What do you do when a hurricane blows away your vacation plans? The Associated Press asked Pauline Frommer of Frommers.com and the Frommer travel guidebook series for advice.
WHERE TO START
Frommer says it all depends on "how you booked that vacation." If you booked an air-hotel package through Expedia, contact Expedia. If you booked it "a la carte" — booking hotel, cruise and airfare separately on your own — contact each vendor or company separately.
HOW ABOUT REFUNDS?
If you're going to a Caribbean island that suffered some damage but the hotel reopens, Frommer says you're likely not going to catch a break.
On the other hand, "If you're going to a place that seems like it's been blown off the map, like sadly St. Martin, you may have a better chance of getting a refund," she said.
Often travel providers try to "get you to shift your plans." Many of the cruise lines are announcing they'll still go to the Caribbean but just to a different island than originally planned.
"If you've already been to those Caribbean islands and you were hoping to see ones that are not currently accepting visitors, you may be out of luck," she said. There are also cases where seven-night cruises are reduced to four-night cruises and cruise lines seem to be giving money back in those cases.
For canceled cruises, "they're giving not only full refunds but depending on the cruise lines, they're giving a little extra: 25 percent off another cruise or 50 percent."
Airline policy is "fluid," Frommer said, with some waiving change fees for future travel if you rebook before a certain deadline, allowing you to apply the cost of the flight you no longer want to a new destination. But details vary, so contact the airline.
Be prepared to spend time online or on the phone. "Patience will be a real virtue right now," Frommer said. If you booked through a travel agency, they may be able to make those changes for you. As a last resort, "contact your credit card company. They may be able to duke it out for you."
HOTELS, HOME RENTALS AND THIRD-PARTY SITES
If you booked a home rental and made a deposit through a site like Homeaway.com or VRBO.com, they "act as the middleman" and "set up lines to help you get through to the individual owners," Frommer said. "They're not going to get you your money back but they are trying to facilitate communications. ... However they will not step in if you can't get your security deposit back."
WHAT? NO REFUND IF WE PAID FOR LODGING IN ADVANCE?
"That's a lesson we're all learning," Frommer said. "It's in their contracts that usually they're off the hook for all but the most egregious of circumstances, for example, if it's a scam and there's no home there. But with natural disasters, there's often an act of God clause that means they do not owe you anything when things go horrifically wrong on a huge scale."
Again, Frommer said, "it all depends on how you booked." If you made a reservation with no money down, "you should be able to cancel without penalty." But if you paid in advance for a discount on a hotel booking website, "you could be on the hook."
"The majority of travel insurance policies will cover you in those cases if you're traveling and the place is unsafe," Frommer said. But "you cannot buy the insurance after the storm has been announced. Once it's on the radar, you're out of luck."
Insurance may also fail to kick in if the hotel reopens — even if the "beach is gone and the trees are down and all of its neighbors are in rubble. ... If you can get there and stay there safely, it's considered your vacation, even if it's not the vacation of your dreams."