Flying after scuba diving - a plane wreck underwater
Airplane wreck from Palau. Photo: Milos Prelevic / Unsplash

Not flying after scuba diving is a subject that comes up in any Open Water certification course. This topic should also be mentioned to anyone scuba diving, whether it’s a first-time try dive or certified fun dives. But why is flying after scuba diving a problem? And is flying before diving just as much of an issue? Read on to learn more about scuba diving and flying, why you need to plan your diving holidays to allow time between dives and flying, and other activities that you should avoid doing straight after scuba diving.

Read More: Scuba Diver vs. Open Water Certification Courses

Scuba Diving and Flying 

Scuba diving is a very popular holiday pastime. With most of us not having enough leisure time in our day-to-day lives to fit in scuba diving, we do make a point of doing it while on holiday!  

With so many amazing diving locations around the world, chances are you will be flying to a different country to experience these dive spots. This is when we need to plan our dives around the flights, making sure we have enough time after diving before flying again.

Full shot of the boat when diving The Junk liveaboard in Thailand
The Junk Liveaboard. Photo by Robert Horrion

Flying After Scuba Diving

While scuba diving, we absorb an excess amount of nitrogen due to the increased pressure at depth. Nitrogen takes time to naturally leave the body, which means an interval of time is required before any flight is taken.   

Ascending to altitude in a plane after diving can bring on Decompression Sickness. This can happen when there is a decrease in atmospheric pressure as you ascend. Although airplane cabins are pressurised, it’s still a reduction in pressure than what we would experience at sea level.   

We may still have small nitrogen bubbles in our bodies after a dive but not enough to cause any problems. However, once we start ascending in a plane and experience that change in cabin pressure these nitrogen bubbles can start to expand and bring on symptoms of decompression sickness. This is why an interval is needed before flying.

Read More: Signs & Symptoms of Decompression Sickness

So, When Can I Fly after Scuba Diving?

This question brings up many different answers depending on who you ask and which agency you have trained with. There are also a few factors to consider to answer this question as well, such as how many dives were performed in the day and whether a decompression stop is required.

OrganisationSurface Interval Required
US Air Force24 hours

FAA (Federal Aviation Agency)
Flying to altitude of 8,000 feet, at least 12 hours if no decompression stop, and at least 24 hours if a decompression stop was required
Flying above 8000 feet requires at least 24 hours
DAN (Divers Alert Network)Minimum of 12 hours for a single no-decompression dive, 18 hours for multi-day repetitive dives

For a single dive, a 12 hour surface interval is recommended. For multiple dives in a day, a 18 hour interval is required.
SSIRecommends at least 24 hours

As you can see this information is very conflicting, especially when planning your trip and booking your flights. So, which guideline should you follow? The answer to this would be to follow the current DAN guidelines. Many recreational diving agencies follow DAN’s recommendation as the Diver’s Alert Network is the organisation with the most research on recreational diving and safety procedures.

Side note: Most travel and diving insurances also follow DAN’s guidelines. Always check these details before booking your flight.  

DAN’S Scuba Diving & Flying Guidelines

  • 1 dive = minimum 12 hour surface interval
  • 2 or more dives, or multiple days of diving = minimum 18 hour interval
  • For dives requiring a decompression stop, substantially longer than 18 hours.

As a diving instructor I would always try and allow 24 hours between my last dive and my flight time, just to be extra cautious. As you can see, 18 hours would more than suffice before flying.

What Not to Do After Scuba Diving

We’ve already talked about the need to wait before flying after diving, is there anything else we should wait to do after a dive? Well yes, below is a list of things that you should not do directly after a dive. In these cases, you should wait for a few hours before proceeding with these activities.

Going to Altitude After Diving

Altitude is not always flying. For example, you might live in an area surrounded by mountains that you need to go over on your journey to and from the dive site. With PADI, going to altitude is considered 300m above sea level. Going above this altitude can cause pressure changes resulting in symptoms of decompression sickness.

Taking a Hot Bath or Shower After Diving

Putting your body into a hot environment after diving, such as a hot bath, shower or even sauna can cause any nitrogen bubbles to expand within the body. This can bring on symptoms of decompression sickness. Try not to get cold on your dives (wear enough exposure protection such as a thicker wetsuit) and turn down the temperature in your shower to help avoid this happening.

