Holidaying on a shoestring doesn't make you tight - it just means you get more diving in! But how cheap can a dive trip be, and do you need to become a temporary tramp?
John Liddiard is a hotshot bargain-hunter, so we asked him to look into the economics of diving trips both in Britain and overseas
I LEARNT TO DIVE WITH A UNIVERSITY CLUB, and it took many years before I even considered doing anything other than the cheapest, most basic diving trips. Like all basic training, the habits stuck. I make no apologies for being into low-cost diving; the cheaper the diving, the more I can afford to do, though I have grown to appreciate some creature comforts with age.
There are three basic components to the cost of any diving trip: diving, accommodation, and transport. Cutting any two of the three to a minimum can enable you to spend a bit more on the third component and still end up with a low-cost diving trip. Avoiding crossing water obviously makes quite a saving, so we'll start by looking at holidays around Britain:
Camping is usually the cheapest form of accommodation, especially where it is allowed free on common ground, though if you are taking advantage of free camping take care not to offend any local landowners and make sure you clear up properly when you move on.
For a touring trip, where you find yourself on a new campsite every night, I find a Gore-Tex bivvy bag (below) a really useful accessory. Just find a convenient lay-by, unroll it beside the car and crawl in. No tent poles to put up; it's warmer than a tent and just as dry. The only disadvantage is getting in and out when it's raining.
It's not just a cost thing; there is the added convenience of being able to stretch out and sleep more or less wherever you like.
However, I have to admit that diving followed by camping in the typical liquid sunshine of a British summer can get depressing. Like most of you, I long for somewhere to dry out at the end of a day's diving.
After camping, next up the scale of low-cost accommodation, and infinitely more luxurious than a tent, are static caravans. Out of season, the rates for a caravan for six can work out even cheaper than camping and even in-season can be as low as £6 or £7 per night each, if six divers share for a week.
Knowing that most divers like to keep costs down and are usually prepared to share rooms, B& Bs specialising in diving groups often have bunk-rooms available. With or without breakfast, these offer good value for basic accommodation. The cost without breakfast is typically £10 per night.
Another option is to join the Youth Hostel Association for £12 and take advantage of cheap rooms at many locations across the country. Most YHA hostels include kitchens and some even have cafeterias with fully catered food.
Believe it or not, some of the best value-for-money accommodation comes from liveaboard boats. Superficially these might seem comparatively expensive, but consider the all-inclusive price, with everything from air to food thrown in, and a liveaboard can be cheaper than hiring a dayboat with accommodation ashore.
With no transferring back and forth, it can also be considerably more convenient. Some liveaboard boats provide everything else but are self-catering, providing the opportunity to eat as cheaply or expensively as you like.
This trend is now showing itself on dayboats, with skippers converting unused space below decks to bunk-rooms priced as low £5 per night.
Camping is always a cheap option for accommodation
Transport costs can easily overshadow all other costs on a diving trip, so attention to details is essential if you're looking for a cheap one.
If you can travel reasonably light and rent any additional equipment on location, buses, coaches and trains might be the answer. But there could be problems with carrying diving cylinders, so check first.
For one diving trip, a friend of mine worked out that although a vehicle was useful for getting there, it was not much use once he was on location. His creative solution was to hire a small pick-up for a day. Over a busy 24 hours, the pickup did two journeys ferrying divers, boats and mobile compressor, with a helping friend along to return it to the rental company at the end of the day. At the end of two weeks' diving, they hired a pickup for another day and reversed the process.
There are many other ways to cut transport costs. For larger groups, hiring a minibus and van can often work out far cheaper than getting only two or three divers into each car by the time all the diving kit has been packed.
I learnt another creative variation on van hire when I joined a trip to Guernsey several years ago (great diving, must go back some time). By the time the ferry costs had been calculated, it was obvious that, although the driven mileage was short, minimising the number of vehicles was still the best way to bring overall trip costs down.
