Airway to Heaven
I DON’T THINK ANY OF US who travel in anything other than executive /priority /business/ooh-aren’t-you-rich class will ever learn to love flying and airports. For me, they are occupational hazards. However, there are steps we can take to make the whole sorry business as simple, uncomplicated and, above all, inexpensive as possible.
THE POINT OF AIRPORTS
We are all captives in airports. Brightly lit day or night, with music in the shops and a solid psychological wall of marketing to part us from money and in return make us look nicer or smell better (in conflict with all the high-calorie food outlets) - they are relentless.
We’re there to travel, but there is significant profit to be made from us beyond that initial ticket purchase. “Keep ’em awake and keep ‘em spending” might be the unofficial strapline of airports the world over.
I’m writing this at midnight in Ataturk airport in Istanbul en route to Hurghada, and the place is buzzing. As the “crossroads of the world”, Istanbul has grown wealthy from international travellers for centuries, and this airport is extracting every available euro, pound and dollar from us, as it was designed to do. It’s more boutique than bus station.
One way to feel a little better is to avoid this fiscal extraction process. It’s difficult, but can be as simple as taking a few home-made butties and sitting smugly in front of the shops that would cheerfully charge you a tenner for a baguette and a coffee. Am I tight No, it cheers me up.
Save a few quid in the soulless hangars and have an extra-special meal in a nice restaurant to celebrate an amazing trip with awesome dives and new friends made. This is what you remember, not the greasy thing in a bap that gives you indigestion throughout your flight.
After all, divers have enough to worry about. We have a huge, expensive assortment of robust yet inexplicably delicate kit to cart around, and we’re convinced that the baggage-handlers are just waiting to jump up and down on it.
I suspect that they actually take more care of it than myth would suggest, but I also expect there to be exceptions.
My camera kit travels in a sturdy plastic container that on occasion appears to have been used as a sledge.
CHECK-INS AND SHOUTING
The main problem at check-in is consistency – between airlines and within the same airline and final destination.
How many times have I sat on boats listening to tales of woe from people who get fleeced for every extra kilo, or to the slightly embarrassed but also smug folk who got away with no charges at all.
If the rules were the same and were enforced in a similar manner, we would have far less to grumble about. The best thing to do is to read up well beforehand.
Don’t think you know the airline’s policy because “that’s what you did last year”. In a competitive market, airlines often change their offers and rules. Is this done to keep us guessing while extracting every last bit of profit Possibly.
Check-in staff are at the sharp end, and have a tough time of it. They are the public face of an airline that I assume is not actually malevolent, and have to follow often contradictory and confusing instructions.
Anyone who has travelled regularly will have heard divergent tales from the same airline’s staff at each end of the journey.
I once flew with a low-cost airline to Sharm and had 7kg of cabin baggage.
The check-in people insisted that I take some items out and put them in my hold luggage – which put my hold luggage over 30kg. I was a little peeved!
I was informed that in case the cabin bag fell from the overhead lockers it needed to be below a “hazardous” weight.
Yet some airlines do not weigh your cabin baggage every time and 10kg or more is allowed nowadays on some flights, with more generous allowances for those customers not flying in steerage. Their heads must be less fragile than ours.
Once when travelling with an airline that’s now defunct, I heard the check-in staff telling each other “we are now charging”, whispering it down the line like naughty school-kids in a dull lesson.
What quota had been reached, what tipping-point had been exceeded that caused passengers who joined the queue late to have to pay a penalty
Being charged for extra luggage at the gate is a kick in the whatsits, especially if your buddy gets through gratis but you don’t. Or the guy flying from Gatwick with 10kg of camera kit didn’t have to weigh his cabin baggage but you did at Manchester, and all you had was a
Mars Bar and a reg.
It’s annoying, but please don’t spend the first night on a boat ranting about it. Seasoned travellers accept the airlines for what they are, and will have checked well ahead or talked to the helpdesk before going to the check-in and baggage drop.
Be prepared! Read the policies of your airline and comply. And in case its staff don’t know the policy, print out the relevant page from the website and take it with you. It may help.
Some airlines allow you to transport your scuba kit for free, some don’t. Some give you a certain amount of free allowance for sporting kit (including scuba), some don’t. Some ask to see your certification card, some don’t.
