TRAVEL ALERT: Hurricane Irene May Snarl Air Travel - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

TRAVEL ALERT: Hurricane Irene May Snarl Air Travel

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(CNN) -- Travelers and airlines are casting a wary eye on the projected path of Hurricane Irene, getting ready to change plans if necessary as the storm gets closer to the United States.

The powerful storm battered the Bahamas on Thursday and is forecast to pound much of the U.S. East Coast starting early Saturday.

"You're going to start seeing (flight) cancellations," said Anne Banas, executive editor at SmarterTravel.com, who just postponed a scheduled trip to Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, out of concern that the island would be affected by the storm.

"People should just be prepared."

Amtrak has already cancelled train service operating south of Washington for Friday, Saturday and Sunday in anticipation of Hurricane Irene. Service in the Northeast corridor is not affected at this point, but more cancellations may be necessary in the coming days, Amtrak warned.

A mandatory evacuation order was in effect for residents and visitors in Hyde County, North Carolina, which includes Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks.

Nearby Dare County, which includes Manteo, Nags Head, Duck and historic Kitty Hawk, had an evacuation order for tourists only. But state officials hope they will come back as soon as the storm passes.

"By late Sunday or Monday morning, North Carolina, with any good luck, will be open for tourism again," Gov. Bev Perdue said, according to CNN affiliate WRAL.

If you are planning to travel along the East Coast in the next few days -- to the Martin Luther King Jr. monument dedication in Washington, for example -- Banas advised to call your hotel in advance and find out what its policies are in case you need to cancel.

Also keep on top of what your airline is doing, she said, especially because this kind of weather event is not considered to be within carriers' control.

"You don't want to be stranded at the airport," Banas advised.

"The only thing you're entitled to in that situation is a refund. So if you're stranded at the airport, you're not necessarily going to get food vouchers or hotel vouchers."

Most carriers are allowing travelers in the Caribbean to change their itineraries without a fee, and Banas predicted those policies would soon be extended to parts of the United States.

US Airways has already relaxed its change-fee policies for passengers scheduled to fly to or from more than a dozen cities along the East Coast, including Savannah, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Norfolk, Virginia; this weekend.

The policy also applies for travel to or from the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Turks and Caicos through Sunday.

American Airlines says it is operating as scheduled to and from all U.S. East Coast cities, but is closely monitoring the tropical weather conditions. The carrier plans updates if it anticipates any disruptions and severe weather in the region from Hurricane Irene.

The airline is also waiving change fees for passengers flying to or from more than a dozen airports in the Caribbean, including St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, through Friday.

United Airlines will allow changes for travel to, through and from more than a dozen airports in the Caribbean -- including San Juan, Puerto Rico; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; and several locations in the Bahamas -- for travelers scheduled to fly through Friday. Continental Airlines has a similar policy.

Delta Air Lines is waiving change fees for travelers scheduled to fly to, from or through Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Bahamas through Thursday.

JetBlue is waiving change/cancel fees and fare differences for fliers traveling to and from the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos.

The huge hurricane has forced more than a dozen cruise ships to change their itineraries, CruiseCritic.com reported.

Those ships include the Carnival Sensation, which had been docked in Freeport, Bahamas, but came back to Port Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday night -- several hours earlier than scheduled -- to stay out of harm's way, said Jennifer de la Cruz, a Carnival spokeswoman.

"We monitor the storms closely and make strategic changes to the itineraries to keep them away from the storm. The nice thing ... is that there are a lot of destinations in the Caribbean, so we have lots of options."

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean evacuated CocoCay, its private island resort in the Bahamas, the cruise line said on its blog.

Port calls are not expected to resume in Nassau and Grand Bahama Island until Saturday, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism & Aviation said.

The dangerous storm has prompted the ministry to recommend "strongly" that people with plans to travel to the Bahamas in the next few days postpone their trips.

The Bahamas Hotel Association's hurricane cancellation policy is in effect for travelers who need to postpone or cancel their vacation in the islands. The policy allows vacationers either to use their deposits or payments toward a future stay at the same property or to request a full refund.

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