The Best Dive Destinations for Budget Travel | Scuba Diving

The Best Dive Destinations for Budget Travel

Looking for the most bang for your buck? Check out these dive destinations selected by our readers as the top value destinations for divers.

gran cenote

Gran Cenote is a Mexican gem.

Jennifer Penner

1. Riviera Maya, Mexico

The menu of options in ­Mexico’s Riviera Maya is so big that it’s hard to believe it’s all found in one area, ­spanning from Cancun to ­Tulum. The region is practically synonymous with caves and caverns, diverse enough to suit first-time divers and those on trimix. Plus, Playa del Carmen offers drift dives with loggerhead sea turtles year-round, and bull shark dives in late winter. The island of Cozumel, a 45-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen, is legendary for swift currents carrying divers along sheer walls. It’s a lot, and yet clustered close enough that ambitious travelers with big appetites can squeeze a taste of it all in one logbook-cramming week.

Readers Picks

Resorts:

  • Scuba Club Cozumel, Mexico
  • Hotel Cozumel, Mexico
  • Allegro Cozumel of Barcelo Hotel Group, Cozumel, Mexico

Operators:

  • Dive with Martin, Cozumel, Mexico
  • Scuba Club, Cozumel, Mexico
  • Dive Paradise, Cozumel, Mexico; Pro Dive International — Mexico
  • Aldora Divers, Cozumel, Mexico
Bonaire diving

Divers head toward Bonaire site Invisibles.

Barry B. Brown

2. Bonaire

Because the island of Bonaire is synonymous with shore diving, it’s long been considered a budget ­lover’s dream. Divers can rent a car and load up with tanks for access to more than 60 marked shore-diving sites. And it’s home to our readers’ top vote in the region for dive operator and resort, ­Buddy Dive Resort.

Beyond the numbers, Bonaire offers what almost no other Caribbean island can. “Bonaire’s marine-park sanctuary has been in existence longer than most islands have sold diving,” says Richard Mitsoda, one of the directors of Captain Don’s Habitat on Bonaire.

With these protections in effect since 1962, this isn’t the place where older divers reminisce, saying, “You should have been here 20 years ago.” There’s no need. The reefs are every bit as electric in color, thick with life and rich in variety. In other words, it’s a diver’s dream now as much as it was then.

Readers Picks

Resorts:

  • Buddy Dive Resort, Bonaire
  • Divi Resort, Bonaire

Operators:

  • Buddy Dive, Bonaire

3. Philippines

From nearly foolproof ­sightings and swims with whale sharks off the island of Cebu to Tubbataha Reef off Palawan Island — in the heart of the Coral Triangle and often ranked among the world’s best dives — this island chain delivers big time. The destination is hailed for diversity, from large life such as schooling barracuda and ­giant ­Pacific mantas to macro oddities such as pygmy seahorses and ornate ghost ­pipefish.

Readers Picks

Resorts:

  • Atlantis Dive Resorts, Puerto Galera, Philippines
  • Atmosphere Resorts and Spa, Philippines
  • Turtle Bay Dive Resort, Philippines
Thistlegorm

Motorbikes in the Thistlegorm.

Damien Mauric

4. Red Sea

First, you’ll hear about the sharks. The Red Sea is home to 44 species, including whale sharks, scalloped hammerheads and oceanic whitetips. Then you’ll hear about the big fish. ­Napoleon wrasse, the size of wine barrels. ­Giant Pacific mantas and eagle rays. Plus, the robust fish life, 20 percent of which is endemic, thriving in the massive Ras Mohammed National Park. Lastly, add in dives to the SS Thistlegorm, ­considered by many to be the best underwater museum of World War II artifacts, and you’ll see why diving the Red Sea far ­surpasses expectation.

Readers Picks

Liveaboards:

  • Red Sea Aggressor II, Red Sea
reef sharks

Caribbean reef sharks.

Jeff Yonover

5. Bahamas

Start with the fact that Nassau is a direct flight from more than a dozen major U.S. cities. Then, consider how many experiences one can have — not just with one trip but with just one dive. Off ­Nassau, ­divers can drop in at the 200-foot Ray of Hope wreck, part of what’s known as the Shark Arena. The bonus is that this wreck sits at the edge of a wall, allowing visitors to check off shark, wreck and wall diving with one tank. But of course, rarely does anyone hop on a plane for one dive. This island has more than 30 named sites. ­Other top dive island picks include Grand ­Bahama, ­Bimini and the ­Exumas — all with their own collection of thrills.

Readers Picks

Operators:

Stuart Cove’s Dive Bahamas

Liveaboards:

  • Aqua Cat, Bahamas
  • Blackbeard’s Cruises, Bahamas
  • Bahamas Master, Bahamas
  • Bahamas Aggressor, Bahamas
belize green turtle

A green turtle in Belize.

