Travelers who plan to visit Florida need to change those plans immediately. Those currently vacationing in the state, particularly the south, need to leave.
As Hurricane Irma bears down on the state of Florida, with landfall expected as early as Saturday morning, travel has been one of the first services disrupted. On Thursday airlines cancelled nearly 200 flights in and out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports and more than 160 others in and out of Puerto Rico, according to Flight Aware flight tracker.
More than 900 flights have already been canceled to and from Miami airport alone for Friday and Saturday, and as the storm's path becomes more certain that number will likely grow. Airlines have already begun to issue travel warnings due to the hurricane and, even though its path remains uncertain, most advise that travelers either stay away from the state or evacuate if they can.
To make this easier on travelers, airlines including Delta (DAL) , American AAL, Southwest (LUV) , JetBlue (JBLU) , United (UAL) and more are waiving change and cancellation fees. Change fee waivers are particularly important, because they mean that travelers currently in the state of Florida can book a flight home without paying extra.
They should do so, because once the storm hits, it will get increasingly difficult to leave.
"Evacuations have already started for The Keys and the Miami area," wrote Albert Herrera, a senior vice president with Virtuoso Travel Advisors. "Travelers need to heed these orders and leave Florida as soon as possible, freeing up roads and flights for residents who are in search of safer places to sit out the storm."
"Until it's determined where Irma will make landfall and the damage she will cause, it's best for travelers to rebook their travel plans for a future date," he added.
For travelers in the mainland United States, escaping the path of a storm that has not yet made land will involve looking into a few factors.
The state of Florida has already declared a state of emergency, so anyone currently there should attempt to leave immediately. This applies particularly to people traveling in the southern vacation destinations such as Miami and Palm Beach. The state has designated specific evacuation zones, and the governor has said in no uncertain terms that, for anyone in those areas, "we can't save you once the storm hits."
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Travelers elsewhere, particularly along the Gulf Coast and up the eastern seaboard, should continue to watch the weather forecast carefully. As noted above, Hurricane Irma's path remains uncertain, and meteorologists aren't sure where it will go once making land. It may become necessary to evacuate from states even as far up as South Carolina depending on how circumstances develop.
Arrange for your safety and the safety of others first. Evacuate the region and cancel upcoming plans.
This will mean very real losses for many travelers. Even as airlines issue waivers for last-minute changes and cancellations, saving fliers the expense of lost airfare, many will still have to deal with related costs of canceling a trip. From hotels to cruises and package deals this can add up to thousands of dollars.
Recovering those losses will involve reviewing the details. If you haven't checked in, for example, many hotels will accept cancelations up to 24 hours in advance, refunding the value of the room. Others will cancel a booking when they can't honor it due to events out of their control.
If your travel plans are not covered by a provider policy, such as an airline waiver or a cancelation policy, the next alternative is to look to travel insurance. Although it's too late to purchase insurance now, since new policies will not cover a storm that has already been named, anyone holding an pre-existing policy can most likely recover the value of their trip. There are, however, any number of catches and provisos, as travel insurance generally requires the holder to leap through a number of hoops in order to claim any reimbursement.
While under ordinary circumstances a limited-value purchase, in the case of a total event such as Irma travel insurance can return substantial value. Most policies require the traveler to accept changes to their itinerary or to carry on with any part of the trip which they may reasonably and safely see through. So, for example, anyone with a cruise scheduled through Miami or the Caribbean who now finds themselves re-routed to Bermuda may not have a claim to make.
However anyone with a dedicated trip to south Florida should have little trouble recouping expenses under most standard insurance.
In particular, travelers should be sure to ask their airlines and insurance companies about destination-based rebooking options. Time can matter as much as money, and vacation days already carved out can be difficult to claw back. They should make sure they explore their options to rebook flights and hotels for the beaches of Mexico, Colombia, southern California and other warm climates.
In the short term, though, no traveler should consider heading down to Florida. How quickly visitors can return in the aftermath of the storm will depend on the damage it does, but sooner rather than later the communities of Puerto Rico, Barbuda, Antigua and Florida will need support.
"Until Irma's path becomes clear, it's difficult to know the short-term impact on future travel to Florida and the Caribbean," Herrera said. "That said, one of the best ways to bolster a destination impacted by any natural disaster is to travel there. These areas in particular are heavily reliant on tourism dollars, and they will need that support as soon as their doors reopen."
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Editors' pick: Originally published Sept. 7.