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April 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Extra Costs on Your Next Dive Trip: Part II

missed dives, tips and fuel surcharges

from the April, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the January issue, we covered hidden costs and fees of a dive trip that can add a great deal more than you’d think to your total bill. This time, we’re addressing fuel surcharges, the pressure for tips and the high cost of skipping a dive.

Missed Dives

Many readers are frustrated if they aren’t refunded for missed or canceled dives, but many dive shops have policies that can be tough to swallow. Diana Abrashkin (Boston, MA) dived with Hawaii’s Bottom Time Divers last January. “I had booked two days of diving from home. My first day of diving was torture because I was freezing, even in my 5-mil wetsuit. I told the divemasters right then that I would not be diving the next day. When I went to claim my refund, the owner refused, saying they required 48 hours advance cancellation! This was terrible because 48 hours prior, I was still in Boston.” Annoying, yes, but one would face the same problem is cancelling a hotel with a similar policy.

More frustrating – and unfair – is when dives are cancelled by the dive shop. Ian Cooper (Auckland, NZ) had paid in advance for two dives with Truk’s Blue Lagoon dive shop in September. He did his first dive but the second was cancelled because “the dive guide had done four dives that day and was cold. On shore, I asked the crew for a refund on the second dive or goods amounting to the value of. No answer from the crew, they just disappeared. I couldn’t persist because the S.S. Thorfinn was to pick me up the next day. After the trip, I returned to the dive shop to get a refund and was told I could go for a dive now - - two hours before my flight to Guam.”

Not every dive shop is so strict with cancellations. Neal Langerman (San Diego, CA) gives kudos to Cabo Pulmo Dive Resort in Baja California. “I spent 10 days at Cabo Pulmo Resort. As a result of some confusion on the resort’s part and on my part, plus weather problems, I did not do all of the dives I paid for. When I went to settle the bill, I received a correct refund for the missed dives, and a large ‘thank you.’ Honest, fair folks to work with.”

Jenny Collister, president of the dive travel agency Reef & Rainforest in Sausalito, CA, suggests purchasing only the minimum amount of dives beforehand and purchasing more after you arrive, if you’re still up for it. “Many divers believe beforehand that three dives a day for a week will be no problem, only to regret it at trip’s end when they’re too tired or lazy to do the last few dives and wasted some bucks.”

It’s also a good idea not to pre-pay in case the worst happens, says reader Mona Cousens (Santa Barbara, CA). “At the Atlantis dive resort in Puerto Galera, I had a sinus infection and missed all 20 of my pre-paid dives. There were at least 15 dive operators within a two-minute walk of each other on the beach. Had I not pre-paid my diving, I could have walked into any one of these operations and booked a dive package. Of course, for out-of-the-way destinations you must dive with the house operator and it is just bad luck if you get sick and miss your dives, but why not protect yourself in heavier-traffic places like Cozumel, Bonaire and Puerto Galera where pre-paid diving is just not necessary?”

If you have to pre-pay, consider travel insurance. Collister says, “If you have to cancel a dive, get documentation and the reason you canceled, and then you’ll be reimbursed.” Trip insurance is also a good idea for exotic locations, especially those with unrest. Protests in Thailand last fall that kept travelers there for as long as ten days more than intended would have been very expensive for those without trip insurance.

Fuel Surcharges

Of the complaints we get from traveling divers, the most common is being upset with fuel surcharges as the price of oil drops. Unfortunately, our research has found that in many cases, the surcharge may very well be valid.

For example, one of our readers did a Raja Ampat Indonesia itinerary on Peter Hughes’ new Paradise Dancer in December. “The fuel surcharge we paid back in $4-a-gallon times of course was not reduced now that gas was down to $1.75 per gallon in the U.S. - - and much cheaper in Indonesia.” But there’s a difference between gasoline and diesel fuel, which most liveaboards run on, says Peter Hughes vice president Larry Speaker. “When a barrel of oil declined to $40 and prices at the gas pump went down at an equal rate in the U.S., an expectation was created in our guests’ minds that this was occurring globally. But the comparison to U.S. gasoline prices is not an accurate foundation to base the belief on.” He cites data showing that between November 2007 and November 2008, crude oil and U.S. gasoline prices declined by 39 percent, but diesel fuel in the U.S. dropped 15 percent and only 5 percent in Papua New Guinea.

