I'm off to Cairns in August for a wedding and really really want to see the Great Barrier Reef. Although as a recent college graduate I need to be sensible about how much I spend. I'm trying to work out whether it's that important to do an expensive reef trip compared to a cheaper one. I mean, it's all the same reef isn't it. I figure you're just paying more to go on a newer bigger boat and have a nicer lunch. The quality of the coral couldn't be that much different on the more expensive one's could it? I've been looking at these 2 cruises http://www.visitcairns.com.au/store/Product.aspx?ProductID=b6b15e28-c034-4cbc-8eca-cef3c12bafb2, as a cheaper one and this http://www.silverseries.com.au/swift.htm as a more expensive one. They seem to go to pretty much the same place but one is almost $70 more than the other (which is nearly 3 nights accommodation!)
I've looked at both those options and I'm inclined to agree that it's about the boat and lunch. Although the Silverseries one does go to a few different reef sites and maybe there's a difference in that? If you just want a taste though then I can't see that being a particular issue.
It's also possible to get a return ferry to Fitzroy Island for AUD74 which is closer to Cairns than the further reefs and therefore you can spend even more time snorkelling - see http://www.cairnsinfo.com/cairns-tours/Great-Barrier-Reef/Fitzroy-Island-Day-Tour-171/
I've heard the snorkelling at Fitzroy Island isn't much good as it's not really part of the great barrier reef. I really want to go to the outer barrier reef as I've read pretty much everywhere that the corals and fish are much nicer the further out you go
From my experience snorkelling, the outer reefs are definitely the best. I haven't been to Fitzroy Island though. Perhaps there's a few nice spots there.