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January 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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What You’ll Pay on Your Next Dive Trip

the latest on trip pricing and “hidden” fees

from the January, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

More so than ever before, divers are scrutinizing every cost associated with dive travel. With their income and portfolios down, some are planning to dive closer to home or not at all. Those who are planning trips are not about to spend money foolishly. Today is much different from a year, even six months, ago. While you have less money in your pocket, the dollar’s value is on the rise, oil prices are heading downward and the election has gained America more respect abroad - - one may not necessarily feel like the “ugly American” anymore.

Regardless, we divers are not about to cotton to unnecessary charges and hidden fees, especially when they can add up to 30 percent of the total bill. To avoid these, pay careful attention to dive trip costs - - and ask the right questions about them - - before you reach for your checkbook. In the April 2007 issue of Undercurrent, we covered several hidden costs of travel; that article is available online to all subscribers (go to Undercurrent and click on “Back Issues.”) Here are some financial aspects to consider as you plan your next trip.

Trip Prices

An impressive rise in the value of the U.S. dollar is making it more affordable for American divers to travel abroad. For example, bookings on Red Sea liveaboards that charge in Euros will be nearly 20 percent less than if you booked last year. Divers can also get more for their money in Mexico, too. You can get nearly 13 pesos for $1, compared with 10 pesos over the summer.

There are still some regions where the dollar hasn’t made significant gains, like Asia, the Caribbean and Central America. But the biggest bargain is Australia, where the American dollar is worth 35 percent more than it was last summer. Now Mike Ball’s seven-night “Coral Sea Safari” will only cost around $1875 instead of $2750 last year.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean dive packages will be discounted across the board. Says Ken Knezick, president of Island Dreams Travel in Houston, Texas, “Dive travel pricing is demand-based instead of economy-based.” That means don’t expect deluxe resorts like Tawali in Papua New Guinea and Wakatobi in Indonesia to cut their prices by much, if at all. “I’m seeing that higher-priced trips are still being purchased, so wealthy divers are still able to travel.”

Knezick says that also applies to liveaboards, which typically price their trips two to three years in advance. That means 2009 trips were priced long ago, so they don’t reflect the boat fleets’ take on economic conditions right now. It’s not a sense of eliteness keeping liveaboard prices steady or rising, it’s the constantly upward increase of costs to run the boats, says Knezick. “Besides fuel, there are other expenses like manpower and food that are increasing. That’s what I have to keep telling angry people calling us asking why they’re not lowering prices. No dive operator is going to give its trips away. They have to evaluate what makes sense to stay in business.”

Undercurrent contacted the Peter Hughes, Aggressor and Explorer Ventures fleets to get their current take on trip pricing, but none of them responded by press time. In December, all three had a few discounts for specific boats on their Web sites, but Explorer was unique in creating a new “5-5-5 Loyalty Program,” a type of layaway plan that let any past passenger book a trip by putting down a 5 percent trip deposit and paying monthly payments of 5 percent, and receiving a 5 percent discount off the total in return. (The deal applied to all past guests until December 31, but starting in January it is only applicable for divers who book within five weeks of their most recent Explorer trip.)

So to find the good deals and discounts, you still need to do your due diligence or work with a travel agent. For example, find a dive resort or liveaboard that charges in its own currency instead of the U.S. dollar. The American-friendly Philippines has great dive deals. For example, at Southern Leyte Divers on the island of Leyte, an air-conditioned beachfront cottage goes for $34, a two-tank dive is $50, and dinner with a beer will only set you back $5. Readers rave about Grand Komodo Tours in Indonesia, not just for their great services but their low liveaboard prices. Because they calculate prices in Indonesian rupiah, you’re typically diving for $1,500 less per person than other Raja Ampat boats. 2009 prices for a double cabin on their five boats range from $190 to $285 per night.

Currency Charges

Other annoying fees come from using plastic. Currency conversion fees can add up, as Phil Hampton (Orlando, FL) found out last summer aboard the Belize Aggressor. “I put my payment for fuel surcharge, port charge and tip on my Citicard. My charge was $820. Aggressor converted that to $1,640 Belize. Citicard uses a different conversion than Interbank and converted it back to $837, a $17 overcharge. It then added a 3 percent foreign-transaction fee, which was $25. Thus it cost me an extra $42 to pay by credit card. The Aggressor states that most credit-card companies will remove these superfluous charges with a phone call, but that was not true for Citicard. Next trip I’ll take cash, unless the dive operator accepts Discover.”

Indeed, Discover and Capital One are the only cards that don’t charge a dime in currency-exchange fees; Capital One doesn’t even pass on the 1 percent fee charged by Visa and MasterCard. Neither do credit unions nor most community banks. American Express doesn’t charge a foreign-transaction fee but it does carry a 2 percent currency-conversion fee. Besides Citibank, those that charge 3 percent include Bank of America, Chase and Wells Fargo. Don’t think you can get away from fees by using your debit card - - fees of 2 to 3 percent are the norm.

Resort Fees

Unless you have asked a lot of questions and read the fine print, you may not learn of extra fees until you receive your bill, as reader Allan Ripple (West Bend, WI) found out when booking at the Wyndham Hotel in Nassau. “We contacted the Wyndham’s corporate sales department and were quoted a very attractive room rate. But at check-in, not only were we not given that quoted rate, we were also charged a resort fee of $15 per day, per person, $105 a week.” The resort “fee” is sneaky. And it’s an addition to the often unmentioned resort taxes, which can run up to 15 percent. Also watch out for added airport transfer fees.

Regarding the diving expenses, two add-ons to watch for are marine park fees and special dive trips. When doing a day trip at Belize’s Blue Hole, Adam Feinstein (Sterling Heights, MI) didn’t know about the US$40 park fee to enter. “I had $100 to give to the crew as tip and 80 ended going for the park fees.” Randy Brook (Seattle, WA) went to Belize’s Isla Marisol resort for its whale shark dives but, he says, “you have to go deep on its website to find that there is an extra charge. A two-dive trip in the whale shark area cost an additional $175 per person. When I arrived at the resort, the chalkboard announcing whale shark trips made no mention of the extra charge. A family of four divers was shocked when they found $700 was added to their bill at checkout, because they thought the whale shark dive was just part of the package.”

Most travel agents will charge you the total price with fees included, or at least break them down and put them in writing for you. But if you’re booking it yourself, Knezick says it’s important that you ask the resort lots of questions directly. “Is tax included? What transfers are included, and what cost extra? Are there boat fuel charges involved and what’s the amount? Are there chamber and marine park fees to pay? What is the cost of Nitrox? What beverages are and aren’t included? Credible travel suppliers will be very transparent and as clear as possible about their pricing.”

What about fuel surcharges? Are they going away? We’ll cover that, plus tips and the cost of missed dives, next issue.

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