The Maldives on my budget?! Am I dreaming?! Endless clear blue waters, white sand beaches, an underwater world of creatures big and small…
Located Southwest of India in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is the lowest country in the world. In fact, its highest point is only 2.4 meters (just under 8 feet). It’s made up of 26 atolls that are comprised of approximately 1,200 islands. Only 200 of the islands are inhabited by Maldivians, and about 100 have been developed by resorts. The rest are uninhabited.
Experiencing the Maldives has been on my “dream list” for years and last week my dream came true. And I did it without breaking the bank! In this post, I share how you can do the same.
The following are some creative travel tips to help you experience the Maldives on a budget…
1. Getting To the Maldives
If you’re coming from North or South America or parts of Europe, fly into a major hub first. You can save significantly by flying into Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, for example. Then book a separate ticket on a budget airline to/from Male, Maldives.
I met travelers from Uruguay who can save between $800-1,000 USD by flying round-trip to Kuala Lumpur and then round-trip on AirAsia from KL to Male. And that includes AirAsia’s baggage fees. The same is true for travelers from Midwest U.S.A. Just be sure to leave enough time in KL for the transfer from one flight to the next. It’s worth the savings.
If you’re within Asia or Australia, budget airlines offer very reasonable rates for the cost-conscious traveler.
If you fly on a separate ticket out of KL to the Maldives, major airlines arrive/depart from a different terminal than the budget airlines at KL’s airport (KUL). I recommend giving yourself at the very least 3.5 hours to go through customs, collect your bags, get to the other terminal (KLIA2), and go back through security. Be sure to triple check details, including times and dates, before booking your ticket. Read tip #3 below to incorporate airport transfers in the Maldives into your schedule.
2. Accommodations: Resort Islands vs. Local Islands
The Maldives has both resort islands and local islands that accommodate tourists. Decide which type of accommodation suits you based on how you want to spend your time and money.
The resorts are absolutely breathtaking and exude relaxation. But make no mistake, you can’t stay at a 4-5 star resort in the Maldives for less than $100 USD a day like you can in places like Thailand or Malaysia. Or as fellow travelers from Germany said after I grumbled about a $15 meal: “These are simply normal prices. You’re not in Malaysia anymore!” Fair enough.
Resorts are self-contained, typically on their own islands. Low-end resorts can start between $250-400 per night. And luxury 4-5 star resorts can go up to $3,000 a night for an over the water bungalow.
If you want to go the resort route, be sure to pay attention to extra fees. Activities like kayaking, snorkeling equipment for the house reef, etc. are not included in your stay. Something like a 10-minute jet ski ride at a resort can be up to $100. Be sure to read the fine print before booking. In addition, excursions choices can be limited at resorts versus local islands. They are also much more expensive.
If you’re traveling with young children, the resort islands are typically the most conducive for families.
The government expanded options for tourism in the Maldives in 2009, by allowing guest houses to open on Maldive local islands. These accommodations are similar to bed and breakfasts or boutique hotels.
The Maldive local islands give you a feel for the Maldivian culture and they provide various options for activities and food. They are much more cost effective all around. Keep in mind that almost everything except for fish has to be imported to the Maldives, so the prices reflect that for items like sunscreen, etc. no matter where you purchase them.
The Maldives is strictly a Muslim nation, therefore there is no alcohol allowed on local islands and there is a dress code. If you want to drink alcohol, you can do so on a day trip to a resort. There are also “bar boats” that anchor out in the international waters in the evenings—a small boat will take you there for a fee.
Non-Maldivian Women: When walking around on local islands, make sure your shoulders are covered and don’t wear a low neckline. Also, be sure your skirt or shorts/pants fall below your knees. You do not have to wear a head covering. Once you’re on a boat, you can wear whatever you would like. And most local islands that accommodate tourism have a bikini beach (or “speedo beach” as I refer to them!) for you to swim in whatever type of swimwear you want. However, women may not be topless.
The local island of Maafushi, in the South Male Atoll, is a good place to be based during your first stay. With a mix of Maldivians and tourists, it’s one of the more popular local islands. This is due to the number of guest houses as well as the low cost of transport from/to the airport. It has several restaurants to choose from, an ATM, a bikini beach, and several water sport and diving operations. It’s not overly busy and the island is small—you can walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes.
I recommend the Crystal Sands Resort, a guest house located close to the bikini beach and it has views of the water. Its cost is similar to a mid-range hotel. Staff help you book excursions throughout your stay.