Fuel prices aren’t dropping much in Asia and Latin America because many governments control prices. A dive operator in Indonesia recently sent a memo to travel agents as explanation. “Indonesia has been reducing its significant subsidies on fuel. Before the major oil price increases, Indonesia’s fuel prices were far behind world market prices due to those subsidies. The drastic reductions will lead to further price increases on local markets. We have seen a 50 percent increase in prices and now we can hardly get any subsidized fuel at all. We now pay more than double what we paid a year ago.”

Jos Pet, cruise planner of the Indonesian liveaboard Seven Seas, says the price of diesel fuel in Sorong, West Papua, is US$2.55 per gallon. A year ago, it was at $1.43. The runup means Seven Seas won’t eliminate the fuel surcharge of $25 per night it started last September.

Jose Luis Sanchez, manager of the Solmar V liveaboard in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, says that in February 2006, diesel fuel was around $1.80 a gallon. In 2008, the monthly increases took it up to $3; now the price has dropped to $2.50. “The government will still increase it every month by a minimal amount and by the end of this year, we’ll be paying at least 50 percent more than we did a year ago.”

Simone Gerritsen, manager of the Thalassa Dive Center in Manado, North Sulawesi, wrote on the shop’s Web site: “Not only is fuel one-third of our expenses, everything connected with the use of fuel, meaning everything that needs to be transported, has increased in price.” Gerritsen told Undercurrent she doesn’t plan to lower rates or surcharges because she doesn’t expect fuel prices to come down. “The Indonesian government has taken back the subsidy for fuel used by companies. We use nearly 15,000 liters per month, which makes us a big user, hence the very high expenses.”

When reader Tom Lopatin (Lake Hopatcong, NJ) inquired about a fuel surcharge for the Undersea Hunter in November, which makes the 36-hour passage to Cocos Island, he received a reply from office manager Alan Steenstrup that fuel is slower to drop in Costa Rica because the state-owned energy company Recope sets prices for the entire country. However, on December 12, Steenstrup e-mailed Undercurrent to say Recope dropped the price of fuel, so Undersea Hunter has just reduced the price of its trips by $150. We checked Recoupe’s historical rates to see how the rates have changed. In December, a gallon of diesel in U.S. dollars was $4.40, but as of January 20, Recope lowered the price to $2.90 per gallon (the price for a gallon of gasoline was $2.69).

Don’t Forget Tips

This is a major hidden cost, because American divers usually leave tips ranging from 5 to 20 percent of their overall dive resort or liveaboard cost, but that doesn’t mean they liked to be pushed into tipping. Aqua Cat Cruises and its less-expensive Blackbeard’s Cruises subsidiary are consistently mentioned by our readers for their aggressive push for tips. The latest came from E.M. Parkhurst (San Diego, CA), who dived with Blackbeard’s in October. There’s a sign in bold letters on the lounge area wall where they sit you down to check out, stating that 15 percent equals $300 and 20 percent is $440. When you check out, the crew pulls out a ledger that tallies the outstanding cost for each guest, and you can see what everyone else tipped.” Parkhurst decided to leave 12 percent, but that wasn’t satisfactory for the crew. “I was asked if I was unhappy with anything. I said no, everything was fine. After that, I wasn’t hassled about not leaving the suggested minimum.”

For more about tipping and how to handle it, read our three-part series from our May-June 2007 issues, available in the “Back Issues” section at Undercurrent. If only dive operators read it too, and understood that good service will merit a good tip, not merely pushing for one.

Finally, the best way to protect yourself from creeping fees and hidden costs is by asking a lot of questions in advance and getting everything in writing. Says Collister, “Doing both of those things goes a long way toward protecting you if there is a problem at the front desk.”

- - Vanessa Richardson

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