I think it all boils down to budget, experience and time.
The cheapest option, dive our very own back yard! Pulau Hantu that is. No long travel times, no over night stays. You get 2 day dives for under S$150. Do note, water visibility can be quite challenging here.
Please do know that most dive trips for under S$500, you are limited to venues that are nearby and does not involve any flights. Malaysia comes to mind, this country has so much to offer, along the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, islands like Redang, Lang Tenggah, Perhentian in the northern states, and Tioman, Aur / Dayang with the rest of the southern islands of Malaysia under Pahang and Johore states, these are choice dive destinations for time constrain and budget divers. High season is from March to October though. A 4d3n, 3d2n or 2d2n package is the most popular. Most divers who have time constraints, prefer the most popular option of going to Tioman, Aur or Dayang on a 2d2n package, where land and sea travelling is done at night, saving the day time for diving, but do note that these trips tend to be quite tiring, and not for the faint hearted. Accommodations here range from five star to no stars! So the more you pay, the better the accommodations. Self driving up is another option.
From $500 to S$1000, you may also opt for live aboards, there are a few running from Singapore, here, normally doing a 2d2n trip to those islands in the south of Malaysia, including those islands mentioned above and of course the numerous wrecks scattered over the South China Seas. There are pros and cons for both land or boat based dive trips, the biggest I think is the dread of going through any of the causeways linking Singapore and Malaysia if you are doing a land based trip, whereas on a live aboard, you can start relaxing the moment you board, weather dependant that is!
Another place for mention is the Riau Islands near Batam or Bintan, visibility may be quite challenging at times, but the travelling distance makes up for it.
Bali has always and will always be a good option, so many budget airlines go there on a daily basis. Most dive packages start from 4d3n. Accommodations also range from five to no stars. A lot of dive sites are situated in the north eastern area and also in the southern parts of Bali, the south may get quite cold during the seasons, I am talking about the waters being 22 degrees C or less. Popular is the sun fish, sighted during August to October.
Manado is another good option, but flights there are limited. Indonesia has so many islands that you can dive from, you get the drift.
Philippines comes to mind also in this price bracket, with most flights landing in Cebu, there are also land based trips to see special creatures like tresher sharks and so on. Malapascua and Puerto Galera are popular choices.
From S$1000 and above, nearest again is Sipadan, Mabul and Layang Layang in Eastern Malaysia namely Sabah. Here you get lots of wall dives and many large pelagics. Getting there is via KL or KK, most need two flights to get there. So I recommend at least 5d4n trips. Try to be at least advanced trained and above for these sites.
Then you have Maldives, budget airline has started flying there. Most divers do live aboards there, advantages are obvious as the vessel travels to more dive sites versus land based operations where the resort only dives around the atoll where they are situated. Starting from 5d4n to 8d7n. Most vessels are of high quality, so prices may also vary.
Thailand itself also offers much. From the Andaman Seas, places like the Similans, Rich. Rock, to the southern side Phi Phi, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang areas from Phuket. A good mix of day trips and live aboards. Direct flights land in Phuket itself.
Other very nice world class places to dive in include Rajah Ampat and Komodo in Indonesia.
We just got back from Palau, amazing!
Obviously, there are so many other dive destinations I did not mention here, these are the norms and trends that I see, I believe you can start with these. More dive shops do offer many other places and at different price brackets.
The internet is filled with so much information, what you need to think about is whether to book directly with them or through your local dive shop, you weigh the pros and cons yourself. Local shops tend to have more information pertaining to that particular place as they have been working well with the overseas operations, nothing is worse than being unpleasantly surprised when you get there.
It is a requirement from Singapore Tourism Board that all establishments selling out bound trips from Singapore require a travel agent’s license, reasons being to protect you as the consumer in the event that something goes wrong you are not left alone to take proper actions against that particular establishment. Of course, there are many who prefer to go for trips with their friends, so relying on them to organise the whole thing is not wrong as they can book directly with the overseas dive shop, the questions will arise when something goes wrong.
Travel insurance is strongly recommended, especially those that covers diving. Don’t save on this!
So start planning and saving! Let the dive adventures continue!