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How Travel Agents are Handling Current Hurricane Threats

TravelPulse logo TravelPulse 2018-09-13 Joe Pike

Sea wave during storm. (photo via andrej67 / iStock / Getty Images Plus) © Getty Images Sea wave during storm. (photo via andrej67 / iStock / Getty Images Plus) As three powerful storms - Florence, Isaac, and Olivia - threaten to ruin a slew of warm-weather vacations this week, TravelPulse chatted with some seasoned travel consultants on how to handle concerned clients.

Here’s what we learned.

Florence and Isaac Issues

According to a National Hurricane Advisory issued at 11 a.m. this morning, Florence has prompted hurricane warnings for the area from South Santee River, South Carolina to Duck, North Carolina; Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. A hurricane watch is in effect for Edisto Beach, South Carolina to South Santee River.

The storm is currently moving northwest and will continue in that direction through Thursday, according to the advisory. Florence is expected to slow down considerably by late Thursday into Friday and move slowly through early Saturday.

The National Hurricane Center is also reporting that Florence will move over the southwestern Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda and the Bahamas today, and approach the coast of North Carolina or South Carolina in the hurricane warning area on Thursday and Friday.

“Florence has not affected our clients yet, but this is developing and getting larger and closer, so it could affect our Atlanta connections if it keeps up,” said Angie Courtney, a travel associate with Sunflower Travel in Wichita, Kansas. “Currently, we have travelers with destinations in the path of Isaac.”

Speaking of Isaac, according to a National Hurricane Center advisory issued at 11 a.m., hurricane watches have been downgraded to tropical storm warnings for Martinique, Dominica, and Guadeloupe. A tropical storm watch is in effect for Antigua, Montserrat, Saba,St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, and Nevis.

According to the National Hurricane Center, a tropical storm warning means that tropical storm conditions are expected somewhere within the warning area within 36 hours, while a tropical storm watch means that tropical storm conditions are possible within the watch area within 36 to 48 hours.

Because the weather reports are constantly changing, Courtney recommends that all agents have a storm tracking app on their phones.

“I get updates about every hour on the location, direction and expected impact,” she said. “The app is MAX Tracker. This helps me keep a close eye on the situation before the airlines start issuing waivers so I can prepare my clients/give them 'plan b' options, etc.”

Courtney told TravelPulse she currently has honeymooners who are supposed to connect in Atlanta on Friday and land in the Dominican Republic that afternoon, but Florence and Isaac could impact those plans.

So how is she handling it?

“We met on Sunday to go over a few options such as re-routing, possible travel date alternatives, and what will happen if/when the airline issues a waiver,” said Courtney. “I give them updates as I receive them with radar maps.”

Amy McHugh, co-owner of Dream Makers Vacation Services in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also suggests tackling the issues as soon as possible.

“First of all, we try to be proactive versus reactive and that helps tremendously,” said McHugh. “We start with emails and offer phone calls if the client wants to speak n the phone. We re-confirm their cell numbers and offer ours. We confirm our tour operator's hours/plans for the storm, so we know those resources. We basically clear our calendars to be available.”

Making agents’ lives a little easier is the fact that most people, especially after last year’s devastating hurricane season, are now more likely to purchase travel protection than they were in years past.

“I feel like this year we have not had to really push the insurance options. People are starting to ask for it at the time of inquiry,” said Courtney, “and if they don’t, we’ve been able to highlight the benefits well enough that most people don’t hesitate.”

And McHugh and Dream Makers Vacations Services are seeing a similar pattern.

“Vacations are important for many reasons and it is the best way to protect your vacation investment,” said McHugh. “Over 90 percent of our clients purchase travel protection. We ask for a disclaimer if a client declines it.”

And travel insurance doesn’t just give the client peace of mind, it helps the agent sleep better at night as well.

“I also have some clients concerned about tropical storm Issac, but thankfully they took my advice and purchased cancel-for-any-reason travel protection,” said Sarah Bonsall, an advisor with Sunset Travel in Scottsdale, Arizona. “So, if the storm strengthens, we can cancel their current trip and rebook them.”

Increased travel insurance purchases is just another indicator that the traveling public that is willing to risk vacationing during hurricane season is getting savvier with every storm. And the agents we spoke to also think the travel industry has improved, as far as swift action goes.

As a result of Florence, American Airlines has waived change fees for customers flying between now and September 16 to impacted airports as far south as Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia and as far North as Virginia.

Other major carriers in the United States, including Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, have similar travel advisories in place, with Southwest even issuing waivers for travelers using airports as far north as Baltimore and Washington D.C.

“This year’s waivers are ahead of the game,” said Courtney. “In the past, we only had one or two days’ notice. However, those have been smaller storms/hurricanes. This year, for Florence, we received a notice from Delta [on Monday] when it is expected to make landfall on Friday.”

And the largest airlines in the U.S. aren’t the only carriers waiving change fees for Florence. Other companies such as Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines, JetBlue and Spirit Airlines have all issued special travel advisories.

“The airlines were quick this year to waive change fees, so we were able to get them in a day early,” said Bonsall. “No additional cost for airfare and they only had to pay for the additional night at the resort. I think after last year's season, the airlines and resorts have become more proactive. It has made assisting clients much easier.”

But McHugh thinks the airlines could still do better.

“As soon as the weather is brewing, they should relax their policies right away and not wait for their competitors to make the call,” she said. “After all, a client making a change is better than the client canceling and not traveling at all. Traveling clients are what creates revenue.”

And other obstacles still stand in an agent’s way when storms are brewing.

“The biggest struggle right now is hold times,” said Bonsall. “Trying to get through to make the changes for them. My clients have been extremely grateful to have a travel agent who will take care of everything for them. They don't have to worry about a thing.”

Tropical Storm Olivia

Tropical storm Olivia is giving Hawaii specialists something to closely monitor this week.

According to the latest advisory by the National Hurricane Center, Olivia has prompted tropical storm warnings in Oahu, Maui County, and Hawaii County. Maui County includes Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Kahoolawe.

“Tourism has suffered a bit in recent weeks, but not too bad from what the hoteliers explained to me,” said Neal Miller, owner of the Neal Miller Travel Company in Atlanta, Georgia. “Clients are listening to our guidance in 2018, more so than in previous years.”

According to the National Hurricane Center, some weakening is forecast during the next 48 hours, but Olivia is expected to remain a tropical storm for the next day or so.

“I have a family traveling to Maui and a honeymoon couple visiting both Maui and Kauai in the next week and neither has canceled or asked to change their dates or location,” said Patti Lehman, an advisor with Travel 67, which is based in Fort Wayne, Indiana and is an affiliate of Vacation Experts, a Signature Travel Network agency. “I am keeping them updated on the situation and, of course, we are all hoping it doesn't turn into a hurricane.”

Related video: Some airlines waive fees for those in the path of Hurricane Florence (Provided by CBS News)

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