Caribbean-bound travelers forced to change plans, destinations

  • Shelia M. Poole
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
6:00 a.m. Friday, Sept. 29, 2017 Living

An extremely active hurricane season in September has disrupted travel for many metro Atlantans planning relaxing beach getaways to the Caribbean.

Today, instead of kicking back on pristine beaches with fancy drinks, many travelers are trying to salvage vacations by booking new locations or rescheduling their trips.

Places like the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, St. Maarten (the Dutch side of St. Martin), Puerto Rico, Dominica and Barbuda were slammed by either Irma or Maria, both at times reaching Category 5 levels and causing extensive damage caused by high winds, torrential rains and flooding to either part or all of the islands.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico —Downed paper lines and debris are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Barbuda, which is the sister island of Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean was left uninhabitable and its residents were evacuated. Officials said more than 90 percent of the structures were destroyed or heavily damaged in Barbuda, which was one of Princess Diana’s favorite vacation spots.

“The Caribbean is a very popular destination out of Atlanta,” said Garrett Townsend, a spokesman for AAA — The Auto Club Group. The reasons are mainly proximity and costs. “If you’re going to do a three- or four-nighter or a long weekend, this is an excellent destination. You can get to most of the destinations in less than four hours, and you can get good nonstop service, which allows you to maximize your time at the destination.”

Rather than write off the Caribbean, though, Townsend and other travel experts emphasize to travelers that while there has been significant damage to places like Puerto Rico, “the Caribbean is still open.”

Hurricane season typically runs through Nov. 30.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Thousands of people evacuating Puerto Rico line up to get on a cruise ship in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Thursday. (Associated Press / Gerald Herbert)

Experts say if going off the property is part of the experience, you may want to wait. Townsend recommends that if you booked the trip on your own to contact the hotel and chain to find out their cancellation and refund policy.

The Caribbean represents about 30 percent of the business at Epperly Travel in Buckhead, according to founder Lindsey Epperly.

“People think the entire Caribbean is affected, but there are plenty of islands that sit outside of the hurricane belt,” she said, such as the “ABC” islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. “The Caribbean is not down for the count.”

Map of the Caribbean. Source: Caribbean World Atlas

In some cases, it may take a few months for the tourism business to be up and running. For others, it could take a year or so for tourism to be back in full swing.

“The economies of these islands that were impacted by the storm strongly rely on tourism,” said AAA’s Townsend. “Once they reopen to tourism, travelers who plan to visit and spend money at these islands will actually be helping with recovery efforts there.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Lindsey Epperly, owner of Atlanta’s Epperly Travel, suggests travelers consider other destinations in the Caribbean not severely affected by the recent hurricanes. CONTRIBUTED

Cruise lines that service the region like Royal Caribbean are rerouting ships to ports and areas not damaged in the storms. Some cruises have been canceled and the ships used for evacuation and humanitarian efforts in places like San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas and St. Croix. For instance, Royal Caribbean canceled its Adventures of the Seas sailing that was to depart Sept. 30; the ship will be used for humanitarian relief then later returned to service.

On its website, the company said fares and fees will be totally refunded and that it was offering a 25 percent future cruise credit if a new cruise is booked in the next 30 days. Pre-booked shore excursions will also be refunded.

Delta Air Lines has extended a fare cap to continental U.S. markets to and from San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Atlanta-based airline has also capped fares on nonstop flights to and from Atlanta and St. Thomas until Oct. 9.

Delta also issued a waiver for passengers flying out of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Turks and Caicos with tickets issued for Sept. 5 to Dec. 31. The waiver allows passengers to change plans without incurring a fee. It is also temporarily waiving baggage and pet in cabin fees for passengers traveling to and from San Juan and several other airports in the region.

At Expedia, customer care teams are available to help travelers who want to change, cancel or get an update on current travel arrangements.

In many cases, trip insurance can be your best friend.

It’s important, though, to read the fine print and know what protections are included in your plan. According to Squaremouth, a St. Petersburg-based travel insurance comparison site, some policies may also issue refunds if the destination is under a hurricane warning.

AAA’s Townsend said most policies must have purchased coverage prior to an incident to receive benefits. If someone buys travel insurance after the dates listed in an insurers coverage alert, their plan won’t provide coverage for storm- or earthquake-related claims, while other protection remains in effect.

It’s not just vacationers who are affected.

Lillian and Clement Friday were visiting their daughter in Lithonia when Irma started churning in the Atlantic.

Their daughter urged them to postpone their return trip to St Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t go,” said Lillian Friday, who is 86. A friend sent photos of their home, which was damaged by falling trees and sustained some water damage. She’s not sure when they will return because forecasters are eyeing what could be another storm churning in the area.

“I hear there is another hurricane somewhere out yonder,” she said. “I don’t think we are going back right this minute.”

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