When I started diving, nobody ever told me how addictive this sport is! I did my Open Water course with the intention of diving maybe once or twice a year. I realised it's an expensive sport, and diving more than twice a year would mean having a skinny piggybank. To my consternation, I got well and truly hooked (no pun intended) and started diving obsessively. I spent thousands of my hard-earned dollars on courses, equipment, and trips - and not without making some mistakes along the way. A good portion of the money could have been saved if I only had a guideline to buying stuff, planning trips, etc. So here it is, my attempt at listing out the things I could have done to save a lot of moolah (read: $$$). Perhaps this will help a newbie or two to save themselves some money, heartache and frustration.
- Do your homework
Research is the key. Visit scuba diving resource websites such as http://www.scubadiving.com, http://www.divernet.com where all kinds of articles related to diving are available for free. These websites are not affiliated with any dive operation, so the articles are fairly objective. Read up on destinations, how to get there, which equipment performs well and are reasonably priced, what to look for in a dive operator, what kind of insurance to get, and a myriad of other general diving-related knowledge. If you're planning to travel to Palau, for example, you can find articles that not only review the dive sites, but also recommend dive operators, accommodation (resort-based or liveaboard), currency to bring, etc.
- Use a message board or mailing list
You can also do a proactive research through message boards such as http://www.scubaboard.com. You can ask questions and exchange opinions with divers all over the world. What better way to learn about a dive site than to ask a local diver? I have successfully organized trips to remote areas based on tips and recommendations from message boards. All you have to do is ask the right questions; people will genuinely try to help if you sound sincere and intelligent.
Be careful, not all the messages on the boards are genuine. Sometimes you'll get bogus members who are actually dive operators trying to solicit clients. There are also the occasional 'trolls'; people who are there simply to wreak havoc. These are the people who post messages such as "Operator X is terrible!" without any explanation of what happened and when. They're in it to bring down others, and should be ignored, not replied to.
It is also important that you observe the rules and regulations of a message board before posting a message. At Scubaboard, for example, it is customary to introduce yourself prior to posting your questions - do it out of sheer politeness. In most message boards, posting something that could be considered advertising is also frowned at. You can give suggestions for dive operators, for instance, but not the full address, course and trip prices, etc.
Board members occasionally arrange get-togethers, such as BBQs, dinner, drinks, dives, etc. These gatherings are good opportunities to meet other divers and to find buddies.
- Talk to people
The best deals are usually not advertised. Rather, it's spread through word-of-mouth and intricate networks of 'people in the know'. Like in any other sports, divers seek each other and form exclusive cliques, groups, clubs. These cliques are the best source of information because they contain divers from all levels: instructors, divemasters, resort owners, dive guides, dive shop owners. Not only you can gain invaluable general diving knowledge from them, you can also learn about the best deals. All you have to do is be friendly; most divers are kind enough to share information.
Also, most divers usually have 'day jobs' - occupations when they're not diving. I have met a diver who is a travel agent during the week, who can get dirt-cheap flights. Another diver friend works for a multinational company that regularly offers discounted weekend trips to its employees and their family and friends. A diver/insurance agent friend also managed to get me attractively priced travel insurance.
However, you must bear in mind that first and foremost you are looking to widen your network of friends who share the love of diving. These people are not your discount coupons, so treat them as you would your other friends. Also, remember to give something in return. When you have info about a good deal, share.
Sometimes just by being a member of a diving club gets you perks such as discounted trips, courses, equipment. While there is usually a membership fee involved, the fee is offset by substantial discounts you get from various sponsors or affiliated dive operators.
- Get insured
A lot of people think that diving and travel insurance is a waste of money. They think, how often does one get DCS or miss a flight hence the rest of the planned dive trip? Maybe not that often, but when it happens, you'd wish you had one!
An incident of DCS (Decompression Sickness), for example, may involve a lot of parties and treatments that ultimately, will leave you financially crippled. An airlift from Komodo Island to the nearest decompression facility in Bali, for example, will cost a minimum of USD5,000. Chamber treatment and other costs are extra - a single chamber treatment costs approximately USD2,000 and you may need up to 5 treatments depending on the severity of injury. If you live through the ordeal, your bill will be easily what you make in a whole year.
A basic travel and diving insurance, such as one provided by Divers Alert Network (DAN, www.danseap.org) will cover any diving accident or travel accident and leave you worry-free while you recover.
Other types of diving insurance offer full reimbursement for damaged or missing gear (flooded housing, missing regulator), even compensation for flight delays and cancellations.
With a reasonable annual premium, insurance provide you the peace of mind and financial security should the unthinkable occurs.
