Ever dreamed of travelling to paradise but thought you could never afford it? Travelling the Maldives on a budget is totally possible and is getting easier every day. Here’s my guide to everything you need to know to help you travel around this stunningly beautiful country without breaking the bank!
Maldives is unlike any other country I have ever been to. For the first time in a long time I really felt I was leaving my comfort zone for this trip…and it felt great. It was my first time visiting and I had not met anyone else that had travelled solo in the Maldives. No matter how much I read and how much I planned, I just kept getting more and more confused. There really isn’t a lot of information out there and it wasn’t until I touched down in Male and spent a few hours with my Couchsurfing host that I began to fully understand how independent travel in this country works and how it really is possible to travel to the Maldives on a budget!
If you are looking to travel here on a tight budget, like I did, I hope this post will be helpful. I am going to detail as much as I can about my trip to make yours easier, including what are the best local islands to visit (there are over 200 to choose from!), how much transport, food and excursions cost and whether it’s worth it to splurge for one night on a luxury resort island.
Maldives On A Budget – Experience From Three Trips!
Intro to Budget Travel in the Maldives
Everyone has seen those famous images of 6 foot tall models with legs that go on forever, lounging in crystal clear water or emerging from their private pools on their water villas. For years Maldives has remained a bucket list destination, but one that is far from achievable compared to other must-visit destinations. Penned as the world’s best honeymoon destination and the playground of the rich and famous from neighbouring Arab countries, Maldives is no doubt one of the world’s most beautiful destinations.
The country consists of 100’s of tiny islands, divided up into the exclusive, private resort islands ($$$) and the local islands where Maldivan people live. Until 2009, independent gust houses were not allowed to operate in the Maldives. Yes, just 7 years ago the entire country simply consisted of 5-star resort islands and local islands where only local people were welcome. So unless you had a few thousand euro to spare, or landed a job as a dive instructor or English teacher on one of the islands, the chances of you visiting were slim to none.
The government finally came to their senses and budget to mid-range hotels and guest houses have began springing up on various local islands around the country. They are still a long way off from allowing hostels and a trail of backpackers a-la the banana pancake trail in South East Asia, but they have at least opened the door for independent travel. I will go into more detail on where I stayed and what your choices are in the ‘Budget Accommodation Options’ section below.
I think one of the main things to keep in mind when planning a solo trip here is that you will need either a lot of time or a lot of advance planning. Maldives is an island nation, but unlike the island nations of Philippines or Indonesia, these islands are all tiny and often very far from each other. There isn’t a whole lot to do on the local islands so you will most likely want to spend your time island hopping from one island to the next. Getting around can be a stressful endeavour and can be very costly if you do not plan well and stick to local ferries. I will go into more detail about this below in the ‘Getting Around’ section.
As Islam is the main religion here, you will find mosques on almost every local island, women in either burqas or simple head scarves and a clear lack of skin on display. Wearing your bikini tot he beach isn’t as simple as the glossy magazines would have you think, and swim suits are in fact banned on all public beaches. You must do as the locals do and enter the water wearing a shorts and t-shirt or even the knee-length dress you have been wearing. On some local islands you will find a ‘bikini beach’ which has been set up specifically for tourists. There is often a sort of fence around it to stop local men peeking where they shouldn’t.
While the official currency is the Maldivan Ringgit (15 Rufiyaa is about 1 euro), US dollars are accepted everywhere and are even the currency of choice at the airport, on the resort islands and when paying for excursions with tour companies. If you are keen to spend as little as possible when travelling around the Maldives on a budget, I highly recommend you buy dollars before you arrive.
Finding cheap flights to the Maldives
Again, like everything else, people have a lot of preconceptions about the Maldives that are simply not true. I always thought flights here would be ridiculously expensive but in reality they are pretty cheap. If you are already travelling in Asia you can get flights to Male for as little as 77 euro one way. If you are coming from Ireland, you can find flights for about 550 euro return, maybe a little more. Be sure to play with your dates, times, and departure points. The cheapest cities to fly from are Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Arrival in Male
Almost everyone arriving in the Maldives will fly into Male International airport. When booking your flight a highly recommend paying a little extra and arriving in the morning or afternoon instead of late at night. Arriving in day light means you will have one of the most spectacular airport landings in the world, flying over many of the countries tropical island paradises. An incredible photo opportunity and for sure a once in a lifetime experience as the airport is on a small island so it almost feels like you are going to land in the water when making the final landing!