I recommend booking a guest house through Airbnb. Both of the options above can be found on Airbnb’s site. Doing this keeps you from having to pay fees or the required day tax upon arrival. Other travel sites typically do not include the Maldives’ day tax in the advertised fee.
3. Transportation Between the Airport and Your Accommodations
Whether you stay on a resort island or local island, you have to arrange transportation from/to the airport. This can be a bit of a puzzle so be sure to plan ahead when possible.
The airport is on its own island and the only way to get to your accommodations is via boat or seaplane. That is unless you stay on the man-made Hulhumale Island that is connected to the airport by a road. I don’t recommend staying on this island because it’s a city and it’s noisy—seaplanes fly over continuously throughout the day (every 5 minutes in the mornings). However, this is a good place to stay for one-night when needed due to transfer schedules. You can either take a bus from/to the airport (about $1 one-way) or arrange a car from your hotel (about $10 one-way).
Getting to your accommodations via boat is the most economical route. You also get spectacular views. You might even see a flying fish or dolphins! Seaplanes average around $450 round-trip, but they are the quickest way to get to where you need to be and provide a birds-eye view.
To go by boat, there are three different options:
Public Ferry: MTCC is the public ferry system. This is the cheapest mode of transportation around the Maldives. However, it is the slowest and only goes to certain islands and the schedule varies depending on the route. For example, it only goes to and from Maafushi once a day. It does not run on Fridays (holy day in the Maldives). The cost is $4.50 one-way between the airport and Maafushi, which takes 1.5 hours.
Shared Speedboat: These boats take between a quarter to half the time it takes to get somewhere via the public ferry. They run multiple times a day, but the schedule varies depending on the route and they typically don’t run after sunset. They do not run on Fridays. Shared speedboats carry multiple people and are economical due to the shared ride. The cost is $25 one-way between the airport and Maafushi, which takes 25 minutes.
I recommend the company, iCom for the shared speedboat if you’re going to Maafushi. You’ll be able to find them in the airport’s arrival hall.
Private Speedboat: This is the most expensive boat option and fees vary. You can arrange a private speedboat through your guest house or resort. You can typically get a private speedboat, if you’re willing to pay for it, anytime and sometimes on Fridays.
Be sure to check boat schedules before booking your flight and accommodations. Not all routes run every day (i.e. some only go every other day). If you’re going to an island that’s 2 hours or more by speedboat from the airport, it’s likely that they only do transfers on certain days/times so you’ll need to plan your flight schedule accordingly.
Products and services in the Maldives are advertised in USD and you can pay in USD or Maldivian Rufiyaa. I recommend paying in Rufiyaa because you’ll end up paying slightly less. There is an ATM located in the airport right after baggage claim. When the ATM asks if you want “with or without conversion”, select “without conversion”–this gives you the best exchange rate because your home bank will do the conversion.
4. Excursions and Day Trips
Discovering what’s below the surface of the Indian Ocean and swimming in those clear blue waters are one of the biggest draws to the Maldives. You can do half and full-day snorkeling or diving excursions to various reefs, night fishing, dolphin watching, a meal on a sandbank, a day trip to a resort island, visit local islands, kayaking, parasailing, and more!
Arranging your excursions and day trips through operations on local islands is the most budget-friendly way to enjoy the Maldives. If you’re staying at a guest house, they’ll be able to arrange things for you or give you recommendations. It’s also wise to talk to different companies on the local islands to get a feel for other offerings. In addition, ask fellow travelers what their experience has been—you never know what you might stumble upon.
If you’re staying on a resort island, you’ll arrange your excursions through the resort. Prices will vary depending on the place.
When making plans, remember you’re on “island time”. Things may not go according to your plans. An 8:45 a.m. snorkeling trip may not end up leaving until 10:30 a.m., because the fuel truck hadn’t arrived at the island yet. Have patience, lean back in a hammock and enjoy the beauty around you!
Seeing whale sharks in the Maldives is an exciting prospect for adventure seekers. However, there’s only a 50/50 chance you’ll see them if you go on a whale shark excursion. And if you do see them there will be a swarm of people hovering over the shark trying to get photos. Consider this before paying $100+ for the excursion. If you’re on a dive, you may have a better chance to experience the sharks up close and personal. They do only live in certain areas around the Maldives.
I hope you add the Maldives to your “dream list” and visit soon! And when you do, I would love to hear about new creative travel tips that you discover along the way!
Click here to find my full itinerary and budget during my 5 days/5 nights in the Maldives.
by Julie Slagter