Memorial Day signaled the unofficial start of summer, the conch shell reveille rousing travelers dreaming of an ocean getaway. Then four days later, hurricane season shows up like an unwanted beach house guest. Just when you thought it was safe to jump on a water-centric holiday ...
Last year was devastating, with 17 named storms and more than $200 billion worth of damages, the costliest season on record. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is bracing for another rough one. The agency predicted a 70 percent chance of 10 to 16 named storms. Of those, five to nine could escalate into hurricanes, with one to four becoming a Category 3, 4 or 5.
"There is definitely a lot of trepidation over vacationing in the Caribbean this summer," said Steve Bennett, the St. Croix-born co-founder of Uncommon Caribbean, an online guide to the islands. "Advance bookings are down, with people taking a wait-and-see attitude and booking last-minute, often within less than 30 days of travel."
Despite the threat of storms, six months is an unbearably long time to go without playing porpoise in the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico. But you don't have to completely avoid hurricane-prone areas from June 1 through Nov. 30. For starters, you could plan your trip around the most active months of the season, typically mid-August through late October, with the statistical peak day falling on Sept. 10, according to NOAA. (For a historical overview of hurricanes and tropical storms by the month, see the agency's reports, State of the Climate and Tropical Cyclone Climatology.)
"Not every hurricane month is created equal," said Sarah Schlichter, senior editor at SmarterTravel. "If you're nervous, go in June or November."
You can also pick a destination outside the hurricane belt, such as the ABC islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire; Trinidad and Tobago; or Barbados. On the mainland, NOAA data identifies New England as less vulnerable than South Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina.
But lest you forget, weather is fickle and no area is ever completely safe.
"Hurricanes are not a dot on a map but rather large storms with impacts - wind, tornadoes, storm surge and freshwater flooding - over a large area," said Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for NOAA's National Hurricane Center in Miami. "The center does not need to pass right over a location to be severely impacted."
If you decide to travel during hurricane season, prepare like a survivalist, even if you end up lolling on beach like a sea lion. For extra protection, throw in a flashlight and extra batteries, the hurricane version of the Umbrella Rule.
- Purchase insurance. After last season's pounding, insurance doesn't seem like such a Chicken Little idea, does it? This year, Squaremouth, a travel insurance comparison site, noticed a 31 percent rise in policies purchased specifically for hurricanes. Steven Benna, the company's marketing specialist, recommends a comprehensive plan that includes trip cancellation and interruption. If a hurricane strikes and you can't reach your destination or you must abort your trip midstream, you can recoup 100 percent of your prepaid costs.
To reap the benefits of insurance, you must purchase it before the storm earns its official name. Other stipulations include: Your flight was delayed by six to 48 hours or canceled; the storm ravaged your home; or your hotel or local officials issued an evacuation order.
Benna said the policy typically costs 5 to 10 percent of the trip's total expenses. To keep costs down, only list nonrefundable payments. For even greater coverage, travelers can upgrade to a pricier policy that includes canceling for any reason -for example, your hotel is open but lost its air-conditioning, or the storm has muddied the scuba waters, or you don't feel comfortable visiting a place under siege by Mother Nature. However, what you gain in flexibility, you lose in refunds: Policyholders only recoup up to 75 percent of their expenses.
If you are renting a condo, bungalow or villa, the Realtor will urge you to buy travel insurance through an affiliated firm. The companies are very strict about their refund practices. At Home in Key West states on its website, "NO refunds are offered in the event of inclement weather. If an evacuation is called during or just before a guest's arrival, all refunds will be subject to the Trip Insurance approval. If you have not purchased Trip Interruption Insurance there will be no refund."
Before committing to the rental company's insurance plan, Benna recommends a round or two of comparison shopping.
"The advantage to shopping around is having the option to compare policies from multiple providers, including those offered by rental companies, to find the best coverage for the best price," he said.
