Cruising Through the 2010 Hurricane Season

| May 27, 2010

The NOAA Just predicted the 2010 hurricane season could be one of the most active in recent memory. How does this affect cruise planning?

The Nation Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in collaboration with the National Weather Service, just predicted that the 2010 hurricane season, effective from June 1st through November 30th, will be more active than the typical hurricane season.

Hurricane seasons typically occur during years of La Nina, which is defined as a lower surface temperature, typically three to five degrees Celsius. The effect of these conditions is a typically wet winter in the U.S. particularly in the Midwest, and an increased likelihood of hurricanes as these weather systems head towards the Atlantic and combine with tropical air coming from Africa.

La Nina is the opposite weather pattern to the more well known "El Nino" which is defined as a higher sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean and a strong current heading East close to the equator.

What does it mean to predict an active hurricane season? The average hurricane season contains 11 named storms (top winds of 39 mph or higher), six hurricanes (top winds of 74 mph or higher) and two major hurricanes (Category 3, 4 or 5; winds of at least 111 mph).

But for 2010 the NOAA is calling for 14 to 23 named storms, including 8 to 14 hurricanes of which 3 to 7 could be major hurricanes . The NOAA says these conditions would create one of the most active hurricane seasons on record.

Now - to be perfectly clear, the NOAA is often wrong; not because they don't know what they are doing, but because predicting weather is incredibly difficult. In 2006, for example, NOAA called for "a very active 2006 season, with 13-16 named storms, 8-10 hurricanes, and 4-6 major hurricanes."

During the 2006 hurricane season there were only nine named-storms, five hurricanes, and two major hurricanes - none of which hit the U.S.

It sounds odd, but we normally do recommend booking cruises during hurricane season. Why? Because hurricane season is no secret, especially to the number one cruise market - -Florida, but the main reason is that we often see bargain prices. Now, I realize price alone isn't a good reason to recommend taking a cruise during a major storm, but the point is that cruise ships are experts at avoiding these storms, so you should still have a great cruise. You just have to accept the possibility of a little uncertainty.

In the event of any hurricane the cruise lines will substitute different ports of call for the scheduled itinerary and avoid the storm entirely whenever possible, which is the majority of the time. For example, if a cruise is scheduled to leave from Miami and sail to the Eastern Caribbean a raging hurricane in the Atlantic will send the cruise line to the Western Caribbean instead.

People who are new to cruising need to understand that this choice to substitute different ports of call is completely at the discretion of the cruise line. The captain and the cruise line are ultimately responsible for your safety at sea, and they will not choose to sail into a hurricane.

The worst consequence of any hurricane under normal conditions is a delayed departure or return to the home port at the beginning or end of a cruise. The only reason for this would be if the storm was in that home port the same day as the ship was scheduled to be there. But taking Miami as an example, hurricanes only hit about once every decade or less, statistically.

In extreme cases a very large storm has meant a cruise line was not able to deliver any ports of call. In these situations they might offer an onboard credit during the cruise, or a discount on a future cruise. But this is also at the discretion of the cruise line and should not be expected.

We do understand that it is disconcerting to have your plans changed at the last minute, but ultimately the best you can do is adapt to the changes quickly and just make different plans for your ports of call. You don't want to be sitting on the ship thinking about what you would have been doing otherwise.

Remember, the cruise experience is usually better when the ship diverges from the proximity of a hurricane as much as possible. For the most part hurricanes are very contained storms - depending on your relative position. You can sail ahead of one and not even know there is a raging inferno just over the horizon. But you don't want to be trailing a hurricane because the winds are sure to have whipped up the seas and such conditions can last for days past the time the storm has passed.

Bottom line, when it comes to hurricanes it is a pretty good idea not to second guess the cruise lines' or captains' decisions on where the ship should sail. The cruise lines want to give you best experience possible. Cruising is a competitive business and they want you coming back. You can be pretty sure they made the best decision under the circumstances.

Yes, we actually receive letters from people who are adamant they should receive a full refund because the cruise they were on did not sail to the scheduled ports of call due to a hurricane. We do understand that people spend a lot of time pre-planning a cruise and may already know exactly what beach they want to snorkel months ahead of time. But if there is a hurricane it is not the cruise line's fault.

One actual letter we received said, "Our cruise did not go to the islands they promised us due to a force four hurricane the same week. I feel they broke our contract and we want a 100% refund of our cruise fare." This is after they spent a full week eating the ship's food, sleeping in their beds, watching the entertainment and visiting other ports where they probably did very similar activities to what they had planned anyway.

When I get these letters I just can't help myself. I write back to ask them, "Did you really want to go to an island experiencing 130 mph winds?"

I suppose another alternative would be to cancel the cruise at the last minute, but I doubt most people would want that either. In the end, substituting ports of call always makes the most sense.

Read more: Hurricane Season 2009

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