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TRAVEL INSIDER

During Hurricane Season, Let the Cruiser Beware

Sailing: As the summer ends, prices for Caribbean and Eastern Pacific cruises drop. But tropical storms can also loom on the horizon.

September 10, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

Summer evaporates. Storms and hurricanes roil the sea. Cruise prices nose dive.

Bad weather and falling cruise prices aren't as closely related as a casual observer might think. Both, however, are worth a consumer's attention.

Industry veterans generally agree that cruise prices fall because it's the end of the traditional summer vacation period. When vacations end and students and teachers head back to school, demand for cruises drops, just as it does for European tours and American road trips. The result is better prices.

For instance, when I called Carnival recently to check out the lowest available prices for a seven-day cruise from L.A. to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the agent quoted me $1,133.75 per person for a cruise that would have left today. For Sept. 17, the figure dropped by $100. For Sept. 24, it fell another $100. And for Oct. 1 it fell $50 more. That's a 22% decrease.

The differences can be less dramatic on shorter itineraries but still worth a bargain-hunter's attention. Calling Royal Caribbean International recently to check out four-day midweek cruises from L.A. to Ensenada, Mexico, I was quoted $423.75 per person for an inside cabin starting today, dropping to $413.75 on Sept. 17, then to $383.75 on Oct. 1. (These fares were subject to availability and may no longer be offered.)

So how does the storm season fit into this picture? You may save money cruising then, but you also run a little meteorological risk. Storms can disrupt a shipboard routine (if a vessel doesn't get out of the weather's way) or may substantially change a ship's itinerary (if the captain decides to get out of the way).

Researchers at the National Hurricane Center in Miami say September is the biggest storm and hurricane month in the Caribbean and Pacific, with August and October running second and third respectively.

At Carnival Cruise Lines, spokesman Vance Gulliksen estimates that just 3% of all cruise itineraries are changed because of weather. But most of those changes occur during hurricane season.

Of 91 voyages made by four Princess cruise ships in the Caribbean in 1999, the company reported, four changed course to avoid Hurricane Floyd in September, and five changed to try to dodge November's Hurricane Lenny. In many cases, the itinerary changes involved a single port substitution, said spokeswoman Denise Seomin. After flooding damaged ship facilities in December in Caracas, Venezuela, the line also rerouted 10 voyages to avoid that port.

Mike Driscoll, editor of Cruise Week, a newsletter for travel agents, notes that a changed itinerary usually means smoother sailing for passengers. In a recent column for Cruise Week, veteran Trussville, Ala., agent Judy Lucas warned agents that it's largely up to them to tell travelers about storm-season considerations because cruise lines seldom volunteer such information.

But no consumer should leave such questions entirely in the hands of an agent. Just as a road-tripper bears responsibility for roaring into Death Valley in August, a cruise customer needs to think about weather.

To be defined and named as a tropical storm, a weather condition must generate winds of 39 to 73 mph. Lesser conditions (with winds of more than 20 mph) are called tropical depressions. Once winds reach 74 mph, a storm becomes a hurricane.

Passengers need to remember that cruise companies cannot be held responsible for the weather. Every major cruise line has written into its ticketing conditions that ships can cancel or substitute port calls for any reason without penalty.

Meteorologists and cruise industry officials agree that storms affect cruise ships more often in the Caribbean than in the eastern Pacific because the roughest Pacific weather often takes place well offshore, beyond the path that cruise ships follow on their passages between Los Angeles and Puerto Vallarta.

At Royal Caribbean International, spokeswoman Michele Smith said the line had approximately 25 Caribbean weather-related itinerary changes in 1998 and 1999 together and none in the Pacific. (One consolation for the cruise ships in the Caribbean: They have more alternative ports to choose from than West Coast ships do.)

The official hurricane season actually begins before most summer vacations start: June 1 in the Atlantic, May 15 in the Pacific. On both coasts, the season officially ends Nov. 30.

Of 973 tropical storms and hurricanes from 1886 through 1998, the Miami-based National Hurricane Center reports, 325 occurred in September, 238 in August, 200 in October, 80 in July, 60 in June, 46 in November and 24 in other months.

The stormiest days of the year, historically, are Sept. 9 and 10. As of press time Sept. 6, however, the National Hurricane Center reported no major storms in the Caribbean or Eastern Pacific.

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