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Wilma crashes travel plans October hurricane has travelers scrambling to get into Cancun, Cozumel - Denver Post November 11, 2005

Travelers who have spent thousands of dollars booking vacations to Cancun and Cozumel are struggling to change their plans after Mexico's Caribbean coastline was pummeled by Hurricane Wilma in late October.

Airlines and travel agents urge them to be patient as damages are assessed, canceled flights are resumed and new reservations are made. The process has been trying, for all those involved.

Rebecca Baack has been planning a Nov. 20 wedding in Cancun, but a few weeks ago she learned that her flight had been canceled, along with flights for guests.

"The hotel is fine," said Baack, who lives in Boulder. "The frustration has really just been finding an airline to get us down there."

Thirty-four people had planned to attend, but six will no longer be able to. Some had booked their initial flights with frequent-flier miles, and when those flights were canceled, they couldn't afford to pay for new flights on a different airline.

Leanna Palmer and her husband had the opposite problem. The Castle Rock couple booked a November vacation package to Cozumel last summer. Although their plane is still scheduled to fly, their hotel was struck by the hurricane and is closed.

The Palmers canceled that trip. They originally were told they would have to pay a $150-per-ticket cancellation fee, but eventually they got their money back. They have another trip booked for January with a different tour operator.

"We hope things will be rebuilt to the point where we feel that it will be the vacation we paid for," Palmer said.

Frontier Airlines is gradually resuming flights to Cancun. It initially canceled all flights to Cancun as the hurricane approached. United Airlines plans to resume its Cancun flights Dec. 14. Both airlines fly to Cancun from Denver.

"We'll be closely monitoring what goes on in Cancun," said United spokesman Jeff Green. Although the Cancun airport has reopened, he said, United is "not really able to process flights at the airport."

Continental Airlines is offering a reduced schedule of flights from Houston to Cancun.

Many Colorado travelers are still interested in taking midwinter breaks in Mexico. They're trying to delay their travel dates or change their destinations to Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco or Cabo San Lucas, said Samira Platter, manager at Broomfield travel agency Travel Partners. But they may have to pay more for the new bookings, she said.

"People have to have a lot of patience," she said. "A lot of these tour companies have really long (telephone) hold times. We were on hold last week for five hours."

Even airlines and travel companies themselves are running into problems.

Tour operators that book blocks of seats on airlines, for example, have a contract for advance-purchase seats, even if those seats won't be filled because passengers' hotels are closed.

Denver-based DTR Travel Inc. owner David Rojahn made a trip to Cancun to document the status of hotels and the area for his travel agency. Clients can read about his findings on the company's website.

"On the drive down to the Riviera Maya I could see the impact of the hurricane with metal poles cut in half along highway 307," he wrote. "Playacar and Playa del Carmen look to be back in business. "

Frontier spokesman Joe Hodas said he realizes it's a difficult time for everyone involved, but many travelers whose flights were canceled are still interested in going to the Cancun area. "All the flights that we have pretty much until early December are packed," he said.

Baack will follow through with her wedding plans even though the party will be smaller than planned.

"We're sad about it, but it'll still be nice," Baack said. "Going down there is only going to help their tourism recover faster."

Staff writer Kelly Yamanouchi can be reached at 303-820-1488 or kyamanouchi@denverpost.com .


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