The second reason for booking an earlier flight is that no ferries leave Male after a certain time in the afternoon, which means you will be stuck in one of the world’s most boring capital cities for 24 hours and have waited an entire day of your trip. If you should be so unlucky to land on a Thursday, as I did, you will be stuck for 48 hours as no public transport (including all ferries to all islands) run on Fridays. This pretty much sucked so be sure to plan your flight day and time accordingly.
Male International Airport is actually on its only little island. If you do arrive on a Thursday or late at night, you will need to spend one night either on Male island or Hulhumale island, a second island that was only built (reclaimed forms he sea) 15 years ago to deal with the congestion and over-crowing in the capital city. I suggest you choose Hulhumale over Male, but both are as boring as each other. To get to Male, you can take a ferry from the airport which only costs 2 dollars. If going to Hulhumale, you can take the public bus from outside the airport which also costs just 2 dollars and leaves every half hour throughout the day. One advantage of staying on Male island is that it will make it easier to catch a ferry to one of the local islands the next day a they all leave form the main ferry post on Male, often leaving very early in the morning.
Getting around the Maldives on a budget
This is probably the most important section of this guide. Figuring out your transport options when travelling in the Maldives can be a really stressful experience. on my first night here, I saw in my couchsurfing hosts the apartment with 5 fellow couch surfers, and all of us were scratching our heads with puzzlement trying to figure out the transport system and trying to decide on the best islands to go to.
Essentially you have four options for travelling around the Maldives, depending on how big or small your budget is.
Your first option is to stick to the local ferries (here’s the timetable website) for the duration of your stay, which will mean careful planning and more days than you previously thought you needed. So many independent travellers have ended up missing their flight out of the country due to a missed or cancelled ferry. There are no ferries on Fridays and most leave either early in the morning or at 3pm at the latest. You will have to check online for the various ferry timetables, as they tend to leave at different times and on different days depending on which island you wish to go to. Be VERY careful when planning your trip using ferries as certain islands might only have a ferry back to male 3 times a week! I have included some timetables below to illustrate my point!
Your second option is to mix it up and use both the local ferries and the shared speed boats. This is what I did and it worked really well. For example, on my 3rd day I wanted to go to Maafushi Island but the ferry did not leave until 3pm which meant i would have to waste a second entire day on Hulhumale. Instead, I opted to pay 25 dollars and took a shared speed boat to Maafushi Island. I arrived in less than 45 minutes and had the whole day to explore the island, relax on the beach and soak up the island vibe.I used iCom tours which has shared speedboats to Maafushi 3 times a day, so they are a great option if you want to go straight from the airport to Maafushi upon arrival in the Maldives.
If you are super short on time but not short on money(!!), you can pay $150 per person for a private speed boat transfer to the island of your choice. If you have opted to spend a night or two in a luxury resort (more on my experiences later) then you can splurge on a seaplane which can cost anywhere between $250 and $500 return! Seems like a lot, and I guess it is, but it’s also a once in a lifetime experience that you will never forget! If you can’t justify it, but are super keen to take a short flight and get some aerial photographs, you can consider doing a sightseeing flight for $150.
Budget accommodation in the Maldives
Like I stated earlier, locally owned guest houses have only been allowed to operate for the past 7 years so your choice will still be quite limited. There are still no hostels or super cheap hotels like one might find in South East Asia, but I found the quality quite good and certainly nothing that would break the bank.
I had planned to book a hotel for my first night in Male, but when I saw the exorbitant prices for hotels that looked far from pretty, I decided I simply could not justify it. I decided to check out Couchsurfing (despite having not used the website in over 3 years!) and could not believe it when the first person I emailed replied within minutes accepting my request to surf his couch for 2 nights. While Couchsurfing should not be viewed as ‘a free bed’ but more a cultural exchange and the chance to make new friends, the fact remains that this did indeed save me over €200! My host was amazing and I was delight to learn he was hosting many other fellow couchsurfers in the apartment which gave me the chance to make friends from all over the world and exchange travel ideas.
