Guidelines to help the diving enthusiast in selecting a spot for a first dive vacation are presented. The multitude of dive resorts all over the world tends to confuse the first-time vacationer. Selection criteria should merely be based on a diver’s particular propensity.
One of the most frequently asked questions is, “Where is the best place to go for a diving vacation?” There is no simple answer. The response depends on a wide spectrum of factors that influence the decision making process. In essence, the answer to this question depends on: the diver’s personal likes and dislikes, the budget available, the companions traveling with the diver, the type of diving desired and the region of the world of most interest – just to name a few.
The process of selecting a diving vacation is becoming more complex because the number of options has increased greatly. There are more than 100 different islands and countries now offering more than 1,000 different dive vacation packages. The number of live-aboard dive boats has grown to more than 150 vessels that now encircle the globe. Dive travel has become a big, wide world of delightful, tantalizing options.
How does the new diver deal with this enormous choice of vacation options? The obvious solution is to take the advice of another diver – a friend, a dive buddy, a dive instructor or a dive store specialist. Yet, there are many pitfalls in taking the advice of others. No two divers have exactly the same diving preferences or travel requirements. While one diver might think a camping trip to a remote desert island is a terrific adventure, another might describe it as a nightmare.
The key to selecting a rewarding, enjoyable dive vacation is to be realistic about your personal expectations and to select a trip that is suited to your specific needs. It becomes a process of elimination – a careful step by step consideration of what you like and what you dislike, what you want in a vacation and what is not particularly important. The following are a few hints on beginning that process of elimination.
1 Determine how much you wish to spend: If you are concerned about how much you are going to be spending (who isn’t these days?) on a dive vacation, you should first determine how much you can afford. The budget available can make a significant difference on where you can go. Dive travel vacations cost money, probably more than you first anticipated. You have to be realistic about your expectations – it is going to cost more money to go on a trip than it is to stay home. The cost of hotel services, meals, taxis, diving and sundries will be significantly higher than the same items and services back home.
Diving vacations span the entire spectrum from a drive/dive trip to the Florida Keys for a few hundred dollars, all the way up to a White Shark expedition to South Australia. In between these two extremes is a wide selection of dive trip options at various price levels.
The least expensive dive trips are within the continental boundaries of the U.S. The most popular are drive/dive trips to various parts of Florida, where divers can enjoy warm water, sunshine and subtropical coral reefs. These trips can range from $500 to $800, depending on how many divers are sharing in the cost of travel and accommodations.
The next price level is short range travel overseas to islands and areas that are conveniently close to the U.S. mainland. They include the Bahamas, Cozumel, Mexico’s Baja and other parts of Mexico. These trips range in cost from $800 to $1,200 per person, depending on the destination selected and the level of hotel accommodations and services.
The next level is reasonably priced trips to various parts of the Caribbean, including Caribbean island countries and islands or waters off Central America. Such trips can range in cost from $1,000 to $2,000 per person depending on accommodations and selected destination.
Dive trips to the Pacific region are more expensive because of higher air fares. This region encompasses the countries and islands of the Pacific Rim basin including Australia, Fiji, Micronesia, French Polynesia, the Solomon Islands and so on. These trips range in price from $2,500 to $3,500 per person. The only exception is Hawaii, which offers bargain rates for vacation packages.
Probably the most expensive dive travel for Americans is exotic dive trips to distant islands on the opposite side of the globe, such as the Seychelles, Thailand, Malaysia and the Maldives. These trips can range widely from $3,500 to $5,000 per person depending on accommodations and destination.
2 Beware of lowball prices: Comparative price shopping can be a dangerous practice when it comes to dive vacations. This is because you never have an opportunity to see the product before you buy it. What you are actually buying is a collection of sweet sounding words and pretty pictures in a brochure. If the price for the trip seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.
Here is a typical example. You have selected an island destination for your dream dive vacation. Three resort hotels on this island offer dive packages ranging from $1,100 to $1,250. A fourth hotel has a package for $850. What’s wrong with this picture? How can one hotel be so much cheaper than the other three?
In such situations, you need to carefully read the fine print. Search for what is not being said, as well as the terms and conditions of the vacation trip. The travel business is very competitive and sometimes hotels and travel companies go a little too far in their attempt to offer a low price. Lowball packages can be created by leaving out such vital items as meals, transportation from and to the airport, government taxes, service gratuities (often mandatory) and so on.
Beware of bargain priced packages. Instead, shop for a fair value. If the going price for a dive vacation package at a certain island destination averages $1,200, that is what you should expect to pay.
3 Determine the type of vacation you want: Once you have established a budget range, try to determine the type of diving vacation you desire. Today’s dive traveler is offered a smorgasbord of different vacation options – each distinctly different, yet equally exciting. You may elect to go on a drive/dive vacation to Florida because you have a recreational vehicle or because you like to drive and tour this wonderful land we call the United States.
