Caribbean Hurricane Season: What You Need to Know Before Your Trip

Let us assuage any hesitation you might have about traveling to the Caribbean during hurricane season. “If someone offered me a vacation to the Caribbean during the peak of the hurricane season, I wouldn’t think twice about it -- I’d go,” says Chris Landsea, Science and Operations Officer at the National Hurricane Center. “But you need to be prepared.” We can help with that. We tapped meteorologists as well as the founder of a top travel insurance company to get the lowdown on everything you need to know before packing your bags and hitting the road during hurricane season.

Hurricane season runs for six months in the Caribbean.

Much like Florida, hurricane season in the Caribbean lasts from June through November. Although the region can be struck with a storm any time during this period, it’s rare to encounter one in June and July. August through November, however, is the riskiest time frame. That said, the likelihood of a hurricane hitting throughout the entire season are low -- about the same as South Florida, according to Landsea. “For example, if you’re going to be in Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands for the whole six months, you have about a 14 percent chance of experiencing a hurricane,” he says. “And if you’re going to be there for a week -- even during peak season -- it’s about a 1 percent chance.”

This year will bring average to above average hurricane activity.

While it’s too soon to make any predictions about what this year’s hurricane season will bring to any specific areas of the Caribbean, it’s likely to be an active year, according to Landsea. “According to the National Hurricane Center, this translates to between 11 and 17 storms,” says meteorologist Jason Meyers. “Of these storms, five to nine are likely to become hurricanes and between two and four of those will become major hurricanes -- that is, category 3 or bigger.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the historical average is 12 named storms.

Some areas in the Caribbean are better protected than others.

Believe it or not, there are some parts of the Caribbean that are immune to hurricanes. For example, Panama never gets hit because it’s too close to the equator. Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, also known as the ABC islands, are also situated outside of the hurricane belt, making them perfect destinations to enjoy during the low season without a high risk of inclement weather. Trinidad, which is located at a low latitude, is another Caribbean destination that’s unlikely to ever get hit. On the flip side, the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico) and northern and central America -- from northern Honduras up to Mexico -- have much greater odds.

This year’s hurricane season could look like last year’s.

“Last year, the NOAA forecast 10 to 16 named storms for the 2016 Atlantic hurricane season -- not all of which would reach hurricane level. Their predictions were fairly accurate, with 15 named storms -- seven of which were deemed hurricanes,” says Stan Sandberg, co-founder of TravelInsurance.com. Last year, Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in October, causing tremendous damage. It also traveled to the eastern end of Cuba and went through the Bahamas before making its way to the U.S. Then there was Hurricane Otto, which hit near the Costa Rica and Honduras border. Thankfully, it appeared in a fairly unpopulated area and didn’t cause a lot of destruction. 

“It’s tough to make a prediction about how any one area will be impacted by an entire season,” says Meyers. That said, travelers to the Caribbean should plan ahead for the possibility of a repeat of last year, according to Sandberg. When discussing this year’s hurricane season, it’s also important to consider climate change. According to Meyers, the ocean is warming, and warmer waters mean bigger and stronger hurricanes.

Monitor the weather leading up to (and during) your trip.

If you’re traveling during hurricane season, Meyers recommends checking the forecast one to three weeks ahead of your journey. The National Hurricane Center provides an easy-to-navigate map that displays the hot spots that are on meteorologists’ radars. Weather apps like Storm Shield, which is capable of saving multiple locations, can also come in handy if and when a tropical storm or hurricane forms. Plus, the app will send weather alerts, like hurricane watches and warnings, for any of your saved locations (i.e. your home and destination). Local forecast offices are another great resource for specific predictions on specific days. Once you arrive in your destination, continue to watch the weather, and listen to authorities if evacuation orders are given.

Have a contingency plan.

“We strive to provide a lead time of three to five days,” says Landsea. “When we see a specific hurricane coming toward the coast, we issue a hurricane watch -- meaning hurricane and wind conditions may be expected in the next two days. Then, as it gets closer, we issue a hurricane warning, which means we’re expecting hurricane conditions somewhere in the warning area within the next 36 hours. When the warning is issued, that’s when people need to decide if they should hunker down, put up shutters, and stay in place, or prepare their homes and evacuate if the local authorities say you need to get out.”

Stay informed.

Be aware of the cancellation policies for your airline and hotel -- namely, when it comes to tropical storms and hurricanes. Take it one step further and inquire about your hotel’s hurricane emergency plans and procedures. Research your destination, too. Find out if it’s an area that experiences severe flooding during storms, if there are any obvious evacuation routes, and the closest hospital in case of an emergency. “You should cancel a trip if it looks like a tropical storm or hurricane is moving toward your destination,” says Meyers. “If you’re already there and a storm is expected, listen to authorities’ instructions and understand that it may be time to cut your vacation short.”

Consider travel insurance -- and time the purchase correctly.

It would be wise to purchase a travel insurance plan with trip cancellation and trip delay provisions specifically related to severe weather and hurricanes. “Many travel insurance plans will provide full trip cancellation coverage if a hurricane or tropical storm causes a shutdown in services for an extended period of time,” says Sandberg. “Some plans will even include cancellation coverage for a NOAA hurricane warning for your destination.” 

If you’re planning on purchasing insurance, do it ASAP. Once a storm is named, it’s no longer possible to purchase travel insurance to protect against any losses from that event. “It’s ideal to purchase travel insurance within days after the initial payment of the trip,” says Sandberg. “Some plans require that you purchase the plan within a short window -- typically seven days -- from the date you made the first payment toward you trip. Also, the cancellation generally must take place more than 14 days after you’ve purchased the insurance.”

Choose the right insurance plan by reading the fine print.

In addition to timing, it’s vital that you pay attention to the nitty-gritty details. “Some plans require a complete shutdown of your airline for 24 consecutive hours before letting you cancel,” says Sandberg. “Others require a 48-hour shutdown before cancellation is allowed. Similarly, for the trip delay benefit to be available, some plans require a six-hour travel delay, while others require a 12-hour delay.” When perusing plans, ensure the policy you purchase is comprehensive and specifically offers hurricane coverage as part of the reasons for trip cancellation, trip interruption, and trip delay benefits, Sandberg suggests.

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