For the duration of my trip, I found the best accommodation options were to be found on Airbnb. (If you have not already joined you can get €30 free credit by joining using the link above…). Unlike other countries, many hotels and guest houses in the Maldives sign up to Airbnb rather than individuals with a spare room. There are also private residences so you might get a good deal on an entire apartment if you are a group of people travelling together. I found a small guesthouse on Maafushi Island called Maafushi Village for $35 a night and also a budget hotel on Male for my last night. The staff in Maafushi Village could not have been more helpful and I would highly recommend to anyone visiting.
If you have no luck on Airbnb, you can also use Hotels.com to search for hotels within your budget range, which is what I did when planning my one night of luxury on a resort island. Just be sure to factor in that ferries don’t go to the resort island so you may have to get a speedboat or seaplane transfer.
Best local islands in the Maldives
Maafushi Island, South Male Atoll
Maafushi is great choice is you are very stuck on time for your trip to the Maldives and your budget is pretty limited. I had heard great reviews from bloggers about this island but read some horrendous review of tripadvisor. Here’s my take: it is very small island that you can walk around in about 30 minutes. One end of the island is taken up by a prison, but there’s not much going on that end so it doesn’t really affect you. The day I arrived it was raining, half the island was flooded and there was construction everywhere I looked. Even the precious bike beach was being dug up with a massive digger plonked right in the middle of the beach. Fantastic, I thought. This was not exactly the paradise island I had dreamed of!
When I woke up the next morning, the sun was shining and I suddenly saw the island in a whole new light. The locals are so friendly but not at all pushy. In fact you really have to go door-to-doit to enquire about excursions as nobody tries to sell you anything! Bikini beach has been cleaned up and was looking very pretty and there were lots of Chinese tourists enjoying various adrenaline-fuelled water sports creating a dun but about the place. I signed up for a half day snorkelling trip , which turned out to be one of the best trips of my life. Full photo post here. I think Maafushi is an excellent base for diving and for taking excursions to other smaller islands but if you are simply looking for a quiet island with a beach, I would say 2 days here would be enough before heading to some place new. (I will write a full post about Maafushi at a later stage!)
HulHumale, South Male Atoll
I stayed two nights here with my Couchsurfing host, Ibrahim, and while it’s a tiny island with not a whole lot to do, it is the ideal starting point for your trip. It’s the only place that you don’t need to take a ferry to get to as it is connected to the airport by bus. The entire island is actually manmade and is just 15 years old. There is a beautiful long beach, a designated swimming area and lots of water sports to try out. You can also organise day trips from here to other local islands, resort islands or to go diving or snorkelling. Cheap guesthouses line the beach strip and it really is the perfect place to either spend the first or last night of your trip.
Villigilli, South Male Atoll
This is a very small island connected to Male by a very regular (24 hours a day) and very cheap (about 30 cent) ferry. I actually ended up here by accident…and you might too. When I booked my hotel on hotels.com, i opted for Male but my hotel it turned out was actually in VillinGilli. I wasn’t very impressed but the owner just shrugged as if it’s the same place, just different islands! Anyway, similar to Hulhumale there is a beach, lots of water sports on offer and seems like a very quiet place to chill for a night or two.
While I did not personally go to the islands below, I did fellow solo backpackers in Male who had been there and said they would recommend these places.
Himmafushi, Kaafu Atoll
My CS host argues that Himmafushi island is the prettier cousin of Maafushi Island as it is less developed and there are less tourists going there. He also said the beach is much nicer. It’s pretty famous in the Maldives as been a great place to go surfing, although there may not always be great waves. Ferry from Male only takes an hour to get here, costing just 2 dollars so it’s a great choice if you want to check out another island but are short on time. You can read more about this pretty local island in this blog post.
Gan Island, Laamu Atoll
As this island is quite far away, your best option is actually to fly here from Male. There are in fact 3 airports in the Maldives, one international and two more domestic. A quick flight to Kadhdhoo followed by a short taxi ride will take you to the island of Gan, the largest island in the Maldives. You can find cheap guest houses for about $50-60 a night next to some truly spectacular beaches. Gan is also a great place to base yourself if you wish to explore more local islands in this atoll.
How much do things cost in the Maldives?
I decided to keep track of my spending for my entire time in the Maldives, with the sole purpose of sharing these details with you all. In general, I didn’t find food or drinks to be that expensive and even the excursions were very reasonably prices. The only way to spend a lot of money if you want to do lots of diving or if you love action water sports like jet skiing, paragliding or tubing. I opted to do a full day snorkelling trip from a local island which only set me back $35.
