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How to change travel plans as Hurricane Irma bears down

  • Hurricane Irma is a Category 5 hurricane.
  • Airlines have already begun issuing travel waivers for certain destinations in Irma's path.
  • Several cruise lines have canceled or shortened sailings, or changed itineraries.

With forecasters struggling to pinpoint Hurricane Irma's precise path, airlines and cruise lines are making it easier for U.S. travelers to troubleshoot their plans and stay out of the Category 5 storm's way.

The latest advisories from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center predict that the "potentially catastrophic" Category 5 storm will move over parts of the northern Virgin Islands on Wednesday. Its path puts it on track to pass near or just north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic by Thursday.

"Some fluctuations in intensity are likely during the next day or two, but Irma is forecast to remain a powerful category 4 or 5 hurricane during the next couple of days," according to the advisory.

A long list of areas are under hurricane warnings, including Antigua, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico; areas under a hurricane watch include parts of Haiti and Cuba, and the central and southeastern Bahamas.

"Interests elsewhere in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as well as Cuba, the northwestern Bahamas, and Florida should monitor the progress of Irma," the advisory notes.

"Not only are we not out of the woods yet, it's still looking daunting as it relates to the east coast of Florida." -Paul Walsh, director of weather strategy, IBM Global Business Services

(In August, NOAA raised its tropical storm and hurricane forecast for this year, predicting an "extremely active season." It expects 14 to 19 named storms, including five to nine hurricanes and two to five major hurricanes. Irma is the ninth named storm of the season, and the fourth hurricane. The center is also currently tracking the 10th and 11th named storms — Tropical Storm Jose and Tropical Storm Katia. Forecasters expect Jose to become a hurricane by late Wednesday.)

It's still too early to say what impact Hurricane Irma could have on the United States.

"We can't tell at this point exactly where it's going to go," said meteorologist Paul Walsh, director of weather strategy at IBM Global Business Services.

Forecast models still give the storm a high probability of hitting South Florida on Saturday into Sunday, Walsh said. From there, the storm is likely to move north, affecting Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

But there have been subtle changes to the storm's track overnight, Walsh said, which could bring the storm up the east coast of Florida and up to South Carolina.

"Not only are we not out of the woods yet, it's still looking daunting as it relates to the east coast of Florida," he said.

A passenger checks the departure board as flights at Miami International Airport are canceled.
Getty Images
A passenger checks the departure board as flights at Miami International Airport are canceled.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott pre-emptively declared a state of emergency Monday, to prepare the state for Irma. Tuesday, he took additional steps including activating some National Guard members to assist with storm preparations and suspended tolls statewide to make it easier for residents to evacuate.

"While the exact path of Irma is not absolutely known at this time, we cannot afford to not be prepared," Scott said in a statement Monday. "This state of emergency allows our emergency management officials to act swiftly in the best interest of Floridians without the burden of bureaucracy or red tape."

The ease with which you can shift plans depends on where and when you're traveling. (See infographic below for tips.)

Major airlines — including American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit and United — have issued travel advisories related to Hurricane Irma and are waiving the change fees for travelers to reschedule their flights. As of early Wednesday, those advisories have expanded to include many Florida airports, as well as destinations in the Bahamas, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. But the eligible airports and travel dates vary.

As of Wednesday morning, Irma has affected 25 cruise sailings, including 10 cancellations, according to CruiseCritic.com. Policies vary by line, the site says; in many cases, passengers on canceled sailings will receive full refunds and those on shortened sailings, partial refunds. Some lines are also offering extras like reimbursed flight change fees and credits for future sailings.

As the storm's path becomes more defined, the airlines are likely to be proactive about canceling flights and issuing waivers for Florida and other areas in the Southeast, Walsh said. Travelers bound to, from or through areas likely to be affected should sign up for flight alerts to receive early notification of any changes, he said.

Irma is a named storm, so it's too late to pick up travel insurance for your trip. But if you already have a policy in place, check to see if its protections have kicked in (depending on your coverage, they may not have, yet).

For example, travelers may be covered to cancel their trip if their flights are canceled or have extensive delays, or if their accommodations in the Caribbean or Florida are uninhabitable or subject to mandatory evacuation, said Megan Singh, project management director for insurance marketplace Squaremouth.com. Florida residents who are under mandatory evacuation orders could also be covered to cancel.