Maldives. If you think this island paradise is out of your reach, think again. In fact, the Maldives can be one of the most affordable beach destinations to visit if you know what to look for. Did you know you can travel to the Maldives on a budget? Read on to learn how we spent 8 days visiting two of the best local islands in the Maldives for under $1000 per person.
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- 1 How to Visit the Maldives on a Budget
- 2 About the Maldives
- 3 How to Pick Local Islands in the Maldives
- 4 Plan Your Maldives on a Budget Trip
- 4.1 Coordinate Speed Boat Transfers
- 4.2 Book Your Guesthouses or Hotels
- 4.3 Budget for Meals in the Maldives
- 4.4 Maldives on a Budget – Transfers
- 4.5 Maldives on a Budget – Excursions
- 5 Why Visit the Local Islands of the Maldives on a Budget
- 6 Where the Maldives Can Improve
- 7 Maldives on a Budget Conclusion
How to Visit the Maldives on a Budget
So what’s the secret? The trick to visiting the Maldives on a budget is twofold.
1) Use Air Miles
You probably saw that one coming, didn’t you? Flights to the Maldivian capital of Malé can be quite expensive. From the US, flights are likely $1000 or more. From Europe, $500-$1000. If air miles are not an option for you, then I suggest setting up price trackers on Google flights and Skyscanner to be notified of a change in price for your dates and sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights to get emails about short-lived deals.
I currently use the Alaska Airlines credit card, but I’ve read the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Rewards are two of the best in the travel category. The amount of miles required to buy a roundtrip ticket varies by origin, date, and by different flight times and seat classes. Flights for two of us used 170,000 miles and cost just under $300 total in taxes and fees. That essentially used up all of the air miles I’ve been saving for the last couple of years.
2) Stay on a Local Island in the Maldives
In 2009, the Maldivian government made it legal for residents to open local guest houses and hotels on inhabited islands. Therefore tourism is still in its early stages in the Maldives, with the exception of private island resorts, the first of which opened in 1972. Locals now have the opportunity to start B&Bs out of their homes or open hotels and increase their incomes. For a while, visiting a local island required a guided tour. This is definitely not the case now.
The difference between a local island and a private island in the Maldives is that locals live there. On a private island, there is typically one private resort for tourists and they have the entire island to themselves with the resort staff. Local islands will have a wide range of populations, and depending on the size, they have schools, stores, and a varying number of hotels and restaurants.
Other differences: since the Maldives are strictly Muslim, local islands will likely be devoid of alcohol, require more modesty in public, be much more affordable, and provide better cultural exposure. You’ll see mosques and hear the call to prayer multiple times throughout the day.
Admittedly, I wouldn’t turn down a luxurious stay in an overwater villa on a private island. But personally, I had no problem with drinking smoothies instead of piña coladas, covering up unless at a designated “bikini beach” (it helped prevent sunburn too), and getting to see paradise for a fraction of the cost with the added benefit of getting to know the locals and see how they live. Who wouldn’t want that?!
3) Visit During Off-Season (Optional)
I mention this as an afterthought, because I don’t really think it’s necessary. It’s certainly an option to save you roughly another 30%, but if I’m being honest, I think having good weather is worth spending full price. We visiting during the high season of late January and early February and the weather was literally perfect. Having consistent sunshine means the color of that water is electric blue and clear. It makes a big difference in how vibrant and mind-blowing the water is to have the sun out.
The year round temperature won’t vary much from the mid 80’s, but the monsoon season begins in April and can last through November (northern islands are more affected than the southern ones). January and February have the least amount of rain – plus, it’s the perfect time to escape the cold winter back home.
About the Maldives
The Republic of Maldives is an Asian island nation in the Indian Ocean south of India and Sri Lanka. The island chain spans roughly 115 square miles and is the smallest Asian country in size and population. There are roughly 1200 islands, 200 of them being inhabited, around 130 more being private resorts, and then there are dozens upon dozens that have disappeared.
The people of the Maldives began following Islam in the 12th century after a long Buddhist period. Prior to tourism transforming the economy, the Maldives’ were totally dependent on the fishing industry. The largest ethnic group is called Dhivehin and locals speak a language called Dhivehi, related to the language of Sri Lanka. Since tourism was introduced, the Maldives have changed their educational curriculum to be taught mainly in English, so English is widely spoken and understood especially among the younger locals. Other languages like Arabic may be used as well.
