How to salvage a Caribbean vacation in the wake of Hurricane Matthew

You've been waiting all year, or month, or week for a much-needed vacation in the Caribbean. And then Hurricane Matthew shows up and pops your "Bon Voyage" balloons. But know that all is not lost: You can salvage your trip, or at the very least, avoid a total financial loss.

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 and peaks from late August through September. Traveling around this temperamental time is risky, but also understandable. Tourists see fewer of themselves on the islands and can take advantage of heavily discounted rates.

As Matthew hurtles toward Cuba and the Bahamas, the first question to ask yourself is if you wish to cancel or reschedule. If you prefer to scrap the trip, here's hoping that you bought travel insurance before the hurricane earned its name. And that the plan covers severe weather-related cancellations or interferences. And that you have copies of your charges. If so, contact the insurance company to inform the agent of the trip disruption and start filing a claim.

If you skipped insurance, George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog.com, suggests that you check your credit-card coverage. Several cards, such as Chase Sapphire and Citibank Advantage, reimburse customers for nonrefundable travel.

"Sometimes, the credit-card insurance is better," he said.

Even credit cards without the safety net can help. You can ask your credit-card company if it can challenge the hotel, tour operator or other travel provider for "unfulfilled services." Be sure to submit a claim in writing within 60 days of the charge appearing on your bill.

In most cases, the travel industry receives advance warning of an impending hurricane and can prepare. Airlines typically alert passengers before the hurricane strikes and provide options. For example, JetBlue is waiving fees for changes and cancellations, as well as fare differences for passengers scheduled to fly to Montego Bay, Jamaica; Nassau, Bahamas; and Providenciales, in Turks and Caicos, among other Caribbean destinations. The policy also extends to several cities in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia. However, the airline is very specific about who qualifies. For instance, you must have made the reservation to the Caribbean by Sept. 30. If the airline canceled the flight, passengers can receive a full refund.

For policy details, check the carrier's website and click on the travel advisory. Airline call centers are often overwhelmed during natural disasters. For a quicker response, try to reach the airline through social media, such as Twitter.

A second scenario is also possible: You do not qualify for a refund because, say, the airline is still flying to the affected destination but you prefer to avoid the storm-torn region or you can't switch vacation weeks. In this case, you can cancel the flight and receive a credit. However, you will have to pay a change fee and any difference in fare. Hobica added that travelers flying on European-based carriers, such as Air France to Martinique, receive protections under European Union rules, which are often more generous than our country's passenger-rights measures. For example, you may receive a hotel room when a flight is delayed by weather.

Hotels set their own hurricane policies. For instance, Palace Resorts, which has all-inclusives in Mexico and Jamaica, states that guests expected to travel within 72 hours of an official warning can re-book without penalty. Guests who don't show up are also excused from fees from the day of the warning and up until five days after the hotel resumes "normal activities." Travelers can also relocate to another property untouched by the storm.

Of course, if you booked a refundable rate or canceled before the deadline, you can easily recoup your money. If you purchased a nonrefundable rate, contact the hotel, which might release you from your commitment, especially if the property has experienced storm damage. You can also try to reschedule. The hotel might permit a clean trade of dates, especially if you visit during the same time period.

"We do our best to reschedule within the season they booked, even if it's a year from now," said Darik Riggs, general manager at East Bay Resort on South Caicos. "But we are also understanding, and if it needs to be canceled, we will refund their deposit with no penalties."

Finally, if you booked a package with a travel agency or Caribbean specialist, touch base with the booking agent, who can help you navigate the maze.