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April 2007 Vol. 33, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Hidden Costs of Dive Travel

from the April, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Face it, that next dive trip is always going to cost more than you expected. The hidden costs begin piling up even before you start packing. And every time you use a credit card, cash a traveler’s check, or make a phone call while traveling, you’ll see the additional charges waiting for you when you get home. In fact, the total cost of your dive vacation can easily increase by 10 to 30 percent because of all the additional fees. If you put aside $2,000 for your entire dive vacation budget you could easily tack on $200 to $600 in taxes, tips, land travel and the inevitable T-shirt. “That’s why it’s so important to ask questions up front, whether you’re going through a travel agent, a wholesaler, or booking it yourself online,” says Ken Knezick, president of Island Dreams Travel in Houston, Texas.

It starts with the airfare—that cheap airfare advertised online often doesn’t include the U.S. ticket tax, passenger facility charge and sundry other surcharges. Even Undercurrent is omitting the extra fees. In our February email to subscribers, we reported that airlines flying to Fiji were reducing their fares by $200 to $750 to boost tourism after a military coup in December, but we forgot to mention that $750 was only the base price, and didn’t include $400 in fees and taxes (25 in all). Undercurrent subscriber Owen Babcock (Denver, CO) found this when he checked out Beqa Lagoon Resort’s promotion of Air Pacific’s “Fun Fares.”“When the bottom line came up, they had added to the $750 fare with taxes, fees, etc., etc., for a total of $1,166. This included a $166 fuel add-on.” If you make a reservation but don’t pay for it until later, the price could change dramatically due to taxes and rising fuel charges, which are part of the price of an airline ticket.

One overlooked expense is overweight
baggage fees, which can affect divers
bringing their own equipment

You also need to consider other transportation costs. Traveling to the airport will cost whether you’re taking a shuttle bus, taxi or your own car(airport parking isn’t cheap). Also consider what happens once you get off the plane if land transfers aren’t in your package. It’s easy to see $20 to $40 in cab fares. For example, the airport in Dominica is a 90-minute drive through the hilly interior to the hotels. A taxi ride will be $100 one-way, while a shuttle van will only cost $20 to $30.

If you’re booking a dive trip through a hotel or a wholesaler, many of them don’t mention extra fees until you receive the bill. Good examples are the resort tax, government tariff and sales tax charged by some Caribbean resorts, ranging from 5 percent to 12 percent each. Your first question to any travel booker should be, “What is included in the package, and what isn’t?” Also inquire how much you’ll be paying in airline and resort taxes. Ditto for airport transfers if they are not already included.

Your dive vacation costs can easily increase
by 10 to 30 percent because of all the
additional fees.

Meal plans at non-dive resorts often don’t include lunch, and you often have to pay extra for better meals. Subscriber Michael Judd (Oregon City, OR) found out the hard way while at Garden Island Resort in Taveuni. “There was an unpleasant little surprise at checkout when the bill for items not in our pre-paid package included $40 for meals,” he says. “They were for the times we ordered ‘hot breakfast’ rather than the ‘continental breakfast.’ I pointed out to the desk clerk that their voucher and other materials said ‘three meals a day,’ but got nowhere.” If you pass on a resort’s meal-inclusive program, ask what your other dining options and their average daily cost will be. If you go out to dinner, add the round-trip taxi fare to the price of your meal. Alcohol and drinks add up like crazy; they are sometimes included in liveaboard prices but rarely in resort packages.

Undercurrent subscriber Richard Himmel was cautious about car rental. “The Internet rental rates are amazingly cheap, but when we arrived, that’s when we found out about the $28 per day mandatory insurance required by law. This brought our cost of renting a compact 4x4 to around $50 per day.”

Regarding the diving expenses, find out if Nitrox and gear rental are included. The standard tip range for dive crew is $5 to $10 per day. Though fuel prices have dropped, land-based dive operators and liveaboards may still add fuel surcharges of $100 to $150.

Undercurrent reader George Boscoe (Orinda, CA) enjoyed his St. Kitts trip on the Caribbean Explorer II but was irked that he was charged a few hundred dollars extra for marine park fees and fuel surcharges. “They could just include them in the base price,” he says. “Given the high quality of this charter, I doubt anyone would balk.”

Speaking of marine park fees, be prepared to pay more for entry. Galapagos now charges $100, Cocos Island charges $245, and they are increasing worldwide, according to Knezick. “I think we’ll see more substantial fee hikes like those in the future, and liveaboards don’t always include them in their packages.”

Airline overhead

Divers are also at a disadvantage with the airlines. One major expense often overlooked is overweight baggage fees, which can affect underwater photographers and divers bringing their own equipment. So know your airline’s baggage allowance rules before packing. Fees vary drastically, based on the airline and whether the flight is domestic or international, but most airlines charge $25 to $80 for overweight bags. Some use a two-tiered approach, with an initial surcharge for bags weighing between 50 and 70 pounds, and an additional charge for bags over 70 pounds. If you switch to a smaller carrier for a leg of your journey to the liveaboard in Lembeh Strait, they may have even tighter restrictions—and additional fees.

And more countries are starting to charge “departure taxes” for tourists when arriving or leaving the airport. Indonesia just started charging $25, while Costa Rica charges $28. “You’ll see more foreign governments do that as they realize how tourism is becoming more important to their economies,” says Knezick.

