White sand beaches, clear blue water, over-water bungalows paint a rather rosy picture for a perfect trip to the Maldives, but when you start looking at booking a holiday the reality of resorts and budget hits hard, but fear not for it doesn’t have to be so wallet breaking.
Believe it or not, I went to the Maldives as a student on a budget. But rather than staying in a resort, I went to a local island to experience the real Maldivian culture. Not only did I enjoy the paradise but I also didn’t have to pay an exorbitant amount at all, in fact, it was equal to staying for a week in any European city.
- You may ask how many days did I stay in the Maldives? I stayed in the Maldives for 14 days for the amount that I would spend in a European city for a week! And 1/5th the amount that I would spend in a Maldivian resort!!
The two sides of Maldives
Tourism is quite new to the Maldives, the first resort opened in 1973 and for thirty years, the only way to visit as a tourist was via expensive island retreats.
However, around 10 years ago the government changed its regulations to allow guesthouses to open on the local islands. For the first time, tourists were allowed to stay with locals and gain an insight into Maldivian life.
Since then, guesthouses have been springing up on local islands on a weekly basis, offering budget travellers an affordable way to explore the country. When I and my group landed in Male airport, we were the only ones not greeted by a travel agent, and the only ones not taking a seaplane to a resort, instead taking a speed boat like the locals.
The flip side however on the speed boat was, they had to stop the boat completely when I had to go use the washroom, which was quite embarrassing. 🙈
There are 2 sides of Maldives-
- One is the commercialised super costly romantic Resorts which seem unattainable for backpackers
- And the second hidden side of Maldive, are the local islands which is equally stunning and doesn’t have to be reserved only for “Special Occasion / once in a Lifetime travel”.
Here’s everything you need to know about travelling to the Maldives on a budget.
How can you travel to Maldives on a budget
1. Travel during low season, or at least try to avoid high season:
The Maldives are cheapest during the southwest monsoon season, which begins in May and ends in October, coinciding with the Northern Hemisphere summer. As it’s the rainiest time of year, guesthouse prices can drop to half their high-season levels, and while it can be overcast and wet at this time of year (particularly in June and October), you’ll never need to worry about being cold, thanks to the year-round warmth of the equatorial air and 31 degrees Celcius.
2. Airport Transfer:
- The first easy way of saving your bucks is not taking a Seaplane and choosing instead to take a ferry or Speed boat. We were quite tired after our long flight and took the Speed boat costing an average price of $35+ to $195 per adult. You can have a look here or book a speed boat here.
- But it can be as cheap as $5 to $30 per person one way, if you travel by Maldive’s public transport i.e using Ferries.
- Avoid the seaplanes if you’re travelling on a budget — these will usually cost around $500 return for a 20-minute journey.
Note: Booking a Public ferry can be made direct at the ferry counter in Male city (you can find a counter in Male airport) and a public ferry cannot be booked online.
3. Accommodation selection can make or break the bank:
Stay in a guesthouse rather than a resort. Finding a cheap Airbnb in the Maldives on an island you prefer, ranges from £30 – £282 per night.
I stayed in Ukulhas island and in a hotel called SeaLaVie Inn but you can find cheaper Airbnbs ranging for £31 per night for a private deluxe room to £282 for a Superior double room.
Note: All accommodation in the Maldives have air-conditioned rooms. It’s a must-have.
4. Activities within the island:
- While staying on the island I found the beach was free to use for everyone and already had beach chairs and umbrellas. All you have to do is get beach towels, which are provided for free by you hotel/bnb.
- We were provided with masks, snorkels, fins and other non-motorised water-sports equipment too for free, so we had a hearty time in the clear water watching plenty of colourful fishes, reef sharks, manta rays, turtles.
- The SeaLaVie Inn that I stayed in provided me with a bike too, to go around the island.
5. Food and Beverage:
Most of the guesthouses provide a free breakfast spread that is mouth-watering and tasty. 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.
The SeaLaVie Inn had an adjacent restaurant with a Thai cook. This trip made me fall in love with Thai cuisine and set my mind to go on a trip to Thailand, more on that later.
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. You can’t complain about spending $5 a day on food.
We paid around $5-10 whether we ordered chicken fried rice, rice-fish curry, fish barbecue, chicken noodles or a gigantic fish barbecue.
Note: Being a strict Muslim/Islamic country alcohol is not available in local islands other than the resorts.
6. Transfer to other islands:
Travel like a local and take the ferry. This was suggested to me by the friendly locals to save money, so you know it is full-proof.
MTCC ferries, the state-run public transport system, is a superb, not particularly rapid way to get around, with tickets costing almost nothing ( as cheap as $5 per trip per person). On an often crowded but very sociable dhoni (the multipurpose Maldivian sailing vessel), you’ll have plenty of time to sun yourself on the roof while looking out for dolphins as the boat winds its way slowly to your island. At only a few dollars per ride, you’ll save a fortune compared to the expensive speedboat or seaplane transfers most resorts require.
7. Activities outside the island:
- Most guesthouses arrange fishing trips ($50 per person), or day trips to the resorts ($50 per person plus a $30 per person entrance fee). You can also take trips to sandbanks ($25 per person) and go island hopping around the atoll ($50 per person).
- Dives in the Maldives can be done on a budget too, the best is to arrange it via the guesthouse or your local island dive shop. You’ll be looking at paying around $100 for two dives. The cheapest option for diving in the Maldives, however, is doing a live-aboard trip.
- I did my PADI open water certification in Ukulhas which cost me $450 for the whole course, certification and 8 dives. Since they didn’t have a swimming pool, our training was in the sea which gave us plenty of underwater time.
- Guesthouse double room: US$30–200
- Ferry ticket: US$5-10
- Dinner for two on a local island: US$20
- Two-tank dive: US$50–100
Getting down on a local island for the first time from your ferry or speed boat may be unnerving. At least it was for me for the first time, I saw Maldivian men and women staring at us with curiosity as we walked down the ferry and got to our hotel. It was a sea of women in black-clad burkas staring at you, which did make me feel unwelcome and weird to be the only tourists on the island. However, we found 3 other tourist couples who had taken the off-beaten path. And within a day we found the locals to be quite friendly, they love to talk and love Indian Bollywood movies.
It is a strict Muslim/Islamic country hence this might not be the choice for you if you love your alcohol and can’t do a trip without it. Alcohol and any pork-based dish are not allowed in the local islands.
There is a strict dress code for both men and women and that is to cover your shoulder and thighs. Avoid wearing a bikini unless you are on the beach.
The above were just minor points for me to adhere to and I had one of the loveliest times in the Maldives that I would not trade for anything.
There is so little information out there on Independent travel in the Maldives. Budget tourism in the Maldives is just beginning, and now is a great time to go, as there are still not many foreigners outside the resorts (I was the only foreigner on my ferry) and the local islands are not on many budget traveller’s radars.
Go have an amazing trip, no matter what budget you go with, it is Paradise on Earth.