The solution was to hire a large minibus from a company that based rental fees on a high mileage rate and a low daily rate, then unbolt the last two rows of seats to create extra luggage space.
While on the subject of ferries, trailer prices are based on length, so we also saved a few pounds by sliding the boat further forward on its trailer than we normally would, thus reducing the overall length.
If you have sufficient cars with towbars, a "tow-a-van" or box trailer works out at a fraction of the cost of a rental van and can actually be more convenient once you are on location.
One club of which I am a member was hiring "tow-a-van" trailers so often that it bought a horsebox-size chassis and built a heavy duty diving-kit trailer. Access was via a ramp at the rear, with a removable roof to provide headroom. The overall length was kept to less than 4.5m and height to less than 1.8m, to avoid excess length and height charges on ferries.
Self-sufficient "expeditions" with shared resources such as compressors and boats are one of the major advantages of dive clubs
The collective ability to provide the infrastructure for self-sufficient "club expeditions" is one of the major advantages of traditional British Sub-Aqua Club or Sub-Aqua Association diving clubs.
With eight to 12 divers, a couple of boats, a mobile compressor, tents and a minimal number of vehicles, you can have a week's diving just about anywhere in the UK for under £200.
All it takes is some effort put into advanced organisation and planning. For example, a few years ago I organised a 10-day club trip to tour some of the top dive sites on the West Coast of Scotland. A day here, a couple of days there, and nothing but the best diving.
With eight divers, our transport requirements were taken care of by one large car and a rented van. Overall cost came to £165 for everything except food, including money to club funds for the boats and compressor.
This summer some friends of mine are planning a similar trip for two weeks and a budget of £250 all-inclusive.
Even when you're using charter boats, diving in the UK is not that expensive. The going rate for most hardboats is between £20 and £30 per day, with midweek charters often cheaper than weekends. To get a week's diving for under £200, you have to cut accommodation and transport costs to a minimum, but it can be done.
Of course, you can always cut diving costs to a minimum by shore-diving (or even look into getting a dive kayak - see Diver, June 2000). Just pick a part of the country with a good selection of shore-dive sites, pack your tent and diving gear and away you go.
If you're a long way from the nearest compressor, it can be a good idea to borrow some extra cylinders, so that you have only to make excursions to get them filled every few days.
Trailer, mobile compressor and free camping at the roadside - a low-cost club expedition to Norway.
If you're camping on tarmac, it helps to have a tent that will stay up with a minimum number of pegs
So, given a budget of £200, just how much diving can you get? I have ignored the cost of food and beer, as that's something most divers would be paying for anyway, even if not on a diving trip.
The cost of travel depends a lot on where you're travelling from, so I have allowed £50 each for transport.
That should enable two divers sharing a small car to cover a fair part of the country and four divers squashed into a larger car to travel further still.
I contacted a few dive operators and challenged them to provide as much diving as possible for round about £150 per diver. I have made no attempt to compare like with like. Some assumed divers would arrive on the morning of the first dive, others that they arrived the night before.
The dayboat Skin Deep from Weymouth has an on-board compressor and £140 gives you five days' diving including air. With camping at £4 to £5 per night, this would take you a few pounds over budget. If you prefer, there is a bunk-house at £10 per night, so you could have four days' diving and air and three nights bunk-housing for £142.
I would spend the remaining £8 on a nice fried breakfast or two. If you're prepared to walk a few minutes from the harbour, car parking is free.
Also in Weymouth, Tango offers diving at £30 per day and a bunk onboard for £5 per night. Air is available from local dive shops at £2 per fill, so four days' diving and three nights on board would come to £151.
For the Sound of Mull, the Lochaline Dive Centre suggests six nights' self-catering bunk-room accommodation, four days' hardboat-diving and one day shore-diving. With all air included, this would come out at £143.
