Budget-conscious divers trying to stretch their vacation dollars want bargains. In the past, the divers who have voted in our Top 100 survey have named these destinations as great on value — and it just so happens that the diving is worth every penny.
Bargain-basement prices are not the only reason cost-conscious divers flock to Cozumel. Mexico’s largest Caribbean island offers eye-popping reefs and drop-offs, laid-back drift diving and lots of accommodations and dive operator options. It’s hard to top Cozumel’s vacation value: Seven nights’ accommodations, five days’ diving, daily buffet breakfast and airfare start from about $800 per person at many hotels and resorts. Look for buy one, get second booking at half price deals.
2. Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras
Thanks to affordable accommodations and cheap eats, funky Utila in Honduras’s Bay Islands is popular among backpackers and budget travelers trying to stretch their lempiras. Prices are lower here than elsewhere in the Bay Islands—for about $25 a day, budget travelers can get three meals a day and sleep in a clean room. Bonus: the dive sites off Utila—from the west side’s shallow coral reefs to the southeast end’s walls and caves to the submerged mountains whose summits are in recreational diving depths—get less dive traffic than the sites off other Bay Islands.
Deals abound in Bonaire, a mecca for shore divers. For under $500, you can spend seven nights in a comfortable apartment or room and get six days of unlimited shore diving. Look for drive and dive packages offered by most resorts and operators that also include a rental truck, so it's easy to blow bubbles 365/24/7 on any of the island's 60-plus named sites. Plus, the diving off resort house reefs is stellar. On most sites on the island, the beaches continue under water in a sandy plain that gradually drops off to about 130 feet. And every site enjoys marine park protection.
For roughly $1,100, live-aboards offer weeklong itineraries to the Andaman Sea’s Similan Islands, Burma Banks and Mergui Archipelago. It’s possible to stay in a nice hotel in Phuket, an island connected by a bridge to the heel of Thailand’s boot-shaped peninsula, for about $65 a night. Phuket is the hub of land-based diving, and two-tank dive trips to reefs that are home to some of the world’s most exotic and rare creatures, including tiger-tail seahorses, ghost pipefish, harlequin shrimp and cuttlefish, cost about $100. Look for backpacker room and dive packages offered by a number of Phuket dive operators.
5. Southeast Florida
Divers familiar with the southeast coast of Florida—from the northern edge of Palm Beach County to Miami at the southern tip of the mainland—appreciate the lush reefs and dramatic wrecks. If you’re not a daytripping local, you’ll find a number of comfortable and clean budget hotels along the I-95 corridor. And a fleet of dive boats will get divers to the best sites for about $65 for two-tank trips.
Weigh in on your favorite budget dive destination by filling out a Top 100 survey. Full results will be available in Scuba Diving's January/February 2012 issue.