No good will come of standing in the check-in queue shouting while your partner or buddy disowns you. No matter that you’re not normally this way, you’re just tired and you forgot to get euros – shouting, cursing and generally kicking off will achieve nothing more than incurring the wrath of everyone queueing behind you.
BAGGAGE, WE’VE ALL GOT IT!
Comparing one airline with another isn’t always straightforward, but the table overleaf provides enough information from some of the leading airlines’ economy baggage allowances to give you a flavour of the varied offerings.
Prices are very likely to be higher (40% seems to be the norm) if you pay any baggage charges at the airport. Some airlines may demand a “heavy bag charge” if an individual bag is over 23kg or, in some cases, 20kg, so you may need to pack your kit into two bags, which is very annoying.
Some check-in agents will refuse to take any single piece of baggage over 32kg. This restriction is often dictated by airports and baggage-handling companies mindful of the health of their staff. If in doubt, ring up – better on hold for a while than ranting at check-in!
As the table indicates, long-haul operators taking a significant number of passengers to destinations where diving is a possibility are offering good deals, with Qatar Airways and Etihad looking very attractive.
Airlines at the budget end of the market that many of us will use when travelling to the Red Sea, for example, are probably competing on flight costs rather than on baggage allowances, and seem to offer similar services. Monarch is one I’ve used before, with satisfaction.
Low-cost airlines often have variable luggage allowances or require you to book the allowance you need when you make the reservation – all very confusing, and making it harder to offer any comparison.
Interesting to note is the service offered by Turkish Air, with which I have travelled recently (not in a sponsored capacity – I had to pay like everyone else). It took my 20kg-odd bag of kit and a 15kg case of camera gear to Hurghada and back without charge – worth a look-see, as it now flies from a number of UK airports.
Many of the large, long-haul operators seem less open to carrying diving equipment – presumably they don’t see supporting divers as worthwhile at present, but things change, so keep an eye out. Lastly, if the booking mentions a valid certification card, don’t forget to bring it!
Whether you are allowed to carry 5, 10 or even more kilos, the dimensions of your cabin bag must be no more than 56cm long x 45cm wide x 25cm deep and, of course, certain substances and items cannot be carried.
If you carry one, make sure your dive knife is in your hold luggage, and if you are taking any kind of gas cylinder, for a BC or a DSMB, for example, this will need to be shown to be empty and stored in your hold luggage.
Careful packing can save enough kilos to translate into £40 or £50 at the airport. Pack light and avoid non-necessities.
I once shared a cabin with a friend who had visited the supermarket for toiletries before we got to the airport. A large can of shaving foam, a bottle of shampoo, deodorant and a big tube of toothpaste may have been economical buys, but at least a kilo of weight was involved.
Liveaboard divers tend to pack fewer clothes. Living in a very relaxed atmosphere, they don’t feel the need to pack a shirt and tie for dinner. A few T-shirts and some shorts usually suffice, saving a kilo or so.
Some airlines allow you to combine your allowance with that of a travelling companion; very useful if they don’t carry loads of camera gear, for example. Just don’t agree to carry anything given to you by someone you don’t know and trust!
It’s surprising how many people carry a few kilos of lead in their BC trim pockets and forget about them. Remove drysuit inflator hoses from your reg and pony-bottle clamps from your camband, and do you really need that shark-stabber you thought looked cool on your thigh
A 5cm blade with a line-cutter suffices in most situations, especially with knives banned in many marine reserves.
I’m not a fan of travel BCs. I like to use the same BC on every dive so I don’t get confused if I need to get out a bit quickly or my buddy needs to get me out (not yet, and hopefully never). A travel BC will save you kilos, I know, but the offset in buying another piece of kit might not be worth it in the long run.
Tempting as it may be to get a “second sun”, often all a big powerful torch does
is scare away the marine life you want to see. A smaller, lighter torch may make your night dives better and save you cash.
Put in fully charged batteries before you travel – most modern LED torches using new, good-quality batteries will easily give you enough burntime for five or six night dives.
Make sure the batteries in your back-up torch are new, too. You’re then doubly protected, and not tempted to bin flat batteries in countries that don’t recycle.
