I’ve been planning on getting my PADI open water certification for years. It’s something I’ve been dreaming about since middle school, when my dad would tell me stories about diving in frigid northern Minnesota lakes to explore shipwrecks. I loved the idea of breathing underwater, but my fantasies had exotic fish and colorful coral instead of weedy lakes, and tropical water so warm I didn’t need a wetsuit. I don’t think either of those can be found in Minnesota.
Fast-forward to last year. It didn’t take much convincing to get Ben on board with this dream of mine, so we started doing a bit of research. While making rough itinerary for our round-the-world travels, we decided that Koh Tao, a small island in the gulf of Thailand, would be the place to become certified. So we put it on our map, and made it happen.
Why Koh Tao?
People flock to this tiny island with one common goal: leave Koh Tao with a PADI open water certification. In fact, these turquoise waters are the classroom for thousands of new divers each year – making Koh Tao the second most popular place in the world to get certified (second only to Cairns, Australia)!
So why is is Koh Tao such a popular place to get certified? Well, for one it is cheap.
There are more than 50 dive schools on this island, making competition fierce. The quality of education you receive is top notch, and the price you pay is far less than you’d shell out most other places in the world. On average, an open water course will cost somewhere between 9,000 – 11,000 baht ($250 – $315 USD), which typically includes 4 nights of accommodation.
In addition to the price of certifications being ridiculously reasonable (especially considering accommodation is included!), there are more reasons to choose Koh Tao to get your SCUBA schooling on!
The waters around this island are a perfect place for the novice diver. There are rarely currents, so new divers can learn in an environment that feels safe. And the underwater life is abundant – from nemo fish to colorful coral to whale sharks (though siting one of those is very rare!), you’ll have no shortage of things to look at underwater.
How do I choose a dive school in Koh Tao?
Below we’ve listed 6 points to consider that will help you choose the best dive school for you. At the bottom of this article, we share which dive school we chose based on this criteria. We highly recommend this school, but realize that every person has their own needs. We suggest considering all these points and comparing a few schools so you can make an informed decision that will suit you best.
The first thing you should decide is how big of a school you’d like to dive with. There is an array of small, medium and large schools on this island, and each have their own pros and cons. Let's be honest - size does matter.
Koh Tao is home to Ban’s, the biggest dive school in the world. They are constantly stamping new certificates, and from what we have heard and observed, operate very much like a factory, churning out new divers without much acknowledgement of names and individual needs.
And Ban’s isn’t the only big guy on the island. We knew from the get-go that big schools with large class sizes aren’t really our style, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad choice. One plus to choosing a big school is that the course is taught in just about any language you could want. Plus, the big guys run rain or shine and stay open during the low-season (November) when some of the smaller companies close their doors.
Then there are small schools. Lots of ‘em. Sometimes it is difficult to find much information about these schools online, and we have heard that if there aren’t enough people signed up for a course, dives can fall through. Additionally, some of these schools don’t provide their own accommodation, so you may have to find it on your own with a stipend they provide. A plus side to going through a small school is that you’ll receive lots of individualized attention and can have your needs catered for. Plus, you’re supporting one of the little guys. Yay!
But what if I want a dive school that is reputable AND where people know my name (cue “Cheers” theme song)?! Can a girl have both? I felt a bit like Goldilocks on my quest to find a dive school that wasn’t too big or too small… I wanted one that was juuuust right!
And you know what? We found one! (I’ll share our top recommendation for a dive school below. But continue reading to see exactly why we chose it.)
There are plenty of medium-sized dive schools in Koh Tao, so just determining size won’t necessarily leave you with an easy decision, but it will help you eliminate a good chunk.
Let’s move on to the next considerations when choosing a dive school in Koh Tao.
The cost of an open water course can range from 9,000 to 11,000 baht ($250 – $315 USD). You’ll probably even find a few schools advertising it a bit cheaper. But remember, you get what you pay for.
When buying a car, the cheapest one isn’t typically the best choice, as it will be uncomfortable and may require some extra maintenance. The most expensive isn’t always the right choice either though – I really don’t need that upgraded speaker system after all. Choosing a dive school is similar.
Getting your open water certification is a big deal and is an investment in yourself. Be prepared to pay a little more for better instruction and equipment and you’ll be happier with the overall experience. And when you consider that the difference in price between the cheapest and most expensive schools on the island is roughly $65 USD, it isn’t all that much in the scheme of things. That extra money (in our opinion) is totally worth feeling more confident in the water.
Our advice would be to plan on choosing a school that is somewhere in the middle when it comes to price. But only you know your budget and what you’re comfortable with spending. Before choosing a school, be sure you know exactly what the price includes.
Ask these questions before making a commitment:
How many nights accommodation does it include?
Although the average is 4 nights free accommodation, this varies and some companies don’t include it at all!
Does the price include all my gear and my own copy of the course book?
Do all students get to use their own dive computer?
We didn’t know much about this before our course, but learning how to use a dive computer is essential for being a competent diver. Many of the cheaper schools on Koh Tao do not include this in their price, so be sure to inquire about this piece of equipment.
Is this price for a PADI certification or SSI?
Both certifications are recognized around the world and are relatively similar. Prices and course material may vary, with SSI typically being slightly less expensive. It is a good idea to do a little research and choose the certification that you deem right for yourself.
How big are the class sizes?
