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May 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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That Dream Trip Can Be Reality

finding reasonably priced places with less-stressful travel

from the May, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If you're a North American diver fantasizing about that big time diving in the South Pacific, you may have been stymied because of the time, cost and stress factors of such distant travel. So you stick to the Caribbean, Mexico or Hawaii. Think again, says subscriber Jim Willoughby of Bend, OR.

He leads groups of friends on several dive trips a year, and after comparing receipts of trips to the Caribbean (Dominica) and the Pacific (Cebu, Philippines), he told us that divers, at least those west of the Mississippi, should head west rather than south for the better deals. "For the Dominica trip, airfare from Oregon was $1,400. I got to Cebu for $900. The package deal I negotiated with Dominica's Castle Comfort Lodge was $999 for the week, which included the room, breakfast and two dives a day. At Cebu's Eagle Point Resort, I paid that same amount for two weeks and that included all meals and unlimited diving. As another example, I am going to NAD Lembeh at Indonesia's Lembeh Strait in Indonesia this month, and my airfare is $1,085, and the all-inclusive resort with three tanks a day is $1,045 per week."

Willoughby's research has worked well for him, so we asked a few travel experts who book and lead dive trips worldwide for their tips. Depending on where you live, how many travel hassles you can handle -- and the potential economic ups and downs in 2015 -- you might be surprised at their answers.

"The Days of Cheap Deals May Be Coming to An End"

"There was a time when travel to Cozumel, the Cayman Islands, and Roatan were very good dollar values," says Ken Knezick, owner of Island Dream Travel in Houston ( www.divetrip.com ). "These days, the resorts remain competitively priced, but airfares from the U.S. to such Caribbean destinations have increased considerably due to a lack of competition." He says this was a calculated scheme on the part of certain airlines, such as American Airlines, which now has a dominant share of Caribbean air travel. "They moved in with low pricing and destroyed the domestic carriers. After the competition was removed, they have been able to charge much higher fares. Fortunately, air travel to Pacific destinations still includes more competition, and air fares can look quite attractive when compared with travel to the Caribbean."

Ken Kurtis, the owner of the Reef Seekers dive shop in Beverly Hills, CA ( www.reefseekers.com ), who routinely takes divers on group trips worldwide, says, "The Caribbean has gotten more expensive in the past five to 10 years, and the days of finding $300 airfare deals are long gone. For a trip to Bonaire last May, I got airfares around $850, but for a trip next month, airfares are averaging $1,300. I just got a rate sheet from a company I deal with regularly in the Asia-Pacific area, and their room prices increased 28 percent, and three-tank daily dive rates went up 49 percent. So the days of cheap deals in Indo-Pacific may also be coming to an end."

One area that's seeing consistently inexpensive airfare is the Philippines, under $1,000 for a West Coast flight. Kurtis says it's because the government is currently underwriting part of the airfares for Philippine Airlines to get the tourism dollars. "Fiji did that five years ago, with $500 nonstop deals on Fiji Air from LAX. But now, an LAX flight to Nadi for two weeks in August is around $1,350, and some have stops in Honolulu or Auckland first."

Indonesia has some low price points these days, but the problem is having to take a lot of short, connecting flights within Indonesia. That means you'll have to change planes, maybe more than once, after having to change planes already on the way to Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong or Singapore. For last-minute long weekend trips to Hawaii, Mexico or the Caribbean, you may luck out and get a good deal, but that's harder to do these days, thanks to airlines' "dynamic pricing," in which prices vary greatly from day to day depending upon empty seats and demand. If last-minute demand is high, the prices will be too.

What's Your Travel Tolerance for Times vs. Pain?

Besides the price of flying, what about the ease of flying? Well, this is where Asia-Pacific falls short. If you've flown to, say, Raja Ampat, you know what this means. That's why you should weigh the time and physical discomfort of travel, as well as the financial cost of it, says Knezick. "A long-awaited trip to an Indo-Pacific diver's haven can require 24 or more hours of flying time, plus additional overnights in transit. This consumes limited vacation time and takes a physical toll. Divers need to derive a formula that takes into account money, time and pain." Also factor in where you live. To reach Caribbean diving, if you live near a major airport, like JFK or Dallas, you have an advantage in lower costs and more direct flights. West coast divers will be changing planes, sometimes twice, and overnighting between flights somewhere unless they take a dreaded red-eye.

