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April 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 31, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Travel Agent or the Internet? Part II

which option gives you a better dive trip overall?

from the April, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In February's issue, we highlighted the reasons to consider booking your next dive trip with a travel agent -- saving time and money, and getting some hand-holding are among them. But some of our readers are on the fence about using a travel agent to book trips, so in this issue we're reporting on a friendly "face-off" between a well-regarded dive travel agent and an online-surfing Undercurrent reader.

While Reef and Rainforest's flights were less convenient than Moré's, the travel cost is nearly a thousand dollars less.

Subscriber Jorge Moré (Downers Grove, IL) volunteered to be our intrepid trip planner, because, as he wrote, "I always arrange my own trips because I then have total control. It can be a bit of a pain, but worth it. I think I can get as good, or better, deals on dive trips than the pros, but I have no data to back up my assertion, so I want to sign up for this challenge."

Jenny Collister, the owner of the highly-regarded travel agency Reef and Rainforest, volunteered to create two sample itineraries to the Philippines and the Caribbean, with details about prices, offerings and why she picked specific dive resorts for Moré (she didn't know who he was beforehand).

Here's the information we gave her about him: "I'm a solo diver (my wife doesn't like water) with more than 450 dives under my belt, and I turn 72 in May. My favorite destination is the Galapagos; a close second is Socorro Island. I like to see big animals -- the bigger, the better. I prefer liveaboard trips; nitrox is not essential, but it's nice. For landbased resorts, I'll take three- to four-star destinations, and a queen bed does just fine. I hate meal packages; I'm not a foodie, but I do like good food and wine. I fly out of Chicago, I tend to fly with United and I'm a Silver member. I'm not interested in topside attractions. I focus on diving."

Moré picked his own hotel/dive operations in our chosen two areas and used his Internet savvy to research airfares, hotels, dive packages, and other details. Then he looked at what Collister recommended for him, and decided whether he would book his own trip or take the pro's advice.

The Philippines: Jorge's Trip

The first challenge: booking a trip to the Philippines for the first two weeks in November.

Moré had dived the Philippines a few years ago, and wanted to book a liveaboard for November. After looking at Undercurrent's Reader Reports, he decided on the Philippine Siren, picking its10-day trip to Malapascua and the Visayas for November 1st - 11th, priced at $4,200, saying, "The Siren looks full in November, but it's not an unreasonable assumption that I'd be able to get a berth because I am a solo diver."

Moré needs to fly into Cebu to meet the Siren, which handles airport transfers. Based on his preference for United Airlines, he opted for flights via Hong Kong, where he likes to lay over. Searching Kayak.com, he found an economy seat on a 14-hour from Chicago to Hong Kong, with a stop in San Francisco, and a nonstop on the way back, for a total of $1,219. The round-trip, three-hour, nonstop flights to Cebu on Cathay Pacific adds an extra $509. He arrives the night before the Siren leaves (meaning an overnight stay at the Days Hotel by the airport for $42) and hopes he has time to fly out in the afternoon of the day the Siren returns. Each leg would require an overnight in Hong Kong, and Moré estimates an overnight stay near the airport would be about $150 -- so $300 for two nights on either side of his trip. The total travel cost is $2070.

All food and local beer are included in the Siren trip, along with dive gear and nitrox fills. Moré has to pay the marine park fee of $82, and if he wants to indulge in a bottle of wine, that's an extra $27. Add a 10 percent tip of $420, and his trip extras total $529. Moré is a thrifty spender on layovers, estimating $100 in food and extras during his Hong Kong stay. His approximate total for the Philippine trips is $6,899.

The Philippines: Jenny's Trip

Collister decided to send Moré to two destinations in the Philippines -- Dumaguete and Malapascua -- to give him the maximum big animal experience that he likes, but she opted for resorts. "I chose these resorts because they are both in an area where he can go to other resorts or the town for dinner (since he hates meal plans). The dive operation is the same at both of them, and they will handle all the transfers from start to finish because it is quite a journey between the two."

Collister selected United flights from Chicago to Manila on November 1, with a layover in Los Angeles, but there's an eight-hour layover in LAX, with a departure time of 11:20 p.m., and an arrival time in Manila, on November 3, at 4:40 a.m. Moré would have to wait around for his $60 flight aboard Cebu Pacific to Dumaguete. The same route back on 15th November has a five-hour layover in LAX, with a departure time of 10:45 p.m., and a November 16 arrival time in Chicago at 4:49 a.m. While Reef and Rainforest's flights were less convenient than Moré's, the travel price of $1,154 is nearly a thousand dollars less for the flights and Hong Kong layover expenses.

In Dumaguete, Collister selected a standard, airconditioned room at the Pura Vida Beach & Dive Resort, with Sea Explorers as its dive shop, with a sixday dive package with up to four dives a day. "He'll get to dive Apo Island, where schools of barracuda, manta and jacks come to mind," says Collister. "It's one of the top dives in the Philippines." Breakfast is included in the Pura Vida package, which totals $1,070. (Extras to pay are the marine park fee, and options of nitrox for $4 a day and a $130 day trip to Oslob to snorkel with whale sharks).

Then Sea Explorers will transfer Moré to Ocean Vida Resort in Malapascua for five nights. "It's known for its thresher sharks on the early morning dive at Monad Shoal, where you might see mantas as well," says Collister. It's a similar room/dive package deal to its sister resort, Pura Vida, with four days of all-day diving and breakfast, for $893. Moré probably doesn't need to budget more than $25 a day for lunch and dinner. Sea Explorers then transfers Moré to Cebu airport for a $60 flight back to Manila. Collister made it a late-day flight because "the bridge from the mainland to the airport is under construction until July and it will take longer to get there." Reef and Rainforest's estimated cost for Moré: $3,781 including $250 in tips.

The Philippines Trip: The Verdict

Moré was impressed with how Reef and Rainforest came up with such inexpensive airfares, half of what he would pay for his trip. But he didn't like the eight-hour layover at LAX, or the on-theground transfer from Dumaguete to Malapascua. "That's a long trip, eight hours by car and ferry," he says. "That could be an adventure or a problem."

While the thought of diving with Malapascua's thresher sharks appealed to Moré, he wasn't sure if he would like the dive resorts. "I get excited about a destination when I read a report in Undercurrent, for example, praising a place. Are there reports on these resorts on Undercurrent?" Pura Vida's most recent report -- a good review -- was in 2011, while Ocean Vida was reviewed favorably last summer.

He admits he's a liveaboard-first type of guy. "While Reef and Rainforest picked two different dive areas, the Siren covers multiple dive areas. Reef and Rainforest's itinerary is definitely cheaper, but cost should not be the main consideration. I'm a fan of liveaboards. For one thing, on a boat you get together with like-minded, interesting folks, so the time between dives is really enjoyable. That's harder in a resort. So overall, I favor the trip I pick."

Of course, we end up with apples and oranges, a land-based trip versus a liveaboard trip, and Moré ended up with a liveaboard trip more to his liking, but it cost him nearly $3000 more, with about the same number of dives. When it came to saving time and money, Reef and Rainforest did its job.

Next month: The Caribbean challenge.

- Vanessa Richardson

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