When a major storm hits the Caribbean, most airlines and hotels eventually wind up waiving the usual restrictions so that customers can change or cancel their plans free of charge. But because policies have traditionally been announced on a case-by-case basis--and at the last minute--you had little choice but to wait and cross your fingers. Now, after two brutal hurricane seasons, a few airlines and tour operators have taken steps to ease travelers' concerns.
The best policies explicitly state that customers can make changes for free once the National Hurricane Center (nhc.noaa.gov) declares a hurricane watch or warning. Spirit Airlines allows you to rebook without a fee as soon as the NHC officially announces a hurricane watch at your arrival or departure airport. Clients of Worry-Free Vacations or sister company NWA WorldVacations who are headed to Mexico or the Caribbean can switch destinations for free after hearing about a watch or a warning, as long as the new booking leaves within seven days of the original departure. Or, for a $50 fee, you can request credit for another trip to be booked within 60 days.
A few tour operators have beefed up their travel-insurance policies. Apple Vacations and TNT Vacations guarantee a free replacement vacation if a hurricane interrupts your trip. (An "interruption" is defined as a 24-hour period during which guests are displaced from their hotel.) In the past, you might have received company credit or a refund for the interrupted portion only. The policies cost $50--$70 extra for Apple Vacations, $95 for TNT. Cheap Caribbean.com's travel insurance, formerly an optional $49 purchase, is automatically included in all packages this year. With the policy, you're allowed to change or cancel your trip once without penalty up until three hours before departure--if the NHC announces that a hurricane is within 48 hours of your destination, departure, or connecting city.
Beware, however, of hurricane policies that don't actually guarantee anything. Expedia first told clients of its Hassle-free Hurricane Promise last year: Agents will help rebook a ruined trip and try to convince hotels and airlines to waive fees. Essentially, Expedia will be an advocate for its customers--but isn't that what an agency is supposed to be?