Image: Hotel policies
Bill Cooke  /  AP Photo
Many hotels in the Caribbean offer storm refunds or waive cancellation policies during a hurricane or tropical storm — some even offer 'hurricane guarantees'.
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updated 9/12/2008 1:28:30 PM ET 2008-09-12T17:28:30

The prospects for hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, just got worse, according to an updated forecast released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week.

In a revision of its May outlook, the government agency now predicts 14 to 18 named storms, up from an expected 12 to 16.

Several of these storms are likely to become major hurricanes, and despite the warnings, travelers are willing to visit destinations in high-risk areas.

For some, the incentive is a considerable savings over peak-season prices, while others simply aren't troubled by the possibility of being hit by a storm. An online survey of more than 1,500 travelers conducted in May by the Web site TripAdvisor.com found that 30 percent of travelers had planned a visit to a hurricane-prone destination for the summer or fall. Of those, 15 percent had booked the trip because it was a bargain, and 43 percent said they were "not concerned" with hurricanes.

Dennis Feltgen, a spokesman for the National Hurricane Center, a division of the nation's weather service, is less blasé. Traveling to hurricane zones is reasonable when done with a practical approach. "Make your plans and do it smartly," he says. "And if there's a hurricane, stay out of its way."

The advice seems obvious, but travelers headed to hurricane hot spots can save money — not to mention themselves — with just a little bit of preparation.

Hurricane hot spots
While the National Weather Service forecasts each hurricane season based on probability, there is no way of predicting where and when a tropical storm or hurricane will reach land. In fact, because weather patterns can change so abruptly, it's impossible to determine a storm's approach more than five to seven days in advance.

The best guidance available to travelers is a series of maps that display common hurricane tracks by month. The map for August, which is maintained by the National Hurricane Center, shows that intense storms are most likely to occur in the Caribbean. By September, southern Louisiana, the eastern tip of Guatemala, the Florida panhandle and Carolina coast also join the Caribbean as regions where hurricanes are most likely to strike. The pattern shifts in October, when Cuba and southern Florida become most vulnerable.

Such knowledge is useful to travelers trying to plan a vacation, but hurricanes can still occur anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean and Atlantic Coast. Instead of hoping for the best, Feltgen recommends "always, always, always getting traveler's insurance" when visiting a high-risk destination.

Travel tips
Trip insurance may not keep bad weather at bay, but it can reimburse a traveler who is forced to cancel a vacation or incur additional costs. Some benefits are comprehensive, like reimbursement for trip cancellation and accommodations in the event of an emergency.

Purchasing a policy, however, can be a confusing and intimidating process (there are often dozens of different policies). Most importantly, keep in mind that insurance companies typically require travelers to purchase a plan before a storm is named. There are also strict rules about what conditions qualify for reimbursement.

Image: Airline policies
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The airlines have different policies when it comes to dealing with hurricanes. To avoid worrying about stipulations and possible fees, try purchasing a fully refundable ticket.
Chris Harvey, CEO of the travel insurance Web site Squaremouth, which allows customers to view different plans side by side, warns travelers that "the onus is on the [customer] to understand what they're buying." Insurance companies, says Harvey, are not sympathetic to a policyholder who pleads ignorance and expects reimbursement for a cost that was not covered.

Michele Perry, a spokeswoman for TripAdvisor.com, recommends travel insurance but says knowing the airline policy is just as important. American Airlines, for example, allows fliers to cancel a reservation if the travel is within the dates and area of a hurricane watch issued by the National Hurricane Center. Cancellations must be made before the date of the departure and those with non-refundable tickets receive a voucher for future travel. To avoid worrying about stipulations and possible fees, Perry suggests purchasing a fully refundable ticket.

Like airlines, hotels also have varying guidelines. Some properties in the Caribbean offer "hurricane guarantees," which compensate guests with a full refund or allow them to rebook within a year. Since this provision applies mostly when a hurricane shuts down an airport or disrupts travel to and from the destination, travelers should inquire directly with the hotel about its policies.

Travelers shouldn't be discouraged by the planning and preparation, says Feltgen. After all, "There's no one place in the world that's entirely risk-proof."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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