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October 2004 Vol. 19, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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When the Weather Cancels Your Diving

can you get a refund? it depends

from the October, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Burt O’Neil and his group of 12 from Albuquerque got bad news when they arrived at Costa Rica’s Playa Ocotal Beach Resort in June. Visibility had been severely affected by a red tide (a phytoplankton bloom) for three weeks. O’Neil says, “Neither the dive operator nor Adventures and Dive Tours who booked our trip bothered informing us of the condition. [Once there] they told us that rarely would any diver be medically affected by the decaying organisms … and since the ‘red tide’ was usually from the surface to 20 feet, we could still see something below 20 feet.”

Visibility never got better than 15 feet. One diver developed a skin reaction, and O’Neil says, “I felt nausea going through the thick opaque blood rust layer of decaying plankton. My wet suit reeked of dead fish.” One day O’Neil substituted a tour in the rain forest for $70 and did not receive a refund for the lost day of diving.

Jeffner Allen (Newfield, NY) prepaid for ten dives at a Tanzanian resort last year, but arrived to find impossible diving conditions. She requested a refund, but didn’t get it, so she left the resort anyway. She was unable to get restitution from the proprietor, her credit card company, or Travel Guard (her travel insurance carrier) because she changed her plans and “the merchant did not have the opportunity to render services.”

Should a traveling diver expect refunds when Mother Nature renders diving difficult or impossible? We asked hundreds of dive operators about their policies and thousands of Undercurrent subscribers about their experiences. Refund policies range from quite liberal to downright stingy.

At Sam’s Tours in Palau, Micronesia, if one misses dives because it’s bad weather or unsafe or uncomfortable to go diving, manager Dermot Keane says, “We happily offer refunds, credit, or make-up dives, and allow our guests to choose their solution, … even if it’s a prepaid package. If booked by a travel agent, the guest can get a letter of credit to present to the agent for a refund, or can apply the refund against other purchases. Adds Keane, “As a consumer, I would not do business with an operator that would not willingly offer me a bad weather refund.” He advises, “Customers should only choose operators with reasonable policies.” From the operator’s point of view, says Keane, “While no one likes lost income, the real measure is how well you do over time. Risking your long term service reputation to make a fast dollar today is not wise.”

And, how’s this for a liveaboard policy? If Nautilus Explorer (Vancouver Island in the summer, Baja in the winter) has to cancel a trip due to weather, they’ll refund the entire charter fee and reimburse clients for any “change fees” from the airlines.

The best reason to offer refunds or make-goods? Repeat business. Ask Deborah Telesmanic (Potter Valley, CA). A few years ago she and her husband were on a Blackbeard’s liveaboard that returned to Miami from the Bahamas two days early because of a hurricane. She told Undercurrent: “The Blackbeard’s Miami staff met us at the dock and helped make evacuation plans and get us to the airport. They sent us refunds for the missed days with no prompting. We put the refunds toward another trip with Blackbeard’s.”

On another trip, Blackbeard’s got only a few miles out before the captain decided the seas were too rough and turned back. “What clinched the decision,” says Geri Roberts (Verona, NY), “was nearly losing two passengers overboard when the seas swept across the stern. … We were given our money back and spent the week on the boat [in port] using it as a B&B. My husband and I did a lot of local diving, and our refund check was waiting in the mail when we arrived home!”

Explorer Ventures went the extra mile (literally) for Ken and Diane Nash (Richmond, VA). Just before their August trip on the Turks & Caicos Explorer, Ken’s mother had a car accident, but seemed to be doing well so they joined the trip. When word came that her condition had weakened, captain Ian headed to shore and arranged for a friend to take them to the airport. Ken’s mother passed away shortly after they returned. “If it had not been for all the things that these wonderful people did for us we might not have made it home in time,” Diane recalls. She also points out that none of the other passengers grumbled about possibly missing a dive while the trip was interrupted. The Nashes have booked another trip with Explorer Ventures, which gave them a credit for their interrupted August trip.

Some operators accept responsibility when conditions are diveable but substandard. Lowell and Margo Greenberg (Palos Verdes Estates, CA) were on the Tahiti Aggressor last year when wind and waves prevented the boat from leaving the atoll for sites outside, though they could dive the wrecks inside the lagoon. The Greenbergs were given free vouchers for a future trip on one of four Aggressor boats, which they have since used.

Policies differ between Aggressors, however, because they are owned independently. Arch McNamara (Ambler, PA) was on the Kona Aggressor last year when the captain suspended diving operations on several days, though the seas “were never more than two to three feet,” McNamara maintains. “I did only fifteen dives,” he says, not many for a live-aboard week. Recompense? The captain offered the passengers a 50% break on Nitrox charges.

Many operators provide refunds for unused portions of dive packages cancelled due to weather. Tom Kaczmarek (Jersey City, NJ) prepaid the Club Med on San Salvador, Bahamas for a six-day package, but lost two dive days to rough seas. He received a check for one third of his prepayment four weeks later. “Unless the prepaid package is heavily discounted,” Kaczmarek believes, “dives canceled by the dive operation should be refunded. … Prepaid packages are advantageous to the operators for cash flow and resource management. If they want folks to continue to purchase them, they should provide refunds.”

Some operators offer vouchers, no refunds. Scuba Bimini Dive Resort offers a diving credit valid for one year. Corinna Wegerer at Buddy Dive Resort (Bonaire) leaves herself wiggle room. “We strive to offer additional boat dives to catch up with any missed boat dives. However,” she adds, “if all fails, we would certainly in the least offer our guests a future credit.”

The problem with such policies, of course, is that the diver has to return to the resort to get the credit. Would you return to Bonaire or Bimini to get a few “free” dives you paid for last year?