To take the pain out the claim, save every scrap of paper involving your trip. Stockpile all receipts, cancellation notices and even news items detailing the storm that foiled your vacation.
- Choose a hotel with a hurricane guarantee - or a plan. Many properties ease travelers' nerves with a pledge that can range from a full refund to a "free" return visit. For example, the 10 hotels participating in the Bermuda Hotel Association's hurricane guarantee offer penalty-free cancellations once the Bermuda Weather Service has registered a hurricane within 150 miles of the island and at least three days before the guest's arrival date. More than two dozen hotels, condominiums and villas on the Cayman Islands support the Worry Free Hurricane Guarantee. The program covers cancellations for guests who can't reach Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, and compensates visitors who must curtail their holiday. Club Med, which has villages in Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean and the Bahamas; Atlantis, the sprawling resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas; Holiday Inn Resort Montego Bay in Jamaica; Zemi Beach House on Anguilla; Bell Mont Farm on St. Kitts; and Nisbet Plantation Beach Club on Nevis have also devised a course of action. (Note: Make sure the arrangements meet your needs. For instance, some properties provide a credit for a future stay. If you don't have the vacation time for a return visit, you might want to look for lodging that offers a reimbursement instead.)
If the hotel does not have a formal policy, Schlichter suggests calling the property before booking and asking how management handles reservations affected by fierce weather.
"A lot of hotels will work with you, even if they don't have a guarantee in place," she said. "Most will give you a refund."
While you have the person on the phone, Schlichter says you should also inquire about the hotel's contingency plan. Does it have a generator, an evacuation strategy, a supply of flashlights? If you feel confident with the answer, advance to the next step.
- Wait for your airline to waive its fees. If you didn't buy a refundable ticket, you won't have to eat the fare. A few days before the hurricane, airlines will typically waive the cancellation fee or eliminate the change fee and difference in price, in case you wish to reschedule your trip. Be aware of rebooking and travel restrictions.
- Sail around the storm. Unlike hotels and resorts, cruise ships are mobile. They also tend to be speedier than a hurricane. A cruise ship clocks in at 22 knots, twice as fast as most hurricanes. Put these two advantages together and you have the perfect storm deterrent.
"The biggest advantage cruising has over other vacation options is that ships are able to reroute if they're in the path of a storm," said Colleen McDaniel, senior executive editor of Cruise Critic. "While you might not get to visit every - or any - island on your original itinerary when dodging a storm, cruise lines will usually do everything they can to replace missed ports with new destinations."
For example, during Hurricane Irma, Carnival Glory replaced ports of call in St. Thomas, San Juan and Grand Turk with Roatan, Honduras, Belize and Cozumel, respectively.
McDaniel reminds cruisers to be pliable. The itinerary change could be subtle, such as swapping the eastern part of the Caribbean for the western section, or drastic, such as redirecting a Bahamas cruise to New England.
"If you have your heart set on a particular island or itinerary," she said, "hurricane season probably isn't the best time for a guaranteed visit."
Although the ship can dodge bad weather, cruisers might experience some residual rocking and rolling. But what you save by sailing during hurricane season (rates are often 50 percent less than peak-season prices), you can splurge on motion-sickness patches and ginger candy.
- Be proactive. If you are on vacation when the storm hits, strap on your wings and go. Catch the first flight out, even if it is to another island or a mainland city that is nowhere near your home.
"Do whatever you can to get out of its path," Schlichter said.
On the flip side, do not ride out the storm if you have a chance to leave. In addition to endangering your life, you are also siphoning off the limited services, provisions and resources established for the residents, many of whom have no other options.
If you cannot evacuate, follow the directives of the hotel staff, local officials and emergency responders. If you are hunkering down in your hotel room or rental, cover the windows and doors with curtains to catch any debris. Charge your phone while power is still available; fill up water bottles and stockpile snacks. Then train your mind on a calming place - perhaps a palm-tasseled beach with no hurricane in sight for months or miles.