By Travel columnist
updated 11/29/2005 1:30:08 PM ET 2005-11-29T18:30:08

Last month the Gulf Coast was devastated by back-to-back hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina wiped out entire communities on the Louisiana/Mississippi border and flooded the city of New Orleans. Then Hurricane Rita came ashore, flooding more of southern Louisiana and laying waste to swaths of east Texas.

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The two storms sent travel providers scrambling to deal with the physical destruction and the business fallout. Six weeks later, things are still a mess. Travelers whose plans involved New Orleans or Galveston have faced many challenges: flight and cruise cancellations, conflicting refund policies, and rental cars shortages. Some destinations have been literally swept away, leaving travelers with tickets to nowhere.

Here’s a look at the current situation on several fronts.

Airline tickets
Immediately after Katrina, many airlines, notably American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, basically common-rated all tickets in the hurricane-ravaged area from the Florida panhandle to Texas. They let passengers fly, with no red tape, in or out of whichever airport was open and most convenient for the traveler.

Southwest took the high road, canceling all flights to and from New Orleans through early January 2006 and giving passengers the option of taking a refund or a credit toward a future flight.

Passengers on other airlines will need patience and a pair of strong reading glasses to make it through the fine print of the refund and reticketing policies. Each airline seems to have taken a different path, so check the individual Web sites for specifics.

The reticketing requirements at Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines are particularly confusing. For example:

  • It seems that Delta tickets for Gulf region airports other than New Orleans and Gulfport can be changed only if travel was originally scheduled between August 27 and August 31. There is no mention of the dates that Rita came storming ashore.
  • Delta limits some reissues to flights in and out of Gulfport and New Orleans, while Continental limits reissues to Texas and Louisiana. Moreover, these airlines will issue refunds only if the original flight has been canceled and only if the ticket holder requests a refund.
  • Continental’s Web site includes this mysterious sentence: “Travel must be completed by the original validity dates specified on the ticket and changes must be confirmed in the same booking class as the original ticket.” What the H#%@! does that mean?
  • Delta is limiting rebooked travel to the month of October, while Continental requires that all ticket changes be made by October 31.
  • If a flight has been canceled, passengers on both airlines can get a refund. However, there are various time limits for making refund requests.

Have any of the ticketing geniuses at Delta and Continental taken a recent look at the Mississippi coastline? Or at New Orleans? Who can make realistic travel plans within the next 20-odd days? Who needs these hassles?

Starting at the beginning of October, most airlines resumed their normal refund policies with the exception that change fees will be waived through the end of October. However, any additional airfare for new destinations must be paid. That means passengers who planned ahead and purchased discounted advance-purchase tickets may be faced with steep price increases when changing their tickets.

Cruise lines
Most cruise lines have rescheduled cruises that were canceled because of the storm or because their ships were commandeered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to house evacuees and rescue workers.

Refunds and reticketing are pretty straightforward. If a cruise has not been rescheduled, or if passengers can no longer travel, most cruise lines will refund the customer’s money or credit the cost to a future cruise.

Mississippi river cruises have also been affected. The giant paddle-wheelers - the Mississippi Queen and the Delta Queen — that churned back and forth on the great river, using New Orleans as a port, are now starting their cruises from Memphis in most cases. The American Queen cruises have been canceled and are expected to restart in March 2006. Check with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company for more details.

Rental cars
Rental cars are now generally available throughout the region, though there are pockets of limited availability. Expect to pay around $50 a day for a compact or economy car.

Hotels
Availability is very tight, especially within 50 miles of the coast, so call ahead. Most evacuees have been relocated, but most of the functional hotel properties are packed with government workers, military personnel and clean-up crews.

Many of the larger hotel chains have sections on their Web sites giving specific hurricane-related information. Hilton’s “Katrina Update” section is prominent for each of its hotel brands, including Hilton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inns. They state, “Cancellation fees for individual (non-group) bookings at Hilton Family hotels directly affected by the hurricane, or in areas experiencing mandatory evacuations, are being waived for arrivals through December 31, 2005.”

Starwood Hotels, including Sheraton, W and Four Points hotels, have an excellent Hurricane Katrina section on their Web sites and are following similar rules for their properties. Depending on the damages and relief worker impact, hotels are generally not accepting any new reservations until next year. Some hotels will not accept reservations until March 2006.

The bottom line

  • Passengers holding an airline ticket for a canceled flight to any airport in the region should contact the airline and request a refund right away.
  • Anyone who made deposits to stay at any New Orleans or Gulf Coast hotel should make sure to contact the property to arrange refunds.
  • Anyone who needs to spend time anywhere between Pensacola and Houston should plan ahead and double check hotel and rental car availability.
  • People who do not need to travel to the region should stay away.

It is going to be a long road back for the tourist infrastructure of New Orleans and southern Mississippi. Though airlines may begin to fly into the region and hotels may begin reopening, the business of the Gulf Coast will be one of reconstruction rather than recreation for the near future.

Charles Leocha is nationally-recognized expert on saving money and the publisher of Tripso. He is also the Boston-based author of "SkiSnowboard America & Canada." E-mail him or visit his Web site. Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting Leocha's forum.

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