What's trickiest for cruise lines is finding alternate places to dock or anchor when ships' scheduled ports of call are threatened. It's not always easy to find replacements not already booked up with regular cruise visitors -- particularly when other ships are seeking a quiet port in that same storm. The most common solution is a simple switch -- for example, a ship whose Eastern Caribbean itinerary appears to be in flux will be moved over to the Western Caribbean (and vice versa). And if new port calls can't be secured, the schedule may end up including a couple of extra sea days (in calmer waters, naturally).
Do you get compensated for missed ports? Alas, no. The fine print in your cruise contract, also known as your ticket, gives lines the right to substitute and/or eliminate ports if and when they feel like it. However, you may be entitled to refunds on prepaid port taxes or fees.
Even Ships Outrunning a Storm Can Encounter Rough Waters
When the threat of a storm occurs, cruise ships can "outrun" them -- storms tend to move at about 8 to 10 knots, while ships can attain speeds of up to 22 knots and beyond.
While increasingly sophisticated technology and mechanics can help ships evade storms, they can't avoid them entirely -- and you may run into rougher-than-usual waters. You may even experience storm remnants where you least expect to, such as on north Atlantic repositioning cruises coming out of Europe (ever wondered where hurricanes go to die? You guessed it, the north Atlantic). While they may be tropical storms or even lesser swirlings by the time they reach far off places like Iceland, the waters can still be rough. Be prepared: Even stalwart cruisers should pack a favorite seasickness remedy.
Can't Get to the Ship?
Sometimes hurricane-related problems don't have anything to do with the ship, and everything to do with conditions at the port of embarkation. As we said before, plan ahead. This is a good time of year to build a day or two into your vacation. Aim to arrive in port a couple of days early in case difficulties arise. Prepare for the possibility -- and it happens -- that you might actually arrive home a day or two late. And bottom line: If you're having trouble getting into your port of embarkation make sure you contact the cruise line (carry their toll-free emergency number in your wallet). Most will do everything possible, even if they are not obligated, to help you get to the ship, but there's no guarantee.
Canceled cruises are extremely rare. For the aforementioned reasons, cruise lines will simply deviate itineraries. Pretty much the only time a cruise will be canceled outright is when a storm is aiming for its major port of embarkation, such as Ft. Lauderdale or Miami -- and even in such cases, it's an unusual outcome. More often, departure is delayed by a day or so, and passengers are generally compensated accordingly. If a cruise is actually canceled, you will obviously get a refund. You might also receive a discount on a future cruise.
Storms on the West Coast ... and Beyond