Hurricane season in the Atlantic basin and Gulf of Mexico runs from June to November, but the storm season often hits its stride in August, September, and October. Powerful tropical waves advance across the Atlantic Ocean from the Cape Verde Islands and become hurricanes as they reach the warm Caribbean Sea. Low pressure systems organize off the coast of Mexico and quickly strengthen into wind and rain machines over the bathwater temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico.
(Not at all) coincidentally, this is also when some great bargains show up for Walt Disney World and Disney Cruise Line vacations. Free Dining? A fall staple. September cruise sailings? Significantly less expensive than June.
So what’s your vacation savings worth to you—in terms of financial risk? The fact is, those gorgeous waters around Florida and the Caribbean Sea are nurseries for powerful cyclones. These storms can disrupt your vacation in a variety of disastrous ways: shutting down airports and shipping lanes, flooding interstates and cutting off power, closing theme parks and damaging ship moorings.
Then again, nothing could happen.
So how do you make that call when you see a great deal for late summer travel? Is it worth the risk of a hurricane blowing it all away? How can you soften the potential loss of a rain-out from a cyclone?
Luckily, Walt Disney World and Disney Cruise Line have also considered these risks. Hurricane protection policies exist to help you plan, rebook, or cancel your vacation— all depending on what the weather is doing.
Walt Disney World’s Hurricane Protection Policy
Walt Disney World has a specific Hurricane Policy to address the potential for storm-related cancelations. This became necessary as strong hurricanes affected Central Florida with more frequency in the early 2000s.
Structured around official hurricane warnings issued by the National Hurricane Center, the hurricane policy allows you to reschedule or cancel your Walt Disney World package or room reservation with no fees. Going to one of Disney’s beach resorts? The policy also includes Disney’s Vero Beach and Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resorts.
How does Disney’s hurricane policy work? You can cancel or reschedule your Disney vacation if a hurricane warning is issued by the National Hurricane Center within seven days of your scheduled arrival date. The hurricane warning can be for Orlando (or Vero Beach, or Hilton Head Island) or it can be for your place of residence. So if you’re from the Outer Banks of North Carolina and need to stay home to prep for an approaching storm, you can utilize this hurricane policy as soon as the hurricane warning is issued.
This is not a great deal of advance warning time. A hurricane warning advises of hurricane conditions affecting an area within forty-eight hours. Generally, you won’t get official word on whether you can utilize the Hurricane Policy until you’ve already pulled down your suitcases and started prepping for your trip.
If the hurricane warning is issued, you’ll need to call in advance to change your reservations. Block out some time for that phone call if the hurricane warning is for Orlando—Disney’s phone lines can get bogged down quickly. You’ll also be responsible for cancelling everything else that can trigger a no-show fee, like dining reservations and recreation bookings. Most of these can be done online.
If you’re just rescheduling your Disney vacation package, Disney will waive the fee. That’s great, but what about that awesome offer you booked for the slow fall season?
Sorry, that’s not coming with you. Switching your September bargain week to a full-price week in April won’t carry your discount over to the new reservation. Disney will apply everything you’ve paid already to your new vacation package, but you might find you owe more.
If you booked airfare through Disney, they’ll assist you with changing your flights, but airfare is not covered through the Hurricane Policy.
Group bookings, sports groups, and convention bookings are not covered under Disney’s hurricane policy. They also aren’t covered by third-party bookings and online travel agents (OTAs) like Expedia, Southwest Vacations, or similar providers. For these instances, you’ll want to read the fine print of your booking partner, and possibly consider additional travel insurance.
If you booked with a third party instead of directly with Disney, you’ll be subject to the third party’s cancellation policies, not Disney’s. Some OTAs, like Expedia, have hurricane policies which waive fees for changes.
Hurricanes and Disney Cruise Line
Disney Cruise Line’s hurricane strategy is a little more fluid. Cruise lines will usually try to shift an itinerary to avoid a hurricane rather than simply canceling the sailing. So your Eastern Caribbean itinerary might become a Western Caribbean with just a few days’ notice. If DCL can operate safely and take passengers away from the storm, that will be their first choice.
However, in 2017 three DCL cruises were canceled due to Hurricane Irma. In each case, guests were given a full refund plus a discount on their next booking.
What isn’t covered by these refunds? Everything that isn’t Disney’s: your airfare, rental car, and pre-cruise hotel, if you’re staying near the port. To get your money back on these bookings, you’ll want to check their individual hurricane policies, and look into travel insurance.
Airline Changes during Hurricanes
Airlines typically waive change fees for a brief window of time when a hurricane threatens. However, your mileage with these policies may vary, especially if you decide to reschedule your vacation instead of canceling or shortening it. You’ll probably be offered a window of time in which to move your flight—for example, instead of leaving Tuesday, you’ll now leave Friday. No charge for that convenience, what a deal!
