IN AUGUST 2011, a bunch of my friends and I decided to have a beach weekend in the Outer Banks. We met up at my buddy’s place in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where we planned to spend a night before driving to the coast. But as we arrived, Hurricane Irene was approaching the southern coast. So, we sat in my buddy’s apartment for days, checking the weather every five minutes, calling our beach home’s owner, who clearly still wanted our money, but couldn’t give us the green light to come.
Our experience was relatively tame — instead of sitting on a beach, we just played marathon games of RISK, went to batting cages, watched movies, and drank beer — but traveling during a hurricane can be a nightmare. Flights are canceled by the hundreds, entire states are shut down, and travelers can be stranded for days.
So how to navigate travel in the middle of a storm?
My father, Dave Hershberger, has been running the Prestige Travel agency based out of Cincinnati for 36 years, and he has seen pretty much everything. I hopped on a call with him and asked how he advised travelers during storms. His first bit of advice was: unless there’s an actual storm bearing down on the place you’re going, don’t worry about it. Hurricane season in the Atlantic runs from June 1st to November 30th, and they can hit anywhere from Venezuela to Newfoundland. But on most years in most places, no storm will hit.
“If you’re going to the Caribbean, for example,” he said, “Even in the summer when it’s hurricane season, it’s highly unlikely there’s going to be a hurricane. Even this season, where there have been two major hurricanes: if you’d gone in June or July, you would have had no problem no matter where you went.”
The key is to be aware of what’s going on, and to take precautions, but not let the possibility of the storm keep you from traveling. “For me,” Hershberger says, “and for the vast majority of our customers, we want to experience the world. And if you try and protect yourself from every possible calamity that could happen, you’ll never go anywhere.”
“You want to minimize risk, but you can’t eliminate it, so don’t try.” So, how do you minimize that risk?
The first way to keep yourself from getting totally screwed is to buy travel insurance. It’s something that’s foregone by most budget travelers, as it adds a bit of front-end cost to any trip, but as Matador contributor Kate McManus wrote a few weeks back, it’s worth it in the event of an emergency. Good travel insurance covers things like trip cancellation, lost luggage, and medical costs. This last one is huge: most American health insurance plans will not cover you if you’re out of country. “If you really mess yourself up,” McManus writes, “say break a leg while hiking the Inca Trail, medical evacuation insurance, usually available as a supplement, will pay for your airlift home, the cost of which could total tens of thousands of dollars.”
Hershberger agrees, and suggests that budget-conscious travelers should check out annual plans. They run at a few hundred bucks a year, but it can save you a huge amount of money. “Think of a 28-year-old who decides to go to Nepal, and suddenly has a $100,000 medical bill that is not paid. I know they’re trying to save money, but who pays that bill? Are their parents going to say, ‘Tough luck?’” He suggests young budget travelers ask for annual insurance as a birthday or Christmas present from their parents. Considering their parents will likely be the ones bailing them out if something goes wrong, it’ll probably be an easy sell.
Use a travel agent
As the son of a travel agent, I am as biased as my father on this issue, but using a travel agent will save you a lot of hassle if you’re in an emergency situation. The reason is simple: if you’re stranded at an airport, there will likely be hundreds of other travelers stranded with you. The airline will be busy dealing with all of them. Having an agent will give you an advocate who is a) knowledgeable about how to get you out of there, b) knows how to get you out of there at minimum cost to you, and c) has more sway with the airline than you do as an individual.
In short, travel agents are huge time and money savers, as well as being excellent planning resources. They are worth using for pretty much any trip, but are particularly helpful in the event of emergencies.
What are Airlines, Cruise lines, and Hotels doing?
Airlines have gotten better at dealing with emergencies over time. “Airlines are aggressively rebooking people,” Hershberger says, “They’re being very proactive, where they used to be entirely reactive.” They’ve started employing meteorologists, they open up new seats to get people to where they’re headed (or at least to somewhere close to where they’re headed), and they offer waivers so you don’t have to pay twice.
Most airlines do a pretty good job of keeping their websites updated with what’s going on during and immediately after the storm.
Likewise, cruise lines do a good job of keeping track of storms as well — they do not have any desire to accidentally go sailing through one. If there’s a hurricane around the time of your cruise, check up with your cruise’s website — they may alter the itinerary or cancel the voyage, usually with a full refund. Some cruise lines have even been helping deliver supplies to affected areas.
For hotels, it’s best just to stay in touch with them during the storm to see if they’re closing. Many of the larger chain hotels will offer refunds for trips canceled during a storm. And — you won’t have to do any of this yourself if you have a travel agent.
When is it okay to travel to hurricane-affected areas?
Most places that aren’t significantly damaged by the hurricane will want to be open for business as soon as possible. On the Jersey Shore after Superstorm Sandy, most seaside towns were scrambling to get their boardwalks open for business by the next summer. At that point, the tourism dollars were pretty desperately needed for the recovery. Likewise, the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras in New Orleans was both a statement of local defiance, and a call to the tourists: we’re ready for you again.
It is still best to check up on the place you’re visiting before going back. If it’s totally devastated, then people will be too busy rebuilding their lives to host you, and you will likely be getting in the way more than you will be helping. Only go to the site of a recent disaster if you are there with a specific organization, or are helping out local family members.
If you are visiting a place post-storm, try and shop, sleep, and eat local as much as possible. Big chains often do a lot to help the local communities, but more of your money will be going to the affected residents if you shop local.
When we went to the Outer Banks in 2011, we eventually were able to make it to our home rental on the shore. The August air was chillier than we would’ve expected, and the streets and beaches were deserted, but other than a few downed trees and some sand on the roadways, the towns were fine. The locals were thrilled to see us — the Hurricane hit during their peak season, and they were worried about losing a ton of money.
No storm is the same, and the areas it hits are not all equally affected. Do not let storms and acts of god keep you from traveling: just stay alert and informed.