Updated: 12/27/19 | December 27th, 2019
Before I finally made it to the Maldives, it was a destination I had been dreaming about. White sand beaches. Over-water bungalows. It looked perfect. 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. In this post, 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.
Resorts cost hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars per night — and that doesn’t even include food! To many people, the Maldives 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 to the Maldives without having to stay in high-priced resorts or eating overpriced food?
It wasn’t until I had impulse-booked a trip to the island nation that I learned how easy and affordable travel to the Maldives can be.
While the Maldives is known for its luxury resorts and over-the-top pampering, it’s also possible to enjoy an affordable trip to this paradise.
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Traveling to the Maldives for Cheap
Getting to these beautiful islands used to cost a great deal of both time and money, with flights costing upwards of $1,000 USD and involving lots of layovers.
The great news is that now more and more regional airlines are offering very reasonable flights to the Maldives. For example, flights from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Malé can be found around $175 USD (round trip).
Cheap tickets can also be found via Dubai, with one-way fares starting at $290 USD.
In short, you can fly here from most major hubs in the Middle East and Southeast Asia on affordable, 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 The Maldives for Cheap
In the Maldives, nothing is accessible without taking a ferry or a domestic flight. With the exception of prayer times (which occur five times per day), the ferries to other islands are always operating and leave when full. From the airport, the ferry to Malé leaves every 10-15 minutes, costs $1 USD, and is a 20-minute ride.
Upon arrival to Malé from the airport, take a taxi to the main ferry station to access the other islands (the taxi costs around $5 USD. US currency is legal tender here).
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 $5–25 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 USD) speedboat, or a $200 USD 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. This might require you to stay overnight on an island along the way.
Best Budget-Friendly Places To Stay In Maldives
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 islands.
Though there are still no convenient hostel or dorm options around the country (there is a single hostel on Thulusdhoo Island but it costs $40 USD per night), private rooms can be found for as little as $40 USD per night. If you’re traveling with a friend or partner, your share drops to $20 USD.
I used Airbnb, 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 USD a night).
To find these privately run (and affordable) guesthouses, use the following sites:
- Airbnb (if you’re new to Airbnb, get $35 off your first stay)
- Guesthouses in the Maldives
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 $2 USD. They also offer snacks, sandwiches, and noodles for $4-5 USD.
Moreover, each morning fishermen dock and sell their catch. You can 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 a breakfast of sweet and thick milk tea, canned tuna mixed with onion and lime juice, and delicious flatbread called roshi, which is similar to Indian roti.
Lunches and dinners consisted mainly of fresh fish, mouthwatering curries, more roshi, and buttered rice, which we ate with our hands (though a fork and spoon were provided if desired).
Budget Friendly Excursions 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 USD per tank.
My host also took us snorkeling with manta rays (for $30 USD) and something I’ve been dying to see for years: whale sharks.
I 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 USD), to visiting a nearby deserted island ($60 USD). 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 When Travelling To 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. 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. You can find more of her musings at Be My Travel Muse. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.
Book Your Trip to the Maldives: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines, because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is being left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the largest inventory. If you want to stay somewher eother than a hotel, use Booking.com, as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and cheap hotels. I use them all the time.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it, as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all the ones I use to save money when I travel — and I think they will help you too!
Looking for more information on visiting the Maldives?
Check out my in-depth destination guide to the Maldives with more tips on what to see and do, costs, ways to save, and much, much more!