I have a complicated relationship with scuba diving. On the one hand, I love the feeling of drifting through the open sea and getting up close and personal with marine life (unlike terrestrial animals, they haven’t learnt to flee from humans yet).
But of the many activities that a nature-lover can participate in, it’s one of the priciest. What makes it worse is that scuba divers can be a horribly elitist lot. Spend a little time on diving forums and it can sure feel like it’s the norm to spend thousands on luxury liveaboards in the world’s most exotic locations.
I firmly believe that learning and enjoying scuba diving doesn’t require you to spend money like there’s no tomorrow. For one thing, Singapore is just next door to the high-biodiversity Coral Triangle, meaning there’s a huge range of dive sites within easy (and affordable) reach.
Let’s first take a look at why diving is so expensive. Then I’ll break down the individual components and talk about how to save money in each aspect.
Costs involved in scuba diving
A common refrain among divers in Singapore is that everyone wants to dive more, but it’s so expensive. Here’s a look at key expenditure categories that add up to make scuba diving such a pocket-emptying hobby:
|Cost category||Components||Tips to minimise costs|
|Getting certified||Course materials, pool dives, open water dives||DIY your certification trip instead of buying package
Choose SSI over PADI
Do e-learning before you travel
|Dives (after you’re certified)||Dive logistics, dive guide, boat trips
|Dive during low season
Opt for smaller local dive shops
Minimise boat dive distances
|Dive equipment||Mask, snorkel, wetsuit, fins
Regulator, BCD, weights, tanks
|Check if gear rental is included
Look for deals on Carousell, Decathlon, ADEX
|Travel to dive destination||Flight, bus or ferry from Singapore||Avoid packages
Be flexible – use travel booking sites to find cheap destinations
Opt for no-fly destinations
|Other travel costs||Accommodation, food & drink||Stick to cheap destinations around Southeast Asia|
First, the cost of getting certified will set you back at least $600 for the cheapest option. I’ll talk later about the options you have.
After you’re certified, you’ll want to go diving. While many diving outfits offer packages that include dives + accommodation + meals (including liveaboards/LOBs), it’s just as easy to go for “just” the dives. Then there’s equipment, which is notoriously pricey and can definitely burn a big hole in your wallet.
The other major component of your diving costs is travelling, because unfortunately you can’t really dive in Singapore. The cost of your flight or land/sea transport to your dive destination, as well as the costs of accommodation and F&B, can all add up.
Taking a diving course in Singapore
My golden rule for scuba diving on a budget is: convenience is the enemy of thrift. It’s usually cheaper to DIY your own dive trip rather than opt for a package (e.g. liveaboard or resort package).
Most Singaporeans get their Open Water certification by enrolling in a Singapore diving school. The standard rate is $600, which includes your theory lessons in Singapore plus a weekend trip (3D2N) to Tioman to do 4 or 5 training dives.
If you opt to organise your own trip and pay a Tioman-based dive shop for Open Water certification instead, you’ll also be spending around the same amount, but for a 4D3N trip instead. You’ll get a bit more time and space to enjoy the trip and go out to nicer dive sites.
Here’s a breakdown of costs:
|Open Water course||$350 to $450 (4 days, includes theory + min. 4 open water dives)||SSI is cheaper than PADI
Small local dive shops are
cheaper big Westerner-run outfits
|Transport to/from Tioman||$50 to $95||Arrange your own transport (cheapest) or buy a coach + ferry package (costs a little bit more)|
|Accommodation (3 nights)||$100 (fan) to $150 (A/C) for budget guesthouse||Find cheap deals on Booking.com or walk-in|
|Meals & drinks||$100 upwards (based on budget of $25/day)||Alcohol is duty free!|
Organising your own Tioman certification trip takes a little more effort. You’ll have to find your own dive shop, your own accommodation and arrange your own transport.
Which dive shop should you get certified at?
Diving in Tioman is generally affordable, but prices vary. The top-rated dive shops on TripAdvisor are usually Westerner-run and overpriced. Enquire at smaller, more personal dive shops like DiveAsia, where a 4-day course is RM1,050 ($350) as opposed to RM1,350 ($450) at a bigger outfit.
You can save a bit if you opt for SSI Open Water over the more well-known PADI. It’s basically the same course and just as widely recognised. With SSI, you can also do free e-learning for the theoretical part before you travel, cutting down time in the classroom and maximising your time in the water.
Where should you stay on Tioman?
For both diving and accommodation, you can find the cheapest prices on ABC and Salang, the two beaches on Tioman where most of the dive shops are. Basic accommodation can be as cheap as $30 a night for a double/twin room. Make sure you stay within walking distance of your dive shop or you’ll get a surcharge for their boat to pick you up.