The most popular vacation experience is a fly/dive trip to a tropical island or country where you can enjoy a luxury hotel and experience the pleasures of warm water diving (80 |degrees~ F) and 100 foot visibility. Such vacations offer a minimal amount of time spent traveling and a maximum amount devoted to diving and tropical living.
In recent years, live-aboard dive boat vacations have skyrocketed in popularity. On such trips, your dive hotel goes with you to the dive site. These motorized vessels are fully equipped with air-conditioned cabins, full dining facilities and a complete dive center. Such vacations offer an opportunity to maximize your diving – often making as many as five dives per day.
Another type of on-the-sea experience that is growing in popularity is the sail/dive vacation. Such trips are conducted aboard sailboats instead of motorized vessels – thus allowing the diver to enjoy the thrill of sailing as well as diving.
The category of fly/dive vacation is further subdivided into a wide range of accommodations that include luxury beach hotels, casual beach hotels, dedicated dive resorts and dive lodges. Each of these subcategories offers a different kind of vacation experience. For example, the luxury beach hotel generally offers an all-star vacation that includes golf, tennis, a large swimming pool, a sandy beach and a complete range of watersports. At the other end of the spectrum is the dive lodge that has no pool, tennis court or golf course – but is close to spectacular diving. The choice of accommodations depends largely on your personal needs and desires.
4 Select the region you wish to visit: Once you have determined your budget range and the type of vacation you desire, it is time to select the geographic region that interests you the most. Everyone has a secret fantasy – a special vision of a place that must be paradise. It could be a small island in the Caribbean or a sparsely populated atoll in the South Pacific. The fantasy can be almost anything from an island, to a culture, to an undersea experience. If you have always dreamed of seeing a giant Manta Ray underwater, then go to where Manta Rays are known to flourish.
There really is no such thing as the best place in the world for diving. Each destination is different. Each offers something special – something that makes it different from all the rest. The wonderful thing about this business is that dive travel allows you to live out your fantasy.
5 Determine the length of trip: By now, you may be wondering, How can I afford a dive trip to the island of my dreams when I have such a limited budget? One way is to adjust the length of the trip to match the budget you have available. Many of today’s dive vacation destinations offer a variety of different package prices determined by the length of stay. You can select a three night, five night or seven night stay. Each of these packages is significantly different in price.
If you have your heart set on visiting a special place but cannot afford a full week package, select a five night stay instead of a seven night. If this is still too costly, try a three night sampler. At least you will have a chance to see the island of your dreams and enjoy terrific diving.
6 Determine the type of diving you enjoy: The most appealing aspect of diving vacations is the wide array of diving experiences available. Each destination offers undersea attractions and a type of diving that may be unique. For example, at Grand Cayman’s Stingray City, you can frolic with a group of 15 to 20 friendly stingrays in just 9 to 12 feet of water. Off Grand Bahama Island, you can watch the divemaster feed sharks or you can go swimming with tame dolphins in the open sea. At Yap Island in Micronesia, you can get close to giant Manta Rays with 12 foot wingspans. Truk Lagoon offers a treasure trove of more than 50 World War II Japanese shipwrecks. Off Western Australia, you can snorkel with awesome Whale Sharks, 40 to 60 feet in length. The northern islands of Fiji offer a psychedelic world of colorful soft corals. Bonaire is world renowned for its fringing coral reefs and spectacular shore diving.
You need to keep in mind the type of diving you enjoy most. For example, if you love wreck diving, you may wish to visit a location that excels in warm water shipwrecks. For an inexpensive vacation, you might choose Ft. Lauderdale, Miami and the Florida Keys – a region loaded with shipwrecks.
7 Determine the level of accommodations acceptable: Selecting a hotel or cabin accommodations for your dive trip is a personal judgment. Some divers insist on air-conditioning while others couldn’t care less. Some divers want a spacious suite with color TV and telephone, while others are willing to spend the week in a thatched roof hut with two lightbulbs.
You must determine the minimum level of room or cabin (on live-aboards) accommodations you can live with and still enjoy your vacation. Important considerations include the size of the room, private bathroom facilities, type of bed (king sized, queen sized or single), air-conditioning, noise level from nearby band or bar, dining facilities, menu selection, insect problem (none/some/lots), distance from room to dive boat, privacy and security.
Divers often assume that a high priced dive vacation package means they will be staying in a luxurious room. This is not always the case, especially with exotic trips. The high price of the package generally reflects the expense of long distance travel and the high cost of maintaining a resort operation in a primitive region.
