Friday, February 24, 2012

My Experience in Traveling to Ambon, Indonesia

Diving in Ambon, Indonesia with Maluku Divers:

I recently traveled to Ambon, Indonesia, to live and dive with a resort called Maluku Divers. I had a great time and recommend the resort wholeheartedly. I’ll write about the Maluku Divers operation in another post.

Getting to Ambon involves multiple transfers at various airports in various countries. If you are headed to Ambon, here are some tips that might help you on your travels.

I live in Monterey, California, about 2 hours south of San Francisco. On this trip, I wanted to spend some time in Australia with a diving buddy, so after a lot of research, I decided on the following itinerary:

1. Fly from San Francisco to Sydney on United Airlines. I let my United elite status expire a few years ago in favor of American Airlines, but I am making an effort to fly United as much as possible this year. I made a huge effort to pack only three bags was quite nice and did not charge me any excess baggage fees. The fact that I was upgraded to business class (using my frequent flyer miles) probably helped. I also have a Continental Presidential Plus Mastercard which gives me two free pieces of checked baggage on Continental and United flights.

2. Overnight in Sydney. I stayed at The Blenheim in Randwick, a suburb of Sydney. I review that hotel in another post.

3. I bought a $1350 round trip business class ticket on Garuda Airlines from SYD to Jakarta (CGK). The business class seats were awesome – lots of space, lie-flat beds, etc. I used to avoid Garuda Airlines, but they have improved their service since I last flew them. The ticket was inexpensive for a business class seat. I could see this price on the Garuda website, but someone told me that I would not be able to buy the ticket if I had a US-issued credit card. My travel agent therefore tried to find an agent in Australia or New Zealand to buy the ticket for me. No go. The folks at Maluku Divers tried to buy the ticket, but it would cost them over $2700! I finally tried my credit card on the Garuda website, and it worked fine.

The attendants on the way to Jakarta on the Garuda flight were clueless; they acted like they had never done their job before. But the flight on the return was impeccable – smooth sailing and great service all the way. Kudos to Garuda Airlines.

4. At Jakarta, I had about 7 hours before my flight to Ambon. I stayed at the Jakarta Airport Hotel, which was not a bad decision, but it had some real downsides. Take a look at my post on this hotel for more details on the good and the bad.

5. From Jakarta to Ambon I had a coach class seat on Garuda for something like $170. The agent at the SYD airport charged me $60 in excess baggage charges after I haggled with him. I gave him a postcard of my images, chatted with him about diving (this always helps grease the wheels with bored airline and customs agents), got him to apply an extra baggage allowance for diving gear (I believe that surfboards and boogie boards get extra baggage allowances on most Indonesian airlines), and generally haggled in a nice, polite fashion. Garuda was the only airline flying to Ambon that would confirm an aisle seat, something that I insist on.

6. Once in Ambon, I was greeted by the representative from Maluku Divers, and spent the next 16 days having a fine time diving the reefs and muck around Ambon.

7. On the return, I unfortunately did not have any helpers from Maluku Divers accompany me to the airport. This was a huge mistake and not something that I would have done if it were up to me (going to the airport alone). It would have helped to have Maluku Diver’s usual representative meet me at the airport to help me through the maze that is Lion Air.

I had booked a business class seat on Lion Air for $350. This gave me 30 kg. I struggled mightily to put all heavy, non-battery, and non-weapon-like items in my carry-on bags, so I was carrying a backpack, a wheeled carryon case, a very heavy Cabela’s reel case that I use to store and carry camera gear in, and another soft case with camera gear.

Because there was no local contact to help translate or argue, I end up sitting at the counter wrangling with the Lion Air folks for a full hour. I was only 10 kg overweight in terms of checked baggage, but they don't know what to do. I waited for them to figure out what to do for so long that people behind me started getting angry, frowning at me and shoving past me to the counter. Security guards and men in uniforms with stern faces started staring at me and asking where I am going, how I got to Ambon, what I am here for.

