How to Spend a Week in the Maldives for Less Than One Night in a Resort

By Nomadic Matt | Published January 30th, 2014

the maldivesI’ve always wanted to visit the Maldives. I’ve often dreamed of those over-water bungalows and white sand beaches. But those dreams turned into nightmares when I realized how much those bungalows actually cost. Luckily, changes in the way tourism is done in the country have allowed for a small but growing budget travel industry to emerge and today, Kristin Addis from Be My Travel Muse shares how to travel the Maldives on a budget. She just got back and I’m eager to hear her tips. 

When you picture the Maldives, you might think of sitting outside an over-water bungalow while looking out over the jade and sapphire-hued ocean, with nearby staff serving sparkling wines and waiting on your every whim.

It’s the epitome of romantic luxury.

And it costs a fortune. Resort prices start at hundreds per night and don’t even include food!

To many people, this country is an unreachable dream.

But what if I told you that you can easily stay in the Maldives for less than the price of a night at a luxury resort?  What if I told you that you can travel there without having to stay in high-priced resorts or eating overpriced food?

It wasn’t until I had impulse-booked an Air Asia flight to the island nation that I learned how easy and affordable travel to the Maldives can be.

While the Maldives are known for their luxury resorts and over-the-top pampering, it iss possible to enjoy an affordable trip to paradise.

Getting to the Maldives for Cheap

jessica from ways of wanderers
Getting to these crazy beautiful islands used to cost a great deal of both time and money, with flights upwards of $1000 and lots of layovers.

The great news is that now more and more regional airlines are offering very reasonable flights to the Maldives.  For example, Sri Lankan Airlines flies from Colombo to Malé for around $100 USD one-way. Cheap tickets can also be found on Emirates via Dubai, with fares starting at $300. Low cost airline Air Asia just introduced a route from their hub in Kuala Lumpur with fares as low as $130 (which is how I ended up here). Moreover, flights from Bangkok and Singapore start at $300.

In short, you can fly here from most major hubs in the Middle East and Asia on cheap, direct flights.

(Matt says: If you aren’t already in the region to take advantage of the cheap fares and want to fly from North America, Europe, or Australia, your international airfare can get pricey, but with travel hacking you can score some free flights. Find out more here.)

Getting Around for Cheap

the maldives
In the Maldives, nothing is accessible without taking a ferry or additional domestic flight. The ferries from the airport to and from Malé (the main island) are right near the airport exit and can’t be missed.  With the exception of prayer times — occurring 5 times per day in keeping with the Muslim religion — they are always running and leave when full. The ferry to Malé leaves every 15 minutes, costs $1 USD, and is about a 20 minute ride.

From Malé, take a taxi for around $5 to the main ferry station to access the other islands.

To get around the islands, you can take a public ferry, but be sure to check the timetables as the ferries don’t run every day of the week. Ferry prices range from $3-20 USD. If a ferry does not run on the day that you need or your island of choice is too far to be accessed by ferry, you’re looking at either a night in Malé, a very expensive (think $300-$400) speedboat, or a $200 domestic flight.

If you are looking to visit an island further away from Malé, you’ll need to do some island hopping via the ferry system, which might require you to stay overnight on an island along the way.

Staying for Cheap

the maldives
In 2009, the Maldives started allowing locals to open their own guesthouses. This spawned the growth of several affordable and locally owned establishments welcoming guests on the local islands. Though there are still no hostel or dorm options in the country, private rooms can be found for as little as $40 per night.  If you are traveling with a friend or partner your share drops to $20.

I used Airbnb.com, which I found useful because it allows you to communicate directly with the host. I stayed on Mahibadoo at the Amazing Noovilu on Ari Atoll.

My guesthouse owner used to work for the resorts, so he had a great handle on what his guests wanted and how to cater to their needs.  The room itself was clean and comfortable, with air conditioning and fans. The bathroom was Maldivian style – outdoors but completely walled off for privacy, with Frangipani plants growing through the sand and up around the shower. It was easily the coolest bathroom I’ve ever utilized, with hot water and a Western-style toilet.

