Hurricanes can be devastating, catastrophic storms, not just for anyone living in storm-prone areas, but also for hotels, resorts and yes, cruise ships. So how can a hurricane affect your cruise, and what can you do to protect yourself and your vacation?

Understanding Hurricanes

A hurricane is a rotating storm system with a closed eye at the center of its circulation. These storms feature dramatically high winds, strong thunderstorms, rain and even tornadoes on the fringes where the storm’s atmosphere interacts with calmer air. They form over warm, tropical waters, and derive their strength from the warmth and moisture of the ocean. Water temperature, wind patterns, atmosphere conditions and ocean currents all impact the formation, strength and track of a hurricane.

As hurricanes move over land, they do weaken, but can bring devastating winds, torrential rain, coastal storm surges, flooding and damage from windblown debris, power outages and more. The overall effects on land will depend on the strength and speed of the storm, local soil qualities and geography, elevation and onshore preparations including construction codes, drainage quality, the use of hurricane shutters and other safeguards.

Hurricanes can potentially form at any time of year if the oceanic conditions are right. The typical “hurricane season” in the north Atlantic basin, however, runs from June 1 through November 30, with the peak storm formations and intensities from mid-August through the end of September. In the eastern Pacific basin, hurricane season stretches from May 15 through November 30, with the peak period in August and September similar to the Atlantic peak.

How Hurricanes Impact Cruises

The first priority of every cruise line is the safety and comfort of its guests, crew and vessels. All cruise lines work closely with meteorologists and storm forecasters for the latest updates and predictions based on the most accurate data. While the goal of the cruise line is to disrupt operations as little as possible, there is typically no hesitation to alter or adjust cruises as needed to ensure adequate safety and keep passengers, crew and ships out of a hurricane’s path.

While the exact changes a cruise line may make to any cruise will depend on a wide range of factors and every storm is different, typical impacts that a hurricane may have on a cruise can include…

Caribbean Hurricane

Itinerary Changes

Depending on the ship’s exact itinerary and how ports of call and travel paths may be affected by a hurricane, a cruise line may choose to alter just one port of call or could shift an entire itinerary, such as changing from an eastern Caribbean voyage to a western Caribbean voyage. A single port may be canceled, or alternative ports could be substituted to give guests safer options to enjoy. Cruise lines may continue to alter itineraries after a storm has passed, if the scheduled ports of call are not considered safe for passengers to visit.

If This Happens – Passengers will typically be refunded for any cruise line shore tours they have already booked for ports that will no longer be visited. If a port is completely canceled, passengers may be offered some compensation in terms of onboard credit, but such compensation is not required and should not be expected. Passengers may be able to cancel their cruise before an altered sailing and request a refund, but such refunds may not be guaranteed.

Voyages Shortened or Lengthened

It is possible for a cruise line to either shorten or lengthen cruises as needed while waiting for a storm to pass so a ship can navigate a port safely. This would typically happen if the embarkation and debarkation port is affected, not a port of call. The change may be just a few hours, or could be several days depending on the severity of the storm, where it is tracking and what the damage may or may not be to port facilities.

If This Happens – Activities will continue to be offered on board the ship for lengthened cruises, and passengers will not be charged additional fares for the longer cruise, though tips, bar charges and other extra costs may continue to be in effect. For a shortened cruise, passengers are usually offered a pro-rated refund of the time they will no longer have on the ship, and they may be offered credit toward a future cruise as well. The cruise line may offer assistance to travelers who need to change pre- or post-cruise travel plans to accommodate the new embarkation and debarkation dates and times, but such assistance is not guaranteed, particularly for very small changes. If the change is significant, more assistance is typically available.

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Embarkation or Debarkation Ports Changed

If an embarkation or debarkation port is severely damaged, unsafe and will not be able to service the cruise ship for several days, it is possible that a cruise ship may be returning to a home port other than the initial port it set sail from, meaning onboard passengers will be debarking at a new location. Depending on where the cruise ports are located as well as how the next itinerary may or may not be affected, incoming passengers may need to reach the new embarkation port in order to board the ship, or else the ship may be relocated back to its original port for embarkation.

If This Happens – Cruise lines will typically offer assistance for debarking passengers to either return to the original port or to adjust their post-cruise travel plans to the new location so they can return home safely after the cruise. Incoming passengers may also be able to seek assistance for how to reach the cruise ship if necessary.

Hurricane Irma Heading Towards Western Caribbean
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Sailings Canceled

If necessary, cruise lines will cancel entire voyages to ensure passengers and crew members can be safe during a hurricane. While no one wants to miss out on their vacation, it is more important to remain safe for the duration of a storm rather than risk catastrophic consequences.

If This Happens – Cruise lines will notify passengers as far in advance as possible about the cancelation, and full refunds will be given. Passengers may also receive additional compensation for the disappointment, such as credit toward a future booking, though extra compensation is not guaranteed and should not be expected. The terms and details of any extra compensation can vary, and any credits offered are usually based on the fare of the canceled booking.

How A Hurricane Could Affect Your Cruise
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No matter what actions a cruise line may have to take to safeguard its passengers and crew during a hurricane, the line will contact passengers and update them as quickly as possible. It is important that passengers always provide the most convenient, accurate contact information to the cruise line so they can receive these notifications right away. Passengers who have booked their cruise through a travel agent should still provide contact information directly to the cruise line as well as to their travel agent. Most cruise lines also maintain active social media accounts and may open dedicated alert phone or texting numbers to share updates quickly. Concerned passengers can check those updates or contact the cruise line directly for more information if they fear their cruise may be affected by a hurricane.

Minimizing Your Hurricane Risks

It can be frightening when a hurricane could threaten your cruise, but there are ways you can minimize the risk of hurricane disruptions to your travel plans. First, consider booking cruise travel well outside the more active hurricane season. If you can only plan a cruise during the summer when hurricane risks are naturally higher, opt for dates earlier in the season when storms are typically fewer and weaker. Consider cruise destinations less likely to be impacted, such as an Alaskan cruise, sailing in the Mediterranean or visiting the Mexican Riviera, where the risks of strong storms are typically lower. Also investigate your options for cruise insurance and how each policy may or may not cover hurricanes as well as helping with other travel costs, such as changing flight plans or hotel reservations if the cruise is impacted by a storm. Finally, if a storm does develop, stay updated with the cruise line as well as any airlines or hotels, and be flexible with your plans and expectations for the safety of your vacation. No cruise, no matter how amazing it may be, is worth unsafe risks, and understanding how hurricanes could impact your cruise can help you prepare if a storm does become a concern.