Should you cancel your Florida vacation?

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Ever since the BP oil spill following an April 20 explosion, storms of scientists, EPA agents and media folks have pounced on the USA's Gulf of Mexico coastline, to forecast and report on that ballooning bubble of oil slowly creeping towards Florida. Will it hit the beaches? Or sink? Or be swept into the Atlantic? As the New York Times quote in a piece on how tourism is being affected, it remains 'a great unknown' -- in other words, a wait-and-see game.

Tracking the oil

Many Florida-bound travelers are already wondering about canceling their summer plans. Much depends on where you go.

The Florida panhandle is the most likely one to be hit, Stephen Leatherman from Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research, told me via email. 'The best estimate is that oil could reach the Keys in 10 to 20 days, but the floating oil will be thinned...,' he wrote.  'And it could almost vanish before moving this far.'

He said, however, that even if the Gulf's 'Loop Current' takes it into the Gulf Stream and out of the Gulf of Mexico, Miami on the Atlantic Coast could still be hit if there's a strong onshore wind, 'as happened this past weekend with jellyfish blown ashore.'

He said he didn't expect Naples to Clearwater Beach to be hit. But nothing is certain.

One way to track beaches status is via the state's tourism department VisitFlorida, which has done a good job at passing reports via Twitter (@VisitFlorida), as well as introducing a new 'Florida live' feature of beach photos posted by travelers. 'That way people can make their own decisions based on what they see,' Kathy Torian of VisitFlorida told me by phone. And she says they'll keep photos and reports coming even if oil does hit the beach.

Check cancellation policies, now

Some hotels are already agreeing to bend their cancellation policies, or allowing visitors to cancel when/if oil does hit the beaches. Of the 80 million visitors to Florida each year, 94% are repeat visitors -- and many hotels are keen to soothe concerns and keep those repeat numbers high in the future. If you have reservations this summer, considering call on-site and ask the manager -- not a '800' reservation line across the country -- about their policy.

Expedia has seen a 15% decline in Florida bookings since the spill, per the New York Times article linked above. According to the panhandle's Emerald Coast CVB, they've already seen a mix of visitors calling to check on the status of the beaches -- some come, some cancel, some cancel then re-schedule!

Martha Garvie, who runs the five-room Aunt Martha's B&B in Fort Walton Beach in the panhandle (and allows cancellations at any time by phone), said 'I've had people call, then they come. People still want to go to the beach -- and it's nice right now. If the oil does come, they'll probably want to come to see it.'