If you’re looking to experience the Maldives, get to know the locals, and save money at the same time, staying at one of these small guesthouses will allow you to experience the beauty and wonder of this stunning part of the world without paying resort prices (which normally start at $300 a night).

To find these privately run (and affordable) guesthouses, the following sites are the best:

Airbnb
Guesthouses in the Maldives
TripAdvisor
Agoda

Eating on a Budget

a crab from the maldives
At my guesthouse, each meal was authentic Maldivian cuisine, eaten as a group with the owner’s family and included in the price of the guesthouse.  This is typical as many islands don’t have many restaurants, so you’ll find most guesthouses include meals in their nightly rate.

If your guesthouse doesn’t provide meals, local restaurants are very inexpensive. Coffee houses around the island serve coffee from early morning until late at night for around $1.50. They also offer snacks, sandwiches, and noodles for closer to $3.

Moreover, each morning, fishermen would dock and sell off some of their catches. You could easily join the locals, haggle for some fresh fish straight from the source for reasonable prices and then throw it on the grill at your guesthouse.

Other than grilled fish, typical Maldivian cuisine involves breakfast of sweet and thick milk tea, canned tuna mixed with onion and lime juice, and delicious flat bread called roshi, which is similar to Indian roti.  Lunches and dinners consisted mainly of incredibly fresh fish, mouthwatering curries, more roshi, and buttered rice, which we ate with our hands (though a fork and spoon were provided if desired).

Affordable, Awesome Excursions

kristin adidis in the maldives
Given how much emphasis I had put on diving via our Airbnb correspondence, my guesthouse owner made it a point to take me out on a few dives himself, renting the gear from local sea cucumber fishermen and asking his brother to drive us out in the family’s speed boat.  It ended up being just the two of us, which meant that I was diving the best reefs in the world without any other divers around for only $65 per tank.

My host also took us snorkeling with manta rays (for $30) and, something that I’ve been dying to see for years, whale sharks.  Other boatloads of tourists jumped in, only to have to jump back out of the water five minutes later due to the nature of larger group snorkeling tours in the Maldives. I, however, had the pleasure of swimming with a whale shark for 45 minutes, since my guide was happy for me to stay as long as I wanted. He was enjoying the encounter as much as I was!

Every excursion was like this, from night fishing on a local fisherman’s boat (for $25), to visiting a nearby deserted island ($60).  I had a private tour guide each day, driving me to the best spots and offering flexibility that just doesn’t come with a packaged resort. These kinds of experiences are much more attainable when staying at a smaller guesthouse; most even list their prices for excursions on their websites and Airbnb listings, so you know what you are getting into before booking.

If your guesthouse of choice does not provide these tours, ask the local resorts what they might provide. They may be willing to let you join their excursions even though you’re not staying with them. Tour operator Secret Paradise also specializes in helping those who want a local experience to set up tours and SCUBA diving while avoiding expensive resorts.

Other Things to Remember

local muslim woman in the maldives
While I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, I would think twice about going the cheap route if I wanted to be able to drink wine and wear a bikini, which is generally allowed only on the resort islands. The Maldives is a Muslim country and forbids alcohol (and pork!) from entering the country or being consumed on local islands.  It’s also important for women to cover up shoulders and legs, which means no bikinis, though once we left the island on an excursion, a bikini was fine.

Additionally, while my guesthouse was great, it was still going through some growing pains, such as a lack of Wi-Fi and the occasional cold shower, as most of the newer guesthouses will.

It was eye-opening to find out that it is entirely possible to spend a week in the Maldives, complete with excursions and meals, for the same price as just one night in a resort bungalow.  While being pampered is great, I don’t like being walled away in a fancy resort.  Taking advantage of the opportunity to see how local Maldivians live, eating meals with them, and joining them for excursions on their speedboats made paradise even more idyllic.

