Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski recalls a conversation when someone mentioned a great deal for getaways to the Bahamas and Florida in August and September.
“I said, ‘You know why? That’s hurricane season!’ ” says Kottlowski, senior meteorologist and lead hurricane forecaster at AccuWeather. “Nobody goes down there during hurricane season.”
While it is a slower time for travel, plenty of tourists still flock to the Caribbean, Bahamas, U.S. East Coast and Gulf of Mexico during the most active parts of the season between mid-August and mid-October. Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released an updated outlook for the full hurricane season, which stretches from June 1 through Nov. 30. It expects 10 to 17 named storms, of which five to nine will become hurricanes. Of those, two to four are expected to be “major” hurricanes with winds of 111 miles per hour or more.
With that many storms over a six-month period, it’s likely that many travelers will have to ponder a situation like the one facing Florida-bound tourists this Labor Day Weekend as Hurricane Dorian menaces the state.
“To totally avoid hurricane season in these tropical and subtropical areas would be somewhat unrealistic,” says Matthew Dumpert, a senior manager at risk-consulting firm Kroll, a division of the consultancy Duff and Phelps. “When hurricanes are looming, one of the things that we stress to all of our clients in this space is, prior preparation is absolutely critical.”
To help travelers make the call about vacationing during hurricane season, we asked experts to weigh in on what they should keep in mind when they’re planning a trip, deciding whether to go or weighing when to evacuate a destination.
Timing matters. While hurricane season lasts from June 1 to Nov. 30, the peak of that season runs from mid-August through mid-October, according to NOAA. So travelers can hedge their bets and plan around the busiest time for storms. If they’re considering the Caribbean, they can also choose islands outside the hurricane belt that are less frequently struck.
Matthew Bradley, regional security director of International SOS, said in an email that travelers should make sure they are clear on an airline’s policy about weather disruptions before they book and choose carriers that let them make changes without a penalty in the event of a storm. Likewise, they should find out what kind of protection hotels offer in advance when deciding on a room to reserve.
Before they lock down a place to stay, travelers should also ask the hotel or resort they are considering what its hurricane plan is, how its buildings will hold up in a storm and what it does with guests when tropical weather arrives, Dumpert says.
Cruise passengers should be clear on how their trip might be affected if the itinerary is in the path of a storm. Often, operators will change course, reschedule or offer credit for a future trip, Jamie Moore, contributing editor at online travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, said in an email.
This is the time to buy travel insurance because travelers can get coverage for a trip only if they have insurance in place before a storm is named, said Jenna Hummer, spokeswoman for travel insurance comparison site Squaremouth.
“That prior planning, the understanding what you and your family are going to do in the event of a natural disaster … all that does is put you in a better mind-set to make that decision when it matters,” Dumpert says. “Rather than being bogged down by all these decision points, you have a plan.”
Depending on the forecast and decisions by hotels and airlines, this decision might not even be up to travelers.
Airlines can be “pretty aggressive” about canceling flights in advance, says W. Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “They don’t want aircraft going into areas and getting stuck.”
Travelers should check with their airlines about cancellations and with their hotels to see whether they are evacuating guests before making a decision about whether to leave. Anyone planning to stay in a rental home should also find out whether they’ll be asked by authorities, as non-locals, to leave. And they should keep watch for updates from the National Hurricane Center.
“The intensity and trajectory of tropical storms are difficult to predict and may change abruptly, so travelers should monitor the National Hurricane Center website for up-to-date information on extreme weather conditions and be prepared to adjust itineraries accordingly,” Bradley said in an email.
In the case of southeastern Florida, which was bracing Friday for a possible Category 4 hurricane to strike on Tuesday, Bradley said, travelers should either reconsider their trip or, if they decide to go, plan to return home early enough to avoid impact from Hurricane Dorian.
“Storm paths can change and early forecasts do not always pan out,” Bradley said. “Travelers may want to wait to cancel until the storm’s path is confirmed, but they should not hesitate to cancel or postpone their trip if in the path of the hurricane.”
Those who do go ahead with a trip should pack light, limiting luggage to a carry-on bag so they can be more nimble if they need to leave quickly. Bradley recommends bringing solar-powered phone chargers, a flashlight and extra batteries, first-aid items, extra toiletries and cash for any travelers who could end up in a hurricane.
Kottlowski said travelers should also be aware of what they might be getting into.
“People think, ‘Oh well, it’ll just be a few hours of disruption,’ ” he says. “No. Hurricanes aren’t that way. It’s hours, maybe days.”
This is the time to pay careful attention to local officials. If they say evacuate, do it — and don’t wait until the last minute.
But Fugate, who served as director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management from 2001 to 2009, says travelers could do some advance work and make the call even sooner, especially by checking to see whether their hotel is in an evacuation zone.
“If you can, you don’t want to wait until evacuation orders are given,” he says. “You might want to curtail your trip a little early.”
Those with travel insurance should call the emergency assistance line to find out their options and what kind of help their coverage provides, Hummer said.
Bradley cautioned that airports typically close between 24 and 48 hours before a storm hits, and flights could be full. So travelers who want to leave early should be aware of the complications and avoid waiting until it’s too late. They should go to the airport only if they have a ticket, said Kristian Sonnier, spokesman for New Orleans & Company, the city’s destination marketing organization.
“The airport is not where you go to try to get a flight out,” Sonnier said in an email.
If it’s too late to get a flight out, travelers should either remain where they’re staying if possible, find a safer hotel inland, or go to a hurricane shelter. Those who have to stay put should keep all their important items in one bag, including cellphone chargers, medications, food, water, and identification and other documents.
They should also scan copies of all those critical documents onto a thumb drive and leave it with a friend or in cloud storage in case the physical papers are damaged, Dumpert says.
Anyone stuck in the path of a storm should try to collect enough supplies for 72 hours, including nonperishable food, bottled water, cash and backup cellphone batteries and chargers, Bradley said. He said visitors should make sure their rental car (if they have one) has a full tank of gas and write down all the emergency numbers they might need.
And by all means, visitors who stick around for a storm should not try to experience the elements firsthand.
“If you’re going to stay in a situation like that, at least stay indoors,” says Andy Newman, spokesman for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council in the Florida Keys. “Don’t be stupid and go outside and subject yourself to being hurt.”