Oct. 27, 2012 -- As the East Coast braces to be hit by Hurricane Sandy, travelers with trips planned this weekend and early next week should expect airlines, hotels and cruise lines to be changing and cancelling policies and itineraries.
But all is not lost. The travel industry, particularly hotels and airlines, are fairly flexible about letting travelers alter plans and issuing refunds when a hurricane -- or any major weather event -- hits.
While you'll need to check with your individual travel supplier, below is a general outline of what you can expect from airlines, hotels and cruise lines over the next few days.
The ABCs (and I) of hurricane season travel.
A is for Airlines. For all the flack we travelers give the airlines, they do right by travelers when a storm -- rain or snow -- hits. Even travelers with the most restrictive, non-refundable, non-changeable tickets are able to take advantage of the flexible travel policies issued by every major airline when a storm hits. The policy will generally go into effect a day or two before the storm is scheduled to arrive and allows customers holding tickets for travel in the next few days to postpone their trips to a later date or get a full refund. The refund, however, mighty come in the form of a voucher that needs to be used within one year.
If a storm is scheduled to hit a destination to which you're traveling, from or through, you don't need to wait until the policy actually goes into effect to take advantage. When the policy is issued, it will be found on the airline's homepage. If you don't see it yet, call the airline and find out whether you can actually change your plans before the policy is posted. It might be that the policy just hasn't been posted yet, but is already in effect.
B is for Beds (Hotels). In general, hotels are far more lenient with cancellations than airlines all times of the year. Storm or no, many hotels only require 24-hour advance notice for a cancellation with no penalties. If you're traveling during hurricane season, it's worth knowing a hotel's cancellation policy before you book.
But it might not be as easy to cancel if you pre-paid for the room. Hotels will, at times, offer lower rates if you pay in advance. This is often the case when you book with online travel agencies like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. In those cases, the online travel agency is bound by the rules of the hotel. You'll find however, that, similar to airlines, even the most restrictive policies become more lenient in the case of a hurricane. If the storm is so bad that your hotel has to close, you can count on a refund, no matter how (or how much) you paid.
C is for Cruises. It's extremely rare that a cruise would be cancelled; instead, it's far more likely that your cruise line will set sail on a different itinerary than the one you booked. So, you might have booked a five-day Bermuda cruise, but if a storm's brewing, chances are you're headed up the East Coast to Canada instead. Even if your cruise ship is able to "outrun" or get ahead of the storm, you might encounter more turbulent waters than expected. Pack medications accordingly.
So what happens if you packed for the Caribbean and you find yourself shivering in Canada? Not much except you'll be out a few bucks on a new sweater. Cruise line fine print allows them to change and cancel ports at their discretion. More common on Caribbean cruises: a ship scheduled to sail in the Western Caribbean will switch to the Eastern Caribbean. Again, the chances of your particular sailing being changed because of a hurricane is statistically very slim.
I is for Insurance. Travel insurance can be helpful, but is generally not in the case of bad weather. Weather is rarely covered in travel insurance policies with the exception of the most expensive 'cancel for any reason' policies. Whenever you buy travel insurance, read the policy very carefully to make sure it includes coverage for the specific set of circumstances you anticipate. Illness, death of a family member and mechanical issues are commonly included.
There are the other ABCs too; the ones that come in the form of islands. The ABC islands refer to Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, three Caribbean islands that are outside the traditional hurricane belt and all but immune from the storms that other islands get. Consider these islands if a Caribbean vacation is in your plans this hurricane season, but be aware that you might not find the discounts quite as deep as on other islands.
Finally, as with all travel, it's crucial that you pay with a credit card. In the case of a cancelled or ruined trip, you'll have more recourse with a credit card than if you paid with your debit card. Your credit card company can often handle any dispute on your behalf and often will return the money to your credit limit while the issue is being resolved.