For shore-diving, the old pier at Lochaline stands above a sheer wall extending down to 70m or more and makes an excellent dive. A good use for the last few pounds would be a couple of fills for additional shore dives or some nitrox to get the most out of some of the boat dives.
On the Clyde, boat costs are similar, with Rachel Clare from Girvan charging £30 per day and air at £2 per fill.
However, caravans can be rented for a group of six at just £25 each for a week, so four days' diving and air with one week in a caravan would come to £161, leaving two days' caravan time in which to do what you want.
Further up the coast, the wreck of the Kintyre can be dived as a shore dive.
From Littlehampton, hardboats Voyager and Michelle Mary both charge £30 per day for diving. Air is available in the marina at £2 per fill and B&B can range from £15 to £35 per night, with the local youth hostel at Arundel charging £10 per night.
There would be some change from a three-day and three-night trip, or a four-day and three-night trip would take you a little over budget. Camping would definitely stretch the trip to four days.
On the Lizard, hardboat diving with Dive Action is £25 per day and air £2 per fill. Assuming six divers shared a caravan for five nights, you could have four days' diving and air and five nights' accommodation for £151. If you're diving from Porthoustock, car parking is free.
The Lizard area also offers a number of reasonable shore-dive sites. By buying air, shore-diving and staying in a caravan, £150 could be made to stretch to about one and a half weeks, depending on car parking and diving fees (beaches at Mullion and Porthkerris have charges for shore-diving).
For those planning a club trip, many university clubs take their boats and beginners to the Lizard round about Easter for a week, usually staying in caravans, for an all-inclusive cost of well under £150. And, believe it or not, these trips are not subsidised. Clubs I know all make a fair profit from such training trips. The economy is made in the scale of a trip for 40 or so divers sharing minibuses and vans, with club boats shuttling in and out all day long.
At the opposite end of the UK in Scapa Flow, the boats Jean Elaine and Sharon Rose both offer diving and air at £30 per day and bunks on board for £7 per night. With the ferry cost from the mainland being £22 to £32, this again comes to £150 for four nights' accommodation and three days' diving, or an extra day diving if you ignore the cost of the ferry. The long-stay car park at Scrabster is dear, but parking in the street is free.
The disadvantage is that for most UK divers there is a long drive to get to the ferry at Scrabster. However, diving includes the use of on-board 12 litre cylinders and weights, so you could squash more divers into a car, or the option of using a combination of train and long-distance coach could be both cheap and practical.
At Teignmouth, just south of Exeter on the East Devon coast, Teign Diving offers particularly low-cost hardboat-diving at £20 per day. Air is £2 per fill, so by staying at a local campsite for £5 per night you could have six nights' accommodation and five days' hardboat-diving for spot-on £150. The nearby pay and display car park would add a few pounds extra per day.
If you prefer more substantial accommodation, the pub next door to the dive centre offers B&B for £20 for the first night with a discount for subsequent nights, so £150 would cover a three or four-day diving trip when staying there.
For the Farne Islands, Sovereign Diving charges £22 per day for hardboat-diving, £2.50 per fill for air and £18 per night for B&B accommodation. Once the value of breakfast is included, overall costs are similar to most locations at £162 for four days' diving and three nights' B&B.
Car parking at the harbour is an additional couple of pounds per day. By camping at about £5 per night and creative shuttling of cars to minimise parking costs, the original budget would just about stretch to five days' diving and accommodation.
Just a little further north, the coastline near St Abbs offers particularly convenient shore-diving, including Cathedral Rock and Weasel Loch at Eyemouth.
Allowing £5 per night for camping and £2 per air-fill, our budget of £150 could stretch to more than two weeks of high-quality shore-diving, depending on how much you had to pay for car parking at the various dive sites. Another option would be B&B in St Abbs and walking to the seafront each day to avoid car-parking fees.
At £20 per night, you could still just about get a week's shore diving in by the time the cost of air fills is included.