The local Maldive islands felt incredibly safe and the locals were very friendly and hospitable. We had no trouble with safety whatsoever. Just like anywhere, use common sense by not leaving belongings in plain sight. There have been a couple incidents in Malé with tourists in the last couple years, but they’re very infrequent. Avoid political demonstrations in Malé and always check the state department Travel Advisory before traveling somewhere.
Rules in the Maldives
Unlike other beach destinations, the Maldives are strictly Muslim and hence have some rules you should be aware of. Banned items that could get you in a bit of trouble upon entering the country:
- Bible (or other religious symbols not pertaining to Islam)
- Pornography (leave the dirty movies at home, guys)
- Dress Modestly – Avoid wearing swimwear or translucent clothing around guesthouses, town, or local beaches. The private resort islands are the exception. But on the local islands, you will find designated “Bikini Beaches” – sometimes only one – where tourists can strip down to any swimwear they like, but not nude. Ask your guesthouse to be clear where the designated beach is. In some instances, the rules of the borders to the “bikini beach” are loosely adhered to. In all other areas of the island, men should have a shirt on, but shorts are fine. Women should cover their shoulders and thighs, ideally from their shoulders to their knees. Again, this seems to be loosely followed. I had no trouble in relatively short denim shorts but I did choose to cover my shoulders with a loose fitting shirt and avoid tank tops.
- No nudity
- Public displays of affection – keep the making out to your private room.
The Maldives uses the Maldivian Rufiyaa or MVR. But the US dollar is quite common, and even preferred by some. If you use an ATM in Malé you’ll get MVR out. Usually both MVR and US dollars are accepted, but if you pay in US dollars, you’ll probably get MVR back. Make sure your US bills have no tears in them or they won’t be accepted.
$1 US is equal to roughly 15.42 MVR at the time of writing this. Bring plenty of cash with you to a local island as there is a good chance there won’t be an ATM or bank there. Larger hotels will accept credit cards, but many smaller guesthouses won’t be able to. Bring at least enough money to cover your stay, meals, and activities, or confirm the availability of a credit card machine before arrival.
How to Pick Local Islands in the Maldives
Out of 200 inhabited local islands, how the heck do you pick?! The same question goes for picking a private resort island, since there are over 100 of those as well. My answer to each would be DO YOUR RESEARCH. Since this is about visiting the Maldives on a budget, read blogs, research hotels, look at pictures, read about transportation to the island, and even research restaurants and activities to estimate costs.
Use Google Maps to Your Advantage
I didn’t have any personal recommendations when I planned my trip, but I did something a little unconventional. I zoomed in with the Google map satellite view and looked for the most beautiful islands. I’m not even kidding. I searched for islands that had very turquoise water around them with a reef encircling them as well as long sandbars. This makes for the perfect combination. The Google satellite view will show how the water looks and if there are big long sandy beaches. I started with locating Malé and scoured the islands from there in all directions.
Using the map to click on the names of each island, I looked at the Google images that popped up for each. I wanted to choose islands that weren’t so far from the capital of Malé that they’d require a flight to get there, but also not so close that they’d be touristy and popular. You can tell when it’s a local island versus a resort because there are no overwater hotels and there’s a little town with a grid of streets on the map.
Then when I’d compiled a list of a few beautiful looking islands that appeared to have great beaches, I zoomed in and looked at roughly how many hotels they had, if there were restaurants and how many, and viewed some pictures. You can click on hotel names to see pictures and get reviews. Then I searched for individual islands on Booking to see how many hotels there are and if there were some available.
Determine How to Get There
Then I googled how to get to these islands and read whether or not they had daily speed boats, how long the boat rides were, and what the costs were. If you are really on a budget, there is a ferry for locals that goes between a number of islands. It costs only a few dollars but can take hours upon hours to reach your destination, it’s an open air boat with uncomfortable seats, and makes infrequent journeys. It’s necessary to confirm with your hotel the speedboat times and costs just to be sure. Information on the internet can be outdated.