Since these two beaches are relatively populated, you’ll have cheaper food options (and drinks – alcohol is duty free on Tioman). Whatever you do, don’t stay in a remote resort as you’ll be forced to eat and dive on their expensive on-site facilities!
How do you get to Tioman and back?
Getting to and from Tioman is the onerous part. Travel agencies like WTS have return coach + ferry packages from $77 to $95.
You can save a bit more if you settle your own transport (about $50 return). I did it twice, by taking bus 170 from Kranji MRT to JB Larkin bus station, another bus from Larkin to Mersing bus station, then a ferry from Mersing to Tioman. Do this at your own risk as booking Malaysian transport online is famously dodgy. I got stranded at the bus station the last time.
Apart from Tioman, what other options are there?
If the gruelling journey to Tioman puts you off, consider getting certified in popular beach destinations like Phuket and Bali (I did mine in Amed/Tulamben in north Bali for $450). You’ll have to pay more for the flight though and stay an extra day, because you can’t fly 24 hours after diving.
By the way, the supposed cheapest place in the world to get certified is Koh Tao in Thailand, also known as a “PADI factory”. Packages (course + accommodation) here start from just 8,500 baht ($355). However, once you add on the flights and transfers (via Krabi), it works out to cost more than Tioman.
After you’re certified – the cost of scuba diving
After you get certified, you’ll probably get bitten by the diving bug and start planning your next trip right away. When you’re a newbie it’s easy to get swept up in “superstar” destinations like Raja Ampat, Similan islands and the Maldives. What you’ll realise is that many of these are secluded destinations that really are expensive to get to. A diving trip to such places will set you back thousands of dollars.
To keep costs well under $1,000, there are two main aspects to consider while planning your trip: the cost of the trip itself (flights, accommodation) and the cost of diving at your chosen destination.
Which diving destinations are cheapest from Singapore?
The flight to your diving destination is a significant chunk of your total dive trip costs. So to start with, you can keep costs low by choosing a destination that either (a) doesn’t require a flight or (b) is cheap to fly to.
|Type of travel||Country||Dive destinations|
|No-fly||Malaysia||Tioman, Perhentians, Tenggol, Redang|
|Flights needed||Malaysia||Kota Kinabalu|
|Thailand||Phuket, Krabi (Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi)|
|Vietnam||Da Nang (Hoi An)|
|Cambodia||Phnom Penh (Sihanoukville)|
For no-fly destinations, you typically needn’t spend more than $100 to get there and back. Farther north off the east coast of Malaysia, there are other nice places to explore, but overland travel time is pretty long.
For most Singaporean office workers bound by stingy annual leave entitlement, flying to a nearby dive destination is a more efficient use of time. Note that you’ll have to stay an extra day as you can’t fly 24 hours after your last dive, and that will extend your stay (and therefore your costs) a little.
To keep flight prices down, it’s always good to be flexible with either your destination or dates. I’ve listed some destinations that you can fly to for under $200 (return). You’ll need to transfer from the airport to the actual dive destinations. For example, you’ll have to take a speedboat from Krabi to Koh Lanta or rent a car to drive from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Be sure to budget for that transport leg as well.
Although flights are your biggest travel cost, it’s also worthwhile to check the prices of accommodation and food in your desired destination. This can vary a lot depending on the beach you stay on – usually the more developed and touristy it is, the more expensive.
How much does it cost to dive in these places?
It’s impossible to do a comprehensive price survey of diving prices, but in most of these Southeast Asian destinations you can expect to pay around $40 to $50 per fun dive. You can get a cheaper deal if you commit to 5 or 6 dives and above.
The best way to keep your dive costs down is to stay as close to the dive site as possible. For example, most of the key dive sites are located north of Tioman island. If you stay in the south of the island, your dives will definitely cost more than if you stay in the north. The shop will charge you for either boat or land transfer north.
For this reason, shore dives are always the cheapest, often costing 20% to 30% less than a typical boat dive. After all, the dive shop doesn’t have to pay for speedboat crew and fuel. Some places where you can do shore dives are Tulamben/Amed in the north of Bali and Moalboal in Cebu. However, shore dives are generally not as nice as boat dives.
Finally, some general tourism rules apply. Avoid high season if you can, as some dive shops charge entirely different rates depending on when you dive with them. For example, Bali and Phuket are very busy with Western tourists on their winter holidays during the Christmas period.
Another rule is to always stay in the diving hubs so you can benefit from competitive pricing. Just search “dive shop” on Google Maps and look at the clusters of red pins to figure out where the high-density spots are.
To liveaboard or not to liveaboard?
Liveaboards (or LOBs) are basically cruises for scuba divers. The ship or boat moves from one dive site to another, so you’re guaranteed 3 to 4 dives every day. Just like with a cruise, you get a cabin and food and drinks for the duration of the cruise.