Budget tourism on the Maldives is just beginning and now is a good time to go, as there are still not many foreigners outside the resorts (I was the only foreigner on my ferry) and the islands are not on many budget travelers’ radar. The remoteness of the country will always mean that it will take time and some money to get to, but the Maldives is no longer the exclusive playground of the wealthy and can be enjoyed by travelers of all types.

Kristin Addis is a former investment banker who sold all of her belongings and bid California goodbye in favor of traveling solo through Asia while searching for off-the-beaten path adventures.  There’s almost nothing she won’t try and almost nowhere she won’t explore. You can find more of her musings at Be My Travel Muse and find healthy eating and equipment-free exercise guides at Keep Fit on the Road. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

comments 50 Comments

Simply amazing!

What a great experience, I’m not a big fan of being waited on in the first place. It just feels weird to me and I would trade any of that luxury for the kind of experience you had.

I will be in the area in about a year so I will be checking it out for sure.

Some very solid tips here from Kristin. The only thing I would add is the option of taking a “Safari Cruise” (think basic boat, with guide and cook…6-12 people. It can be extremely cheap and you get to visit many islands. I spent more in 36 hours at a resort than a week on a safari boat.
Cheers!

Jon

Great story!

It just goes to show… as long as you are willing to be creative and think outside the box, you can travel just about anywhere and have all types of experiences that most people think are impossible. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks for the tips! I’ve been really hesitant about planning a trip to the Maldives due to the cost, so great to know there are some really affordable alternatives.

Great article about Maledives. It is paradise on earth.
::::
I want to add that this country is a muslim country and you should behave in the right way. Dont disturb with to much alcohol or bringing the bible inside the country. I´ve read on an other blog that they could not go inside the country because they had the bible inside their bag.
Also you have to pay a tourist tax if you come inside the country (as far as the other blog wrote).
::::

Written lines from “::::” till “::::” are not grown in my mind, but are information from an other blog I dont remeber the exact blog-name. So I distance myself of correctness.

Yes, that is mentioned in the last section of the article. I didn’t pay a tourist tax so I’m unsure what they’re referencing.

Currently, all services supplied to tourists from accommodation, food and beverages to excursions have an 8% General Service Tax applied be it sold on a local island or a resort, this is not always included in the displayed price so look out for the small print, especially on online booking sites, to say the tax will be added when payment is made.
There is also a $8 per person per night bed tax which every tourist has to pay regardless if staying in a guesthouse or resort. This is sometimes included in the room rate but on line it is generally not included in the published price.
Also bear in mind if a service has been provided there is also a 10% service charge.
Finally on taxes, all airport taxes are included within your flight ticket and currently no charges are made upon arrival or departure.

This sounds amazing! Traveling there is something that I definitely want to do. I looked at the costs and it seemed to high, but after reading this I think I need to put it back on my list of travels :)

Thanks for sharing your experience Kristin. I have always dreamed of visiting the Maldives and with your tips this dream may become more reachable for me. Although I do love a good luxury resort from time to time, I prefer to stay with the locals to get a better understanding of their lifestyle and culture.

WOW! Just finished reading this. Amazing. I thought the Maldives were all fancy resorts and by no means possible to stay at for “normal” people.

This was an eye-opener! We’ll definitely go to the Maldives when we’re in Asia next winter. It sounds like an amazing opportunity to experience paradise on a budget. Thanks for sharing, Matt. Just shared this on our blog’s Facebook Page.

Will check out Kristin’s blog now – I’m hungry for more on the Maldives! :)

Celia

So… question… how are women supposed to swim if they need to cover up? And what would we wear in general? Going to a tropical island and wearing jeans and long-sleeves shirts, and not being able to enjoy the beach doesn’t sound appealing, but I’d love to see the Maldives.

I never swam on the local island. Every day I ended up doing an excursion like diving, swimming with mantas, or going to a deserted island. In all of these cases it was fine to wear a bikini because you’re either in the middle of the ocean, on a boat, or on an uninhabited island. If you really wanted to swim on the local island just do so in some light pants and a t-shirt.

