Maldives on a budget. It seems like an oxymoron. Yet I can assure you it is just a matter of knowing what to look for and what to expect.
Beautiful yet surrounded by an aura of mystery; famous for the luxury resorts scattered around its many atolls (some of them pushing to become greener), the Maldives remain a dream for many. Oftentimes holiday packages to the Maldives are prohibitively expensive.
Independent and budget travel to the Maldives is quite new. It’s only in the last few years that guest houses have started popping up in local islands (those where locals actually live, and which have a completely different vibe from that of luxury resorts). Since then, tourists have started venturing on their own, at times finding it hard to get information on where to go, how to move around and how to plan their trip.
I have been to the Maldives twice – once by myself, on classic luxury vacation; and more recently during a more budget friendly trip with my sister. Believe it or not, I much preferred visiting the Maldives on a budget, for I finally got to experience a country that remains otherwise unknown, and got to explore it much more in depth.
Tourism In The Maldives
It was only a few years ago that the Maldives have started opening to independent travelers, allowing locals to have guest houses. Since the early 1970s when the first resorts were created, people who wanted to visit this beautiful archipelago would have to shed quite a bit of money, and would end up visiting a country where there was a clear separation between the dream life in resorts, and the real life in local islands – which no outsider was really supposed to know about.
Since the first guest houses opened, it’s become possible to visit the Maldives on a budget and independently. Yet, most tourists continue opting for the expensive resorts, or prefer dreaming of a land that they consider magic, perfect.
The truth, however, is that the real Maldives are less than perfect – albeit truly gorgeous.
Experiencing the local islands of the Maldives isn’t always fun. Sometimes it feels like locals want little to do with tourists. They are happy enough to get tourism money, but don’t care for the interaction.
Be patient. This is a country where, unless working in a resort, locals haven’t had much interaction with outsiders. Tourism is all very new to them, and it’s not easy to change your ways after centuries of isolation.
Rest assured that if you manage to scratch beneath the surface you will encounter friendly people happy to chat and learn a few words of your language; children who want to play; traditional dances and delicious food. And most importantly you will always feel safe.
Continue reading to find out what you should expect when traveling to the Maldives on a budget.
What To Know Before Visiting The Maldives On A Budget
It’s a Muslim country
The Maldives is that it is a Muslim country and Shariah law is applied. Most people who spend their holidays in luxury resorts forget that, because there are no mosques, calls to prayer, and a strict dress code. But you will be definitely reminded of that when you visit the local islands.
As Friday is the day of prayer, the weekend is normally on Fridays and Saturdays. Public transportation doesn’t operate on those days, but local eateries will be open.
The call to prayer will wake you up at odd hours
There’s a mosque in every local island, and there are a few in the capital Male. The Muezzin calls to prayer 5 times a day, once at around 4:30 am, on a call that at times lasts for more than 20 minutes. Chances are that the 4:30 am call to prayer will wake you up – islands are so small that the call will sound loud and clear wherever you are.
You can’t find alcohol (or pork)
If you are planning to travel to the Maldives on a budget, you will have to forego alcohol consumption for the duration of your holiday. Along with pork and dogs, alcohol is banned from the Maldives and only available in resorts. You will have water, juice or sodas with your meals. No sunset drink or cocktails on the beach, I am afraid!
You can’t go around in tank tops and shorts
Both male and female visitors to local islands are expected to cover their shoulders and legs at least down to their knees when walking around – even when on their way to the beach. Tank tops, shorts and mini-skirts and dresses are a no no; and you definitely can’t go around topless or in your bikini.
If you are going on an excursion, you can remove your top or pants and stay in your bikini only once the boat has left the harbor.
There are separate beaches for tourists and locals
Many local islands have what are called “bikini beaches” – tourists-only beaches. These are the ones where you will be able to wear a bikini or swimsuit. Locals hang out at the beach fully dressed – even when they swim. If a bikini beach is not available, guest houses will usually provide a small garden where you can sunbathe.
Check whether the island where you intend to base yourself has a bikini beach or not. Keyodhoo and the nearby islands, all have bikini beaches.