Getting a Massage After Diving

You might be lucky enough to be diving in a location that also has massage parlours nearby. The temptation can be to get a massage just after you have finished diving to help soothe all those aches from carrying your equipment around. However, you should leave at least 3 hours between a scuba dive and a massage. During the massage process the manipulation of muscles and body tissue can cause problems with releasing nitrogen, again, this can lead to effects of DCS.

Exercising After Diving

Staying fit and healthy is always a good idea especially if you’re a scuba diver. You may already have a regular fitness program and want to stick to this while on a diving holiday. Physical activity after diving, be it weight training, cardio, or even hiking can increase bubble formation within the body thus increasing the risk of DCS. A safe practice would be to plan your workout with a good few hours interval from your dive.

Drinking Alcohol After Diving

For many of us, having a beer in the evening after a great day of diving and discussing all the amazing things we’ve seen, go hand in hand. Having a beer or wine while filling out log books is a great way to meet other divers and learn about other diving locations. While having alcohol on its own isn’t too bad, it’s the dehydration from diving combined with alcohol that can cause problems. Make sure you’re properly hydrated before having too many drinks after your dives. Having sports drinks or electrolytes between dives can really help keep you hydrated.

Read More: The Effects of Scuba Diving & Drinking Alcohol 

A blurry scuba diver underwater. Scuba diving and alcohol is a dangerous combination.
A concoction of scuba diving and alcohol can lead to dangerous consequences. Photo Chris King / Unsplash

Flying after Nitrox Diving

When diving with enriched air (also known as Nitrox) we reduce the amount of Nitrogen being loaded into our bodies. However, we still absorb extra nitrogen compared to being on the surface for the same amount of time.  This means we will have excess nitrogen in our bodies after diving just like when we use normal air. So do we have to follow any different procedures when it comes to flying? The answer is no, the same rules for surface intervals apply if you’re diving with Nitrox or normal air.

Flying Before Scuba Diving

As we have not been diving, nitrogen is not the problem in this situation. What can cause problems is the result of being on an aeroplane. Depending on the length of flight you may have crossed multiple time zones resulting in jet lag. After many hours of breathing dry recycled air that has a lower oxygen content, chances are we’ll be dehydrated and lethargic. Not sure about you, but I always feel tired after flying, usually down to lack of sleep and stress from making sure I don’t miss my flight.  

Scuba diving while feeling tired and dehydrated is far from ideal, as it can increase the risk of DCS and may affect judgement if needed to deal with an emergency situation. Being recovered fully from your flight and being fit to dive is a matter of safety and enjoyment.  

Each individual will have to make their own call on when they consider themselves ready to dive. Each person will recover from the effect of a flight differently, so make sure that you feel up to the dives before jumping in. If not, then simply take longer to rest. Your dives will be a lot more enjoyable when you feel fully fit to dive.

Can you Fly and Dive in the Same Day?

Yes you can, as it’s all about feeling ready to dive. If you only had a short flight then you might feel completely fine and ready to go on your dive. The main thing to remember is safety, if you don’t feel up for a dive then it is always best to wait or go the following day. If you have flown and feel great then head straight to the nearest dive spot and enjoy your dives. Just remember any flight can lead to some form of dehydration so make sure you are drinking plenty of water before diving.

Planning that Diving Holiday

Having ample time between scuba diving and flying might not be something that you really considered when planning that trip. Hopefully from reading this article it has provided you with the information to have much safer diving holidays and enjoyable flights home.  

Flying after scuba diving is something that needs to be carefully planned. As we have read there are many recommendations about surface interval times and that can make it a little confusing. When in doubt, plan at least 24 hours between your last dive and your flight. Allowing enough time for nitrogen to leave the body before flying is crucial in reducing the risk of DCS.  This is why waiting a few hours before exercising or going for a massage is also a good idea.

PADI IDC Staff Instructor Martin, (England) is based in Koh Tao Thailand. He's been diving since 2002, has completed over 2000 dives, and has dived all over from Argentina to Micronesia. His favorite type of diving is wreck diving, and favorite marine animal is the Octopus.