Summer in the Caribbean: Don't Blow It

If you're tempted to chase bargains into the Caribbean hurricane season this summer and early fall, know this: Weather experts are predicting more nasty stuff than usual. (We would explain why there are likely to be more storms than average, but doing so would require us to use terms that mean "child" in Spanish, and we have previously promised not to do that again.) This doesn't mean you should stay home -- just that you should know what questions to ask.

Can you avoid the highest incidence dates? Peak season is Aug. 20 to Oct. 10, says Colin McAdie of the National Hurricane Center; 100 years of data suggest that "occurrences peak on or around Sept. 10, which is the day we're most likely to have a named system somewhere."

Which islands have improved infrastructure to increase safety while decreasing inconvenience? In Punta Cana, a resort community in the Dominican Republic, nothing can be built higher than the tallest palm tree (typically, a three-story building), and new resorts must be set back from the beach about 150 yards. In Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, power lines are being buried underground to make them more resistant to wind damage.

Does my resort of choice know how to deal with hurricanes? Some big resorts, including Sandals and Club Med, have on-site electricity generators and abundant alternative water supplies, along with storm contingency plans. Brian Roper, Sandals operations director, sent us a 26-page Hurricane Preparedness Plan that details everything from where to put the lounge chairs (submerged in the swimming pool) to who picks coconuts off the palm trees. Companies such as Apple Vacations have on-ground staff trained to handle weather events. All work closely with local governments -- and most prefer to send you home early if storm landfall looks probable. Last year, when Puerto Rico was anticipating the arrival of Hurricane Mitch (a strong Category 4 storm), American Airlines dispatched extra planes to help evacuate tourists; tour operators, who often use charter airlines, also have flexibility.

Are there hurricane-invincible islands? No. But the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao -- in the Caribbean's deep south -- are off the typical storm path and haven't been hit in recent years, according to the National Hurricane Center (which is no guarantee they won't be hit in the future).

Are you getting a bargain? In summer, expect to save 20 percent or more off high season rates. At Apple Vacations, a seven-night stay at Cancun's Caesar Park is $988 per person this summer; next winter you'll pay $1,229 for the same package. American Airlines Vacations is also offering discounts to Caribbean destinations -- some packages come with 10,000 bonus miles -- though Bill Dreslin, spokesman for AA Vacations, points out that the deals aren't tied to hurricane season, just to a period when bookings are lower.

If a hurricane strikes before or during your trip, do you get a refund? Ask! Policies vary. Most resorts and tour operators will refund the unused part of your trip. Apple also kicks in a $100-to-$150 vacation discount certificate for another trip. Sandals offers a Hurricane Guarantee; when Antigua was hit by Georges last September, guests at the Sandals resort there received credit for the lost days -- plus a whole new vacation, including air fare. SuperClubs offers a slimmer variation -- you get credit for the days you lost, plus the same number of free days (you must use the latter the same month next year, and air fare is not included).

Before you go, good storm trackers on the Internet include www.nhc.noaa.gov and www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov.

-- Carolyn Spencer Brown

A Walk in the Woods: Interactive Edition

Shenandoah National Park reports a record number of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia this June. Northbound foot traffic along the 2,160-mile, Georgia-to-Maine trail -- which parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive through most of Shenandoah -- reached a peak in June at 509 hikers, about 40 percent higher than the average in recent years. That just counts the people attempting to walk the entire length of the trail, not the many hikers who travel just a portion.

"I think a good part of the increase is due to some recent publicity the trail has been getting," said Steve Bair, the park's back-country and trails manager. The chief reason cited by Bair -- and, coincidentally, by two other park rangers polled in the past month: author-ambler Bill Bryson's recent best-selling account of his experiences on the trail, "A Walk in the Woods."

Fair spring weather and negligible winter weather damage (unlike the winter before, when a sudden ice storm did lasting harm) probably also are contributing to this year's increase in through-hikers, Bair said -- and to some surprisingly large overnight crowds around the park's modest Appalachian Trail huts. The park, he said, is hoping to create more designated campsites around the huts before trail traffic -- then mostly southbound -- peaks again in the late summer and fall.

-- Roger Piantadosi

Travel Tip 104

Postcards for the Ages

"Remembering how disappointed I was when I lost or bent postcards when I was a kid, I decided my kids needed a special place for these simple mementos," writes tipster Peggy Ann Brown of Alexandria. "First-day cover albums, used to protect those special envelopes, are perfect for keeping postcards together and, in the process, elevating these lowly souvenirs to favored status. Albums, available at stamp collector stores, hold 100 postcards in clear slip covers. My 10-year-old daughter is well into her third album, while my 5-year-old son has begun his second."

We're sending Brown an "I'm a Great Tipper!" T-shirt as thanks for sharing her clever idea. Got a tip of your own to share? Stamp the fine print below.

Travel tips (100 words or less) may be sent by e-mail (travtips@washpost.com); postcard (Travel Tips, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071); or fax (202-334-1069). Include your name, address and phone number. One tip per postcard or e-mail. Winners receive a Washington Post Travel section T-shirt. No purchase necessary. Tips submitted become property of The Washington Post, which may edit, publish, distribute and republish the information in any form, including paper and electronic media. Weekly winners are chosen on the basis of utility and novelty; decisions are made by the editors of The Washington Post Travel section and are final.

Exit Lines

Select Italy, a Chicago- and Venice-based travel agency, is selling "reservation passes" to high-demand museums and churches in Florence, Venice, Rome and Milan. You pay from $15 for one museum (Florence's Uffizi, Rome's Galleria Borghese, Milan's "The Last Supper") to $39 for several. What you get is a timed reservation (the $4 to $7 entry fees are not included; you pay that on site). The downside: "If you don't show up," says Joe Hartness, Select Italy research director, "you've lost the reservation," along with the premium you paid to book it. Worth it? The wait to enter Florence's Uffizi at peak times can run around three hours. Info: 847-853-1661 or www.selectitaly.com, where you can buy your pass online.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in what is becoming an annual rite (this is the second straight year) has announced that more than 500 Alaskan travelers and travel industry employees have come down with acute respiratory infections; the culprit in many cases is an extremely contagious Influenza A strain. Those at highest risk include travelers 65 and older and who have chronic health problems including diabetes, and cardiac and pulmonary disease -- and who are on land tours and/or cruise voyages in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. Check with your doctor about getting vaccinated or ask about anti-viral medication that can be taken along, either for prevention or if illness strikes.

A fresh spin on interactivity: On a Web site called www.smoothhound.co.uk, which lists 7,000 smaller hotels and inns in Great Britain, you can research properties then "click here for a free phone call" -- and the hotel rings you back when you want (options range from "now" to one hour). Not only did somebody from the Old Parsonage Hotel in Oxford respond immediately to our "now," we saved 30 pounds by agreeing to take a smaller, cheaper room not listed on the site. With the UK five hours ahead, try it early in the day.

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