June 2, 2013 at 4:49 AM ET
As Anne Cahalane set her sights on Atlantic City in August of 2011, so did Hurricane Irene.
Cahalane, a Howell, N.J. mom, had booked a vacation with a group of friends, but as the storm got closer, most of them cancelled. She was determined to go, so she checked into her hotel -- and woke up in a ghost town. Hotel employees had knocked on room doors and asked everyone to leave overnight, she later found out, but somehow she wasn't alerted.
“I quickly packed and headed down to the lobby and it was all boarded up, the casinos were closed. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get my car out of valet. Luckily, I found someone who was able to get my car,” Cahalane told NBC News.
“There was no one to ask for a refund. I didn't even bother, nor did they offer. It was a very disappointing disaster.”
The Atlantic hurricane season starts Saturday, just as countless Americans put final touches on their summer vacation plans. Last week, forecasters warned this year’s season is likely to be "above normal and possibly extremely active," predicting seven to 11 Atlantic hurricanes, with three to six potentially becoming major storms.
Not that that will stop people from traveling to the Caribbean or other hurricane-prone destinations, lured by visions of the ideal summer vacation idyll, as well as the price drops that compensate for the risk of the heavy storms hitting.
So if you go...
Be aware before you book: August and September are typically the most active hurricane months. You'll have less risk of encountering a storm in June or in November, Anne Banas, executive editor of SmarterTravel.com, told NBC News.
Before reserving a room, ask your hotel or resort about their hurricane policies – many will refund the unused portion of your trip, she added, while others will give you a voucher.
The Bermuda Hotel Association, for example, offers a "Hurricane Guarantee" allowing visitors to cancel their reservations without penalty. Hotel guests stuck during a hurricane will also not be charged for room and board.
Consider trip cancellation insurance: “If you don’t take insurance and you go, you’re kind of putting yourself at the mercy of the airlines and the resorts,” travel agent Janice Hough told NBC News. If you’re planning to purchase a policy, read it carefully and see what’s covered and what’s not.
Think about a cruise: “A cruise ship can move around a hurricane, hotels can’t,” said Hough.
But if you buy your airfare separately, the cruise line won’t help you get back home if the voyage is canceled, so think about bundling your airfare with the cruise line, Banas said.
Act quickly if you need to leave: If a hurricane hits you may be put on hold for hours with your airline. Try not only the phone, but the airline’s website, their social media channels, anything that will give you the edge, Banas said. Act fast, "because sometimes there’s such a limited amount of flights going out of a destination,” she added.
Know where to take shelter: Big hotels that have experience with hurricanes know where to put guests to keep them safe, but if you’re staying at a smaller property, find out where you can ride out a hurricane in a local storm shelter, Banas said. Ask your hotel about an evacuation plan and pack some cash, bottled water and portable food, such as protein bars, just in case.
Being stuck at an airport may be your biggest expense: Airlines will usually let you rebook your ticket without a change fee, but if you’re stuck at an airport during the storm, they likely won’t pay for a hotel room, Banas warned. Check out apps such as Hotel Tonight, which lists last-minute deals on unsold rooms. Or, become familiar with The Guide to Sleeping in Airports.