The costs of plastic

Many Undercurrent subscribers have noted how foreign hotels and dive operators charge them higher rates when they use a credit card. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done—Visa, Mastercard and other card companies require merchants to disclose their fees to customers in advance, but if that country’s law allows surcharges, it trumps U.S. law. “It’s against the law here to charge higher rates, but foreign countries are paying a higher fee of 5 to 6 percent to accept credit cards,” says Ed Perkins, a nationally syndicated travel writer and advocate. “It’s perfectly legal for them to split the difference and pass on half the costs to their customers with a 3 percent fee to the bill.” The decision to reverse surcharges is up to the card issuer, that is, your bank, and some are more likely to than others.

MasterCard and Visa charge bank issuers 1 percent for every purchase a customer makes, a fee that most banks pass along to customers. But credit cards and ATM debit cards at home still make a lot of sense for overseas trips. You don’t have the hassle of finding a currency exchange bureau on some tiny South Pacific island (which often doesn’t have them), or waiting in long lines at the local bank.

Perkins likes Capital One and Discover since they don’t charge customers a dime in currency exchange fees; Capital One doesn’t even pass on the 1 percent fee charged by Visa and MasterCard. No credit union charges those fees, neither do most community banks. But American Express charges a 2 percent currency exchange fee, while Bank of America and Citigroup charge 3 percent. If you’re buying a few extra nights at the dive resort, that $1,000 purchase adds $30 in additional fees.

Bank of America charges the same 3 percent fee if customers use the debit card like a credit card, but it charges a flat fee of $5 for using an ATM machine to withdraw funds, plus Visa’s 1 percent currency conversion fee. Those fees are waived if you use an ATM affiliated with its Global ATM Alliance, but those can be hard to find at remote dive sites. Citigroup, which has a huge international presence, charges no ATM fees for cash withdrawals at any of its ATMs worldwide, but using an unaffiliated ATM costs a $1.50 flat fee, plus a 1 percent conversion fee from MasterCard.

But those fees are modest compared to overseas banks and exchange bureaus that swap your dollars at the lessfavorable “consumer” rate and then charge their own fees. Same goes for traveler’s checks, says Perkins. “If you exchange cash or traveler’s checks, you’re going to lose a minimum of 5 or 6 percent in exchange fees, maybe more.

Factor In Those Other Costs

The total cost of your dive vacation can easily increase by 10
to 30 percent due to all the additional fees. Here’s an estimate
of extra charges and their total costs for divers traveling from
Los Angeles to the Cayman Islands for a seven-day dive resort
Overweight baggage fees for two sets of dive gear: ... $50
Airport parking at $20 a day for 7 days: ................... $155
Round-trip cab fare from airport to hotel: .................. $50
Resort and sales taxes on the hotel’s
$150 room rate for seven nights: ............................... $105
Two margaritas for $8 at the bar every night: ............. $80
Dinner away from hotel and round-trip cabfare: ......... $100
Tips to the hotel staff: ................................................ $30
Tips to dive crew for five days’ diving: ....................... $75
Nitrox on ten dives at $12 a tank: ............................. $120
Two night dives at $30 each: .................................... $60
Souvenir shopping for family gifts: ............................. $100
Currency exchange fee of 3 percent for Visa charges: $20
Roaming charge for 5-minute cell phone call to home: $10
TOTAL: ..................................................................$955

Phone calls with fewer fees

Technology makes it cheaper than ever to use cellphones abroad, even from the most remote dive sites. “Cell phone service is everywhere in Asia, and it’s more developed in the rural areas there than ones in the U.S.,” says Kent German, senior editor for who writes about cell phones. But figuring out how and where to use your phone on a dive trip is not so easy because of multiple phone standards and calling plans.

Americans use one of two technology standards: GSM, offered by Cingular and T-Mobile, or CDMA from Sprint and Verizon. GSM is used more internationally and the network of choice in Europe, Africa and much of Asia. CDMA is not as widespread but does work in the Caribbean, and parts of Central and South America.

Roaming is the way to go if you use GSM, want to use your own phone number and voice mail, and don’t mind the costs. Roaming charges of $1 to $3 per minute are standard, but they can go up to $5 per minute, and that’s on top of your regular monthly bill. But people at home don’t have to pay long-distance charges to call you. You must call your carrier before you leave to activate international roaming and make sure your GSM phone can receive three or four different wireless network frequencies.

To keep costs down, use prepaid SIM cards, the removable postage stamp-size chip that contains your phone data. It can easily swap with the one in your phone. Rates are much cheaper than roaming: Calling locally in a foreign country costs 5 to 25 cents per minute and calling the USA costs 35 to 55 cents. Incoming calls are free to you, but not the caller. Also, SIM cards can be placed only in “unlocked” GSM phones that carry three to four frequencies. Most U.S. cell phones under contract in the USA are electronically locked, but wireless carriers will unlock them on request. Sprint and Verizon also rent unlocked phones.

Renting a cell phone should be a last resort because they are the most expensive and carry minimum usage charges. Still, if you need a line to the outside world, you can find a rental company at most any airport in the world.

-- Vanessa Richardson

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