Earlier I mentioned that the cost of diving goes up significantly whenever there’s travel time involved. Given that, it seems intuitive that a liveaboard would be a good way to visit a whole bunch of dive sites without wasting travel time back and forth from your base.
However, liveaboards are almost always luxury experiences with price tags to match. Think about it: you’re basically paying for a substantial crew 24 hours a day for the entirety of the cruise. Naturally, this pushes the costs up. In addition, you’ll often be charged extra for gear rental on a LOB (whereas many dive shops include gear rental in their pricing). So if you’re on a budget, avoid them like the plague.
It’s a myth that you can only get to “good” dive destinations on a LOB. In fact, even remote places like Raja Ampat will have lodging on land.
Should you buy scuba diving equipment in Singapore?
There’s a ton of gear involved in scuba diving. Broadly, you can divide them into two categories. There’s the “soft gear” like mask, snorkel, fins and wetsuit. Then there’s the more specialised technical gear like air tanks, regulator, BCD (buoyancy control device) and dive computer.
Here’s a list of common diving equipment and ballpark pricing if you buy them at specialty retailers.
|Item||Things to look out for||Price|
|Mask||Good fit with no leaks
Made of tempered glass (not plastic) to prevent cracking
|Snorkel||Good fit with no leaks
|Fins||Flexible flippers are better
Adjustable open heel style is more comfortable
|$25 to $60|
|Wetsuit + boots||2mm shorty is sufficient for tropical dives
May need diving boots for shore diving or colder waters
|$100 to $200 (wetsuit)
From $30 (boots)
|Weights + belt||The more experienced you are, the less weight you need||From $50|
|Tanks||Not recommended to buy your own because of the cost of transport & maintenance||Over $500|
|Regulator||—||$130 to $200|
|BCD||Not recommended to buy your own because of the cost of transport & maintenance||From $300|
|Dive computer||—||From $200|
If you’re just starting out, there isn’t any reason to buy any gear as most dive shops include rental in the price. However, certain operators may charge extra for “soft gear” rental like masks and snorkels.
After diving a few times, you’ll start to figure out what works for you and might want to buy your own mask, snorkel and wetsuit for comfort. For example, I don’t dive in full wetsuits anymore. I usually wear a 2mm surfing wetsuit top and board shorts (leggings if it’s cold) instead. Because this is less buoyant than a full wetsuit, I don’t need as much weight on my belt.
You can get these items at cheaper prices on Carousell and at Decathlon, although you should make sure the item really fits you well before buying.
If you want to buy your own specialised equipment, your best bet is ADEX, basically a trade show where you can try and buy equipment directly from scuba diving brands.
An important note on scuba diving safety!
While it’s nice to get a good deal on an expensive hobby like scuba diving, I cannot overstate the importance of safety.
When you dive with a dive shop, you’re basically putting your life in their hands. Apart from checking out the dive shop’s reviews and pricing, you should ideally also check out their operations to make sure you can really trust them.
It’s worth paying a bit more for:
- Experienced staff who know what they’re doing
- Communicative attitude, willing to answer your questions and listen to any qualms you have
- A small divemaster-to-diver ratio (1 to 4 is the highest I’d go)
- Well-maintained equipment and boats
If anything makes you feel uncomfortable, walk away!
Also, when scuba diving it’s extremely important to buy the right travel insurance. Make sure that (a) scuba diving is covered to the depth you’re diving and (b) the insurer is known for good emergency assistance. In the unlikely event that you need to be whisked off to the nearest decompression chamber, you’ll be glad to have spent a few bucks more on good travel insurance.
You can read reviews of the best travel insurance in Singapore here.
Conclusion: yes, you can scuba dive on a budget
To recap the main points of this article:
The cheapest way to get your Open Water cert is in Tioman, and it’ll cost about $600 in total.
Plan your own shore-based dive trip to save money. Avoid liveaboards and resort packages and they’re expensive.
You can fly to great dive destinations around Southeast Asia for less than $200 return. It’s possible to do 4- or 5-day dive trips for under $800 all-in.
Stay as close to the dive sites as possible. Diving hubs (many dive shops in the same place) usually have cheaper prices and budget accommodation too.
If you have time for long journeys, it’s cheapest to dive in east Malaysia. There’s no flying needed so it cuts your flight costs.
No need to buy equipment as rental is often included. But you can buy cheap gear (mask, snorkel, fins, wetsuit) on Carousell and at Decathlon.
And now you’re all set to dive your way through Southeast Asia without spending thousands on each trip.
Do you have any scuba diving tips? Share them in the comments section!
Image Credit: Ashley Kames