I hope this has given those of you with a tight budget some ideas to follow up. Boat-diving costs are fairly uniform throughout the UK, but there are the occasional bargains to be had; the same applies to accommodation, be it camping or B&B.
The trick is to work out where you can save a few pounds on one component of the holiday so that you can be a little more extravagant on the rest of it.
At Patpong Beach in Phuket, Thailand, room prices can be as low as $5, yet rates for the more visible international hotels are getting on for $100
The sheer number of dive boats competing for business at Sharm el Sheikh in the Red Sea keeps prices under control.
Weymouth - Skin Deep 01305 782556, Tango 01305 774266
Sound of Mull - Lochaline Dive Centre 01967 421627
Clyde - Rachel Clare 01294 833724
Littlehampton - Voyager 01903 739090, Michelle Mary 01903 739010
Lizard - Dive Action 01326 280719
Scapa Flow - Jean Elaine 01856 850879, Sharon Rose 01856 851218
Teignmouth - Teign Diving Centre 01626 773965
Farne Islands - Sovereign Diving 01665 721297
ABROAD ON A BUDGET
Having extolled the low-cost virtues of a self-sufficient club expedition, you could always take such an expedition to Europe by ferry. It is unlikely to come out at less than £200, but can still be good value for money and a chance to do something really different.
But that isn't what most of us think of when it comes to overseas diving.
What we really want is hot tropical sunshine and clear blue waters, and for a cheap trip to somewhere hot and foreign the way in which the problem is tackled has to change.
With the duration of trips governed by flight schedules, it is no longer practical to ask: "How many days can I get for a given budget?" More relevant is good value for money for a given destination.
For example, £1000 would be expensive for a week at one of the major Red Sea resorts, but would represent particularly good value for money for some locations further afield.
You also need to bear in mind how you gauge the benefits of a foreign diving trip. Is it the number of days' diving that's important or the number of dives you can get? Is it the number of days off work you have to take, or the number of days you achieve on location? Is the journey to your exotic dive destination a chore to be endured, or all part of the travel experience?
If you're looking to go to a package-holiday destination, the first way to get a bargain is to take a risk on getting a last-minute package.
The closer to the brink you're prepared to go, the more the large tour operators will discount their prices, particularly for mass-market destinations such as the Mediterranean and Canaries.
I had a quick look at the special offer window of my local travel agent and found a range of deals departing within the next few weeks: Bodrum (Turkey) for £220, Costa Brava (Spain) for £220, Majorca for £230, Grand Canaria or Fuerteventura for £280 and Cyprus for £300. Fly-drives to Florida were also going cheap at £280, though watch out for the hidden extras on car insurance.
Having got a flight and accommodation sorted out, you then have to find some diving. Not a problem if the last-minute deal is for an obvious diving destination such as Hurghada, but supposing your bargain package is for "Lanzarote, hotel assigned on arrival"?
You can easily phone or e-mail dive centres taken from the small ads in Diver, though you might not be able to find out which is conveniently close to your accommodation until you get there.
A common problem with package holidays is baggage allowance. I can remember once having almost signed on the dotted line for such a last-minute trip to Malta. Then I found that it included a very strict 5kg hand luggage and 15kg hold luggage limit - no exceptions. Barely enough for my camera gear, let alone dive kit. Scrap that deal!
For the Millennium celebrations, some friends and I found a deal to Sharm el Sheikh at four days' notice on the Explorers website. By the time we had paid for flights, accommodation and diving, it came to £700 for two weeks, including both Christmas and New Year, at a time when booking anything in advance was extortionately elevated in price. Going on the regular diving charter flight, dive kit was expected and allowed for, even though the ticket said 20kg.
Much of the Caribbean is the US equivalent of the Mediterranean for package holidays. One avenue for saving a few pounds is to book a package with a US-based travel company, then get a cheap transatlantic flight to meet your American departure.
When you look at package deals, the usual standard of accommodation is at least mid-range. It just isn't worth the travel companies getting involved with the hassles of distributing their customers among a plethora of small local guesthouses.
