Paul Motter: Cruising through Hurricane Season

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You might think it sounds crazy to cruise during hurricane season, but there are actually many advantages – including the lowest cruise prices of the year (on average), and not just because it’s hurricane season – but also for other reasons. One – there is less demand for cruises since the summer vacation season just ended, two – people start to focus on the upcoming holiday season, and three – autumn is a nice season in cooler climates, but dreary late winter is when most cruises are booked.

The National Hurricane Center already predicted 2015 will have “below average hurricane activity” last May, but, of course, nothing is set in stone, because the season just started. Still, the odds that any hurricane will affect your cruise are small in any given year, but there are exceptions. A hurricane can affect a cruise – but probably not in a manner that a non-cruise experienced traveler might expect.

Hurricanes wind speeds are fast, but an actual hurricane (the eye, for example) travels much slower, usually about 10 miles per hour. Experts can plot the storm’s likely path and the cruise lines respond by changing their cruise itineraries to go different locations. If the hurricane is going east, the ships goes west.

Bottom line; hurricanes rarely cause any danger for cruisers, but they can cause some inconvenience, such as changes in itineraries, and flights. In rare cases the captain might delay the ship from returning to its home port – extending your cruise by a day or two.

But in exchange for taking the small risk of some inconvenience, you generally find the best bargain prices of the year.

Yearly Hurricane Season Predictions

In May of each year, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) makes an official prediction for the upcoming hurricane season, which officially runs from June through October. But hurricane activity can often be very mild until “ASO,” the NHA name for August, September and especially October, when hurricane activity usually peaks.

The NHC’s prediction record is actually pretty good, although they can only read the signs and make a best guess. Hurricane seasons tend to vary based on world-wide weather conditions; the presence of an El Nino (or La Nina) current in the Pacific Ocean, the strength of the jet stream and the surface temperature of the Atlantic Ocean. Once a singular hurricane occurs it is somewhat predictable for wind speed and direction, but they cannot predict the date any hurricane will occur.

Most hurricanes form in the equatorial Atlantic, and move northwest towards the Caribbean. The big question is always whether it will go east or west of Florida. Storms that go into the Gulf of Mexico tends to get bigger and hit harder, because they remain over warm water. Storms that go towards the Atlantic coast hit colder water, so they tend to disperse, but they can still be dangerous.

Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey on October 24th of 2012. You may recall cancelled flights and cruise ships that had to dock in Boston rather than New York. In fact, Sandy was one of the most disruptive hurricanes for cruise ships in several years, but no one was injured.

Should You Cruise During Hurricane Season? Making the Informed Choice

The captain of any cruise ship is the supreme commander with your safety as his first responsibility. He can and will change your itinerary to avoid the storm and you are not entitled to any compensation, although they might give you something at their discretion.

I have received letters from people who asked me, “I was on a cruise ship that was diverted from the itinerary I paid for because of a hurricane. I missed my promised ports of call and want a full refund. Will you help me?”

I wrote back, “Did you really want your cruise ship sailing through 30-foot waves to an reach an island experiencing 110 mph winds and a six-foot surge of seawater?” No, it’s best to trust the cruise lines made the best decisions in these cases.

The Cruise Contract

In most cases your cruise has already been paid in full 90 days before it sets sails, and there are no refunds. This is where travel insurance is your friend. What if your cruise was scheduled to sail out of New York harbor the day that Sandy hit? Newark airport was shut down, and every cruise ship was out at sea to avoid the storm.

Different policies cover different contingencies, but if you have no insurance then you must take whatever the cruise decides to give you. But with travel insurance, especially the “cancel for any reason” type of policy, you could get a refund and just stay home, missing the post-delay airport chaos and getting a full cruise at a later date.

The Most Remotely Possible Problems

Changed itineraries have other consequences. Personal health insurance policies do not cover you overseas, but most travel insurance policies will provide whatever might need, including evacuation by helicopter to get you back to the U.S. I once needed a 30-minute helicopter ride with an EMT onboard. The bill was $38,000, but fortunately I was in the US when it happened so my health insurance covered me.

So, I highly recommend that you call a travel insurance provider before you book a cruise – and ask the important questions so you get the right coverage. To cover pre-existing medical conditions, for example, you must buy your travel insurance within a few days of booking your cruise.

Some policies might exclude “acts of God” – such as weather delays, but some things are almost always covered; lost luggage, delayed flights and medical emergencies. The policies that let you cancel for any reason are the most convenient. They do cost more, but they also give you far more discretionary choice.

Paul Motter is the editor of CruiseMates.com, an online cruise guide. Follow him on Twitter @cruisemates.

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