Manta Ray Bay Hotel & Yap Divers owner Bill Acker says, “If the weather, or illness or any other thing prevents a guest from taking part in prepaid activities, we handle it on a case by case basis.” Generally, he voids a prepaid package and then charges á la carte for the activities the guests use. Acker encourages guests to purchase trip insurance to protect them against such problems, but most don’t bother, he says, “And then the problems begin.”

Substituting alternate dive sites or activities is another approach. When Ginny Berson visited Aventuras Xcalak- Chinchorro (on Yucatan’s Mayan Riviera) the weather was so bad the owner took her and the only other guest to Cancun, put them up in a hotel, and tried to take them out from there. When that proved impossible, he “took us to various cenotes and we dove there,” Berson recalls. “That trip turned out to be a bust,” but Berson is philosophical about it. “While I would have loved to have been offered a refund or credit toward future diving,” she said, “I don’t hold it against them (the operator isn’t in control of the weather) and it’s a risk we take.” And, to us, it sounds like the operator made a noble effort to provide diving.

On Kauai, Bubbles Below offers full refunds if they’re unable to make their half-day 2-tank charters, but if they have to cancel their full day open ocean crossing to Ni’ihau, they expect the divers to join a 2-tank trip, and refund the difference in price. If weather stops both, it’s a full refund.

While visiting Cayman’s Brac Beach Resort in 2002, Kent Kossoy (Chesterfield, MO) found himself in the middle of Hurricane Lily, and dives in his prepaid packagealready discounted because of the time of year – were cancelled. During the storm, the resort opened the bar. Afterwards, they offered a daily afternoon dive and one night dive free. ”It did not make up for all the dives missed,” says Kossoy, “but it helped.”

Kossoy, something of a hurricane magnet, was on the Aqua Cat live-aboard out of Nassau in August. With Hurricane Frances looming, the Aqua Cat embarked for Exuma on a Saturday, with promises of diving through Wednesday. But Monday, the Captain announced they would return to Nassau the following morning to secure the boat. “For two days,” says Kossoy, “we watched the crew secure the ship and get things ready for the next week. Two and a half days before the storm, the crew was given the day off to visit the waterpark at Atlantis. Kossoy recalls: “We were also given passes to Atlantis, not a divers’ Mecca.” When Kossoy requested a refund for his lost days of diving, the first person he spoke with was of no help, but he later talked with sales director Peggy Purdy who offered him a 75% discount on a future trip. The lesson here: don’t stop negotiating until you’ve gone all the way to the top.

“I would not do business with an
operator that would not willingly offer me
a bad weather refund.”

Bill McGrath (Chandler, AZ) differentiates between land-based operators and live-aboards. He says if an entire live-aboard trip is cancelled due to weather, “the operator will not incur significant costs, like fuel, and I think that I should receive a refund of that portion of my fare.” On the other hand, he says, “If the boat were onsite, and conditions made diving impossible, that is just the luck of the draw; the operator spent the time and money to get me to the site, and that’s all I really contracted for. The boat payments have to be made; the crew has to be paid, despite the conditions.” McGrath says “If someone cannot deal with uncertainties like this, either get travel insurance or take up crocheting instead.”

Tom Conlin, who operates Aquatic Adventures in Plantation, FL, gives a tour operators perspective. “Sometimes I’m between a rock and a hard place.” When running his whales of the Silver Bank expeditions, he notes, “Weather is directly related to the type of in-water encounters we can expect” we are in remote areas dealing with possible problems that are out of our control. Asking the operator to guarantee the weather is taking the responsibility of the operator too far. This isn’t Sea World, the show isn’t at 11 and the whale isn’t Shamu.”

Says Clay McCardell of Explorer Ventures, “We are not self-insured; in other words, we do not pad our package prices to be able to provide refunds or credits to people if a trip is delayed due to weather. We urge everyone to obtain trip insurance, not only to cover themselves for weather-related delays but also cancellations in the event of injury, illness, a death in the family, airline connection problems, and the like.”

There are steps you can take to guard against operator cancellations. Travel in peak seasons (there’s a reason rates are higher then – conditions are generally at their best). Get cancellation policies in writing – they’re not always in brochures or on websites. Compare the cost per dive of prepaid packages vs. pay-as-you-go diving. The prepaid discount may not be enough to offset a lost day or two of diving. Buy travel insurance, but check the fine print. You may be entitled to only partial reimbursement for lost dives and getting a refund is a hassle. And if you feel you’re owed a refund, do your best to negotiate with the proprietor before you leave. It’s harder to recoup your losses later, especially once you’ve signed a credit card slip.

A Few of the Good Guys

Besides those quoted, other operators told Undercurrent they’ll refund for cancellations due to weather. They include:

Dive Barbados, Abyss Dive Center (Marathon, Florida Keys), Island Adventures (Key Largo), Florida Reef Divers (lower Keys), Baja Expeditions, Pepe Scuba Dive Shop (Cozumel), Maui’s Octopus Reef and Ed Robinson’s Diving Adventures, Dive Makai and Jack’s Diving Locker (Kona), Discovery Diving (North Carolina), Provo Turtle Divers (Turks & Caicos), Parguera Divers (Puerto Rico), Reef Encounter & Compass Cruises (Cairns, Australia), Dive Rota and Kosrae Village Ecolodge (Micronesia), Beyond The Reef (Yap), Dive Kiribati (Christmas Island) and several Grand Cayman outfits: Cayman Diving Lodge, Red Baron, Eden Rock, Neptune Divers and Aqua Adventures.

There are doubtless plenty of others. It’s always best to check such details in advance.

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