By Quentin Fottrell
Her name is Irene, and she’s ruining your vacation.
As soon as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dubbed the approaching Category 3 storm Irene on Aug. 20, consumers’ ability to shift their travel plans got more limited. But there’s still some recourse to change plans or get a refund for at least part of your trip.
Steve Lott, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, says, “Be proactive. Start changing plans now.” Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo, advises customers to program their airline’s 800 number into their cell phones, act fast on hotel reservations (at least 24 hours in advance), stock up on any prescribed medications should you get stuck on vacation and pick your connecting airport wisely.
Now that the approaching storm is “Irene,” you can’t buy travel insurance to keep her from ruining your plans. “You can only insure yourself against unforeseen events,” says Linda Kundell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association. If you previously took out a policy for the trip, call your insurer: Experts say policies typically allow you to cancel plans up to 72 hours before traveling right up to the time of departure.
This year’s hurricane season is expected to be more active than usual, so travelers with plans for later this fall may want to consider buying insurance now. The only kind of travel insurance you should buy these days is “cancel for any reason,” which will likely include hurricane insurance, says Ed Perkins, airfare travel expert with SmarterTravel.com. “Other policies are fairly restrictive for what they will cover.” But even for those who have “cancel for any reason” insurance, other exclusions on those policies are rife.
Many airlines are currently trying to accommodate passengers by waiving change fees, but there are time limits. For instance, JetBlue Airways will waive change fees and fare increases to allow customers that booked before August 25 to or from select cities in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions to rebook through to either Aug. 31 or Sept. 2, 2011, depending on the city.
That said, not all airline hurricane responses are identical. For customers traveling from August 28 to August 29, Spirit Airlines will waive the change fee and difference in fare, provided customers rebook their travel plans before their original reservation, and travel on or before September 30. After that, Spirit will still not charge a change fee, although differences in fares will apply. But consumers will benefit from Spirit’s moratorium on change fees; it usually charges between $115 and $125.
If you’re staying in a hotel, you may be in luck. As Pay Dirt reported in June when there was rioting in Greece:
“Uncovered travelers may be able to salvage some of their vacation fund, but not much. Most hotels booked independently still offer penalty-free cancellation as late as 24 hours in advance of your arrival, but those booked as part of a tour package may charge as much as 90% of the cost for cancelling even 30 days out.”
For more on preparing for Irene, read Pay Dirt.