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Paying for hurricane-proof travel

Spending extra for weather-protection plans may leave some travelers all wet.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 21, 2012 10:24AM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.

 

SmartMoney on MSN MoneyEvery vacationer hopes for ideal weather, but travelers heading to the Caribbean and Mexico this time of year -- peak hurricane season -- may find that travel operators' weather guarantees don't provide quite the protective umbrella they expect.

 

Image: Beach (© Photographers Choice RF/Getty Images)Booking sites, resorts and other travel companies often pitch protection plans this time of year as a way to overcome consumers' worries about a tropical storm derailing their vacation and leaving them on the hook for the costs. It's something consumers are seeing more often, as economic uncertainty and more active storm seasons make travelers wary, says Gabe Saglie, the senior editor for deal site Travelzoo.

 

"Weather uncertainty creates a lot of deals," he says, but travel to the Caribbean and Mexico "at this particular time of year always raises the insurance issue."

 

Some operators, including Expedia and Club Med, include a few basic protections -- like help getting fees waived, or a credit for any trip days ruined by a storm -- as a freebie. Many, like CheapCaribbean.com and other booking sites, also offer weather-specific travel insurance plans for an extra fee equivalent to roughly 3% of the trip price at checkout, on par with broader travel insurance offerings. (Post continues below.)

Experts say travelers may want to be cautious this year. In early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its forecast to reflect higher chances for an "above normal" Atlantic storm season. Now the agency expects a total of 12 to 17 named storms between June 1 and Nov. 30, up from its initial May estimate of nine to 15. (There have been six so far.) The NOAA also expects that more of those storms will achieve hurricane status.

 

Travel companies' free protection plans are better than nothing, but travelers should look into the details. "Sometimes these free guarantees aren't worth a whole lot," says Stewart Chiron, an industry expert known as "The Cruise Guy." Most offer credit for future travel, rather than a refund. That amount may also be limited to only those vacation days affected by a storm, potentially leaving travelers who cancel or head home early stuck with a bill for the nice days they missed out on. CheapCaribbean.com caps its "Sunshine Guarantee" credit for rain at $100 per trip. (The site did not respond to requests for comment.)

 

In fact, some free protections promise little more than travelers are already entitled to. Expedia's "Hassle-free Hurricane Promise" pledges to help by asking its travel partners to waive fees if you're trying to change plans when a hurricane warning or watch is issued for your destination. But airlines typically waive change fees for natural disasters anyway, says Linda Kundell, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Travel Insurance Association.

 

And other providers aren't likely to budge from their standard cancellation and change policies. "'You should have bought the insurance,' is what they'll tell you every time," says Chiron. (An Expedia spokeswoman says the service provides greater value for consumers who are already traveling when a hurricane comes their way, because the site can help them make arrangements to get home and help them minimize costs.)

 

But travel companies' paid insurance plans that offer refunds for weather-related cancellation may be cheaper than a separate travel insurance policy through a stand-alone travel insurer, Saglie says. On a $3,081 Aruba package, CheapCaribbean.com charges $95 for a policy through Assist-Card that offers 100% back if a trip is canceled or interrupted for a covered weather reason, and $124 for one that lets you cancel for any reason.

In comparison, travelers buying directly through Assist-Card would pay at least $128 to cover the same trip for a wide array of cancellation reasons.

 

Travelers worried about more than weather should compare rates and coverage before buying, however, since there can be significant variation in covered events and maximum reimbursement. That stand-alone Assist-Card policy includes $500,000 in emergency medical evacuation coverage, 20 times the coverage of its version through CheapCaribbean.com. It also provides $50,000 in medical expense coverage, versus $15,000 at the travel-booking site.

 

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