Planning a Scuba Diving Trip: The Complete Guide

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Whether you’re looking forward to a weekend getaway to your nearest coast or a once-in-a-lifetime vacation on the other side of the world, careful planning is the key to a successful scuba diving trip. Follow our simple steps to ensure that you choose the destination that best suits your experience and interests and ensure that everything runs smoothly once you get there.  

Choosing Where to Go

We all know how important location is for every kind of adventure, and underwater ones are no exception. There are many different factors to consider when choosing your next diving destination.

Budget

First, consider your budget. How much are you willing to spend traveling to your vacation spot, and what’s the cost of day-to-day living in the destination? For example, flights to Thailand from the United States are more expensive than a quick jaunt down to the Caribbean. Still, accommodation, food, dive equipment rentals, boat charters, and dive courses are considerably cheaper. For this reason, be sure to consider every expense when making a decision based on cost. 

Timing

Next, decide how long you want to spend on your next diving adventure. If the answer is just a few days, that obviously limits your options no matter the size of your budget. When you can take time off is also important. If you are restricted to a certain time of year, you’ll want to look at the dive destinations that offer the best weather and water conditions at that time. Many popular locations (especially tropical ones) are very seasonal when it comes to prime diving time. 

Dive Conditions

If your options haven’t already been narrowed down by budget and timing, the next factor to consider is the kind of diving you would like to do. Do you prefer balmy water temperatures and crystal clear visibility for underwater photography? Are you aching to try your hand at ice diving? Altitude diving? Or maybe you want to explore historic wrecks? Certain bucket-list marine animals are only found in specific locations. The type of diving that you want to do will impact your destination options. Your skill level can also affect your options. Some dive destinations are notorious for deep dive sites and strong currents, making them off-limits to beginner divers.

view ofa rocky island and water with dive boats in the far distance
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Specific Dive Destinations 

Need some inspiration? We've rounded up some of the best dive destinations for specific interests. 

Beginner Diving

  • Florida Keys, U.S.: The Florida Keys stand out for the beginner-friendly conditions (including warm water temperatures, great visibility, and limited current) and abundance of rewarding shallow sites perfect for open water training.
  • Koh Tao, Thailand: Koh Tao is also well-suited to beginner divers in forgiving conditions and a wealth of shallow yet beautiful dive sites. It also has many dive centers to choose from and some of the cheapest rates in the world for entry-level scuba courses.
  • Cozumel, Mexico: Cozumel spoils beginner divers with various dive sites within the required depth limit, all of them teeming with marine life. Courses are affordable, and there are also more challenging sites for those that want to progress onto an advanced course.

Wreck Diving

  • Chuuk Lagoon, Micronesia: This lagoon was used as a Japanese naval base during World War II. In 1943, Operation Hailstone was launched by Americans, sending more than 50 ships and 250 planes to a watery grave.
  • Graveyard of the Atlantic, U.S.: This stretch of treacherous North Carolina coastline is named for the more than 1,000 shipwrecks found between Currituck Beach and Cape Fear.
  • Coron Bay, Philippines: Coron Bay is the site of another sunken Japanese supply fleet sent to the bottom during a bombing attack in 1944.

Shark Diving 

  • Tiger Beach, The Bahamas: Tiger Beach is a famous underwater amphitheater defined by its white sand floor, crystal clear visibility, and up-close shark encounters. Top species include tiger sharks, giant hammerheads, and Caribbean reef sharks.
  • Aliwal Shoal, South Africa: Enjoy baited shark dives with oceanic blacktip sharks, with other species (ranging from duskies to bull sharks and great whites) often coming to visit. Sandtiger sharks are spotted on the reef in the winter months.
  • Beqa Lagoon, Fiji: Beqa Lagoon is home to eight different shark species. It is most famous for close encounters with super-sized bull sharks, many of which gather to gestate in the lagoon's warm, clear waters.

Muck Diving

  • Mabul, Malaysia: This dive destination off the coast of Borneo famous for its muck diving opportunities. Expect an astonishing variety of macro critters, from ribbon eels and mandarin fish to tiny pygmy seahorses. 
  • Lembeh, Indonesia: This is a renowned macro photographer's destination, thanks to its black volcanic sand, which provides the perfect backdrop for many colorful macro species.

Temperate Diving 

  • Silfra Fissure, Iceland: Located in Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Silfra Fissure is the place to visit if you've ever wanted to dive between two tectonic plates in the world's clearest glacial meltwater.
  • Channel Islands, U.S.: This national park offers fantastic opportunities for boat-based diving amongst giant kelp forests, where cold-water species including sea lions and bat rays thrive.
  • Scapa Flow, Scotland: This is the ultimate wreck-diving destination for drysuit divers. At the end of the First World War, 74 German naval ships were intentionally scuttled here to prevent them from passing into British hands.
Scuba Diver Swimming In Between School Of Fish Undersea
Hoiseung Jung / EyeEm / Getty Images

Planning and Preparing for Your Trip

Once you have decided on your dream destination, there are many elements to consider in the planning phase. First are the practicalities: How are you going to get there? If you’ll be flying, is there an airline that stands out for its generous luggage allowance (so that you can pack more scuba gear without worrying about overweight fees)? If driving is possible, how long will it take? Will you need to plan overnight stops along the way? Do you need any special paperwork for border crossings? 