"Once you're in the Caribbean, there are affordable dive resort packages," says Ann Louise Tuke, of the dive travel agency Caradonna Adventures in Longwood, FL ( www.caradonna.com ). "But people from the West Coast will have to pay that extra cost to get to a Caribbean-focused hub, and that could add several hundred dollars to a round-trip ticket." If you take a daytime flight to Miami or Houston from the West Coast, you will probably arrive too late to get a Caribbean-bound flight that same day, so that means it could turn into an overnight at a hotel en route. But same thing goes for East Coasters who want to dive in the Pacific, Tuke says. "You're going to be on a red-eye at some point, unless you overnight somewhere. It's a matter of personal preference and tolerance for flight schedules." From New York City to Yap takes 28 hours, not including a hotel overnight, so you may say the heck with it and just fly to the Caymans.

For this surprising dive deal, "it's just an eight-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles, and it's a lot more affordable than people think."

No matter what region, if you want to go to a smaller, more remote island, you're probably going to have to deal with small planes and the accompanying hassles. While Tuke says San Juan, Puerto Rico is a good hub between major U.S. cities and flights to the Lesser Antilles, Ken Kurtis isn't so sure. "There are more flights and better prices between airlines flying to the Caymans, Cancun and San Juan. But Dominica or Saba -- how do you get there? Once you get to Puerto Rico, your options are limited, and you're probably dealing with a regional carrier. Airfare will be higher or less stable. And if it's a small jet, how much luggage will they take? If my bag doesn't make it, the next flight could be three days later."

Where the Deals Are

In both regions, some countries offer more of a deal than others. While Caribbean dive resorts' prices have stayed pretty stable, Tuke says the bargains are in Cozumel, Belize, Roatan and Central America. "They're less expensive because Houston flights go there regularly, and that hub is easy to reach for both West and East Coasters."

In Asia-Pacific, the Philippines is the big bargain because of subsidized airfares, abundant nonstop flights, and the lower cost of living. Knezick says,"If one chooses with care, the quality of diving can compare favorably to almost any other Pacific hot spot." Nonstop flights to Fiji from Los Angeles also make that an easy-to-reach destination.

A surprising dive deal: Tahiti. "While prices aren't as low as Fiji or the Philippines, it is just an eight-hour nonstop flight from Los Angeles," says Tuke. "And while you still need a connecting flight to the Tuamotus, that's just another hour. It's a lot more affordable than people think."

A place that's no longer a deal: Indonesia. "For resorts, Indonesia was once a very affordable dive destination, but due to high demand from international travelers, this may no longer always be the case," says Knezick. Same for Pacific-based liveaboards, he adds. "It seems they are competing to see who can offer the most luxury, but also who can charge the most, with some pricing in excess of $650 per person per night. Certain land-based operations are attempting to follow that same trend. You will find much more affordable lodging and diving services in almost all Caribbean dive destinations."

But with the way things are going in the global economy these days -- cheaper oil, a flailing Euro -- that could all change in an instant. And indeed, some dive destinations that were off your list in the past should be looked at again. Take Australia. A couple of years ago, its dollar was higher than the U.S. dollar. Now, US$1 equals AUD$1.28.

Tuke says there are now good prices in countries that base their currency on the Euro, which has been plummeting compared to the dollar. "Tahiti is Euro-based so its rates have really come down. Same with the Fiji dollar." But when other currencies weaken against the dollar, foreign operations often change to quoting only in dollars, and while Americans gain no advantage, Europeans are being priced out. One way around this is to contact foreign travel agents who may have prices suited to their own clientele. Or look for resorts or boats that continue to quote in Euros or their local currency. As for fuel surcharges, with crashing oil prices, there should be none, but don't count on it. Fuel prices have dropped in the past, but many liveaboards maintained their surcharges.

So if you're planning a future trip, keep an eye on currency fluctuations. "If the dollar tanks when your final payment is due months from now, that payment will not be what you thought when you originally booked that charter," says Tuke.

Yes, it's a dive traveler's jungle out there. But with good research and a good travel agent, you can minimize the prices, travel time and hassles you face to put together a trip that suits you just fine.

- - Vanessa Richardson

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