Some of the smaller schools have class sizes with a maximum of 4. Medium school can range from 2 – 6 students per class, with multiple instructors. And big schools can have upwards of 6 students to every 1 instructor per class. The optimal class size comes down to personal preference. Our thoughts on class size: We didn’t want something too big where we wouldn’t get any one-on-one attention, but we also like the social aspect of classes like this. For us, a 6-person group (with 3 instructional staff) felt perfect.
The thing that caught my eye about the dive school we chose was the accommodation. It was well-located in Sairee Beach, had 2 beautiful infinity pools for guests, an onsite restaurant, and cute and clean bungalows for all dive students. Plus, it is literally 30 steps to the beach, so we were able to watch a stunning sunset every night.
While accommodation shouldn’t be the only factor you consider, it is important, as you will most likely be staying there at least 4 nights of your trip.
Beware that not all accommodation is equal on this island. While in Koh Tao, we spent one night in a room that another medium sized school offers for its divers. While we aren't super picky about hotels, we were not enthused about this place. The room was dirty, drunk people were constantly walking by at night which made it hard to sleep, and there was no pool. Whaaaat?!
Tip: Ask to see the accommodation before making any commitments.
Your dive shop’s location will determine where you are based on the island. Most likely, you won’t venture too far away after your long days of classes, so you’ll want to be somewhere that you enjoy. In our experience, the Sairee Beach area seemed to be the best place to be based on the island.
There’s plenty of accommodation and restaurants, and this is also where most of the nightlife takes place. Read about our favorite eats in Koh Tao, including a place where you can get super healthy veggie packed bowls, because we know you're sick of rice dishes. Plus, the western facing beach means you’ll have some of the best sunset views on the island! And it just so happens that Sairee Beach has no shortage of dive shops to choose from, so you’ll have no problem finding one in this neighborhood. Everyone has their own preferences though, so do a little research on the main areas and determine which one sound the most appealing to you.
I am a sucker for Trip Advisor. Before making any big purchases while traveling, I check out what other people have to say. Bed bugs? Now way! Rude staff? I’ll find another company.
I know that reviews must be taken for what they are. Some people get really upset at a situation and take their rage out by venting on the Internet. But if a school has mostly mediocre reviews, look elsewhere. There's so much competition for dive schools on Koh Tao that you’ll have no problem finding a more reputable one.
6. What is this school doing for the environment?
If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know that we have a passion for traveling in a way that is sustainable and ethical. Diving can have a huge impact on the environment if it’s not done properly or with care, so be sure that the dive school you choose is treating the ocean with respect.
The dive school we decided to go through has regular dive site cleanups, recycles 100% of the glass, plastic, paper, and aluminum waste from the resort, and donates a part of each student’s course fee to ProjectAWARE, an organization that fights for critical marine life conservation issues.
After considering all of the factors above, are you ready to know which dive school we chose?
Okay, I won’t make you wait any longer...
Sairee Cottage Diving School was a clear winner for us!
Why did we choose them?
1. SIZE: They are a medium-sized school, and if you remember my Goldilocks dilemma, this is just what we were looking for.
Class sizes are small – ranging from 2 people to a maximum of 6. Our class had six people and 3 leaders (1 head instructor, an assistant instructor, and a Dive Master in training). I thought it was the perfect size because there was one leader to every 2 people. Plus, we were able to meet 4 other awesome travelers who were getting their certifications along with us.
2. PRICE: They were reasonably priced. At 10,800 baht (just over $300) per person, it was a little more expensive than some of the other schools. But sometimes quality costs more, and we were happy to pay a little extra for what we received. Additionally, Sairee Cottage offers 5 nights free accommodation (instead of the average 4 nights). Cha-ching!
3. ACCOMMODATION: The accommodation here is lovely! After staying in a few too many sketchy places, the cute bungalows at Sairee Cottage were a welcomed relief. They also offer upgrades with air conditioning (not necessary, in my opinion). We made good use of the infinity pools and lounge chairs during our stay, and really felt like we were living in paradise.
4. LOCATION: The location in Sairee Beach was central, but far enough away from the bars that our sleep was never disturbed by partiers. Plus, it's so close to our favorite restaurants on island. And the ocean is steps away!
5. REVIEWS: The rave reviews on Trip Advisor were the last little push that convinced us to book with Sairee. Have a look for yourself – people only have good things to say!
6. ECO FRIENDLY: Sairee Cottage Dive School is making a conscious effort to keep the ocean beautiful and healthy. We witnessed this firsthand: During prior dives and snorkeling trips we’ve done, guides have picked up marine life to show us, but at this dive school, our instructors pointed out sea life without disturbing them – a true display of how all staff are conscious of the environment in which they work every day. Read more about the ProjectAWARE initiative that they support (and you support too by diving with them!).
Final thoughts on choosing a dive school in Koh Tao...
Our instructors at Sairee Cottage (Felix, Daniel, & Mike) were both professional and fun, the gear was well taken care of, and the facilities were top notch. We felt like we truly learned a lot and came away from our course with a love for diving. In fact, we had such a good time that we decided to do the Advanced Open Water Course through Sairee Cottage as well!
Having done two courses with them and staying in the provided accommodation for nearly two weeks, we are proof that Sairee Cottage is a great choice when it comes to getting your diving certification on Koh Tao! So make it over to this island and #GETSOME!
Note: For tips on Where to Eat on Koh Tao, check out our delicious post here.