Living with credit, Protecting yourself, Travel

What to do if your upcoming trip is in a disaster area

Erica Sandberg

You’ve dreamed, prepped and paid for a special getaway, and it’s finally on the horizon. Then a natural disaster hits. Instead of packing, you’re glued to the news, tracking hurricanes, witnessing heroic rescues from the rubble of earthquakes and watching flooding engulf your vacation spot.

As the tragedy unfolds and the death toll mounts, your heart breaks. With so many survivors’ lives upended and their homes and businesses in shambles, carrying on with a vacation seems insensitive at best. Yet you’re booked and the reservations on your credit card.

How can you do the right thing while also ensuring you’re not stuck with the expense? Here are six tips to help, whether you decide to cancel, to go ahead with your trip with some changes – or proceed with your travel plans but pitch in as a volunteer with the relief efforts.

1. Get accurate advice from fellow travelers.
News reports will provide you with an idea of the bigger picture, but not what’s going on with a specific property. If you can’t get in touch with the hotel – or can but you’re concerned they may be putting too positive a spin on its habitability – jump on a super-active travel forum.

Type in the name of the property and ask guests who are there what they’re experiencing, says Brian Hoyt, spokesman for TripAdvisor.

Maybe it’s as fine as you’re told on the phone. Then again, maybe it’s worse. This is not the time to guess. “Make sure you do your homework and read about what others are saying in real time,” Hoyt says.

“Forums will give you accurate descriptions of what’s happening. Get the voice of the people.”

2. Act fast to reduce financial penalties.
Katie Hammel, a San Francisco Bay Area travel writer, is currently booked for a Mexico City vacation with her husband. She’s just one of tens of thousands weighing her options after an earthquake collapsed buildings.

“I felt terrible for the people,” says Hammel. “We don’t know what to do now. The city is going through a lot and we don’t want to be there taking up space and resources. But I’m talking to a friend who is there, and she thinks it will settle down soon.”

Hammel has just a few days to decide before she can cancel her Airbnb reservation with just a small administrative charge, but it’s the airline that will be the problem.

“They were giving flight waivers for two days, but that’s passed.” Switching the flight will result in a significant fee.

Time really is money. While uncertainty about what to do after a natural disaster is normal, try to make a decision as quickly as possible so you can protect your finances.

3. Conditions not OK? If you can, postpone.
Even if the resort or rental property is intact, you might feel horrible about taking a pleasure trip to an area where so many people are suffering. That makes sense, but remember that tourism is vital to many cities and beach communities.

“I’m working with a hotel now that was affected by Irma,” says Jane Coloccia Teixeira, president of JC Communications, who represents several hotels and resorts in the Caribbean and Florida that were impacted by recent hurricanes.

“It is closed until early October, but they are doing a marketing campaign to get people to come back and book soon so they can get their employees back to work.

“Many people were hit hard with personal losses and damages at home and it would be even worse if they couldn’t come back to work and start to resume some sense of normalcy and earn a living!”

4. Turn a hedonistic trip into a humanitarian one.
If you’re stuck with the flight and don’t want to stand around while people are hurting and trying to pick up the pieces, consider volunteering with relief efforts.

For example, you might have upcoming arrangements to go to the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico. You wouldn’t want to self-deploy and head down without a plan. Contact a reputable charity like All Hands Volunteers, which will be in St. Thomas as soon as they get the green light.

“Our organization will offer a place to stay while you are in the community as well as all your meals and the tools to make an impact,” says Erik Dyson, the executive director and CEO of All Hands Volunteers.

“We think this is the responsible thing to do. The communities that have been affected by Hurricane Irma and the most recent hurricane, Maria, need more hands to help.”

5. Request a rebooking at an affiliated property.
Maybe the hotel or resort you booked is significantly damaged and won’t be able to take guests for weeks. Ask for help finding alternate places to stay that are available.

“One property is not going to open at all and has no idea about when it will,” says Teixeira, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. “They’re all trying to work with other hotels to get people rebooked.

“Go to the website, call the 800 number, and they will help,” she says. “Most places are accommodating.”

The only caveat, she says, concerns small, independent boutique hotels. When properties are not part of a chain, you could have trouble reclaiming your deposit. If they don’t communicate with you and you’re unable to get in touch with management, contact the credit card company you used to book and try to cancel the charge.

6. Appeal to your credit card issuer.
The majority of hotels, airlines and third-party travel bookers are currently working overtime to make sure that tourists, vacationers and family members who had been looking forward to seeing loved ones don’t lose financially if they opt to cancel, Hoyt says.

However, in the end, you may just be better off scrapping the trip. If you’re getting resistance from the companies you’ve booked with, turn to your plastic.

If you’re like most people, you’ve put the majority of the expenses on your credit card. Many accounts are equipped with trip interruption and cancellation insurance policies. Extreme weather usually falls under the coverage, and that includes natural disasters.

So, if you did purchase the various elements of your vacation with your card, file a claim with the issuer so you can be reimbursed.

Eventually – and with great effort and time – most places will return to normal. Buildings will be rebuilt, restaurants will reopen and beaches will once again be populated with sunbathers. In the meantime, do what you can to minimize your outlay for a vacation that isn’t what you anticipated.

And don’t hesitate to contribute to a worthy cause, whether it’s the Red Cross or some other nonprofit organization – maybe even as a volunteer helping those in need in Mexico City, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida or Texas. It could turn out to be the most memorable and special trip you will ever take.

See related: How card travel insurance can save you, Can you count on your card’s travel insurance?

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