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Book cruises with an eye to hurricanes

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The bargains are oh-so-tempting:

Seven-day Carnival and Royal Caribbean cruises from Galveston for $500-$600 in September. A 50 percent discount for your companion through August at Club Meds on three Caribbean islands. A fourth night free at the luxurious Four Seasons on Great Exuma in the Bahamas. Significant savings at other resorts.

That's good.

But many travelers will jump on these deals without giving a thought to why prices are discounted.

That's bad.

Put this reality in capital letters: IT'S HURRICANE SEASON.

Now, take a deep breath. Don't panic. Don't automatically shy away from that cruise to Mexico, that all-inclusive on Jamaica, that diving expedition in the Cayman Islands.

Just be aware that Mother Nature has a habit of disrupting agendas during summer and fall. If your vacation plans include areas susceptible to hurricanes, purchase travel insurance when booking a trip. Get the nitty-gritty on "hurricane guarantees." Then take along a strong dose of patience and understanding.

In a recent survey of more than 3,000 people conducted by TripAdvisor, a leading travel Web site, 89 percent of respondents said their vacation plans have not been affected by predictions for another active hurricane season. Fifty-eight percent said they plan to visit a hurricane-susceptible destination.

Still, last year's rash of devastating storms made an impression: Sixty-three percent said they would purchase travel insurance.

It's important, however, to know what kind of insurance you are buying. "You want to make sure that you get a policy that covers trip cancellation and trip interruption, and not all policies do; read carefully to see what a policy covers in terms of severe weather," says Dan McGinnity, spokesman for Travel Guard International, a travel insurance provider.

McGinnity suggests asking these questions before committing to a specific policy: "Does the travel insurance provide coverage right up to departure or is there a blackout period? And what happens if your accommodations become uninhabitable?" Inquire, too, if a policy offers emergency assistance when a hurricane strikes during a trip.

McGinnity cautions that travel insurance must be purchased before a storm develops. If, for example, you're due to leave Tuesday for a trip to Cancún and you learn tonight that a hurricane is expected to make landfall there, it's too late to buy a policy.

Also, policies typically don't allow you to cancel a trip and recoup your money just because you worry a week or two in advance that a storm may affect your destination. Some companies sell "cancel for any reason" policies, but these cost more and usually don't provide 100 percent refunds.

What is guaranteed?

It's also wise to evaluate the complexities of "hurricane guarantees," an increasingly popular marketing tool. All-inclusive resort chains Sandals and Beaches, SuperClubs and Club Med offer compensation if a hurricane affects your stay. So do many individual lodgings and tour companies.

This compensation varies, however. SuperClubs' policy, for instance, provides "reimbursement for the total value of disrupted nights" plus "a voucher for a future stay ... for the same number of disrupted nights for use during the same month the following year, excluding airfare." But SuperClubs resorts in the Dominican Republic are excluded.

Sandals and Beaches' guarantee offers a free replacement vacation "for the same duration as the one originally booked, regardless of how many days were affected by the hurricane." Here, too, airfare for the "replacement vacation" is at the traveler's expense — no small investment.

Continental Airlines Vacations' first guarantee policy, announced last week, allows customers to alter travel destinations without penalty once a hurricane watch is issued by the National Hurricane Center.

Some destinations coordinate efforts to lure business during hurricane season: Sixteen of Bermuda's top lodgings participate in a program that promises to "not charge for rooms, food or beverage or other essential services" if the island is directly affected by a hurricane during a guest's stay.

Bottom line with these guarantees: Read the fine print and ask specific questions.

Air transportation is another concern. There are few firm policies, but most major airlines waived change fees last year for flights affected by storms. Some refunds were allowed in the aftermath of hurricanes, but don't take this for granted.

Rarely is a cruise canceled because of a hurricane; instead ships are redirected out of harm's way. This can necessitate changes in port calls, usually last-minute decisions. Last year there were a few occasions when ships didn't make it to any ports.

This can disappoint travelers who have scheduled shore excursions. But that's the risk you take this time of year. Safety is paramount.

Another consideration is that itineraries during hurricane season occasionally are shortened — or, if you're lucky, lengthened — because of weather conditions. This can affect connecting flights. If you book a cruise line's air-sea program, you're covered; if you arrange flights independently, you may have a problem.

Source: Harry Shatuck, The Houston Chronicle

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I also have 2 booked for hurricane season. Like jtutak I live in Florida and can't wait to get out of here.

We sailed in a cat 1 hurricane many years ago. A bit bumpy but the captain changed the itinerary and it was smooth sailing.

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