With the eastern Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma’s whipping winds and rain last week, all the major cruise lines with plans to sail there in the near future are scrambling to accommodate passengers and change itineraries

Most cruise lines canceled sailings that were scheduled in the days immediately after Irma wreaked havoc on popular ports of call, and offered customers full reimbursements. Some, including Royal Caribbean (which would normally have at least 10 mega-ship sailings in the Caribbean in September), added an incentive for travelers to attempt another cruise vacation: 25 percent off a future booking. 

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Some lines have been diverting ships to deliver relief supplies to the most-devastated areas. Meanwhile, the big lines, such as Carnival, Disney and Norwegian, are "rejiggering their schedules," says Chris Gray Faust, senior editor at CruiseCritic.com.

One alternative to sailing the eastern Caribbean is to move upcoming sailings westward. While hugely popular cruise destinations in those eastern islands — the British Virgin Islands, St. John and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and St. Martin — were pummeled, western islands were spared serious damage. Norwegian has announced that all eastern Caribbean cruises scheduled through November will go to the western Caribbean instead: ports in Mexico, Honduras, Belize, Jamaica or Grand Cayman, for instance. Royal Caribbean postponed a Sept. 10 eastern Caribbean sailing of its massive Oasis of the Seas to the 13th, and is now headed toward Mexico (in such cases passengers can get a 100 percent credit toward a future cruise if they cancel).

The cruise companies (not to mention cruise-loving travelers) are relieved that Florida was less battered than expected. The sunshine state’s major ports, which see 12.3 million cruise passengers departing every year, have reopened for business in the last few days, including those in Fort Lauderdale, Cape Canaveral and Miami (the three busiest cruise ports in the world, according to Cruise Industry News).

But while the cruise lines have so far been generous with passengers wanting to cancel or change their post-Irma cruise plans, their policies are tougher in normal times. Norwegian's website, for instance, explains that passengers will receive no refund if they cancel within 30 days of a week-long cruise, and within 15 days for a shorter trip.

Gray Faust of CruiseCritic recommends that travelers choosing to cruise during hurricane season, traditionally June 1 through the end of November, always buy travel insurance that covers canceling for any reason. She adds that insurance is especially important during August and September, when some of the most serious storms have hit the Caribbean in recent years. That's why you can often find bargains on cruises during those months. 

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