I passed up some islands because there didn’t seem like there was enough on the island and others felt too big with too many hotels. I only had 7 nights for our Maldives on a budget trip, so in the end, I settled on 2 islands: Fulhadhoo and Dhigurah. Both were approximately 2 hours by daily speedboat from Malé in opposite directions, had around 200-500 residents, and less than a dozen hotels. But the main draw? Both are skinny little slivers of an island with an impressive stretch of sandbar at one end offering the ultimate privacy with a long beach.
Plan Your Maldives on a Budget Trip
Coordinate Speed Boat Transfers
Once you’ve determined your islands and your overall dates of travel, you need to determine what times your speed boats travel and coordinate that with your flights and transfers between islands. Make sure you have ample time to catch your boats and flight when departing. The hotels are very good at taking care of you and will have a representative to meet you in Malé and help with and store your bags if necessary.
The airport in Malé is actually on a different island than where the speed boats typically depart from. When you arrive, your hotel representative will likely show you to the ferry boat where you’ll pay like $1 to take a 10 minute ride to the main island and the ferry dock.
Here, you just walk down the waterfront a few minutes until you reach the jetties where dozens of speed boats are. Malé is fairly small and all the boats leave from the same area, but it can seem a bit confusing where to go. The hotel should tell you which jetty you leave from. You can ask around at the at the jetties too. Our hotel had a second person meet us when we got off the ferry to show us to the jetty.
What to do in Malé
We had two long waits in Malé. The first when we arrived on the plane and the second time was the day we transferred from one island to the next.
Malé Walking Tour
When we arrived, the hotel representative met us and told us the morning speed boat was cancelled to Fulhadhoo and we’d have to wait for the 4pm boat. So we agreed to the walking tour offered which was interesting and worth it. The tour was free but tipping seemed obvious. In Malé, the market is quite interesting and has fresh produce and fish.
It is unlikely that islands you choose will have a direct transfer between them, unless they’re on the ferry route, so you’ll likely have to take the speed boat back to Malé and then another speed boat to the next island. I inquired about a direct private speed boat, but it was hundreds of dollars and not worth it. Our hotels were very helpful in coordinating everything for us, even down to calling our next hotel to confirm speed boat times.
If you end up in Malé with an extended wait more than once, I highly recommend visiting the artificial island of Hulhumale. This island is connected to Malé and the airport by a long bridge (or you can take a ferry). It is a $5-$10 taxi ride from the airport or jetties and takes about 15 minutes to get there.
There is an area of nice cafes, hotels, and a beach that feels almost like a California beach town. If I had an overnight layover in Malé, this is where I’d opt to stay. It’s a nice area to walk around and has some really nice coffee shops and healthy food options. Try The Family Room Cafe, The Alchemist Bistro and Cafe, and The Keyolhu.
Book Your Guesthouses or Hotels
Once you know which islands you want to visit, check Booking.com for availability on your islands of choice. If you were planning to stay in a private resort, then I’d search just for Maldives as the destination then put in my filters like price, review score, etc. But to visit a local island, I’d search Booking specifically for that island name. I noticed our hotel in Dhigurah is booked out fairly far in the calendar, so some places may not be available without advance planning.
Read reviews, look at pictures, look at hotel locations on Google maps to see how close to the “bikini beach” they are for walking, and see what some of the areas looks like around the island. You can even search the hotel reviews by keyword like “food” or “airport transfer” to see what people have said about their experiences.
If you’re interested in the particular islands we stayed (which you should be – they were rad), here are my hotel recommendations for each. Keep in mind there are other great islands with beautiful hotels, but I felt pretty good about my choices ahead of time based on my research. And now I can confirm, they were fantastic islands. Rates per night inclusive of breakfast ranged from $50-$125 for almost all the guesthouses and hotels on the two islands we stayed.
Maldives on a Budget – Fulhadhoo Island
Fulhadhoo is remote, tiny island with a stunning white sand beach. There are only around 4 guesthouses on the island at the time of writing this and they are all within the same couple blocks. The size is approximately 1.9 km long and 0.25 km wide and a population around 200 or less.
