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Hurricane Irene: Action Plan For Stranded Travelers

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If you get stranded this weekend, it will be more “Lost” than “Gilligan’s Island.”

Hurricane Irene will likely leave thousands of business travelers and vacationers stranded in lonely hotels far from home as more trains and flights are canceled. If you are unprepared, it will be anything but jolly, but travel and insurance experts say it’s still not too late.

Allison Steinberg, a spokeswoman for JetBlue Airways, says the airline canceled 891 flights to/from cities in the New York and Boston area from Saturday through Monday. Travel expert Susan Foster, creator of SmartPacking.com, says it may now be best not to try beating Hurricane Irene back home.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday that all of New York’s mass-transit system will close this weekend — buses, commuter rail and the subway — and Amtrak has said it’s cancelling all trains south of Washington D.C. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. More train and flight cancelations are expected to follow.

Here’s a plan of action for those who won’t be able to get home:

Call Helplines Now

There are people whose job it is to help. For those without travel insurance, travel agents and airlines will give you information and conditions for re-booking flights without paying a change fee. If you do have insurance, experts say use the 800 number for concierge services. Depending on your policy, some insurance companies will even help you book restaurants and access local childcare services.

“The policies vary but the assistance they provide is pretty significant, which can be invaluable,” says Jeanne Salvatore, vice-president of consumer affairs at the Insurance Information Institute. To make sure you are reimbursed, Linda Kundell, spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, advises you to keep receipts or pay with credit cards to ensure you have a record of purchases.

Credit card companies can help, too. Stewart Chiron, a cruise broker known as The Cruise Guy, says even if you don’t have travel insurance, it’s worth checking your credit card for your insurance coverage — and its limitations. “My Diners Club Card gives me my primary car rental insurance coverage,” he says. If you need to rent a car to get home, he says call your card company before buying insurance.

Get a Desert Island Kit

Put this together before embarking on that long journey home. Roy Cohen, author of “The Wall Street Professional Survival Guide,” emails himself his travel itinerary, photocopies his passport in case he needs to get a replacement in a hurry and even carries a flash drive around his neck. “Write down all the access codes to your company’s computer network,” he says.

Foster makes sure her First Aid travel kit is stocked and says you can never have enough protein bars and water. “From tarmac delays to airport concessions running out of food and water during a long disaster, they can be lifesavers,” she says. Foster also advises carrying essentials like diapers, computers, rechargers and power adaptors as carry-on luggage on flights.

Know Where You Stand

While many people will be able to work remotely should they be stuck in a hotel or dial into a conference call instead of meeting in person, Cohen advises travelers to brush up on their employer’s policies if there’s a state of emergency or public transport is shut down. Most firms have a “bad weather” policy – meaning employees don’t lose vacation days and still get paid for being away.

Read Pay Dirt for more on hurricane-proofing your travel plans and what to put in a “Go Bag” if you need to leave home in a hurry.

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About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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