Hurricane Warning: Travel Insurance Doesn’t Cover All Storms

Warning: If you’re planning a vacation to the US East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, or the Caribbean during hurricane season, which runs from June to November, you need to pay close attention to the trip cancellation/interruption details of your travel insurance, especially if you’re prepaying any part of your trip. Your power to cancel and get reimbursed for a prepaid trip is limited.

Make no mistake, trip cancellation benefits should always be part of a more comprehensive travel insurance policy. But not all travel plans have such benefits, and even if they do, you need to understand them and not take them for granted.

No trip cancellation or interruption policy covers you unconditionally, no matter what you hear from your travel agent or read in a brochure. Rely on nothing but the fine print in your insurance contract, and if you don’t read a sample contract before you hand over your credit card number, shame on you. Remember also that the trip cancellation conditions covering weather-related disruptions can vary dramatically from one insurer to another.

The first thing to remember is to buy your insurance when you book your trip. Trying to insure for a hurricane after it has been named by the national weather service is like trying to insure a burning house. Note also that some insurance plans will reimburse you only if the destination to which you are headed is rendered totally uninhabitable, or if your air carrier is grounded for a full 24 hours, or if your cruise is completely cancelled, which rarely happens. Most will not reimburse you unless or until your government or local authorities at your destination officially issue a travel warning for that area—something that is usually not done until it is too late for you to change your travel plans. And if your destination or cruise is partially shut down or diverted, you may find your reimbursement pro-rated according to how much “vacation usable” time remained of your trip.

For example, one insurer covers “adverse weather (events) which would prevent the insured from traveling for a period of not less than 30 percent of the total duration of the insured trip when the insured chooses not to continue…” Clear? Some go to 40 percent, some have even more opaque language, but you get the idea. What they are saying is that if it was possible to get some of your vacation in and you cancelled on your own, don’t expect your money back. You better know that ahead of time.

Here’s another scenario that has trapped many travellers in the past. Three or four days before your planned departure, you hear that a storm is brewing to potential hurricane intensity in the Caribbean. The possible target is anywhere from Jamaica to Florida’s east coast, but it’s too unpredictable to plot more exactly. That’s the way storms are—very fickle. They can slow down, dissipate, heat up, turn on a dime. Predicting landfall even for experts is a crapshoot. So what do you do? Cancel your trip only to find out at the last minute that Hurricane Charlie turned north or out to the open sea and left your destination unscathed? Or head to the airport to possibly fly into the teeth of a killer storm?

You’ve got to remember that your decision to cancel a prepaid trip is a risky business. You can’t just cancel because you are uncertain or uneasy about travelling into bad weather. These are not unilateral decisions to be made only by you. If in any doubt, call your insurer or tour operator and know what you are doing. Take nothing for granted. Even the so-called “cancel for any reason” policies usually pro-rate your reimbursements according to how far ahead of time you cancel. Cancel a week ahead of your planned trip, and you don’t get much back.

My recommendation on how to avoid this dilemma is quite simple. If you must vacation in hurricane-prone areas from, say, August through mid-October, the height of the storm season, stay away from prepaid tours. Do it at the last minute and pay your way. Better yet, do it at another time of year. I could never understand the reasoning for travelling to the overheated tropics or subtropics in late summer when the weather in northern climes is so pleasant and there are so many other travel options.

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