3 Hearts – The best reviews and most popular place to stay on the island.
Villa Marina – We had lunch here twice and it looked quite nice with just 5 rooms.
Azoush Tourist Guest House – Good reviews and is super affordable!
Fulhadhoo Inn – The only other guesthouse is the one we stayed at. It was the only one available by the time I booked less than a week before our trip. I wouldn’t recommend it over the other 3, but it wasn’t terrible.
Maldives on a Budget – Dhigurah Island
Dhigurah is slightly larger than Fulhadhoo at 3 km long and a population of around 600. It is roughly the same distance from Malé at 100 km and takes about 2 hours by speedboat. The locations of the hotels are not that critical, as they are all clustered fairly close to each other. You’ll have to walk the distance down the beach or jungle path to get to the sandbar no matter where you stay. But some do have the beach just steps away.
Bliss Dhigurah – This was my first choice of hotel and luckily it was available. It’s definitely one of the best of the approximately 12 places to stay on Dhigurah. One of the biggest advantages is the onsite restaurant which serves fantastic meals. Breakfast is included and they have an espresso machine. Just sayin.
Dhiguveli Maldives – This hotel is just down the road from Bliss and looked fantastic with similarly great reviews. Like Bliss, they have a rooftop restaurant with views. They also advertise having a spa.
Athiri Beach Maldives – This would be my third choice. It’s a little farther in the opposite direction of the sandbar, but I wouldn’t let that be a deterrent as it looks lovely.
White Sand Dhigurah – A lovely looking hotel also with an onsite restaurant.
Dhigurah Retreat Beach – No frills, but as close to the beach as the others.
Dhigurah Beach Inn – Along the same street as the others, same no frills style, good reviews.
Budget for Meals in the Maldives
On a small island like Fulhadhoo, consider that most small guesthouses will make one dish for each meal and there won’t be other options. If you have dietary restrictions, let your guesthouse or hotel know ahead of time. You could even bring some snacks from the grocery store in Malé if you wanted. There was one grocery store in Fulhadhoo where we bought some sunscreen that had snacks like cookies and crackers. Dhigurah had a couple more convenience stores and even souvenir shops.
Breakfasts will likely be included and vary from day to day. Typically juice, toast, an egg, meat, or a typical Maldivian breakfast called mas huni consisting of tuna fish and onions finely chopped and eaten with flatbread. I thought the idea of fish for breakfast was unappealing, but was pleasantly surprised and loved it! There was one day in Fulhadhoo where I was a bit horrified to have to eat hot dogs for breakfast (I’m typically vegetarian).
In Dhigurah with more options, we divided our lunches and dinners between hotels and local restaurants. Hotel restaurants tend to be more expensive. A typical hotel lunch or dinner was $10-20 per person. When we went to a local restaurant (there were a couple on Dhigurah), a dish was more like $5 per person.
Hotels can likely bill your meals to your room total, which was nice. But that also means it adds up quickly and easily. If you feel better about bringing a set amount of money for food, bring about $35-$40 per person per day just to be safe.
Maldives on a Budget – Transfers
Your hotel can also add your transfers to the total hotel bill. The cost of the speedboat ride from Malé is likely proportional to the distance. Our rides to Fulhadhoo were $90 per person roundtrip and to Dhigurah they were $100 per person. Transportation seems to be one of the steepest expenses in the Maldives. But when you consider the cost of flights to private islands in the Maldives, they are usually much more. Again, confirm ahead your transfer costs with your hotel and whether it can be added to your room total.
As a side note, take motion sickness medication for the speed boat rides and excursions if you are at all prone to seasickness. All of our rides were quite rough and I would’ve been miserable if I hadn’t used a motion sickness patch. Transfers can seem long and bouncy so sit towards the back of the boat if you are prone to nausea. The speed boats are quite comfortable though and provide life jackets, water (and barf bags). They even have a little bathroom.
Maldives on a Budget – Excursions
If you want to save money and just lounge on the beach every day, that is perfectly fine. Most islands have excursions through the hotels or local companies. They can take you snorkeling at the island’s reef, scuba diving, to have a private lunch on a remote sandbar, to see whale sharks, or visit a luxury resort for the day.
