When Kathy Edmondson booked her second trip to Mexico for the summer, the deal seemed irresistible: $297 round-trip tickets from Portland, Ore., to Cancún.
But Hurricane Dean taught the second-grade teacher and other tourists some lessons about traveling in hurricane season. As people around her were boarding up windows and talking about evacuation, Edmondson spent $800 in airfare to assure her family got out safely.
On Aug. 18, the Edmondsons left Cancún on Mexicana Airlines, just a few hours before the carrier waived all penalties for making changes.
"We wanted to be proactive about getting out of there," she said.
Before traveling to hurricane-prone destinations in season (late spring to Nov. 30), consumers need to familiarize themselves with cancellation and change policies that apply in a natural disaster.
"This was an act of God, something from nature. People have a hard time understanding that airlines can't control that and can't reimburse them for that," said Theresa Bravo, spokesman for Mexicana.
In Edmondson's case, Bravo said, the passenger "got a little ahead" and began making arrangements on Aug. 17 -- before the airline had decided about its flights.
Bravo acknowledged that it was difficult for some passengers to remain calm and patient as they waited for the airlines to decide, but, if they rebooked before the fee-waived window opened, little could be done. She suggested that all travelers be prepared by reviewing their rights at airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/flyrights.htm.
Edmondson understands but remains frustrated that she was penalized for acting to protect her family.
As passengers investigated departures from Cancún International Airport, they found that penalties and waivers varied. American Airlines, for instance, waived all fees for passengers rebooking between Aug. 15 and 27, and Continental chose a window of Aug. 17 to 21 for its passengers to and from Mexico. Passengers flying Mexicana found a tighter window: Aug. 19 to 22.
"If someone is down there and gets antsy, we cannot guarantee, if they come home before those windows are announced, that they'll avoid the penalties and extra costs," said Erin Krause, spokesman for online travel agency Expedia.
Rosa Bobadilla of Indio didn't feel as though she could delay leaving Cancún, but she also didn't realize she would incur penalties because she didn't wait. She rebooked flights for the five people in her party for $1,500.
"Someone should have said, 'This will be the consequence of your not waiting until the airline makes its announcement,' " Bobadilla said. "I thought people would help me out, but I found out I was there to help myself."
Not all travelers are hurricane savvy, and some jump on the deals that exist thanks to the risk of rocky weather.
"You will find people who choose to travel during that time because there are bargains to be had," said Jim Cohn, spokesman for online travel agency Orbitz. "If you want to go on a Caribbean cruise at the end of August, my bet is you'll find a good deal."
If that's your choice, Cohn says his in-house weather center, staffed by former military air-traffic controllers, has several tips.
* Stay informed by subscribing to an e-mail weather alert such as Orbitz TLC ( www.orbitzandgo.com/tlc).
* Check your airline's policies before you go.
* Ask about hurricane guarantees at your hotel.
* Consider travel insurance.
Travelers who book online should contact the agency first to find out their first move.
Much of the heartache and expense can be avoided by buying travel insurance when you make your reservations.
"You can't buy homeowner's insurance after your house is on fire, and you have to buy your travel insurance before the storm is named and the warning issued," said Dan McGinnity, spokesman for AIG Travel Guard insurance.
He advises travelers to read their policy carefully to see what is covered. Most will offer assistance in rebooking airlines and hotel, arranging ground transportation, helping with lost passports and many other services. Depending on the policy, it may also cover nonrefundable ticket fees and expenses.
"If travelers decide to leave before a government-ordered evacuation, we have to look at it on a case-by-case basis," McGinnity said.
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