Too much kit Can you temporarily replace some of those brass and steel clips and D-rings
It might not sound a lot, but shedding this associated hardware might shed a few hundred grams. Many polycarbonate items are perfectly good – they might not last as long as metal, but you can keep them for “easy” diving, where they won’t get the abuse they do back home as they bash into your favourite wrecks.
Aim never to buy extra kilos at the airport. It can cost several times what it would have done if pre-booked, so always book ahead and make sure its sufficient.
Paying an extra £5 for a kilo beforehand might be annoying, but it’s better than joining a long queue to pay £20 at the airport. Remember, airline directors are legally bound to act for their shareholders and make cash out of you.
You can be bang on your check-in limit, but once through you can still buy bottles of drink, laptops, cameras, suitcases and garish shorts at “Internet- beating prices” (if only).
Lack of sleep and a past-caring attitude can easily result in the purchase of overpriced iPad covers and sunglasses – try to resist.
We all learn in basic training that flying after diving can be hazardous, or we should do. Commercial airliners are pressurised to the same conditions as would be found at around 2400m altitude (about 0.74 atmospheres).
Leaving Earth’s surface at 1atm and travelling in a box kept a little below 1atm is, as far as our risk of decompression illness is concerned, like surfacing again.
The lower pressure allows those micro bubbles that can cause problems to form. And if plenty of nitrogen remains dissolved in our tissues, that gas may come out of solution.
Standard practice is to wait 24 hours between the last dive and the flight, although agencies such as DAN suggest
at least 12 hours. Many diving itineraries are planned around ensuring that the little aircraft symbol on your computer vanishes before your plane leaves the tarmac. And there was you, wondering how it knew it was time to go home!
We might not always travel with conscientious operators; we might forget that our plane is leaving at 10am, not 10pm; we might have carried out a very demanding series of dives and be physiologically unlucky; or we might be plain stupid and risk it, only to get a nasty rash, pain or even worse at 30,000ft.
Does this happen often I asked a doctor at London Hyperbaric Medicine. It doesn’t keep full records on causes – “we don’t even ask to see their computers any more” – because the cause is less important than the treatment. The doctor reckoned two or three patients a year have flown too soon after diving.
We also run a small risk of DCI if we travel to altitude after diving. Many divers who choose to climb Mount Sinai after staying in the northern Red Sea are told not to dive the day before.
I had the (rare) foresight to check my map of Greece before driving home after some Aegean diving when the road I needed would have taken me over 1000m.
The risk may have been small but we’d been on a wreck at 40m. So I took time out with a moussaka, a glass of white and harbour views before returning on a longer but slightly lower road.
DIRECT OR NOT
Could you fly direct or fly more cheaply on a number of shorter flights
The answer to this question may be influenced by the depth of your pockets and your willingness to undertake a lot of complicated calculations.
For example, you can fly to the Maldives from London Gatwick direct with British Airways. This will be easier, quicker and involve less fannying about and expenditure at the airport, but BA offers only 23kg of hold luggage.
Etihad or Emirates offer more hold luggage allowance but I believe you will need to change at Dubai or even Singapore. So the complications build.
Draw up a list of positives and negatives and have a think for 24 hours before booking.
Do you want to take 36 hours and waste money in airports to reach your destination, or arrive more quickly but with a little less in your wallet
THE INDUSTRY VIEW
For a travel insider’s perspective, I spoke to a helpful chap called James at tour operator blue o two, and he was very keen to underline that divers should take nothing for granted and check on everything before travelling, because circumstances change.
Earlier this year, he said, Thomas Cook withdrew its offer of a 5kg free baggage allowance for divers, which presumably made for heated conversations at the check-in desk and may well have left travellers with hefty bills and bad starts to their holidays.
blue o two now uses Monarch for a lot of its flights to Red Sea destinations, because it retained the 5kg free allowance.
I noted on the Thomas Cook website that the free 5kg allowance appeared to have been reinstated and contacted the company for comment, though none has been offered.
Reputable tour operators will do all they can to keep you informed of changes, because they too are affected by airline changes and it’s in their interests for you to have a good trip from start to finish.
So stay informed, be prepared, and plan ahead. Sounds a bit like diving!
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