As Texas struggles to deal with the aftermath of Harvey, a second major hurricane is expected to hit Puerto Rico and the British and U.S. Virgin Islands later today and into tomorrow.
— NHC Atlantic Ops (@NHC_Atlantic) September 5, 2017
This is forecasted to be a big storm, with potentially devastating repercussions. Even with the National Hurricane Center warning that “preparations should be rushed to completion,” there isn’t as much that can done on some of these islands. I lived in Hawaii as a kid during Hurricane Iniki, and options and resources can be much more limited during disasters than mainland cities. Semi-trucks full of supplies can’t be positioned nearby for immediate disaster relief, evacuation options are often limited to slightly higher ground that’s only slightly inland, and island infrastructure in general has fewer redundancies.
So unfortunately, it seems the Leeward Islands, at least, are in for a very challenging time.
The current path sends Irma deeper into the Caribbean (The Netherlands has already sent soldiers to their territories of Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius, and Saba, and has two navy vessels en route for recovery work), and current projections have the storm turning North into Florida.
— Eric Holthaus (@EricHolthaus) September 5, 2017
While Florida has already declared a state of emergency (and folks in Florida should really be making all necessary preparations), we aren’t seeing flight cancelations or waivers for Florida airports yet.
Most airlines have issued at least preliminary waivers for the Caribbean, however, and they’re more generous at this point than the initial policies were for Harvey.
Change your flights for free
At present, hundreds of flights have been canceled across the Leeward Islands. Given the current forecast, those numbers will almost certainly increase, even if there somehow isn’t major damage (we can all hope).
In general, the airlines are going to accommodate you if you’re able or willing to move your plans around — after all, they don’t benefit from having cranky passengers stuck in the terminal either. There are nuances to each policy though, so you can see the individual policies on the airline sites.
In what appears to be a troubling new trend for the airline, Delta’s waiver is again the most limited — when Spirit has a better customer accommodation plan, Atlanta really might need to reevaluate their policies.
Anyway, you can find the current change rules for each airline here:
Keep in mind that as the severity of the storm increases, the parameters of the waiver can change. Given what we’re seeing with the forecast, I wouldn’t be surprised if the date ranges on these waivers are expanded again, at a minimum.
And if you have travel planned to the Leeward Islands, or the Caribbean in general, or really even to Southern Florida, I’d highly recommend rescheduling if you can — even if the airports are functional later this week, many of these cities are going to be stressed by the demands of the storm, and it will take time to recover. As we’re seeing in Texas, hurricane-damaged areas can remain uninhabitable for weeks or months, and every available shelter may be needed by evacuees and rescue workers.
Tips for rebooking
Regardless of the reason for flight cancelations, phone queues can get ugly fast. Given that many people need to rebook at the same time, you might be able to get new plans confirmed more quickly by using an alternate method. This will become more of a concern if operations at the Miami airports are disrupted, but given the number of impacted Caribbean airports there will still be a sizable number of passengers involved.
Try the club lounge
If you’re already in the Caribbean, this is more complicated, as lounges are few and far between, but if you’re already at the airport en route to Puerto Rico or other islands, start with the lounge agents. They tend to have fewer passengers to deal with than the gate agents, and thus may have more time (and more patience), when it comes to rebooking your flight.
Reach out on social media
I’ve had good luck changing flights by sending direct messages to American via Twitter. Several other airlines have a Twitter presence as well, and while they might not be able to fix your reservation, it’s worth trying:
Avoid the domestic call centers
If you’re willing to spend a few dollars on Skype or Google Voice credit, calling the international call center for an airline can often save you an hour or more of hold time.
Almost all of these call centers have an English-speaking option, but you can also call Australia, or even just Canadian numbers can get you through faster.
- Air Canada international reservations
- American Airlines international reservations
- Delta Air Lines international reservations
- JetBlue international reservations
- United international reservations
If you have a rudimentary understanding of Spanish (like, just enough to get through the computer system), you can try the Spanish-speaking numbers. Again, fewer people calling means shorter hold times, and the agents typically speak English as well.
- American Airlines Spanish line: 1-800-633-3711
- Southwest Spanish line: 1-800-VAMONOS
- United Airlines Spanish line: 1-800-426-5561
Be your own advocate
This is maybe more a life philosophy than one specific to travel disruptions, but it holds true — no one cares about you (or your travel) as much as you do.
So be nice, but ask questions, present alternatives, be prepared to book your own hotel rather than waiting in line with a hundred other people for a voucher, and so forth.
If you stand around and wait, you will almost certainly have a worse time than those who are actively finding solutions to the situation.
Check your credit card coverage
If you purchased your tickets with a credit card, you may have some additional protection and benefits when your flight is delayed. Check with your credit card company, or see our list of popular travel cards with good delay coverage.
These cards will often cover your hotel, or the cost of a new flight, and so forth, so it’s good to know both the benefits and the requirements to file a claim.
This is looking to be another VERY serious storm. As I say every time we have a weather event, you want to be as proactive as possible in these situations. Pay attention to your flight, along with the status of your inbound aircraft, and be prepared to react quickly and creatively.
If you have plans to travel to the region, I’d suggest rescheduling now, as it looks like the ground situation is going to be messy at best. And keep in mind that even if you aren’t traveling in, to, or through the storm corridor, your aircraft might be, so you could still be impacted by this storm.
This isn’t a situation you can control, but you can lessen the impact on your life. The best thing to do is pay attention, and be as proactive as you can.
If you’re in the path of the storm, please be safe!