How Cruises Navigate the Rough Seas of Hurricane Season

After devastating hurricanes struck the Caribbean and Florida this fall, travelers may wonder what to expect in terms of sailing conditions and itinerary changes when cruise lines encounter serious storms.

Ocean waves

When it comes to monitoring weather and hurricane season, this is not the cruise industry’s first rodeo.

Photo by Shutterstock

As hurricanes Fiona and Ian devastated the Caribbean and Florida last month, heading as far up the eastern Atlantic coast as Newfoundland, Canada, and leaving a trail of destruction behind, cruise ships were left unscathed. How did they avoid calamity?

Today’s modern cruise ships are built to withstand storms, avoid them, and even outrun them. Cruise companies follow the weather very carefully, changing itineraries, canceling sailings, and working hard to keep passengers and crew out of harm’s way.

Millions of cruisers are in the Caribbean on dozens of ships during the hurricane season, which roughly runs from the start of June until the end of November. In addition to the Caribbean, storms can impact the Atlantic coast of the United States and Canada and along the Mexican Riviera on cruises out of California that sail to such ports as Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas.

The largest storms tend to hit the eastern Caribbean in August through October and the western Caribbean from September through November. These late summer and fall periods are also when you are likely to find some of the best cruise deals of the year.

For those temped by the savings, it’s worth noting that most cruises are not physically impacted by hurricanes. But if you book a cruise that takes place during hurricane season, be prepared for possible last-minute itinerary changes and cancellations should there be storms. If you have your heart set on your cruise visiting a particular island, you may be better off avoiding hurricane season sailings—no matter how good the deals are.

How cruise ships monitor for hurricanes and severe weather

Major cruise lines, such as Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises, continuously monitor weather patterns around the world.

The captain and officers on each ship have access to weather maps and satellite images and storm models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And they get updates from teams on the ground monitoring storms.

Royal Caribbean Group, which includes Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, and luxury line Silversea, hired its own meteorologist, James Van Fleet, in 2017; during hurricane season, he is based in Miami in a storm monitoring center with a 25-foot wall of weather screens. The rest of the year he trains cruise ship crew on how to deal with weather conditions.

He provides public reports on forecasts and conditions on his Instagram account. It’s fascinating reading for weather enthusiasts and includes very practical information for those who have a cruise coming up.

Carnival similarly monitors weather conditions from its fleet operations center, which opened in 2018 at the company’s Miami headquarters and runs 24/7. The center keeps in touch with ship captains as weather systems develop.

Thankfully, when storms and hurricanes do develop, cruise lines often have time to plan. Most storms appear on weather radars 7 to 10 days before they hit. And when it comes to cruise ships and storms, cruise lines leave nothing to chance.

How cruise lines handle rerouting ships during a hurricane

Hurricanes may cause ships to miss ports as they seek calmer seas, and in some cases, itineraries are changed more drastically. You may find your eastern Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten is changed to a western Caribbean cruise to Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel, or the opposite.

Hurricanes can have an impact on a wide range of itineraries across numerous destinations. During Hurricane Fiona in September, for instance, some ships were rerouted away from Puerto Rico, others away from Bermuda, and still others away from Canada.

Passengers on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Getaway out of New York thought they were heading to Bermuda, but ended up instead visiting Newport, Rhode Island; Portland, Maine; and St. John in New Brunswick, Canada, due to Hurricane Fiona.

That ship was hardly alone. Hurricane Fiona and Hurricane Ian resulted in hundreds of itinerary changes, and some cancellations as well.

Leading up to Hurricane Ian, the Florida ports of Key West, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Port Canaveral were shut down, leaving some ships at sea.

Passengers on Disney Cruise Line’s newest ship Disney Wish had their four-night sailing out of Port Canaveral extended by a day when the ship could not return to port and instead found calmer seas to hang out in. A video was posted on Twitter of passengers cheering when they learned they would have more time on the ship. Passengers on the next sailing weren’t as lucky. Their cruise was canceled due to the late arrival of the incoming sailing.

Staying at sea is often a safer bet for ships during a hurricane, as they are not in danger of hitting any structures or rocks as they might be in port.

How rough do cruise ship sailings get during hurricanes?

While your ship can avoid the brunt of a storm, you shouldn’t assume you won’t feel some rocking and rolling. If you are cruising in hurricane season, it’s best to be prepared with a seasickness remedy.

You’ll know rough seas are expected not only based on the captain’s daily briefings but also by actions by the crew—such as dampening tablecloths so that dishes don’t fall off. If the ship’s pools and water park close, time to take some seasickness medication if you’re prone.

Should you set sail during a hurricane?

Whether or not to sail on a cruise during hurricane season is a very personal decision. But note that having your cruise impacted by a hurricane is rare, even at the height of the season. You may actually find little to no impact on your cruise vacation.

Whatever you decide, you are certainly not going to find yourself sailing right into a major storm, so deciding whether to cruise or not is a matter of comfort and convenience—not safety. At worst, you may experience some rough seas. And you should be prepared to be flexible in terms of any possible itinerary changes.

It’s a good idea to purchase travel insurance that covers trip disruption for weather-related changes, so that you are covered for any flight changes or hotel stays should your cruise be changed or delayed.

If ports are missed, the cruise line may compensate passengers with onboard spending credit to use for drinks and Wi-Fi and other purchases, but that’s totally at its discretion. If the cruise is canceled due to a hurricane you can expect a full refund, and some lines will also provide a discount on a future sailing in addition to the refund, the cruise line’s effort to sweeten the pot so you will rebook.

If you are cruising in hurricane season, it makes sense to keep track of the weather prior to your cruise so you aren’t blindsided should changes occur. Check with your cruise line if you have concerns and to stay up to date on any announcements made by the company.

Fran Golden covers cruises for AFAR.
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