Caribbean cruises: What you need to know in the wake of Irma, Maria

In the wake of hurricanes in the Caribbean, port area shops and restaurants often are among the first businesses to reopen.

Caribbean travelThe devastation brought about by hurricanes Irma and Maria in the region probably h have forced cruise lines to cancel or adjust dozens of sailings, and more changes are in the works.

Most destinations in the Caribbean were unaffected by the storms, and a large percentage of cruises this fall will go ahead exactly as they were planned.  Others only will see small adjustments.

Here, answers to some of the most common questions that cruisers have been asking.

Is my Caribbean cruise out of Florida still on?

In most cases, yes. Cruise lines canceled more than a dozen Caribbean and Bahamas voyages out of Florida as Irma approached, but nearly all sailings out of the state now are departing on schedule. The exception: Trips to the Bahamas on Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration. The West Palm Beach, Fla.-based, 1,900-passenger ship has been chartered to FEMA through late December to serve as a floating hotel for relief workers, and all of its sailings through Dec. 23 have been canceled.

What if I’m cruising from San Juan?

It’s increasingly clear that Puerto Rico suffered widespread devastation from Maria, and a massive recovery effort is just ramping up. The two lines with ships based in San Juan at this time of year, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, already have canceled departures for the coming weekend, and Carnival also has canceled its Oct. 8 sailing from the city. Carnival said its pier in San Juan suffered extensive damage that will take weeks to repair. As of now, Carnival’s Oct. 15 sailing out of San Juan still is listed as on its schedule, and Royal Caribbean has yet to cancel its Oct. 7 sailing out of the city. But changes to these trips could be coming. A travel alert posted on Carnival’s website Thursday said revisions to the line’s Oct. 15, 22 and 29 voyages out of San Juan are in the works. Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, is using its San Juan-based ship, Adventure of the Seas, to evacuate thousands of people from Puerto Rico and St. Thomas to the U.S. mainland.

Even if the ships are sailing, aren’t a lot of the ports they visit closed?

Not at all. Most were unaffected by Irma and Maria. The storms knocked two of the region’s busiest cruise ports — Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas and Philipsburg, St. Maarten — off cruise schedules for weeks and maybe months. Several other less-visited cruise destinations including Tortola in the British Virgin Islands also are closed to ships for now. But as big as they were, Irma and Maria only affected a small slice of the vast Caribbean Sea. While they left a trail of destruction across a string of Eastern Caribbean islands, the storms didn’t touch the Western Caribbean — home to more than a dozen cruise ports including Cozumel, Mexico and Harvest Caye, Belize. Nor did they affect Southern Caribbean cruise destinations such as Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. Also relatively unaffected were the big ports of The Bahamas, which are among the biggest destinations for cruise ships sailing from Florida.

When will the affected islands reopen to cruise ships?

Officials on hurricane-ravaged islands such as St. Thomas have made the return of cruise ships a priority as spending by cruisers will provide an economic boost that is critical to recovery efforts. The governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands has set late October as a target to have ships back in St. Thomas and St. Croix, even as many hotels in the territory are expected to remain closed for at least six months, and basic infrastructure such as power remains down in many locations. Other hard-hit destinations such as St. Maarten — the Dutch side of the island of St. Martin — are pushing to reopen to ships before the end of the year.

I’m on a ship scheduled to visit St. Thomas in the coming weeks. If St. Thomas still is closed to cruise vessels, where will it go?

Cruise ships scheduled to visit hard-hit islands in the coming weeks are being redirected to other destinations as substitutes. Some vessels scheduled to visit St. Thomas and St. Maarten instead are going to nearby St. Kitts and Antigua. Others are sailing to ports in the Western Caribbean.

But I really wanted to see St. Thomas. If my ship isn’t going there, can I cancel the trip?

You can cancel, but you might not get all of your money back. The fine print in cruise line contracts allows them to change ports for any reason. If your trip is months away, you generally can cancel for a full refund (in some cases, you’ll lose a non-refundable deposit). But if you cancel a soon-to-depart sailing, you’ll only get a portion of your money back. The “final payment” deadline that triggers cancellation penalties varies by line. At Carnival, it’s 75 days before departure for seven-night sailings. If you cancel a seven-night Carnival cruise from 75 to 56 days in advance of departure, the penalty is the deposit amount. After that, the penalty jumps to 50% of the total fare, and it continues to rise as the sailing date approaches.

If my ship does go to one of these hard-hit islands will anything be open?

In the wake of hurricanes in the Caribbean, port area shops and restaurants often are among the first businesses to reopen, long before residential areas return to normal. Officials in St. Thomas say merchants along Main Street in Charlotte Amalie, where cruise ships arrive, already are ready for tourists to return. St. Thomas also is racing to get top attractions such as the Magens Bay beach area cleaned up and ready for visitors in the next few weeks.

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