Atlantic hurricane season in full swing: What travellers need to know

2018-09-12 09:01
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Hurricane Florence, Olivia, Isaac and Helene are all headed towards land this week, threatening to disrupt travel plans for travellers who are bound for the East Coast of the US, Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Travellers heading to the USA and Caribbean are doing so in the thick of hurricane season which usually runs from  1 June to 30 November.   

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) have indicated that the 2018 season could be particularly powerful, compared to previous years.

Last year was one of the most active Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, with six major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher. While the chances of facing a severe hurricane while travelling are slim, travellers should still be aware of the risks that these storms pose. 

“Three devastating major hurricanes made landfall in 2017—Harvey in Texas, Irma in the Caribbean and the southeastern USA, and Maria in the Caribbean and Puerto Rico," says Flight Centre Leisure Marketing Leader Nicky Potgieter. 

Potgieter suggests travellers  keep abreast of the situation and its potential to derail their travel plans.

TRAVEL PLANNING: See detailed Quick Guides for each of the visa-free destinations for South African travellers here

Air travel and passenger rights

Travellers scheduled to travel to or through a destination where a storm warning is in effect, should check with their travel agent or airline to find out about flight cancellations. You can also check via tracking service  

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), weather alone may not lead to huge delays.

If an airport has a lot of excess capacity, delayed flights can be shifted to non-weather times without affecting the system. But airports with the most weather delays also tend to operate very near capacity for significant parts of the day, meaning that delayed flights may have to wait hours to land or depart.

“If your flight is cancelled due to weather events — including tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, fog and floods, to name a few — airlines usually have policies in place to accommodate travellers,” says Potgieter.

The first thing passengers should know is that they will not receive any compensation or sleeping accommodation from the airline for the cancellation, since the cancellation was caused by what is considered an Act of God, i.e. outside the carrier's control.

And, when weather events happen, usually hundreds of flights and passengers are affected, so no single passenger is a unique case.

While each airline may differ in their hurricane policies, there are some overall policies:

  • Flexible changes to tickets: airlines will generally waive ticket change fees and allow flights to be rebooked within up to seven days from the originally scheduled date.
  • Change your ticket completely: airlines may allow a passenger to apply the full value of their unused ticket toward the purchase of a flight to a different destination.
  • Change ticket without penalties: carriers may allow a one-time change without fees if a passenger remains on the same itinerary.
  • Refunds and partial refunds: if the weather is really bad and flight schedules are a mess, airlines may offer to refund passengers the unused ticket and sometimes even the unused portion of a ticket, if the passenger has begun their travel.

For additional piece of mind, travellers should always contact their travel agent or airline before heading to the airport. They should also ensure that they are signed up for the airline’s flight status messaging service for the very latest news on their travel.

Potgieter adds that, of equal importance is that passengers be aware of their rights.

“The US Department of Transportation's consumer rules prohibits US airlines operating domestic flights, from allowing an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers. Exceptions are only allowed for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations,” adds Potgieter. 

Airlines are required to provide travellers with adequate food and drinking water within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.

Travel insurance

Always expect the unexpected. The chances of encountering a severe hurricane may be slim but it is always advisable to plan for unexpected weather patterns and the roll-on effects that such disruptions could have.

TIC Insurance Consultants provide several reasons as to why you should consider comprehensive travel insurance when travelling during Hurricane season:

Cancellation or delays: Should an airline or cruise line cancel or delay a scheduled departure due to bad weather, a passenger may be eligible for the trip cancellation, travel delay or trip interruption coverage on their itinerary. Taking out comprehensive travel insurance could make a difference in assisting travellers in reimbursing them for the unexpected, added expenses for being held in transit longer than expected. Depending on the plan, you may even be eligible for inconvenience benefits if there is a change to your itinerary.

Destination warning: Some travel insurance plans will have coverage that becomes eligible for reimbursement when a destination is under a Hurricane warning or alert. In times like these, it is important to know how detailed the selected travel insurance plan is, with regard to specific hurricane warnings and coverage eligibility.

Accommodation: In the event that a storm hits prior to the traveller’s arrival, a hotel, resort, or vacation rental may cancel a reservation because it’s devastated and made uninhabitable by a storm. Travel insurance plans typically provide coverage for this. However, a reimbursement can help if the accommodation selected does not provide a full refund for your pre-paid reservation.

Early departure: In the event that a destination falls victim to a dangerous storm, a travel insurance plan could provide coverage for trip interruption or alternatively going home early because the selected accommodation has become uninhabitable during the storm.

“Your travel agent is there to provide peace of mind and ensure your travel bookings are adjusted, wherever possible, in the event of disruption due to a hurricane,” says Potgieter.