The next step is to book your accommodation. It often makes sense to choose a hotel with an attached dive center or a hotel that offers a shuttle service to a nearby dive shop. Alternatively, consider combining your diving and sleeping even more seamlessly with a liveaboard dive trip. These are particularly popular (and often quite economical) in Egypt, Thailand, and The Bahamas. You’ll be able to fit in more dive time and can enjoy the luxury of living, dining, and sleeping on the boat in between underwater sessions.

If you plan to take your own gear with you, you’ll need to make sure that everything is working properly. That means checking the seals and valves on your buoyancy control device (BCD), ensuring your low-pressure inflator hose connects securely, having your regulators serviced, and checking the straps on your mask and fins. Taking a camera with you? Charge your batteries, grease your O-rings, and be sure there’s plenty of space on the memory card. If you plan on renting equipment, make sure you know where you’ll be renting from and consider booking the correct sizes in advance.

Lastly, don’t forget the paperwork. In addition to flight tickets, proof of accommodation, and proof of transfer reservations, be sure to check whether you need a visa for your destination. Do this well in advance because although some countries allow you to purchase a visa on arrival, others may require you to apply at an embassy or consulate in your home country. Some destinations (especially those within a national park or marine protected area) also require you to purchase a dive permit, while others require proof of certain vaccinations.

Choosing a Tour Company or Dive Center

Unless you have all of your own gear, a buddy to dive with, sufficient knowledge of your intended dive site, and a way to get to it independently, you’re going to need the services of a dive center, liveaboard, or dedicated diving tour company. Choose the right one, and you should be able to arrange dive courses, fun dives, equipment rental, and transport as required. But how do you know which is the best one for you? 

The first step is usually to narrow centers down to those affiliated with your chosen training organization (i.e., PADI, SSI, NAUI, or one of the other main programs). This is true whether you’re already certified or planning to become so. This way, you can be sure that your qualification will be accepted and that the instructors and/or dive guides dive according to the practices you’re familiar with. Next, compare pricing, availability for your chosen dates, and the diversity of courses, dive sites, and specialty diving experiences offered.

Finally, it’s an excellent idea to check out the experience of previous guests by reading reviews. That way, you’ll be able to read up-to-date opinions on crucial elements such as customer service (including the competency of the center’s instructors, the knowledge and enthusiasm of its dive guides, and the friendliness of its shop-based staff). You’ll also be able to find out more about the quality of the dive gear available to rent, how convenient the shop is for reaching the dive sites, and more.

Scuba divers walking on tropical beach

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What to Pack 

Your packing list and precise clothing requirements will depend on your destination's topside weather and underwater conditions. Nevertheless, here’s our comprehensive overview of the essentials that you should consider for every trip. Remember that if you don’t have your own scuba gear, you will need to investigate where, how, and how much it costs to rent on arrival.     

  • Passport or identification 
  • Wallet or purse with cash and credit cards
  • Dive certification card 
  • Diving logbook
  • Dive computer 
  • Regulators
  • BCD
  • Mask and snorkel
  • Fins 
  • Weight belt or integrated pockets
  • Weights (if traveling locally)
  • Air Cylinder (if traveling locally)
  • Wetsuit 
  • Swimsuits
  • Rash vest
  • Dive boots and/or socks
  • Dive gloves and/or hood
  • Dive knife
  • Spares kit (O-rings, mask strap, fin straps)
  • Surface marker buoy/delayed surface marker buoy and reel (for drift diving)
  • Primary and backup torches (for night diving)
  • Underwater camera, including strobes, housing, battery charger, and cables
  • Marine life identification book 
  • Mesh bag for wet gear
  • Dry bag 
  • Warm clothing
  • Waterproof clothing
  • Clothing for other activities/going out
  • Beach towel 
  • Comfortable shoes 
  • Sun protection (sunglasses, sunscreen, sunhat)
  • Insect repellent
  • Money belt 
  • First aid kit 
  • Seasickness medication
  • Prescription medications
  • Toiletries and hygiene products
  • Language phrasebook

Important Safety Considerations

A scuba diving trip should be memorable for all the right reasons, which is why it’s important to consider your safety both on land and in the water. 

  • Once you have chosen a dive destination, be sure to check with your doctor whether you will require any vaccinations. For some countries, proof of certain vaccinations is an entry requirement; it’s simply the sensible thing to do for others. If you’re headed to a malaria area, enquire about the safest prophylactics to use while diving. 
  • For mosquito-borne diseases that can’t be medicated against, wearing insect repellent and long-sleeved clothing is the best way to avoid infection. You should also determine whether the local tap water is safe to drink and if any specific foods are best avoided. Don’t forget to stock up on any prescription medications and to carry a doctor’s letter to prevent any issues at customs. If you have any preexisting or temporary medical conditions that could affect your ability to dive safely, make sure to get a doctor’s written approval to dive before departure.
  • Before you book your trip, check whether there are any travel advisories in place for your destination. These are issued for everything from health concerns to terrorism and often warn against regions or cities that are particularly unsafe. Always book accommodation in a safe neighborhood, keep your cash in several different, well-concealed stashes, and make copies of your passport and visa before traveling. 
  • Travel insurance is essential, as is checking that your policy covers you for diving specifically. Look at taking out insurance with the Divers Alert Network (DAN) for the most comprehensive coverage. Other diving-related safety precautions include enrolling in a refresher course to ensure that life-saving skills (from gear maintenance to safe ascent rates and air supply management) are foremost in your mind. 
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