Whale Shark Excursions in the Maldives
Whale shark diving and snorkeling is quite popular in the Maldives, and the South Ari Atoll is considered one of their hotspots. One of the many reasons I chose Dhigurah is it’s in this atoll and is known for year round whale shark sightings.
However I was a bit disappointed by the whale shark experience as there are many boats all circling in the same region waiting to spot one. When one is seen, all the boats race to get there, the boats full of snorkeling tourists donning fins and snorkels all flop into the water chaotically swimming around looking for the whale shark. My hopes for an underwater photo swimming near them was quickly dashed. At the least I wanted to simply glimpse one but even that didn’t happen. The whale sharks went down too deep when we all jumped in and all I was left to see were flippers and bodies of flailing snorkelers trying to get the same glimpse as me.
Going during off season when there are fewer tourists would probably be a great idea if swimming with whale sharks is your top priority. For $75 per person, I felt like it was a bit of a waste of 5 hours sitting on a rocking boat just waiting, then hastily jumping in, then climbing back aboard in disappointment multiple times. We did get to snorkel the reef, at the end but I still felt bummed. Of course they can’t guarantee swimming with them or even seeing them. In Dhigurah they don’t utilize practices of feeding the whale sharks and they take contact very seriously. You must remain a good distance away and if anyone is seen touching a whale shark, everyone is forced to leave.
Why Visit the Local Islands of the Maldives on a Budget
Well, for starters, they may not be there forever. Some climate change experts predict these islands may be uninhabitable by 2100. Some islands have already disappeared.
When you visit the local islands instead of the resorts, you’re contributing to the livelihoods of the inhabitants there and hopefully putting money into infrastructure that improves their lives.
The beaches and water color are out of this world. I’ve seen quite a few beautiful beaches around the world. Some come very close to the Maldives, but I haven’t seen anything better yet.
The local islands are going to start changing. Tourism inevitably changes a place. I hope I can go back to these places in a couple years and still have it feel authentic and new, but who knows what will happen.
Where the Maldives Can Improve
Every place has some downsides, even paradise. And I am by no means an expert in environmental science or the Maldives environmental issues. But it was obvious in the Maldives that trash and plastic tend to wash ashore and reside in all areas of the jungle and beaches. It is not nearly as bad as some other places I’ve seen though. All the drinking water on these islands is brought in by boats in plastic bottles. There has been no effective recycling program and most plastic and trash winds up being dumped at uninhabited “trash islands.” It was hard to see a mountain of plastic along the jungle trail to the beach and know I am contributing to it.
After my return from the Maldives, in researching for this blog post, I read that Dhigurah is one of the few local islands partnering with a conservation group called Parley, where collected plastic is turned into Adidas Ultraboost Trainers. How cool is that?! So perhaps the heaps of plastic I saw were actually for this purpose. If you’re interested in getting some, make sure they are the “Parley” line like these:
I was also really happy to see our hotel, Bliss Dhigurah used only metal straws. Water was provided in our rooms in glass, but my guess is it was originally in plastic. The breakfast to go on our last morning was packaged in styrofoam which bothered me.
Sewage waste is another issue in the Maldives. Many of the fancy resort islands have their own sewage treatment systems, but the poorer local islands do not. The waste just goes out pipes into the ocean untreated. Yes, it’s horrifying to think about. We found the waste pipes on both islands while exploring and couldn’t tell how far out into the water they went.
But in July 2019, the Maldives new president, President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih announced the passing of a very ambitious resolution to ban all single-use plastic nationwide by 2025! Some resorts are committing to zero plastic already. This is a result of demands from tourists and locals alike who care about the need to protect the fragile environment of a country who’s image is built upon being a pristine island paradise. I truly can’t wait to see the Maldives succeed in this aggressive endeavor and hope to see other countries follow suit.
Maldives on a Budget Conclusion
I hope this gave you all the answers you needed about how to visit the tropical paradise that are the Maldives on a budget. If you want to visit this place that has been known as an exclusive luxury destination without the exorbitant price tag, now you can! This was actually one of my cheapest trips to date! A week in the Maldives on a budget of $1000 per person was quite attainable (with the help of air miles), relaxing, and absolutely divine! Comment with any questions or experiences you may have!
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