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Updated September 21, 2017
A vacation is supposed to be an oasis away from the doldrums of the everyday. But sometimes events outside of your control -- such as Mother Nature -- put roadblocks in the way of your stress-free getaway. Winter storms, hurricanes and other bad weather can jeopardize your perfect travel plans --especially if they prevent you from getting to your cruise ship's embarkation port. If you find yourself snowbound or otherwise stuck as sail-away looms near, we offer the following tips -- some of them preventative -- to redeem your cruise vacation, or at the very least, a chunk of what you paid.
Always Book a Pre-Cruise Stay
To avoid fly-to-cruise (or even driving) headaches entirely, consider buffering your cruise with a stay in port beforehand. Now, a freak force of nature might interrupt this flight or drive, but at least your ship departing without you won't be on the line. Sure, you might miss a hotel stay, or be in for a very late arrival, but you can avoid missing your cruise ship. Even a one-night stay in port will give you some peace of mind. Forgot your toothbrush? Want to bring on a case of water but couldn't fly with it? This time is also valuable for tying up any loose cruise-related ends before getting onboard and paying marked-up prices at the shops.
Pay for Top Travel Insurance
Perhaps the best advice we can give is: Buy insurance. But don't just buy the cheapest policy -- buy coverage that will back you up when worse comes to worst. If you're concerned that a winter storm or hurricane will prevent you from getting to your cruise, choose a travel insurance policy that will cover the cost of your cruise fare and airline change fees should weather keep you from your planned vacation. It might seem tedious to comb through pages of small text when you're trying to book a fun vacation, but that jumble of fine print will determine your fate if something goes wrong.
Book Through a Travel Agent
If reading this has made your brain hurt a bit, it might be in your best interest to book your next cruise with a travel agent. Not only can you benefit from their expertise on the front end (from choosing a cabin to what kind of travel insurance might be right for you), but in the event that something happens, a good travel professional will help you make the best possible decision on the steps you can take to make your cruise or get a refund.
Contact Your Cruise Line
First thing's first: Always contact your cruise line if you think there's a chance you're going to miss your cruise. Even if there's not much the line can do to help, giving notice will give you a documented reason for missing the ship, rather than a simple no-show. Keep a contact number handy (for cruise line guest services or your travel agent, if you booked through one) so you can call for backup in a pinch from the road or the airport. (That way, you won't need Internet or data service to look up contact information.)
Know That the Ship Likely Won't Wait for Late Arrivals
Delaying a cruise ship departure is not something cruise lines take lightly, as the ship can incur penalties and fines if it remains in port too long. If enough passengers are reporting delays, there is a slim chance that the ship might delay departure in order to accommodate them, but it might not be able to wait too long. From a cruise line representative: "There are very few situations where a ship would be held. If it was a safety/security issue, those would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis." Basically, don't count on the ship waiting because many of its passengers are struggling with snowy roads and flight cancellations. It's best to focus on your other options.
Switch Your Flight
If you need to fly to your departure port, but bad weather means your flight will potentially get canceled or delayed, consider changing your reservation to an earlier flight. Paying a hefty change fee is not ideal, but it might be more palatable than missing your cruise entirely. If you can bear to wait, airlines will sometimes issue advisories in advance of major weather events. In the event of an advisory, the airline is required by the Passenger Bill of Rights to offer a move to another flight for free, but the booking window and the fine details are at the discretion of the individual airline.
Meet the Ship at the Next Port
Even if you aren't able to join the cruise for sail-away, you can still join it at its first port of call and not miss out on your vacation entirely. If you didn't purchase travel insurance, expect to pay change fees or the full price of a new ticket (depending on whether you made it to the port city late or never left home at all). Depending on the particulars of your travel arrangements and airline and cruise line cancellation or change policies, it might end up saving you money to meet your cruise and fly back as scheduled, rather than abandon your vacation completely.
If your airfare is booked through a cruise line program like Princess Cruises' EZair that guarantees arrival, the cruise line's travel department will fly you to meet the ship for no extra charge. (Check with your cruise line for air program details.) Otherwise, if you purchased travel insurance, your policy might cover flights to the first port of call; you'll need to check the fine print.
Also, U.S. citizens should bear in mind that if you're now flying to a port outside the country, you will need a passport. If your flights aren't round trip (your flight home is from a distant port), it might end up saving you money if you meet your cruise and fly back as scheduled, rather than pay cancellation fees.
Don't Cancel Until It's the Last Resort
After the minute-by-minute refreshes of your weather app, TV tuned to the Weather Channel until the minute you head out; delays at every turn; and the panic of a potential no-go, you might be worn down enough to just say, "Forget the whole thing!" and cancel your cruise in advance. Don't. Unless you've purchased travel insurance that lets you cancel for any reason, you won't be reimbursed for a cruise you choose to cancel the week of departure. (You also can't switch to a different sailing without forfeiting your original cruise fare.) If you're unwilling to change your travel plans to fly in early or take a later flight to join your cruise at its first port if you miss embarkation, the cruise line has little to no monetary responsibility (as stated in their cancellation policies).
Recoup Your Losses
It's just not happening -- you can't make it to your cruise despite trying all available options. Again, insurance is the key word here. About every cruise line contract stipulates that they are not to be held liable in the event you cannot make it to embarkation. If you have cruise line or third-party travel insurance and are prevented from reaching your cruise due to weather, you might be able to get a reimbursement for sunk costs, depending on the terms and conditions of your particular policy.