I’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’s possible to enjoy an affordable trip to paradise.
Getting to the Maldives for Cheap
Getting to these 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). 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
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 five times per day in keeping with the Muslim religion—they’re 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 $3–20 USD. If a ferry doesn’t run on the day 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’re looking to visit an island farther 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
In 2009, the Maldives started allowing locals to start their own guesthouses. This opened the door for several affordable and locally owned establishments to welcome 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’re 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 used. Plus, it had 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:
Eating on a Budget
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 a lot of 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 I was there, 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
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 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’re getting into before booking.
If your guesthouse doesn’t 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
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 do.
But it was eye-opening to find out that it’s 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. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.