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updated 7/14/2006 1:55:09 PM ET 2006-07-14T17:55:09

Despite the devastation wreaked by last year's record-breaking hurricane season, thousands of intrepid travelers will be making their way to the Atlantic hurricane zone (the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast) this summer and fall. Lured by the low airfares and hotel rates available at this time of year, many travelers are willing to risk encountering a storm during their vacation -- especially if their resort or vacation provider is offering a hurricane guarantee.

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If you absolutely have your heart set on visiting a particular destination, it's probably best to schedule your visit for a different time of year so that rain (or worse) doesn't disrupt your dream trip. (The Caribbean Hurricane Network ranks Caribbean islands based on how often they're hit by major hurricanes, if you want to weigh the odds. The Bahamas top the list.) But if you're flexible, willing to deal with a little bad weather, and ready to accept some risk in exchange for rock-bottom rates, you could wind up having a great trip.

To help you plan, we've gathered some need-to-know info on which months have the highest risks of hurricanes, which Caribbean islands are least likely to be hit by storms, when travel insurance will protect you (and when it won't) -- as well as answers to your other hurricane-related questions.

Note: The National Hurricane Center also tracks the Eastern Pacific hurricane season, which can affect visitors to the western coast of Mexico and occasionally Hawaii. However, this story deals specifically with storms in the Atlantic hurricane zone, which are more likely to hit land and disrupt travelers' vacations.

When is the Atlantic hurricane season?
The Atlantic hurricane season generally runs from June 1-Nov. 30 each year (though Zeta, the last storm of 2005, was actually still swirling around in early January 2006). The period when you'll usually see the most storms is between mid-August and the end of October.

Which regions make up the Atlantic hurricane zone?
The hurricane zone covers the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast of the U.S.

What's the difference between a tropical storm and a hurricane? And what about tropical depressions?
These are all terms used by the National Hurricane Center to define the severity of "organized disturbed weather." A tropical depression is the least severe of the three, with maximum sustained wind speeds up to 38 miles per hour.

Once the maximum sustained wind speed hits 39 mph, the storm is categorized as a tropical storm. Hurricanes have wind speeds of 74 mph or above, and are further divided into categories one (up to 95 mph) through five (156 mph and above).

How do hurricanes get their names?
You can learn more about the hurricane naming system in What's in a (Hurricane) Name?

What can I expect from the 2006 hurricane season?
The National Hurricane Center is calling for a very busy season, with an 80 percent chance of an "above-normal" season. The NHC estimates that we'll see 13-16 named storms, 8-10 hurricanes and 4-6 major hurricanes (category three or higher).

Are there certain Caribbean islands that are safer than others during hurricane season?
Most hurricanes tend to bypass the "ABC islands" -- Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao -- as well as Trinidad and Tobago, since they're so far south. But these islands aren't necessarily immune; all three ABC islands were under storm warnings in 2004 before Hurricane Ivan changed course and slammed into Grenada (another island that rarely sees hurricanes) instead.

Do I need travel insurance?
We highly recommend purchasing travel insurance if you're headed to the hurricane zone during storm season. You'll want to make sure your policy covers you if your flights are delayed, if your trip is interrupted by inclement weather, or if you need to cancel your trip because a hurricane is threatening your destination.

We can't stress this enough: Read your policy thoroughly so you know what's covered -- and, more importantly, what isn't. For example, you'll normally be reimbursed if your airport is closed and your flight is canceled due to a hurricane. But you won't be reimbursed if you get to your destination and it rains the entire week you're there.

Purchasing travel insurance can be a bit complicated, so it may be a good idea to consult a travel agent who's familiar with the ins and outs of what's covered and what's not. Your travel agent can also be a valuable advocate for you if you have trouble filing a claim.

For more information on insurance policies and to see a list of resorts that provide hurricane guarantees, check out Know Before You Go: Who Offers Hurricane Guarantees?

Where can I go to keep track of the latest storms, airport and resort closures, cruise cancellations, etc.?
The National Hurricane Center's Web site is the best place to monitor the status of any particular storm -- keep an eye on that site in the weeks leading up to your trip so you're aware of any disturbances or depressions that could threaten your destination.

IndependentTraveler.com will be closely monitoring the status of flights, airport closures and other news affecting travelers to regions affected by hurricanes, so check our news section regularly. Looking for cruise cancellations and itinerary changes? Visit the Hurricane Zone on our sister site, CruiseCritic.com.

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Share your thoughts on this year's hurricane season Independent Traveler's message boards.

Ever traveled to the hurricane zone? Share your thoughts in a trip report.

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