What Should You Do When a Natural Disaster Spoils Your Travel Plans?


No matter where on the globe you're traveling to, there's a possibility a natural disaster or man-made tragedy could ruin your plans. Maybe you're staring down a hurricane like this year's Harvey, Maria, or Irma – or a volcanic eruption like the one supposedly brewing in Bali. Acts of terrorism — shootings, bombings, and the like — are just as likely to affect your trip, or at least make you think twice about traveling.

But, what do you do when one of these tragedies inconveniently falls right in the midst of an upcoming trip? Do you cancel? And if you do cancel, are you deserving of a refund?

The answer is complicated. The financials of canceling or rerouting your trip depend a lot on how you booked and the severity of the tragedy. However, a few general rules of thumb can help you understand the process.

The way you booked your trip matters

First things first. The manner in which you booked and paid for your trip matters a great deal when it comes to who you should contact to cancel and how your situation will be handled.

If you booked a vacation package with a third-party travel booking service like Expedia or Travelocity, for example, you'll want to contact them right away. If you booked your hotel, flights, and rental car separately, on the other hand, you'll need to call each individual vendor to explore your options.

Hotels tend to be the most lenient of all travel vendors, especially if you've booked through the hotel directly. You may also have some leeway with rooms booked through third-party sites — that is, as long as you didn't book a non-refundable rate. While all hotels and resorts have their own unique terms and conditions, many let you cancel without penalty up to a few weeks or even a few days before your trip.

Read through your reservation to find the cancellation terms, then cancel quickly if you can. If you're beyond the cancellation window, calling your hotel's customer service line can help. In the midst of a natural disaster or an impending one, they may be willing to let you cancel without penalty. Or, they might be willing to shift your reservation to another hotel.

Flights can be a lot trickier, but it depends on your carrier and the specific disaster at hand. Right before Hurricane Irma this year, my husband and I were scheduled to fly into Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. The hotel told us not to come, but we had trouble canceling our flights. First, American Airlines told us that we wouldn't get a refund unless the flight was actually canceled. The day before the trip — with a Category 4 hurricane barreling through the Caribbean — they said to show up at the airport. They also said we had the option of changing our flights after paying a $150 change fee per person.

But when I called back the same night, they relented and offered a travel credit good for another trip if we booked within six months. After another call the next day, however, they said they would convert the travel credit into the original form of payment, which was 57,500 American AAdvantage miles for one flight.

The bottom line: Airline policies aren't always set in stone, and you're not always entitled to a full refund unless your flight is canceled altogether. So, call your airline early and ask about your options. And if you don't hear what you want, hang up and call back later.

Cruises may offer several options

If your cruise was impacted by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, your options will vary quite a bit based on your cruise itinerary, port of departure, and how you paid. It also depends on your cruise line's individual cancellation policy.

With Carnival Cruise Line, for example, canceled cruises qualify for a cash refund or credit for another cruise. Some cruise lines also ran shortened itineraries to avoid hurricanes this year, only to give customers a partial refund for the days they missed.

Cruise lines also retain the option to change your itinerary for any reason. So, if you have a cruise scheduled to stop in an area with severe damage, your cruise line may alter your itinerary so you stop elsewhere that day. Instead of stopping in storm-ravaged St. Maarten, for example, you could spend that day at the port in nearby St. Kitts instead.

If you have a Caribbean cruise planned for later this year and are worried about going, check your cruise booking to see if you have the option to cancel.

Can travel insurance help?

If you have travel insurance, it can be a real game-changer. While you can buy your own travel insurance policy, you can also get some types of travel insurance through a travel rewards credit card.

With trip interruption and cancellation insurance from one credit card issuer, for example, the cardholder and their immediate family qualifies for up to $10,000 per covered trip and a maximum limit of $20,000 per occurrence if their trip is canceled or interrupted for a "covered reason." Covered reasons include not only illness or injury, but also severe weather and terrorist acts.

Keep in mind, however, that in order to be covered by your credit card's policy, you have to use that card to pay for your trip. Just being a cardholder is not enough. And, as always, make sure to read the fine print and terms and conditions to see what's covered.

Individual travel insurance policies also offer various forms of coverage for natural disasters or unforeseen travel emergencies, with limits that vary from policy to policy. Make sure to read your policy's terms and conditions to see if canceling your trip is covered — or if you're better off using the coverage offered by your credit card. (See also: 6 Types of Travel Insurance Credit Cards Include)

How do you deal with an act of terrorism?

Acts of terrorism are harder to plan for and plan around, which means travel vendors may be less likely to bend the rules to provide a refund. You may know a hurricane is headed toward your travel destination a week before it hits, but nobody can predict a bombing or a terrorist attack.

If an event of this nature takes place, you're at the mercy of your travel vendors in terms of whether they will provide a refund or not. If your flight isn't canceled, it's unlikely you'll have any options other than paying a change fee to switch up your itinerary.

If you booked with a hotel that has a generous cancellation policy, on the other hand, you may be able to cancel up until the day before your trip. But, if you don't — or if you booked a nonrefundable hotel stay — you may be out of luck.

Of course, you may be able to cancel your trip and get a refund via a travel insurance policy, but you have to own the policy before the act of terrorism takes place. You can't wait for something to happen, then purchase a policy. If you paid for your trip with a credit card that offers trip cancellation/interruption coverage, on the other hand, you may already be covered.

The bottom line

Because each event or disaster is different, there are no hard and fast rules that govern how cancellations and refunds are handled. Travel vendors are usually dealing with disasters on a day-by-day basis too, meaning they aren't always sure how things will pan out, either. The best thing you can do when a disaster threatens your plans is keep the lines of communication open. Stay in touch with your airline or travel vendor and make sure you know your options.

It also never hurts to have travel interruption/cancellation coverage, whether you purchase it on your own or use the coverage offered through a credit card. That way, you'll have peace of mind no matter what disaster strikes next.

Also keep in mind that, if you're flexible, you can just forge ahead with your trip regardless of weather or damage. In hurricane-hit areas in the Caribbean especially, islands that rely heavily on tourism could use your dollars more than anything else. By sticking with your plans, you'll have the opportunity to give help where it's needed most. You can shop in the local markets and dine at local eateries, putting cash directly into the hands of those harmed in the process.

You can even turn your trip into a volunteer opportunity. Contact a reputable charity or help organizations like All Hands Volunteers to get assistance coordinating your volunteer activities on islands like St. Thomas and Puerto Rico.

Trade your beach hat and tropical drink for a hard hat and shovel, and you could end up with a trip you'll never forget.

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