Mat Rowley/shutterstock.com

6. Belize

There's no shortage of options for travelers in Belize. You can stay at any of the neighboring islands, such as Caye Caulker, and operators can take you to nearby Ambergris Caye or the atolls for diving.

But if you stay on Ambergris, reefs are reached with an eight-minute boat ride. Sites are home to dozens of nurse sharks, green moray eels and green sea turtles. All in all, the diving here packs an unbeatable deal.

Come dive day’s end, you can eat on the cheap. Follow the locals to joints near the beach or in town where $5 buys a heaping plate of stewed or barbecued chicken atop rice and beans. These meal steals might lack upscale ambience but never ­richness of flavor.

And, of course, the liveaboard lifestyle is alive and well in Belize — that’s why the Belize Aggressor III and IV yachts rank so highly in our Readers Choice survey. Any way you book your travel, you can expect good diving at a great value.

Readers Picks

Liveaboards:

  • Belize Aggressor III and Belize Aggressor IV, Belize
spiegel grove

The Spiegel Grove.

Becky Kagan Schott

7. Florida Keys

In addition to its ­proximity to one of the world's largest ­coral-reef systems, the ­Florida Keys is also ­acclaimed for having one of the highest concentrations of dive shops per square mile. Steep competition means getting more on every charter. Better service, newer rental gear and competitive pricing are among the ways shops compete. Key Largo's ­impressive menu of wrecks, ­including the USS ­Spiegel Grove, rated the second-best wreck dive in the region by our readers, is why this city has earned top honors as “The Diving Capital of the World.”

Readers Picks

Resorts:

  • Amy Slate’s Amoray Dive Resort, Key Largo, Florida
  • Hawks Cay Resort and Marina, Duck Key, Florida
  • Looe Key Reef Resort, Ramrod Key, Florida

Operators:

  • Rainbow Reef, Key Largo, Florida
  • Ocean Divers, Key Largo, Florida
  • Horizon Divers, Key Largo, Florida
  • Dive Key West, Florida
  • Key Dives, Islamorada, Florida
  • Quiescence, Key Largo, Florida
  • Florida Keys Dive ­Center, Islamorada, Florida

8. Bay Islands, Honduras

"One reason: We have unlimited shore diving,” says Pam Miller of why Roatan, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, and CoCo View Resort in particular, caters to value-seeking divers. From the resort’s beachside ­dining area, it’s a short walk through knee-deep water to the house reef and the Prince Albert wreck. The route is ­impossible to miss: There’s just one path where the white sand is visible through the thick eelgrass blanketing the ­shoreline. Where the grass clears, the mini wall begins.

“You can see almost 80 ­percent of Caribbean marine life at our house reef,” Miller says.

Whether you look to pack in shore ­diving at CoCo View or opt for another spot on Guanaja, Roatan or Utila, the Bay Islands offer plenty of value.

Readers Picks

Resorts:

  • Anthony’s Key Resort, Roatan, Bay Islands
  • CoCo View Resort, Roatan, Bay Islands

Operators:

  • Anthony’s Key Resort, Roatan, Bay Islands
  • CoCo View Divers at CoCo View Dive Resort, Roatan, Bay Islands

Liveaboards:

  • Roatan Aggressor, Honduras
scorpionfish bali

A paddleflap scorpionfish off Tulamben, Bali.

Tobias Friedrich

9. Bali, Indonesia

The jet lag might have you in ­disbelief as you pay the first few tabs in Indonesia, be they for a day of diving or a three-course meal. But as you settle into the time change, you’ll appreciate just how far your dollar goes in this quickly developing country where the exchange rate is about 14,500 Indonesian Rupiah to every U.S. dollar. Saving big-time on accommodations and meals means more money for diving, from day trips with mola mola to the muck ­haven that is Secret Bay.

thailand diving

Student ­divers in Thailand.

Think4photop/shutterstock.com

10. Koh Tao, Thailand

“This is the cheapest place for training and diving,” says scuba instructor Hana Cho, referring to the island of Koh Tao, Thailand, where she works as an instructor at Crystal Dive.

At the time of printing, the shop was charging $335 for an open water course. With a steady influx of travelers looking for every level of certification, the demand stays high — driving prices down.

Divers visiting this idyllic island can enjoy 20-plus sites, ­including coral gardens and wrecks. And the newly certified will appreciate the typically clear, warm water.

Yes, you'll be paying island prices for food and drinks, but with the exchange rate favoring the U.S. dollar 3-to-1, visiting Westerners can find bargains on beer, ­smoothies, curries and all the cheap ­favorites beloved by the ­backpacking crowd.

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