- Bypass the middleman
It is a common knowledge that travel agents and dive operators charge a premium for organizing a trip. Dive operators in Singapore, for example, don't normally have an operation set up in Malaysia. These Singapore operators usually act as an "agent" for the Malaysian dive operators. The Singapore operators send divers to the Malaysian operators and get a commission.
If you have a little bit of time to spare, why not bypass the local operators and go straight to the overseas operators? This way, you may get a cheaper rate because the overseas dive operator no longer needs to pay the middleman. Also, you will probably be charged in the local currency, which may work out to be cheaper overall.
With the Internet, you can have direct access to various dive operators the world over. By email or instant message, you can communicate with the operator and work out a deal that suits your budget.
- Travel with a buddy!
It is common for a dive operator to charge an extra premium for diver traveling alone. This surcharge can reach up to 70% on top of the normal price. So, get a buddy to travel with you! Not only you'll get a cheaper rate, you can eliminate the possibility of getting buddied up with a stranger whose diving skills you know nothing of.
Operators also usually offer group discounts. The more buddies you have, the cheaper each of you has to pay. For example, liveaboards often offer "charter" prices - one diver pays $1,000, but 6 divers pay the group price of $5,000.
- Plan and stick to your budget
At the initial stage of planning, you need to establish a budget that will suit you and your buddies. You must all agree on a realistic budget that covers the essentials:
Other expenses such as tips, shopping, extra meals, etc. should be left out of the group budget.
In my experience, it is also more cost-effective if all the participants use the same dive operator, stay at the same resort, and use the same transport arrangement. This minimizes the overall waiting time (e.g., participants arriving on different flights, trains, etc.), and you could perhaps get a group rate for transport/accommodation.
You would also save a lot of money by working out a personal annual budget. Set aside a certain amount every month to go into a separate account or a 'diving piggybank'. Plan your dive trips around public holidays, so you can take a minimum amount of precious annual leave. Impulsive holidays usually costs much more than planned ones.
However, plans are just plans - if a better offer comes up around the time of your planned holiday, grab it! If you already have the budget previously planned, it's just a matter of shuffling the dates.
- Get a good instructor, not a cheap one
When it comes to taking courses, bear in mind that you are paying for an education that may save your life. So, look for a good instructor that has a good track record. Ask around for references. This is the one aspect in diving that you should never scrimp on because the risk is your life. There are plenty of cheap instructors, but how would you like to be taught by an instructor who only has 100 logged dives?
The trick is to find an instructor who loves the sport and want to share his/her knowledge. This instructor would willingly answer your questions even if you haven't signed up for the course yet. He/she won't try to sell you equipment along with the course, nor try to sell you a "combined" course (for example, Open Water and Advanced Open Water in one go).
The price of the course should be reasonably comparable to the market prices. Do not fall prey to "Special Offer" courses - these courses are cheap but bundles too many divers in a class and in the shacks they call a resort. Often enough they also serve you terrible food, use falling-apart non-A/C transport, and rent out poorly-maintained equipment. Stay away from these "cattle-diving" operators - it's your life at stake!
- Invest on high-quality equipment
The one cardinal rule in buying equipment is: think of it as an investment. It is better to buy an expensive wetsuit that will last 1,000 dives than a cheap one that will last 10. You're paying for quality, so it's money well-spent. Of course you'll have to have a price limit, but make sure the limit is as high as your wallet would allow.
Buying life-supporting gear such as regulators and BCD must be thought through, because you cannot afford to have these fail. Price should be secondary to performance and durability. Find information on service frequency and cost, and include this in your yearly diving budget.
Dive computers are also a life-saver. It is your Plan B, an assistant to the dive tables you have in your brain.
Safety devices are just as important as regulator and BCD. You never know when you're going to need a surface marker, whistle, spool, etc. You should not leave these essential gadgets for last.
- Read The Manual!
Many cases of equipment damage results from varying degrees of human error and sheer carelessness. Many people had their underwater housing flooded simply because they did not read the user's manual before using it. If they had spared 15 minutes to RTFM, they would have saved a lot of buckaroos.
The same goes for other gears: treat them with care and follow the manufacturer's suggestions, and you won't need to spend on new gear for a very long time.
For gears that need regular servicing such as regulators, do not attempt to service it yourself even though you've read all the servicing manuals you can get your hands on. It's a very delicate piece of equipment, and any failure would mean your life at risk. Leave the work to professionals.
To sum it all up, diving can be cheap yet enjoyable with a little research and a whole lot of planning. Do your homework and you'll be surprised at how much more dives you can log from all the money saved.