On the other hand, most airlines will not allow you to move your September flight to April without a change fee, hurricane or no hurricane. While each hurricane poses different challenges to the airlines, their policies are generally designed to help you travel hassle-free during the hurricane warning period, not to help you reschedule your entire vacation. To move your flight, you’ll probably be charged a change fee, which could be several hundred dollars per ticket. Check that fine print before you book. You’ll want to know your risk factor.
Should you buy travel insurance?
Travel insurance can be a traveler’s best friend, especially in Florida and the Caribbean, especially in late summer and autumn. That is, if you can find a policy that covers your vacation for the right price.
There are many good reasons to purchase travel insurance, from medical emergencies to job lay-offs, and you can learn more about it with this Touring Plans article. But hurricane season has its own concerns. Figuring out the added cost of a worst-case hurricane scenario can help you determine if you need to add an insurance policy, and how much you should pay for one. Add up all of your non-refundable bookings, things like airfare, rental cars, pre-cruise hotel rooms and the like, to find out what you’d be on the hook for if your vacation is disrupted by a hurricane.
Then, take a good look at your options. Will you book along with your Disney package, or can you find better rates and coverage?
When you book a Walt Disney World travel package, you’ll be offered travel insurance through their preferred vendor, which can change from year to year. The travel insurance is a flat rate per person, and can be added right onto your package price up until your final payment date. While you don’t need travel insurance to take advantage of the hurricane policy for your room and tickets, you might benefit from its flight coverage—even if you don’t book your airfare through Disney.
Disney Cruise Line offers travel insurance as well, but it’s priced at 8% of your total cruise cost, and it doesn’t cover your flights. For larger parties or more expensive bookings, you might find a better rate elsewhere.
Third party insurance companies, airlines, AAA and some credit cards also offer travel insurance, but always check for a hurricane policy you can live with included in your coverage.
What about after the storm has passed? Once the hurricane warnings have expired and the coast is clear, hurricane policies cease to cover travel. Unless a region remains under a mandatory evacuation or the airport is still closed, your vacation is back on. Walt Disney World recovers quickly from storms; chances are if you arrive a couple of days after a hurricane, you may only notice some extra landscaping work being done. Disney Cruise Line might make itinerary adjustments based upon damage to ports and destinations, which could take days or weeks to put right. But as long as Port Canaveral or whichever scheduled port DCL is using remains operational, cruises will get back on schedule quickly.
Essentially, travel insurance during hurricane season is worth the research. Figuring out your potential risk and checking the hurricane policies of each plan open to you takes a little time, but could save you a lot of money later on.
Walt Disney World’s Unexpected Hurricane Costs
Let’s say you’ve determined your risk factor, you’ve decided which insurance to buy, and you’re ready to travel as long as the airports or roads stay open.
Hurricane season vacations do include one extra layer of risk: the accidentally extended vacation.
That’s what happens when you’re already happily at your resort and a hurricane warning is issued for either Orlando or your hometown. Suddenly, your flight home in two days is canceled. You’re calling the front desk and securing your room for an additional night or two—surely that will be enough time for the storm to pass and the airport to reopen and the airlines to recover from the domino effect of cancellations. Then, you have to decide what you’re going to do with your extra vacation time.
Working at a Disney resort front desk in past years, I’ve seen guests add on bonus expenditures like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party tickets, dining at signature restaurants, and additional days on their theme park tickets—even if the theme parks will be impacted by the hurricane. The mentality is easy to understand: if you have to be here, you might as well enjoy yourself. And where better to be stranded by bad weather than at Disney World?
Sure, this can happen anywhere, but the potential to really rack up the extra spending on “just one more day” at Disney is pretty serious—especially with larger parties!
If you’re going to travel despite a hurricane warning in your area, or in Orlando, know ahead of time what you can afford to spend if you have to extend your stay. When Orlando is threatened by a hurricane, it does not take long for the resort hotels to fill up with extended stays. Are you going to add two nights to your Polynesian stay, or should you try to move to the All-Star Resorts for those nights? Do you want to move to a hotel with interior halls, like Animal Kingdom Lodge, so that you’re not stuck in your room during the storm? Do you need to make additional dining reservations, or are you happy with quick-service for the rest of your stay?
You won’t be the only ones changing plans in a hurry if a hurricane warning is issued, so it’s best to make these decisions ahead of time.
The chances of good weather during hurricane season are immeasurably higher than the chances of a hurricane. But hurricanes pose the potential of so much disruption—to air travel, to shipping lanes, to ports, to theme parks, to interstates—that they rightfully occupy our minds with all of the what-ifs. Their last-minute nature and unpredictability add fuel to the fire. It’s never going to be straightforward when your vacation is affected by a hurricane. But you can ask yourself questions about what how to reduce your risk, and be sure that your great vacation bargain doesn’t turn into a stressful money pit.