend, the National Hurricane Center has been warning of “considerable flood impacts” and the risk of mudslides in Puerto Rico, with Fiona bringing large amounts of rain to the U.S. territory.

The arrival of Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico comes as the island marks five years since Hurricane Maria made landfall in 2017, ultimately destroying the airport in San Juan and causing historic devastation throughout the island. Other Caribbean islands, including the USVI, sustained major damage from fall 2017 hurricanes, too. The islands have spent much of the last five years recovering, and have seen a major tourism rebound in recent years.

Damage to a beachside building in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria five years ago. AFP PHOTO/HECTOR RETAMAL/GETTY IMAGES

Fiona's effects Sunday come well into what has largely been a quiet Atlantic hurricane season to date. Still, the storm is a stark reminder of the effect tropical storms and hurricanes alike can have on trips taken this time of year. It’s also a reminder of the importance of considering contingencies — from backup travel plans to trip insurance — when traveling during the most at-risk times of the year.

Travel insurance during hurricanes

We spent a good portion of the last two and a half years talking about travel insurance as it pertains to trips interrupted because of COVID-19. Although travel interruptions tied to the pandemic are becoming less common, there are still plenty of things that could disrupt your plans — and a hurricane is certainly one of them. That means you still might want to consider additional protections when planning a getaway, whether that means leaning on the coverage provided by a travel credit card or buying a separate insurance policy.

Travel insurance can be critical in offsetting a variety of unplanned costs, including when you need to cancel or otherwise alter travel plans because of a major weather event like the storm systems we have seen this weekend in the Caribbean and Alaska.

As you think about future trips, though, there’s an important rule of thumb to remember: In most cases, you can get reimbursed by typical travel insurance policies only once a storm is named — and only if you bought the policy prior to it being named.

“Travel insurance is designed to protect you from financial losses due to unforeseeable events,” the coverage alerts page for Allianz Travel explains. “That means benefits may not apply for events that were public knowledge when you purchased your plan.”

The company lists past events that triggered coverage alerts, which include not just past hurricanes, but winter storms, too.

That means there's a lot to weigh when you factor in all the reasons a trip could get disrupted, the costs of buying travel insurance and the rules behind a policy — not to mention when and whether to cancel a trip you’ve planned.

Do I really need travel insurance?

If you were to buy travel insurance for every trip that falls during hurricane season, it could get expensive. After all, the Atlantic hurricane season technically runs from the beginning of June until the end of November.

Understanding when and where storms most often strike can help you make the best decisions on when to purchase insurance and when you are most likely to face a weather disruption.

“Statistically, Sept. 10 is classified as peak hurricane/tropical storm season,” said McCall Vrydaghs, chief meteorologist at CBS affiliate WHIO-TV in Dayton, Ohio. Vrydaghs pointed to late August through the end of September as the most likely time travel to certain areas might be affected.

“The month of September, I would definitely be thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a possibility that my vacation may be impacted by some kind of tropical storm system.'” Vrydaghs classified the Caribbean and Gulf Coast as storm “hot zones” during that time.

Palm trees in hurricane-force winds during a past storm in Antigua. MIKE HILL/STONE/GETTY IMAGES

How to know when to cancel a trip

As most who have watched a weather forecast on television know, storms like Fiona can often change directions — making sometimes drastic shifts.

This can complicate decisions to cancel a trip when seeing a potentially ominous forecast for their destination. Travelers may find themselves weighing their wish to still take their vacation versus safety and the rules behind making a travel insurance claim.

Vrydaghs recommends keeping a close eye on the forecast and evaluating decisions on whether to travel on a day-by-day basis — while also keeping in mind how long you can wait to cancel your trip and still get a refund if you do have an insurance policy.

“Five days out, I would be on alert,” she said.

If the forecast still looks bad after that?

“Three days [out] … I’m probably making a decision in my mind that I may have to cancel, and [by] 48 hours [out] ... I’m probably already deciding yes or no,” she added.

What to do if you’re on an island and a hurricane is coming

Safety is an additional factor to consider if you’re already at a destination as a storm begins a track in your direction, particularly when you’re staying on an island.

Vrydaghs recommends formulating an exit strategy of sorts at the first sign of a concerning forecast, especially in the peak month of September.

“I would start [considering], ‘How do I get out if I need to get out, and how soon do I need to make that decision,’” she said. “A lot of people are traveling with multiple people of all ages, so it’s not so easy to just pick up a family of five” and fly out to safety.

She suggests paying close attention to local weather advisories and the National Hurricane Center, which offers detailed information on a storm’s track and potential risks.

Bottom line

A satellite image of Fiona above the Caribbean this weekend. NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER

Fiona is 2022’s most significant hurricane to date and is having a major impact throughout parts of the Caribbean, as those caught in the storm's path, including residents and visitors, seek shelter and safety.

This is a developing story and will be updated as new information becomes available.

Featured photo by NOAA
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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