One thing to be noted, and something that drove me CRAZY is that the Maldives LOVES hidden charges. They add 10% Government tax and 12% local tax to all prices quoted. This means if you think your meal is 10 dollars, it will actually be $12.20. definitely something to keep in mind!
Cost of meals in the Maldives
Breakfast at the airport – $11
Breakfast in a local eatery – $2
Breakfast in my guesthouse – $5
Lunch in my guest house – $8
Dinner in a beachside restaurant – $15
Dinner in my guest house – $10
Cost of drinks and snacks
Ice-cream at local Gelato Shop – $2
Water from the shop – 30 cent
Water from your hotel – $1
Small packet of Pringles – $2
Packet of sweets from shop – $1
Soft drinks – $1
Chocolate milkshake – $3
Cost of activities
Extreme sports package for 2 people – $150
Half day snorkelling – $35
One day of diving – $80 – $100
Sand bank excursion – $20
Trip to a resort island – $70 – $150
In total, I only spent $250 for my 5 day, 6 night trip to the Maldives. If I had couch surfed for my entire trip I would have spent a lot less, if I had not received a free stay at the resort below I would have spent a lot more…but still would not have broken the bank!
It’s also one of the best places in the world to go scuba diving. If you’re interested to know more, check out this bumper guide to becoming a dive master.
Spending time on a resort island
While this may not be possible is your truly planning to travel Maldives on a budget (a shoestring budget, that is!), I decided towards the end of my stay that I would not have truly experienced all the Maldives has to offer without checking out a resort island, even if it is just for 24 hours! I considered doing one of the day excursions where you can travel from a local island to a nearby resort island for the day (from 8am to 6pm) to see how the other half live.
The prices vary from $70 (this just includes transport to the island and an entrance fee to step onto the island!!) to $150 (and upwards) which may include all your meals, drinks and activities on the island for the duration of the day. While this did sound cool, it also sort of sounded like a cop out. If I am going to go to a luxury resort, I don’t want to pay $150 and then have to leave at 6pm and go home!
I searched hotels.com for hours until I eventually found the perfect resort within my budget, and hopefully within yours too! The only catch was that the only way to get to this little piece of paradise was by seaplane, which was going to seriously dig into my budget.
Luckily for me, the Gods smiled down on me, decided my blog was pretty darn awesome and I received an email letting me know that my flight with Trans Maldivan Air (this is the seaplane company that transports everyone to the various resorts) and one nights accommodation would be free of charge.
The joys of being a travel blogger! That said I was totally willing to pay for it, and had even already withdrawn the exact amount of dollars ready to pay.
I had settled on Vilhamenhoo Island Resort and Spa, located in the South Ari Atoll because it was within my budget, but also looked like heaven on earth. I was excited to explore a totally different area of the Maldives as up until this point I had just been island hopping in the South Male Atoll.
The fact that I would be taking a seaplane to my destination excited me to no end. I will be writing a full review of my stay at Vilhamendhoo Resort later, so be sure to check it out in a few days.
In summary, however, I would say that it is totally worth it to spoil yourself for a day of two. Spending even one night at a resort in the Maldives is an experience you will never forget.
Taking the seaplane was a real bucket list tick for me and when I actually stepped foot on the island I literally could not wipe the smile off my face. At first I was worried people would look at me weird for being alone but I could not believe the reception I got. I actually did not eat a single meal alone, with staff members stopping to have a drink with me and there was always someone on hand to help take my photo!
Here’s something worth noting: the water and the sand on the resort island is very different to the water and sand on the local islands.
The sand is whiter, the water is both clearer and cleaner and the reef is often just a few steps away making it both a diver and snorkelling paradise. On the local islands the increase in budget and mid-range travellers has sadly meant a huge increase in the amount of construction going on.
Think half built hotels everywhere you look and ever diggers digging up entire beached to make way for something else. This can make the water a little murky and also kills off the coral. Not every local island is like this, I believe the further from Male you travel, the better chances of finding a cheap, unspoiled paradise!
Right so I think that’s it for now.
Let me know if you have any specific questions! If I think or hear of any more tips on travelling to the Maldives on a budget, I will update this in the next few days. If you have been to the Maldives solo or have more tips on how to travel to the Maldives on a budget, please leave a comment with any tips you might have!