With Houston still recovering from Hurricane Harvey and the Caribbean and South Florida bracing for what could be the record-breaking impact of Hurricane Irma, our thoughts are with those affected and in the paths of these monster storms.
Of course, there are travel lessons to be gleaned from this tumultuous time.
We spoke with industry experts about what travelers need to know during hurricane season and how they can best prepare to minimize delays and inconveniences when they venture out during this time of year. The bottom line: Be flexible. Even if it means postponing that trip about which you’ve been dreaming, safety always should come first.
1. Trust the forecast and consider changing your plans
For years, poor forecasting models left thousands of travelers stranded at airports during big storms. Recently, however, the models have improved dramatically, giving airlines—and travelers—the time and opportunity to prepare for the worst in advance.
In anticipation of Hurricane Harvey, for instance, most major airlines waived change fees and enabled passengers to rebook different itineraries at different times. This already is happening with Hurricane Irma; reports indicate that American Airlines also has waived change fees for flights to the Caribbean later in the week and that others may start pre-emptively canceling flights by Friday.
Doug Yakel, spokesman for San Francisco International Airport, says that when extreme weather prompts airlines to offer passengers the opportunity to change flights for free, passengers should take it.
“The reality is that no airline wants to put passengers in a situation where conditions are not safe or acceptable,” he says, noting that most airlines and airports publish breaking news-style notices about storm-sparked change fees front-and-center on their websites. “The easiest way to minimize disruption during storms like this is to rebook and try to travel again once the weather has calmed down.”
How do you know when to change plans? Obviously, the answer will be different for everyone. Monitoring evacuations is always a good bellwether—if local governments are telling locals to get out, you probably don’t want to be dropping in as a tourist.
A second option: purchasing refundable tickets, which allow you to change plans with no penalty.
2. Consider travel insurance when booking a trip
Travel insurance is another great way to minimize risk during hurricane season, and, in most cases, it gives you an out for canceling the trip and can reimburse you for the cost of your trip.
The catch? You need to buy these products before you leave for your trip.
According to Stan Sandberg, cofounder of TravelInsurance.com, the very best policies are comprehensive policies with “Cancel For Any Reason” upgrades, which enable travelers to cancel their trips for any reason whatsoever and reimburse them for up to the full amount of the policy. Sandberg notes that policies that offer hurricane trip protection usually reimburse travelers for cancellations that occur prior to the original travel dates and weather-related interruptions during the trip.
Phil Sylvester, a travel safety expert with World Nomads, agrees and says it always pays to look ahead: “It’s too late to get coverage for Irma because it’s a declared hurricane and Florida has declared a state of emergency,” he said Tuesday. “But there’s another tropical storm already brewing in the Atlantic—Jose—and it has not been declared a hurricane, so most insurers have not declared a cut-off date for coverage.” Yet.
3. Think outside the box
The third and final option for ensuring smooth travel during hurricane season is to think creatively about the travel you wish to take.
For some travelers, this might mean booking two refundable itineraries so they have a backup if the primary plan is jeopardized. For other travelers, it might mean opting to travel outside of potentially affected areas during hurricane season (which runs from June 1 to November 1) or perhaps changing the destination completely.
Still, other travelers may consider a different kind of vacation to bake flexibility into the mix.
“Cruise ships are often your best form of travel during hurricane season,” said Sally Black, a travel agent and founder of VacationKids.com. “Unlike a resort that’s a sitting target, ships can usually switch course and move.”
However you choose to approach travel for the rest of this hurricane season, consider this: Predictive data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest we’re due for at least a few more extreme weather events before Halloween. Consider yourselves warned.