People were rude and pissed. I was begging for the Lion Air agent to just let me pay. I would have paid them $500 just to end the ordeal. I end up paying a measly $25 but it still took EONS for the Lion Air people to get my credit card done, paperwork, etc. They were constantly calling their managers and then leaving for their back office. I was sweating buckets, getting nervous about missing the plane, and the security guard guys are also making me nervous, eyeing my four large, very heavy carry-ons.

To make a long story short, I finally was cleared to leave for the gate after paying $25 in excess baggage fees. If you are going to Maluku Divers, try to confirm that one of their representatives will meet you at the airport and accompany you to the airport when you leave. You will not want to fend for yourself at the Ambon airport!

8. Upon arriving at Jakarta Airport, I had to get from the domestic to the international terminal. I have absolutely no idea how I did this on the outbound part of my trip. I really lucked out; the Garuda flight from Sydney must have arrived at the domestic terminal or my Ambon flight must have left from the international terminal. Whatever – I was lucky.

My great, helpful friends Douglas and Emily Seifert left the resort with a similar itinerary a few days before me, and their tips were extremely helpful:

“When you get to Jakarta and pick up your baggage, near the conveyor belts is Golden Bird Taxi Limo. Get a big van from them. 210,000rp. The International terminal is not walking distance and the free shuttle buses overcrowded slow and few. Pay for the taxi and enjoy the experience. “

I took their advice and it was absolutely great advice. You book and pay for a limo right in the baggage collection area. Then you simply collect your bags, follow the Golden Bird limo guy, and you are whisked pain-free to the international terminal, which is a couple of miles away. No way do you want to try to walk there. I paid only $18. I always travel with a great deal of gear, so any way that helps me avoid lugging bags around in tropical heat is welcome and worth the money.

9. Now, I have some domestic flights from SYD to Adelaide. I had a terrible experience with Qantas several years ago (well, OK, 20 years ago) and I have avoided flying them ever since. Other travelers have echoed my experience of being hassled and charged for excess bags; and for carry-ons, repeatedly. Qantas has a reputation for being super and overly picky about carry-ons. If your carry-ons weigh too much, are too big, or you have more than the allotted two, then they seem to make travelers jump through all kinds of hoops.

Airlines take note! There are surely many of us out here, who have a bad experience with an airline like Qantas, and will never fly that airline again!

I was therefore looking to my domestic flights with dread. I arrived at Sydney International Airport and was told that getting from the international to the domestic terminal was a real hassle if you have a lot of bags. My travel agent pointed me to this page that details the ways one can get between the two terminals:

All three choices – taxi, shuttle bus, or train – cost at least $5 and more! I was stunned to learn that Sydney Airport does not provide free bus service between terminals.

This page did mention a Qantas shuttle service. When I arrived at the international terminal, I asked for the Qantas shuttle, and it was a pleasant surprise. If you are going out on a Qantas flight, or have arrived on a Qantas flight, then you can take the free Qantas shuttle that goes between terminals.

I checked in my three bags at 50 pounds each (putting in some of the carry-on weight I had been carrying to avoid excess baggage charges from Ambon to Jakarta), and the nice Qantas agent (I try to get male agents to help me as I believe they are less strict) only charged me $30 for the third bag. The weight did not seem to matter much to him. The Qantas flight from Sydney to Adelaide was just like any United or American flight in the US. The coach was jammed and uncomfortable, but the Qantas flight attendants did not hassle me when I walked on with three carry-ons: a backpack, my Lowepro Pro Roller, and a small soft case on top fo the Pro Roller.

I hope that my experience will help other travelers who are going to Ambon to dive, either with Maluku Divers or some other operation. But there is only one diving resort on Ambon that Americans who want comfort will want to dive with – and that is Maluku Divers.


ITS MY LIFE said...

hhhuuummm...interesting experience. i have a plan to go to ambon too n now i m trying to find every body's experience in there. really sorry for a trouble that pissed u off...hoping that my country will more pleasant to the tourist...

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