On the other hand, if you can still get a deal on the flights and are prepared to put in some work with guide books, web searches, telephone, fax and e-mail, you might be able to benefit from some ridiculously cheap accommodation that is nevertheless clean and secure.
For example, at Patpong Beach in Phuket, rooms can easily be found for US $20 and even as little as $5, yet the more visible international hotel rates are getting on for $100 per night. With many remote dive centres having websites, it is possible to book your diving on a similar basis.
All of this is much easier if you are familiar with a location. If you have been there before, you will already have a reasonable idea of where to go and who to talk to locally for the best deal.
A compromise option is to book a couple of nights at the standard hotel and a couple of days' diving in advance with the flights, then look for local alternatives on arrival. If you decide to try this, bear in mind that you could get caught out, with nowhere to sleep or dive.
All these schemes trade price against risk - the risk of not going to where you originally wanted, not going where the best diving is, paying extra to put things right, not going at all or, in the worst case, going but not being able to dive.
So supposing you don't want to take any risks or go through the hassle of a piecemeal itinerary, what good deals are available from the standard dive travel companies?
I contacted a selection of them to ask what they could recommend.
For a good price in the Mediterranean, Hayes and Jarvis can get you to Gozo with B&B and 12 dives for just under £400. The Medas Islands in Spain are only slightly more expensive.
The Red Sea is always a good bet for reasonably priced warmwater diving. Prices are highest over Christmas and New Year, the usual school holiday times and also during our autumn, when the water is warmest, so those are the times to avoid. Several operators recommended June or early July as a good time for warmer water, big fish and tolerable air temperatures. December and January can also be cheap if you avoid Christmas and New Year, though the water will be cooler.
Scubaway suggested a week in Hurghada at just under £450 for flights, B&B hotel and six days' diving. Additional costs would be lunch and evening meals, beer, visas and airport taxes. With that in mind, Regal advised me to allow a budget of £560 to cover everything including a couple of beers per night and Explorers advised a similar budget for a week in Sharm el Sheikh.
If the quantity of dives is more important to you, Tony Backhurst suggested a week on a Red Sea liveaboard boat for £700-£800. Once you consider that you can get twice as much diving in, it actually works out at less per dive than a shore-based trip.
Further afield, Dive Worldwide, Scuba Discovery and Regal can get you to some lesser-known locations in Indonesia, Borneo and the Philippines for around £1000. I haven't been there, but Manado in Indonesia is quite tempting. A personal favourite of mine is the wreck collection of Coron Bay in the Philippines, not as extensive as Truk Lagoon, but still offering some excellent wreck-diving for considerably less money.
Heading in the opposite direction, Barefoot Traveller recommended Tobago during the months of May, June, October and November for low-season prices without sacrificing the quality of diving. A package of flights, B&B and six days' diving comes to £720. Also recommended was Bonaire, with the prospect of island-wide unlimited shore-diving.
The diving travel market is now well-established, with tour companies from major operators to small specialists all competing for business. The few I have mentioned barely scratch the surface of the possibilities available.
Unlimited shore diving in Bonaire means you can dive at whatever time of day the light is right for photographs, and get maximum value for money
The Red Sea is always a good bet for coral reefs at budget price
You can tell this lot didn't get a good night's sleep before getting on the boat. They must have been camping!
DIVING THE INTERNET
I made all these enquiries cheaply - by e-mail, taking e-mail addresses of UK-based tour operators directly from advertisements in Diver or the advertised web sites.
I then went diving for a few days and allowed just over a week for replies to arrive. My thanks to those that responded by e-mail or telephone. Some even took the trouble to explain that they didn't do anything at the budget end of the market.
However, a whopping 50 per cent of those I contacted did not respond. I can't believe that half of my enquiries did not get through, so all I can say to them, in this age of electronic information is: "Get your act together!"