8 Read the fine print in the brochures: Again, we urge you to read the fine print in the brochures and other literature. It can make the difference between a delightful diving vacation or an unhappy disappointment. Be very careful about what is omitted, as well as what is stated. For example, if the hotel brochure does not specifically list air-conditioning in your room, there probably isn’t any. If the hotel brochure doesn’t state daily maid service, you may find the beds are only made once or twice a week.
Assume nothing and ask questions if you don’t find the answers in the literature. It is the simple things that will get you. Does the room have a closet for hanging up clothes? Is there a ceiling fan in the room? Is there a hotel staff member on duty all night? Can you drink the water from the tap?
The same is true for diving services. If the brochure states two tank dives daily (and you want three), ask if it is possible to make a third. Some resorts are limited to only two, no matter how much you are willing to pay. Again, it is the little things that always get you: Are you allowed to use your dive computer, can you go diving from shore, does the boat have shade, are the dives guided or unguided, is there a depth limitation, is there a ladder on the boat?
9 Consider the needs of your traveling companions: If you are traveling with another person or family member, you should consider their vacation needs as well as your own. This is especially important if the traveling companion is a nondiver. It would not be fair to the nondiver if you booked a vacation at an isolated dive resort or on a live-aboard. Nondivers generally seek alternative daytime activities such as water-sports, fishing, sightseeing, shopping, sunbathing, beachcombing and so on. A better choice would be a larger luxury resort on a well-developed island where there are many options.
10 Estimate the total cost of the trip: There is often a big difference between the advertised package price and total cost of a dive vacation. In fact, the costs are often double. When you see a one week dive package advertised for $595, it probably does not include such items as meals, beverages, hotel taxes and gratuities, airport departure tax, tips, taxis and a dozen other small expenditures. It is amazing how these little things can add up to another $600 or $800 in extra costs.
When estimating your vacation budget, make a list of every conceivable cost you may incur from the moment you leave home until the time you return. Make the list in chronological order so as not to omit anything. Once you have added up every possible cost, add another 20 percent just to be safe. Now, compare the estimated cost of the vacation to how much you were planning to spend.
11 Watch out for the extras: As mentioned earlier, the dive travel business is becoming more competitive all the time. Dive operators compete with each other by trying to offer the lowest priced package possible. As a result, these competitively priced packages are limited to the standard dives. Boat trips to more distant dive sites are available at an additional cost. These superior dives are often called upgrades.
A good example is the island of Cayman Brac, where resorts offer a one week package that includes diving on the walls and reefs around Cayman Brac for most of the week, plus a one day trip to Bloody Bay Wall off the nearby island of Little Cayman – where the diving is spectacular. Should you desire to go diving at Bloody Bay Wall more than once during the week, it will cost you an additional $20 to $25 per trip.
There is nothing wrong with this tiered pricing of dive trips, as long as the buyer is fully aware of its existence. Tiered pricing of dive trips and dive sites allows everybody to buy precisely what they want and can afford.
12 Don’t overlook the tips: For Americans, tips have become a way of life – something that is expected and generally given. If the waiter or waitress in your local restaurant provides attentive service, he or she generally receives a tip. This extra compensation often makes the difference between living at the poverty level and earning a decent income.
The same concept has been carried over into most of the islands of the Bahamas, Caribbean, Mexico and Pacific. Divemasters and boat crews are paid a basic salary – usually quite low. They depend on tips to supplement their income and are thus motivated to be friendly, courteous and helpful.
When you budget your vacation, be sure to include an amount for tips that will go to the divemaster, instructor, boat crew or anyone else who provides you with good service. Dive personnel are generally not included in the mandatory gratuity that is charged by a hotel.
13 Consider a condo vacation: One way to save on the high cost of hotel accommodations is to consider renting a vacation condo. This is particularly true if there are more than two people traveling together. Vacation condos are available in two or three bedroom units. The price per person is reduced greatly when the condo rental is split four or six ways. There are additional savings in meal costs if you prepare breakfast and lunch at the condo – or all three meals for that matter.
14 Read as much as you can about your destination: Once you have determined your vacation budget and the island or area destination you wish to visit, try to obtain as much written information on the location as possible. You may find two or three articles written about the island of your dreams that have been published over a two year period. Try to find the most recent articles (within the last two to three years) as they will contain the most up to date information.
You can obtain additional information from tourist boards, airlines and travel agents that specialize in dive travel. In many cases, you can obtain books about specific diving regions or locations. Some book publishers produce a whole series of travel books about specific island destinations.
15 Check the water temperature: Divers who are new to travel often make the mistake of assuming tropical destinations automatically mean warm water diving (80 to 82 oF). This is not always the case. Water temperatures can vary greatly depending on the specific destination or seasonal fluctuation in water temperature. For example, the Galapagos Islands are practically on the equator, yet the water temperature ranges from 68 to 78 oF. This group of tropical islands is affected by cold oceanic currents. Although the Red Sea is virtually surrounded by torrid deserts, the water temperature can be a chilly 65 oF. This can be quite a shock if you have only brought a Lycra dive suit.