Thank goodness I found this post. Maldives is a pricey paradise that is hard to reach. But I’m glad to know these things from you.

Erin

Thanks Kristin for this informative post! And thanks Matt for hosting this post. Maldives is someplace I’ve always dreamed of visiting and this information pushes that dream into a reality. I can’t thank you enough!

Thanks so much for this post – it’s about time the word spread about alternative options for visiting the Maldives! To clarify, there are some guesthouses that have private beaches and even swimming pools. So, visitors can still have the bikini beach holiday experience without having to take an excursion to a deserted island or a resort. One of the best parts of the Maldives and staying at guesthouses has to be the sense of seclusion – the islands are so scattered that you can still feel you’re the only tourists around. We’ve been twice, both times via guesthouses, and I’m sure we’ll be back. Enjoy the Maldives, all!

That’s great to hear! What are they called?

Actually most of the guest houses on guesthouses-in-maldives.com have private beaches. Casa Mia and Reveries both have swimming pools as well.

It looks like it’d be impossible to have a bad time there, except I didn’t realize that the Maldives was a conservative Muslim country. It might be hard to enjoy yourself like you said outside of the resorts as a female, but I’d wonder what other females have experienced there. I still hope to make it there some day!

yea it is Muslim country but it is very unlike the middle east or typical Muslim country where females cannot enjoy openly. I went last month with my husband and i found it like any other Asian tourist spot. Girls were there on beaches in bikinis and even after sunset one can roam freely. It is so awesome! :-)

This is a big development! While the all-inclusive resorts have their allure, the life of a backpacker will always be more appealing. We haven’t had a real way to connect with the Maldivian locals … UNTIL NOW. Thanks for spreading the word Kristin!

Brilliant first-hand consumer research here, Kristin! Next time someone complains about the quality of travel blogging relative to print journalism, I’m pointing to this article as best-in-class service writing, regardless of outlet. (And I’m adding Maldives to my to-visit list.) Thanks!

How kind of you! Many thanks :)

Susan

We have just returned form the Maldives where we went to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We went with our 2 adult children and stayed at The Amazing Noovilu and we all had the best holiday!

Thanks for the information. We too don’t use the big resorts, either. I’m good with anything as long as it has airconditioning. After all, the amount if time I’m at my sleeping spot us usually pretty minimal.

Fantastic post, Kristin. The Maldives have just gotten a little closer. Thank you!

Great post – the Maldives have always appealed to me, however being a tight-fisted budget backpacker I’d written them off as being too expensive. Fantastic to hear it is possible to visit on the cheap!

Wow! That is quite the scene there in Muslim beach-land, looks amazing! I am just getting started on a world trip, after my wife and I sold our restaurant. Your blog is very inspiring, I am going to attempt to record our travels online as well. I appreciate your sense of how fleeting life can be, and we need to go experience it now.

This sounds amazing! I have bookmarked this page to reference on our round the world trip! Dining and interacting with the locals sounds much better than staying in a resort without the real Maldives experience

Great post, thank you for all the useful information, You’ve inspired me to research other areas that I’ve assumed would be too expensive to visit as well. :)

These are all great tips! Their beaches look beautiful!

Sab

Great post!! I’ve been to Maldives a few years ago and it can be quite pricey but over the past years it’s getting a bit more accessable for independent travelers, though it’s not as easy to travel around compare to other island archipelagos in Asia.

The Maldives are an amazing destination, but if people go independently on a budget they might be a bit disappointed when the place looks not like the image they have from the Maldives. Staying on an island with locals is different than staying on a tourist package island. The beach might be not as clean and wearing a bikini is a no no. On the other hand, you’ll get to meet the locals and share an incredible experience which you won’t have if you stay in your private water bungalow in a 5 star resort. If you know what to expect, you’ll surely enjoy the paradise islands of the Maldives.