Getting cash may be an issue
The local currency in the Maldives is the Maldivian Rufiyaa, or MVR. You will need cash to pay for meals, souvenirs and other small items. Dollars and Euro are usually accepted as payment, but you may be better off withdrawing MVRs to avoid a disadvantageous exchange rate. All atolls now have a bank and an ATM, so it may be a matter of popping into the next island to get cash.
Credit cards aren’t accepted outside of Male – most guest houses won’t have a machine for that, and when they do they apply a surcharge of up to 5%.
Withdraw the cash you think you may need in Male international airport, where you will have no shortage of ATMs. Don’t take too much out – you won’t be able to change it back into Dollars or Euro when leaving.
You will have to pay a tourist tax
Before leaving the Maldives, your guesthouse owners will ask you to pay a green tax – $3 USD per day. You must pay for it in USD, but if you insist you will be able to pay it in Maldivian Rufiyaa too.
Internet actually works quite well
You would think that wifi isn’t much of a thing, but it’s quite the contrary! Wifi in guesthouses works much better than in most resorts. If you can’t give up social media when you leave your room, you can get a local SIM card for as little as $20 USD – you will be impressed to discover that you will have signal in the middle of the ocean.
It’s always a good time to visit
Many will tell you that the best time to visit the Maldives is between December and April, during the dry season. I have been in mid September and at the beginning of November, and enjoyed it enormously both times.
In September, the weather seems to be a bit better, with drier days and a nice breeze. In November, I experienced a couple of good afternoon or night storms – but that didn’t detract from the charm of the place.
But you may want to go in the low season
If you want to visit the Maldives on a budget you are better off traveling in the low season. Prices almost double during peak season. High season goes from October to April, with months such as December, January and February being absolute peaks.
There is quite a bit of garbage around
Many of the smaller islands in the Maldives don’t have any way to dispose of their garbage, with the result that you will often see piles abandoned in odd places, and that the locals will burn it in an attempt to get rid of it. Try to minimize your impact by consuming as little plastic as possible, for example carrying a water bottle with a filter such as Lifestraw.
Care to be a more responsible traveler? Make sure to read my post The Complete Guide To Becoming A More Responsible Traveler.
How To Visit The Maldives On A Budget
Budget friendly tours of the Maldives
No time to plan? These are the best budget friendly tours of the Maldives:
- Maldives Dhoni Cruise – a budget friendly 7-days G Adventures cruise that goes around the southern bits of the archipelago.
- Maldives Dhoni Explorer – a 7-days G Adventures cruise perfect for active travelers.
- Maldives Island Hopping – a very budget friendly 8-days G Adventures classic tour of the Maldives with accommodation in local guest houses and lots of fun activities.
Breakdown of costs
Some say that you can visit the Maldives on a budget as small as $50 USD a day, but that would be a bit of a stretch, unless you are perfectly happy staying put in the island you have selected.
You need to factor in between $80 and $100 per day if you want to do activities such as fishing, snorkeling or visiting sand banks; and that’s if you are traveling with someone to share the costs of accommodation. It’s not super cheap, but it still is much cheaper than the resorts.
This is a quick breakdown of expenses:
- One night in a local guest house: between $40 and $85 USD per room. The price includes breakfast. For a higher fee (around $110 per room per night) you can opt to also have dinner included.
- Daily green tax $3 USD.
- $7 to $12 USD per meal.
- Throw in the extra cash you will need for activities – book through your guest house for cheaper rates. Expect to pay between $25 and $50 for day trips to sand banks or fishing trips.
- Ferry rides cost around $1 or $3 depending on whether you are booking a slow or fast boat and depending on the duration of the ride.
Pick a flight that land in Male during the day, as night transfers to local islands can cost up to $200. If you can’t find a flight that lands during the day, spend a night in Male and take the speedboat the day after. It will turn out cheaper.
With these costs, a one week holiday to the Maldives can be as cheap at $650 USD, without flights.
Finding cheap flights to the Maldives
The Maldives are incredibly well connected internationally, and if you are a bit flexible with your travel dates and book well in advance you should be able to find cheap flights.
