If you scuba dive you have no doubt heard of Bonaire. You’ve probably dreamed of Bonaire. The island in the deep Southern Caribbean, neighbor to Aruba and Curacao, is ringed by one of the most protected reef systems in the world. The reefs have been protected for decades from all manner of human damage, making it a pristine diving destination for divers from across the globe.
What you may not know is that it can also be one of the cheapest dive vacations available. Here’s the scoop on how to get there, where to stay, and how to dive there on a budget.
Getting to Bonaire
There are two major carriers that get you directly to the island from the U.S. Delta flies non-stop from Atlanta every weekend, and United flies from Newark and Houston each week. American flies to neighboring Curacao mid-week from Dallas, and JetBlue flies to Curacao from JFK twice weekly. Flights from Curacao are then paired with a short fifteen-minute hop on either Insel Air or DiviDivi. In theory, those sound like good options. But only if you find a super bargain on the Curacao flight. The reality to keep in mind is that you must clear customs and re-clear security on Curacao and pay an airport tax of $39 (each way), making it a longer and more expensive stop than you might think.
Flights to Bonaire are cheaper on all carriers in April, May, and early December than any other time, and advance booking can potentially save money any time of the year. As a rule, you should budget for around $575 per person round trip from the gateway cities of Atlanta, Houston, or Newark, then tack on your travel costs from home to those cities.
Where to Stay on Bonaire
The newest accommodation on the island is a Marriott Courtyard. Marriott Rewards members get free Wi-Fi and the lowest rates guaranteed. That makes it a no-brainer to join before you book here. Rates range from $65 to $100 per person per night, depending on the room choice. The suites are a good choice for sharing with friends, dropping the rate to $55 per person per night. The hotel has recently partnered with Dive Friends Bonaire, making it the first Courtyard by Marriott in the world to have an onsite dive shop.
Vacation rentals on the island run the gamut of small houses in town, to condominiums in resort settings, to multi-bedroom villas seafront. The most economical choices will average around $85 per person per night, but again, sharing a 2-bedroom unit with friends can bring that down a little. The advantage of a rental is having a kitchen for preparing your own meals, which can be a real cost cutter.
Full-service dive resorts on Bonaire offer the opportunity to get everything all in one place– accommodations, food, diving, and transportation. These resorts are a popular choice on the island, but generally not the most economical. The package rates sound good until you break down what you would pay for each portion of the package. The exception is the Drive & Dive 3-Bedroom Package at Buddy Dive with a rate of $812 per person per week, including daily breakfast, unlimited shore diving, and a rental truck. The caveat is that the occupancy is six people to get that rate.
Aim for Low Season
Now is a good time to mention the high and low season on the island. Typically, Christmas week through the second week in April is considered “high season.” So, from May to mid-December is when you will find the lowest rates on accommodations and vehicle rentals.
A rental vehicle is your ticket to shore dive when and where you please, which is the real key to enjoying Bonaire on the cheap. You will want a pickup truck because it’s easier to haul your gear around in the back, and if you are the adventurous sort, get a 4-wheel-drive truck so that you can traverse the roads in the National Park. Unless you have points for the rental or status, avoid the big chains like Avis. Go local to save money. And tell them specifically that you would prefer an older model truck. The reason for this is that roads on Bonaire can be narrow and often lined with thorny vegetation. You don’t want to feel like you must baby the truck at the expense of your fun.
The purchase of liability insurance is mandatory on the island, so when you compare prices be sure to ask for the “all in” quote that will include all taxes, insurance, and fees. Expect to pay around $45 per day.
If you don’t plan to shore dive every day of your stay, you could theoretically save money by only renting a truck for half of your week, and renting a golf cart or even bicycles the other half. If your accommodations are centrally located, you could even opt for a golf cart for the entire stay. From the Marriott, for example, a golf cart would be perfectly suited for getting to more than a dozen shore dive sites, as well as to grocery stores and shopping in town.
What to Eat
Food will be one of your largest expenses on the island. The island has wonderful restaurants, but they are pricey. To keep costs down, try picnicking during your shore diving and perhaps enjoying breads and pastries from the many bakeries on the islands for some of your breakfasts. Regardless of where you choose to stay, a stop at the grocery store for beverages (hard and soft), snacks, fruit, and sandwich supplies will help keep your daily food budget lower than average. A budget of around $50 per person per day is manageable, even lower if you have a kitchen.
The most economical option for diving on Bonaire is to take advantage of the sixty-plus dives sites suitable for do-it-yourself shore diving. Dive Friends Bonaire, with six dive centers makes it easy to get fresh tanks near your favorite dive sites. Serious divers can save money by opting for a six-day package of unlimited shore diving. If you won’t be diving every day of your stay, tell them and let them customize a package for you. With the $180 package, assuming you dive twice per day, that brings the cost of each dive down to $15. You really cannot beat that anywhere in the Caribbean.
Stay a Little Longer and Take Your Friends
Capitalize on your dive savings by staying two weeks rather than one. The total cost of a one week stay with airfare should average around $1,675 per person. Your second week would only cost another $1,100, so there’s really no reason not to stay. Invite your scuba diving friends along for even greater savings on the accommodations.