Last week, the cruise ship Marco Polo neatly dodged a hurricane in the Azores, of all places. It was as easy as skirting the storm and moving on to spend extra time in the next port of call.
Hurricanes must be respected, of course. In 1998, the schooner Fantome, sailing for Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, was cornered by Hurricane Mitch off Honduras. When it sank, 31 crew members lost their lives.
Still, ocean-going cruise ships are a pretty safe bet in the Caribbean this time of year. Ships have gotten bigger, but, more importantly, they are packed with modern electronics that help them keep track of weather and ocean conditions. Communications gear gives them real-time access to sophisticated private forecasting services.
A case can be made, in fact, that a cruise ship is the safest place to be during hurricane season in the Caribbean. Unlike land destinations, ships can move in any direction. When a bona fide hurricane collides with a land resort, Mother Nature generally wins. Puerto Costa Maya in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, built to withstand strong windstorms, was out of commission for over a year after a direct hit from Category 5 Hurricane Dean in 2007.
So agents can with some confidence put clients on a Caribbean-based ship this time of year and not lose sleep over their safety. But there is a caveat.
While passengers are safe, they may not go exactly where they want on their cruise. Changes of itinerary are almost routine in hurricane season. Last week, Allure of the Seas dropped a scheduled trip through the Eastern Caribbean and headed west instead, away from Tropical Storm Isaac. New York-based ships have been known to swap a Caribbean route for New England/Canada.
It doesn't serve anyone to discourage travelers from a Caribbean cruise, especially with the generally favorable prices that agents can obtain in late August and September. But travel agents should prepare their clients for flexibility.
Do you have a client that just wants to cruise and doesn't care where they go? Are they likely to take the minor disruptions in stride? If they're stuck for a day or two after the cruise or have to take a bus ride to a second port, will they find a way to have a good time anyway? Sign them up.
On the other hand, someone who is dead set on visiting a cherished port of call should pick another time of year. That client is likely to be unhappy with the cruise and unhappy with their agent if they are blindsided by a broken itinerary.
Temper expectations. Encourage flexibility. Acknowledge that the perfect vacation can be a bit harder to achieve during hurricane season, but a good, and safe, cruise isn't hard to find.