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Gulf Coast Oil Spill: What Travelers Need to Know

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As we pass the two-month anniversary of the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, located 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico, oil continues to gush in exorbitant amounts into the Gulf, and has made landfall in at least four U.S. states. The region is one of the country's underrated gems; just this year, Frommer's declared the protected beaches of the Florida Panhandle one of its top destinations for 2010.

Not anymore, right? Well, not quite; while reports do say that many travelers are looking away from the region as a place to spend their travel dollars, perhaps for some time to come, a loyal minority will continue to visit the area. Not all beaches are closed or even affected at present (for example, the west coast of Florida and the Keys have seen no fallout yet), and certainly attractions like the new Margaritaville resort hotel in Pensacola, which opens this month, will attract folks who prioritize wetting their whistle over wetting their toes. But the potential impact of the oil spill on travel to the area can't be understated; here is a roundup of resources and concerns if you are considering a visit in the near future.

Facts and Resources
The news from the Gulf is updated almost 24 hours a day at present, and I will not try to lasso that torrent of information here, but here are a couple regularly updated resources that might help potential travelers get a handle on what the spill might mean to their own travel plans.

For a view of recent and present conditions, the following trackers offer slightly different looks and information, and are well worth following:

  • NY Times Spill Tracker and Map
  • USA Today Spill Tracker and Map

    You will want to use the animation or interactive date bar just above the graphics to get a true sense of the current situation, as on any given day the area affected by the spill changes based on winds, currents and weather conditions.

    NOLA.com also has oil spill coverage, including graphics and trackers, from a New Orleans perspective.

    As for future projections, a lot will depend on when (if?) the flow of oil is stopped. If it continues unabated for a long time, many experts believe we will eventually see tar balls and even oil pools or plumes coming ashore right up the Eastern Seaboard to Long Island and beyond, eventually even to Europe. Weather conditions will play a part as well, and the spread of the spill will be dependent on some potentially volatile factors, including ocean currents and the Atlantic hurricane season, which is predicted to be fairly active.

    As for the Florida west coast and Keys, no fallout from the spill has been detected yet, but officials are watching carefully.

    Booking Travel: Resorts Are Open, but Buyer Beware
    Travel companies of all stripes are working hard in hopes of preventing folks from avoiding the area entirely. For example, Orbitz is offering to refund lodging costs if a beach is closed at a customer's destination. The guarantee is good for stand-alone hotel reservations through July 31 at present.

    In general, be sure you understand cancellation policies when booking hotels, car rentals and even airfare to the region.

    Some resorts and attractions in spill-related areas remain open for business; for example, in Pensacola, the closest and first major resort town to be affected by the spill, the new Margaritaville Beach Hotel is on schedule to open later this month. And check out this photo of Pensacola Beach, taken on June 17 and posted to VisitFlorida's Twitter feed.

    That does not necessarily mean that you should expect beaches to be open and unrestricted, restaurants to be fully staffed, local menu items to be available, and no evidence of the oil spill whatsoever. If an area has been directly affected by the spill, you will obviously experience some restrictions on where you can go and what you can do, particularly for water activities -- for example, some kitesurfing operations and certainly fishing excursions have been curtailed or canceled. You may even find this to be the case in locations that have not been obviously affected by the spill, but where authorities are exercising caution when it comes to beach and water access, fishing regulations and the like.

    In part due to extensive experience with hurricanes, governments and tourist bureaus in the area understand well how to work with wary travelers to make them comfortable and confident that their visit will not be wrecked. For example, the Pensacola tourist bureau has been hustling to update and post information about hotel cancellation and refund policies (many of which have been relaxed dramatically so folks can keep reservations while events play out), discounts, beach and water conditions, and more: www.visitpensacola.com/content/oil-spill-update.

    Similarly, VisitFlorida.com is encouraging visitors to post photos of the state's beaches and sights in real time: www.visitflorida.com/floridalive.

    When researching conditions and restrictions, I recommend that you contact local authorities and bureaus directly if you are planning a trip to the area; they will have more definitive and reliable information than a front desk clerk who picks up the phone when you call a hotel. But if you want to know a hotel's cancellation policies, or if you need to cancel, I recommend calling the hotel directly. Many do not have official policies, but will work with you as best they can.

