By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 8/24/2009 1:44:22 PM ET 2009-08-24T17:44:22

It’s two months into 2009 hurricane season and the first tropical storms and major hurricane are impacting a number cruises in the Caribbean. Last weekend, Tropical Storm Ana doused much of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Hurricane Bill became the first hurricane of the season, and is currently a Category 4 storm.

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So what happens to guests on cruises that are affected by storms?

In the rare instance a cruise is canceled, passengers are entitled to a full refund. Still, the majority of ships set sail regardless of weather. Cruise travel is unique in that you will usually have a vacation even with a hurricane since cruise ships are mobile and can sail away from the storm and avoid storm-affected ports. In most cases the cruise line will be able to substitute the canceled stop with an alternative port. Still, changes in itinerary can be upsetting for some guests since they aren’t getting the exact scheduled vacation they purchased.

In every cruise lines’ passenger contract is a clause stating that the cruise line has the right to skip or change ports during a cruise — a normal occurrence in hurricane season. Cruise lines aren’t required to compensate passengers in those instances, but some do offer partial refunds, shipboard credits or discounts on a future cruise. Carnival is the only cruise line that will notify guests of a pre-cruise itinerary change. The line offers booked guests the opportunity to cancel their cruise within 24 hours without penalty.

“Late summer and early fall are great times to travel, but they’re also the prime seasons for tropical weather conditions that can impact your travel plans,” said Dan McGinnity, Travel Guard Vice President.

A typical insurance plan from Travel Guard can provide coverage for trip cancellation or interruption if the insured’s travel is impacted by a hurricane or other severe weather. Travel Guard also offers a plan that provides emergency travel services for customers in transit to help rebook flights and escape harm’s way. Carnival recently enhanced its Cruise Vacation Protection Plan to include severe weather watch and warning protection. Should the watch or warning affect either the cruise departure city or the guest’s route to that city within 48 hours of a cruise departure, the plan will allow for cancellation and reimbursement up to the full amount of the cruise cost.

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Most basic travel insurance policies do not cover passengers who cancel or delay a trip merely because the itinerary has changed. There are some insurers and cruise lines like Royal Caribbean that offer a ‘cancel for any reason’ add-on to a regular travel insurance Depending upon the insurer, cancel-for-any-reason policies provide a cash payout of a portion of a canceled trip’s cost or for a cruise line a voucher for use on a future trip.

For losses to be covered, travel insurance must be purchased before a hurricane is named, McGinnity said. Once a warning is issued, losses resulting from a named hurricane on, before or fewer than 14 days after the effective date of coverage are excluded.

Not all travel insurance companies offer protection for weather related interruptions, so it is necessary to read the fine print carefully. Understanding the components in travel insurance is essential for making sure that you are not caught off-guard, thinking you have protection when you actually don’t. Always read the fine print in all insurance policies. If you don’t understand something, ask. The more you know up front, the fewer problems you will face if you need to file a claim.

Sailing during hurricane season requires a level of flexibility. You’ll want to plan accordingly for the possibility that what you’ve booked might not happen as expected. If your heart is set on visiting a specific destination or sailing a certain itinerary, you may want to think twice about booking sailings during hurricane season.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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