A good and cheaper alternative to the Maldives are the Philippines. An Archipelago of over 7000 islands and the beaches/islands are absolutely comparable to the ones in the Maldives regarding to its beauty and underwater life. And the best: it will cost only a fraction to stay there and travel around compare to a trip to the Maldives… I recommend seeing both places and decide what’s the ultimative paradise for you. Happy travels!

I wonder if I can actually afford such an amazing trip in this lifetime. Great review, great pictures, great tips.

Always making the impossible look possible. Love the pics and insights on out-of-the-way places I might not otherwise think of going to. A great service to the adventurous at heart!

NomadicMatt

The impossible is possible now.

Maldives is always a dream destination to me. One day I will live that dream…

NomadicMatt

Now you can do so cheaper!

This is a really interesting post, thank you. I’d love to go to the Maldives and it’s great to know it’s possible to do it independently.

NomadicMatt

I was surprised too.

berry

Maldives is a dream destination to me. Maldives is famous for luxurious resorts, is one of the most romantic honeymoon destinations and also the most expensive in the world.

Sounds great. It’s also good to know that there are other options as far as The Maldives are concerned!

Great information! The food looks epic and the option of taking the less pampered route is always fun for us.

Any thoughts on traveling with children to this destination?

Thanks

Adventure Family in Motion

One of the groups at my guest house had a baby and were still able to do many of the activities. I would think children would LOVE swimming with manta rays and whale sharks. I know I would have at that age (and still do of course)!

I love everything I read from this post. Oh how I wanted to visit Maldives. Thanks for the info. Great write up anyway!

I hate to be the one to bring the bad news, but AirAsia is dropping the Kuala Lumpur – Male flights…

The Malaysian airline will withdraw service to the Maldives from March 1 but will continue to run four flights a week from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Passengers booked on suspended flights are being offered full refunds or re-booking to another destination.

Chief executive Azran Osman-Rani said: “The decision to withdraw from Male was a difficult one, but was made taking into account our business imperative to build sustainable and profitable routes.

“Despite our efforts, external factors such as the depreciation of Asian currencies against the US dollar and the chronic lack of hotel room supply in the Maldives resulted in cancellation of thousands of bookings by travel operators.”

You can read the full article here:

http://www.travelweekly.co.uk/Articles/2014/02/11/46928/airasiax+to+suspend+unsustainable+maldives+route.html

That’s too bad. In this case I’d suggest looking at flights into Colombo and then flying Sri Lankan airlines out from there to Male. They’re pretty cheap.

Air Asia Mali Route suspended!!

AirAsia X confirmed (11-Feb-2014) the suspension of its services to Male, Maldives “due to challenging business conditions”, effective 01-Mar-2014. The airline will continue to sustain the Colombo sector in light of this cancellation and will operate four times weekly Kuala Lumpur-Colombo service from 02-Mar-2014. The carrier explained, “The suspension of Male, Maldives is a move made to improve operating cost efficiencies and concentrate capacity in AirAsia X’s key markets of Australia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Nepal and Sri Lanka”. AirAsia X CEO Azran Osman-Rani added, “The decision to withdraw from Male was a difficult one, but was made taking into account our business imperative to build sustainable and profitable routes. Despite our efforts, external factors such as the depreciation of Asian currencies against the US dollar and the chronic lack of hotel room supply in Maldives resulted in cancellation of thousands of bookings by travel operators. As part of our strategy to operate more efficiently, the airline will deploy our aircraft to routes with the right level of demand to be financially viable.”

$40/night is a fair price for paradise! I tend to prefer staying in homestays and family-run guest houses whenever possible anyway. Thanks for an eye-opening post. It’s funny how the reputation of a place can prevent you from going. The more I travel the more I realize that a lot of what I’ve read online is simply false and sometimes you have to just go and find out the truth yourself!

Awesome that this is possible!

Just back from an amazing week in the Maldives. Didnt do it on the cheap, but every penny spent was woth it .

Rachael

Great article! However if you do decide to blow your budget and splurge on luxury, may I suggest the Baros Maldives, a resort that will take your breath away!

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