    Travel Insurance
    Unfortunately, many travel insurance policies provides no insurance whatsoever against claims related to this (or any other) oil spill. A disaster like an oil spill does not come under the "weather situation," "named peril" or other similar common scenarios employed by the travel insurance industry.

    travel insurance policy compassIn most cases, this means purchasing a "cancel for any reason" policy; these tend to be more expensive, and also do not always pay 100 percent of losses. Additionally, pricing on coverage for events like the oil spill or the Icelandic volcano eruption can vary considerably; you may want to check out one of the online policy comparison sites before purchase; a few we like include TripInsuranceStore.com and InsuremyTrip.com. For more help, check out our guide to purchasing travel insurance.

    Whenever you are purchasing travel insurance, you want to be as clear and specific as possible when discussing the extent of your coverage -- before paying for the policy. I recommend that you call and speak to an actual person, rather than just booking online, and also read the full text of the policy before purchase. During your conversation, insist on clear answers on what is and is not covered by your policy. Pose your questions very clearly; rather than asking: "Am I covered for the oil spill?", instead ask: "If I decide to cancel my trip for any reason related to the oil spill, am I covered?" or "If my hotel closes down due to the oil spill, is reimbursement of my both my hotel and my flight covered? What about extra costs related to booking a replacement hotel or flight?"

    You get the idea. If your questions are vague, the answers may be vague in turn -- and then when your problems become very specific, you may find yourself without coverage. Finally, you will want to make sure the final written policy corresponds to the one you were sold over the phone: that is, get it in writing.

    For Cruisers
    Florida, the Gulf and the Caribbean are extremely popular cruise departure points and ports of call. Melissa Paloti, managing editor of Cruise Critic, notes that "the cruise industry has not yet been impacted by the oil spill -- that is, no cruises or port calls have been canceled or significantly altered. Only Carnival (which has homeports in Mobile, New Orleans and Florida) has made slight alterations to departure times so as to avoid sailing through oily parts of the Gulf at night. It's a situation that we're watching closely because changing weather patterns and currents could impact how close the oil comes to cruise ports."

    Cruisers can keep an eye on Cruise Critic's news section for the latest information.

    Relief-Related Travel
    We find that many of our readers who engage in truly independent travel are also inclined to combine their enthusiasm for travel with an interest in joining humanitarian and relief efforts.

    However, if you want to help out in the Gulf, don't simply show up. Resources in these situations already tend to be under strain, particularly as the days pass, the situation becomes more dire and more people head to the region. Some Gulf Coast relief efforts have already been rebuffed -- see the Oil Spill Volunteers Web site for an example. The site recommends that you make direct contact with the affected states, which have set up their own Web sites to coordinate volunteer inquiries and efforts:

  • Volunteer Louisiana: (800) 755-5175
  • Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service: (888) 353-1793
  • Volunteer Florida: (850) 921-5172
  • 211 Connects Alabama: (866) 869-4921

    Additionally, there are other ways to help, including donations, coastal monitoring, "adopt an animal" programs and more:

  • The Gulf Oil Spill: How You Can Help (video)
  • 10 Things You Can Do to Help Clean Up the Gulf Oil Spill

    Tread Lightly
    Finally, if you do visit, or even if you have to cancel, try to show some sensitivity to the plight of the locals in the region. They have been truly hard hit the past few years -- whether by massive hurricanes or a massive oil spill -- and are really feeling it about now, with reports of depression, anxiety and even suicide coming from the hardest-hit locations. A disaster of this magnitude, the effects of which could linger for decades, isn't only a threat to their livelihood, but also to their way of life -- which seems a trite phrase until you think about what it would be like to have all of your favorite places and pastimes covered in oil.

    On his Lonely Planet blog, Robert Reid recently tweeted that he was "On dolphin sunset cruise in Pensacola Bay. Capt says waiting for oil is more agonizing than having 2 homes ruined by hurricanes." The picture that evokes is worth much more than 1,000 words, let alone 140 characters.

    Go Anyway,
    Ed Hewitt
    Features Editor
    The Independent Traveler

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