If you are coming from the United States, you may need to have a short layover in the Middle East (Doha, Dubai or Abu Dhabi). Italy has direct flights from both Rome and Milan with Alitalia and Air Italy. There are direct Air France flights from Paris too.
Fly there from Sri Lanka
Did you know that the Maldives are really close to Sri Lanka? Flights from Colombo to Male take around an hour and a half, and can be as cheap at $100 round trip.
If time is not an issue, you may want to add the Maldives as the last leg of your trip – I have done it twice and it works out wonderfully. Sri Lanka will provide a fantastic tropical getaway, with lots of culture, history, temples; and the gorgeous waters of the Maldives will be an incredible cherry on the cake of a perfect holiday.
Picking a local island
There are 26 atolls in the Maldives. Around 100 islands are private luxury resorts. The rest are local islands. All have a school, a mosque, a couple of eateries, a bank, unpaved road and none to very few cars (you will see the occasional scooter).
There are many islands to pick from, but information about them is scarce. Here is an overview of the best:
MAAFUSHI – It’s where the first local guest house opened in 2010 and where you will find the biggest selection of accommodation, dive centers, local restaurants and tourist services.
KEYODHOO – It’s where I stayed during my last visit. It’s small (it will take you no more than one hour to explore the island) yet pretty. The beach is nice, well equipped and clean. There are 4 or 5 guest houses, each of them serving meals (either on site or at the local eateries) and a few other shops.
FELIDHOO – It’s small and there are very few eating options; which means that you may well be overcharged for what you get. With so little competition, you may also find that services are somewhat lacking.
GURAIDHOO – quite close to Male and where you should go if you are planning on surfing. However, there is no bikini beach and the local beaches aren’t as good as in many other islands.
THODDOO – Not too far from Male, it has some great bikini beaches and it’s one of the very few islands where fruits and vegetables are cultivated to be sold to other islands.
You won’t find hostels in the Maldives; and there is no such thing as bungalows on the beach. Accommodation tends to be more on the mid-range side, with guest houses offering private rooms with private bathrooms and hot water, air conditioning, wifi access, breakfast, snorkeling gear and twice a day cleaning.
You won’t have a pool – but do you really need one when the sea is so beautiful?
Rooms can be as cheap at $35 USD for something on the basic side, but for that cheap price you won’t have breakfast included.
You can find accommodation around the Maldives on Booking.com. You will need to narrow your search by travel dates and, if you are looking to go to a specific place, by atoll.
Make sure to read my Maldives accommodation guide.
How to move around
You can rely on public ferries to move around the local islands. Ferries are cheap – between $1 and $4 USD for a ride of up to 3 hours. There is a schedule, though you will soon realize that the ferries don’t run too frequently.
Public ferries don’t stop at resorts, so if you want to visit a private island, you will have to book a speed boat. These can be very expensive (up to $250 USD for a ride). Try your luck and ask a helpful local to give you a ride for a smaller fee.
If you want to take a flight to another island, this will cost between $350 and $500 USD.
Food in the Maldives
You will be positively surprised by food in the Maldives: it bursts with flavor. You can have delicious fish curries – mild or not so mild – for a very reasonable price; chicken and fried rice; grilled fish; and lots of delicious fresh fruits and vegetables. One thing you may miss is good coffee – it seems only instant coffee is available.
Taking day trips
The best way to keep your costs down when traveling to the Maldives independently is to book excursions through your guest house. You can expect to pay between $25 and $50 for trips to the coral reef, to sand banks or rides to other resorts (where you will have to pay an additional fee for a day pass).
Trips usually include transportation costs and meals, but you may want to double check that with your guest house.
Diving is a bit more expensive (around $100 for two dives). It can be arranged through a local dive shop – most islands will have one, though depending on the season it will be closed.
If you are a fan of online bookings, you can consider one of the options below. Keep in mind that most of these tours depart from Male:
If you would like to experience the resort life for a day, you will be able to. Many resorts provide day passes which cost between $50 and $200, depending on what’s included. Some may literally give you just beach access, some may include spa treatments, meals and anything else to make you feel like you are living the luxury vacation dream.