Seasonality is another tricky aspect of water temperatures. In many Caribbean destinations, the water temperature varies from 78 oF in the winter to 82 in the summer. This small variance is not a problem. On the other hand, the water temperatures in the northern Bahamas can range between 82 oF in the summer and 72 in the winter. This 10 degree change in temperature requires swapping the Lycra dive suit for a 5mm wetsuit.
As you are making your dive vacation plans, be sure to ask what the water temperature will be at the specific time that you intend to visit.
16 Discuss your trip with others who have been there: One way to research a diving vacation is to discuss the destination with a diver who has been there. You can obtain firsthand knowledge, plus answers to questions you never thought to ask. It will also help you to verify specifics such as air-conditioning in the rooms, shore diving off the hotel grounds and so on.
A word of caution on using this technique. Make sure you are both talking about the same place. It is not sufficient to discuss an island destination in general terms. You need to be talking about the same hotel and the same dive operator. For example, if the diver says that he has been to Cozumel, you must ask, “Did you stay at this hotel and dive with this operator?” Hotel and diving services on the same island can vary greatly – one leaving the visitor with a good impression, the other resulting in a disappointing experience.
It is also important to remember that everyone has a slightly different opinion about a dive destination, usually based on personal experiences, the weather and the level of service received on the specific week of the visit. If you talk to two or more divers about the same destination, you are very likely to get conflicting opinions.
17 Consider booking through a dive travel agent: Whether you are totally confused about which vacation to select or you know exactly what you want – you may wish to consider booking your vacation through a dive travel agent who specializes in booking diving vacations.
It does not cost you a penny extra to purchase your diving vacation from a travel agent. The agent makes his/her money from the commissions paid by the hotel, airline and dive operator. The price is the same whether you purchase the package from the hotel direct or from the travel agent.
On the other hand, a dive travel agent may be able to save you money. These agents know all the travel options available and may be able to reduce costs by arranging your travel itinerary in a slightly different way.
Most important, the dive travel agent is usually well informed about diving destinations, dedicated dive resorts and live-aboard dive boats that are unknown to the leisure travel agent. They frequently attend dive travel seminars for information updates and they frequently send their staff members to dive resorts for a first hand evaluation. On many occasions, these dive travel agents have saved customers a great deal of grief and expense by providing updated information that may not yet have been published.
18 Don’t forget your C-card and logbook: When packing for your dive vacation, be sure to pack your scuba certification card and your dive logbook. Many of today’s safety conscious resorts will not permit you to dive without proof of certification. If you do not have your C-card, you may not be able to dive without first taking a scuba course.
In many resort areas and on many live-aboards, the dive operator would like to have as much information as possible about your diving experience. The best way to prove your level of competence and experience is by presenting your logbook. Experienced and advanced divers often have an opportunity to visit better sites or make more exciting dives.
19 Pack light and tight: Luggage size and weight can be an important consideration if you are making inter-island flights on small aircraft. These small, propeller driven aircraft often have weight restrictions and passengers are allowed a maximum baggage weight of 40 to 50 pounds. The restrictions vary from airline to airline.
In order to remain within these restrictions, you are going to have to pack a minimal amount of clothing and gear. Be selective. Choose only the equipment you absolutely need. Select a lightweight dive suit made of Lycra, Polartec. Select a lightweight travel-type BC and a lightweight regulator. Leave the lead weights, pony bottles and giant dive lights at home.
When it comes to clothing, you won’t need very much. Most dive resorts and live-aboards are ultra casual. T-shirts, shorts and sandals are the dress of the day (and evening, too). The clothing should be lightweight cotton or a similar fabric that can be easily rolled up and packed in a small space.
20 Bring adequate weather protection: Even though your goal is to pack as little clothing and dive gear as possible, do not skimp on the protective gear. Diving in the tropics can be hard on the body, as the equatorial sun is a mighty strong force. Be sure to pack all necessary weather protection items such as a hat, sunglasses and an ample supply of sunscreen. Another handy item is a lightweight windbreaker or rain jacket. Tropical squalls can appear suddenly, with a downpour of rain, and disappear an hour later.
21 Bring your favorite snack foods: If you have a favorite food that you would like to snack on, be sure to bring along an ample supply. These would include items such as granola bars, trail mix, fruit bars, raisins, crackers, cookies or candies. You are not likely to find this type of food available in most overseas island destinations – and if you did, it is likely to be very expensive, stale or both.
Snack foods come in handy after a dive, as they help wash away the taste of seawater. They also help to restore energy after an exhausting dive. One word of caution about snack foods – pack them in airtight containers or plastic bags. This will prevent problems with ants, mice and other food foragers.