The cruise industry calls it “Wave Season” and the rest of us call it “Hurricane Season.” It’s the time of year in late summer and early fall when cruises in the Caribbean are available at bargain prices due to the higher probability of your vacation being interrupted by Mother Nature. Depending on how you look at it, I was either fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to have a cruise planned for the Bahamas and Key West at the exact time Hurricane Irene was delivering between category 2 and 3 winds on those islands.
I was on the Carnival Conquest which set sail from Galveston, TX on the 21st for a seven day itinerary to the Bahamas and Key West – an Eastern Caribbean itinerary I had not experienced. The vast majority of sailings from Galveston, which is the closest port to our home in Austin, TX, are only to islands we refer to as the Holy Trinity of Western Caribbean cruises: Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel.
Upon boarding, we were told by the captain that they were keeping a keen eye on the weather in our scheduled ports, but that no changes had been made. Since every forecast model had Irene blasting through the Bahamas in just a few days, we suspect the determination had been made to not proceed to the Bahamas and that representatives in the home office were scrambling to find ports that were both available and out-of-dodge from Irene.
It was no doubt a busy time for Carnival, as we were only one of eleven ships that required an itinerary change. In all, over 24 ships from Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity, and Holland America had itinerary changes.
About mid-day through our first day at sea, the captain announced that we would not be sailing to any of our original ports of call, and that we would instead be visiting three ports in Mexico: Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Progreso.
We were on deck near the shops when the announcement was made, and there was a huge array of emotions among the other passengers. Several were excited about the new ports, and some were disgusted. “I’ve already been there!” “Progreso is a dump – don’t get off the ship!”
Admittedly, we were a little bummed that we would not be sailing on our original itinerary – but those are the chances you take when taking a cruise during hurricane season. And considering, at that point, Jamaica and Grand Cayman could potentially be affected, staying on the other side of the Gulf was the only reasonable decision both for the safety of everyone on board – and being able to enjoy ports of call that weren’t experiencing 115 sustained wind speeds.
Benefits of Booking a Cruise during Hurricane Season (Wave Season)
The biggest benefit to booking a cruise during hurricane season is the price discount – the same itineraries in peak months can run several times higher than those in late summer and early fall. The price is lower, but the guarantee of sticking to your original itinerary diminishes significantly.
Not far behind is the oft forgot benefit of mobility. If you had planned a normal vacation to the Bahamas (flight, rental car/taxi, several nights at Atlantis), you most likely would have had to cancel your trip and received minimal money-back unless you had purchased some form of travel insurance. Even if you got all your money back, timing a vacation between two jobs and kids’ school can be anything but easy – so rebooking something else in the last minute can be daunting at best.
Cruises have the benefit of just turning and going somewhere else – your itinerary may have changed, but you don’t have to re-pack, look for available last-minute lodging and travel arrangements, etc.
Booking excursions through the ship is always a safe bet – but as with any safe option – the price is always a little higher. We’re fans of booking outside the cruise lines to save a little money, but you may want to re-think during hurricane season.
For those who booked excursions through Carnival on the original itinerary, cancelations were immediate and credits to the ship account followed. For those booking outside – many were left paying high on-ship telephone or internet rates to make cancelations for trips they had booked themselves. The deposit/refund policy is different for every private vendor – but undoubtedly some folks lost a few bucks by going on their own.
We had one excursion planned (Horseback riding in Freeport), though they only take cash on the day you leave – so no money had exchanged hands. Once we returned home, we had an email from the vendor letting us know horseback riding wouldn’t be available during the hurricane.
I normally spend quite a bit of time searching and reading about excursions prior to booking outside of Carnival, but when the itinerary changes mid-cruise, you are nearly entirely at the will of the cruise’s excursion desk. In Carnival’s case, excursions can be viewed and booked from the TV in the stateroom – and we found that clicking through this was a quicker way to spend $600 than even the Casino. The only problem was availability – since so many choose to book on their own, and with everyone on-board forced to go through Carnival for excursions, many were quickly sold out and lots of people who waited to sign up were left with nothing to do.
We would have loved to go on our original itinerary to the Bahamas and Key West – but we gambled when booking during hurricane season and lost. In the end we weren’t surprised, but pleased that even though our plans were changed we could still relax on warm sandy beaches, enjoy quality excursions in each port we went to, and enjoy the on-board activities and dining with our family – which was ultimately our main goal.