Year-round Caribbean cruising's on an upswing as lines ranging from Princess to Carnival are keeping some of their biggest and splashiest ships sailing in the region throughout summer and fall. And yet, aside from experiencing slightly steamier tropical weather than in winter months, cruising the Caribbean during the summer and fall otherwise comes with one pretty big caveat: Hurricane season can wreak havoc on your vacation.
In 1998, Windjammer's Fantome, which deposited passengers safely on land before it sailed out to sea to avoid an off-the-charts violent hurricane, tragically lost its ship and crew. One year later, Carnival's Tropicale lost power as it was sailing out of the way of another storm (though no lives were lost). Disaster stories like these are the exception rather than the rule, but if you're planning a Caribbean cruise from June through November, it pays to be aware of the possibilities. We expand our "definition" of the Caribbean to include other islands that are threatened by these storms, such as the Bahamas and Bermuda, not to mention southern Florida.
"The big advantage of sailing during hurricane season is that prices tend to drop to their lowest point of the year," says Carnival's Jennifer De La Cruz, who notes that there will be 11 "Fun Ships" in the Caribbean this summer. "Your best deals are during the fall months -- late August to mid December, so it's an attractive time to buy a cruise. And the reality is that statistically speaking the chances that your particular voyage is going to be affected by a hurricane are very slim. But it does happen, from time to time. The thing to bear in mind is that it is a possibility and to approach the cruise with the right attitude."
Key tips? This is not the time to make a visit to one particular (scheduled) port a crucial element of the holiday (planning a wedding in St. Thomas or a family reunion in St. Maarten, for instance) because itineraries can be disrupted by even the mere threat of a storm. Be flexible, knowing you may have trouble getting to an airport in south Florida or in San Juan (where many, though not all, Caribbean-bound cruises depart). And buy insurance, whether through the cruise line or through an independent provider; make sure the policy covers disruption in case of weather-related events.
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Technically, hurricane season runs from June 1 - November 30 and although hurricanes are not, generally speaking, predictable, it's fair to say that peak season varies by geography. In the eastern Caribbean and the east coast of the U.S., the busiest time of the season tends to occur in the mid-August - mid September time frame. In the Western Caribbean, it runs later, picking up in mid-September and stretching into early November. Early and late season hurricanes (June, mid- to late-November) are rare but not unprecedented.
An "average" hurricane season means we can expect eight to 11 tropical storms; of these five to seven could develop into full-fledged hurricanes. Note, however, that not all hurricanes ever strike land.
How Safe Are Cruise Ships During Hurricanes?
Most likely you'll never need to know. That's because cruise line strategy -- across the board -- is to avoid rather than confront a storm. Cruise lines have been operating in the Caribbean for years and have, by virtue of experience, specific hurricane/tropical storm emergency response plans in effect. These cover everything from designating a bridge officer as the weather monitor during the season to outfitting ships with state-of-the-art satellites to backing up onboard efforts with expanded staff at headquarters.
The trickiest act that cruise lines have when a storm threatens scheduled ports-of-call is finding alternate places to anchor (those ports not already booked up with its regular cruise visitors, not to mention other ships looking for a quiet port-in-a-storm). Most common is that cruise lines whose eastern Caribbean itinerary appears to be influx will simply switch over to a western Caribbean port schedule (and vice versa). Can't find a port? The schedule may include a couple of extra sea days (in calm waters, naturally).
Do you get a refund for missed ports? Alas, no. The fine print in your cruise contract, also known as your ticket, gives lines the right to substitute ports if and when they feel like it.
Even Ships Outrunning a Storm Can Encounter Rough Waters
When the threat of a storm occurs cruise ships can "outrun" them -- storms tend to move at about 8 - 10 knots, while ships can attain speeds of up to 22 knots.
While ships, due to increasingly sophisticated technology and mechanics, can evade storms they can't avoid them entirely -- and may run into rougher-than-usual waters. You can even experience their remnants in far away places, such as on one of the seasonal north Atlantic repositioning cruises coming out of Europe. Ever wondered where hurricanes go to die? You guessed it, the north Atlantic. While they may be tropical storms or even lesser swirlings by the time they reach Iceland, the waters can still be rough. Be prepared -- even the stalwart should pack their favorite seasickness remedy.
Can't Get to the Ship?
Sometimes hurricane-related problems don't have anything to do with the ship -- and everything to do with conditions at the port of embarkation. As we said before, plan ahead. This is a good time of year to build a day or two into your vacation. Aim to arrive in port a couple of days early in case difficulties arise. Prepare for the possibility -- and it happens -- that you might actually arrive home a day or two late. And bottom line: if you're having trouble getting into your port of embarkation make sure you contact the cruise line (carry their toll-free emergency number in your wallet). Most will do everything possible, even if they are not obligated, to help you get to the ship but there's no guarantee.
Rare, extremely rare. For the aforementioned reasons, cruise lines will simply deviate itineraries. If a cruise is actually canceled you will, obviously, get a refund. You might receive a discount on a future cruise.
West Coast Storms
Oft-overlooked because there simply are more people cruising the Caribbean than, say, the Mexican Riviera, the western coast of Mexico also is subject to hurricanes and is monitored in just the same manner by weather experts and cruise lines.
Start monitoring tropical storm conditions a week before you leave by watching The Weather Channel (or by clicking on to its website at www.weather.com). Be proactive if your cruise seems to be lying in the path of a storm by contacting your travel agent -- or the cruise line directly -- and get advice and updates.
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