How to Experience Maldives on a Budget
The Maldives is a small island nation south of India and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Known for its crystal clear waters, pristine beaches, and overwater bungalows, the Maldives is idolized as a once in a lifetime destination. Those drone shots of out-of-this-world beaches you see on Instagram, there’s a good chance they’re from the Maldives. Frequented by honeymooners, resorts typically take up an entire island and offer the highest levels of luxury in even their most basic rooms. The Maldives is not generally seen as an affordable vacation destination but more of a special occasion splurge.
However, there are plenty of options to take an affordable trip to the Maldives as long as you’re willing to give up the $1000 a night overwater bungalow.
Halfway through a recent 7-month trip in Southeast Asia we did just that. We were in Malaysia and knew that we would never be closer to the Maldives, so we planned two weeks on the islands.
Getting to the Maldives
The first major cost to overcome is the flight there. If you’re going straight to the Maldives you’ll struggle to find anything considered budget. It’s on the other side of the world and once you get to a connecting airport like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or Southern India, it’s still another 5+ hours to the islands. Your best bet; add on the trip to the Maldives when you’re already nearby. During our stay in Malaysia, we saw daily flights from Kuala Lumpur to Male, the capital city in the Maldives, for a little under $300 round trip.
The best cities to find cheap flights to the Maldives will be the hubs nearby, including Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, & Bangaluru – but don’t be afraid to check prices in other major South or Southeast Asian cities.
You also don’t need to fly round trip. For example, if you’re in Kuala Lumpur and planning to visit Singapore next, consider a Kuala Lumpur to Male departure and return to Singapore. Unlike a long haul flight you won’t need to book far in advance, a week or two will be plenty, so as your travels evolve you can fit it in.
Flight cost: $200-400 round trip
Where to stay on the Maldives
First step, avoid any hotel or resort who’s name you recognize. Unless you’ve got a treasure trove of points saved up, you’ll want to opt for a local island, not a resort island. Fortunately, there are plenty to choose from.
Your arrival point will be Humulae. Depending on the time of day you might spend a night here or in the attached capital city of Male.
Choosing your island will depend on a few factors. First, how long are you staying? We had 12 days (plus a travel day on either side), so we split our time evenly between two local islands. Don’t try to squeeze in extra islands if you don’t have the time. It takes time to get between them and once you’re relaxed and settled, moving is the last thing you’ll want to do.
Next, you want to consider how far you want to travel from the airport island. The Maldives may be one of the smallest countries in terms of land size (115 sq Miles) but it stretches over 500 miles north to south and covers over 35,000 sq miles. So if you’re choosing an island far away from Male you need to factor in the travel time and cost. 4 domestic airlines offer regularly scheduled flights between the islands, Maldivian Air is the largest. Frequent flights make island hopping easy, but this will quickly increase your expenses. Check out the flight prices before committing to an island.
If you choose an island closer to Male you can get there by water. There are two options for boats to get around. You can arrange ahead of time with your accommodations to get picked up by a fast boat. It’s $35 for all nearby islands and the quickest option.
The ferry is also available but be sure you double-check the schedule before booking accommodations. It does not run every day, and it does not stop at each island consistently. But for only $3 a trip, it’s worth it If you can find a convenient booking.
How we booked
We looked at the list of local islands on the ferry schedule that wasn’t too far from Male. Then we researched each island by reading Google reviews to get a sense of what is offered. Once we had a couple we liked we compared it to the ferry schedule and planned our route. Only then did we actually book our flights to and from Male, followed by booking accommodations.
You don’t have to plan it out this detailed, but given how flexible our schedules were, it made sense to save the $35 per person every time we moved islands. Although you could manage, it would be difficult to simply show up and figure out your plan because tourism in the Maldives is designed for vacationers spending $10,000+ where one booking takes care of everything.
We chose the islands of Thoddoo and Ukulhas and loved them both.
Transportation Cost: $35 per trip between islands high end, $3 low end, multiplied by the number of boat trips you take (minimum 1 there and back).
Accommodation on the Maldives
Most local islands will have a few guesthouses to choose from. They range from what feels like a small hotel to Airbnb style with 3-4 rooms and shared common space. We stayed in one of each and were very comfortable. Find one that serves breakfast and you’ll be all set. Don’t worry about booking a waterfront, you’ll never be a long walk from the beach because the islands are so small. Rooms were very comfortable with all the amenities you would expect, including AC and stable WIFI.
Average cost: $50-70/ night for a private room with breakfast
Budget-Friendly Places to Eat
We loved the food in the Maldives but there are very few places to choose from. Each island has a handful of decent restaurants so check them out on Google, try the ones that look good, and then keep going back to the ones you like! We generally rotated between 3-4, sometimes going to the same one every night for dinner.
Maldivian breakfast is tuna with onion wrapped in tortillas with a side of fruit, juice, and tea which we’d eat sitting outside our guesthouse. Surprisingly a delicious start to the day!
Every couple nights we had a full, freshly caught BBQ’d fish dinner. If you like a restaurant, ask to arrange a BBQ fish dinner and they’ll get one from the local fisherman for you the next day. It was by far some of the most delicious and fresh seafood we’ve ever had.
Each island will have 1, maybe 2 restaurants geared towards tourists. They will be more expensive but we rotated them in. One thing to keep in mind, when you’re at local restaurants they take a very laid back approach to service, so expect meals to take well over an hour. Don’t wait until you’re already hungry!
There is no alcohol on local islands so you’ll save that cost at meals.
Each island has at least 1 small grocery store with the same sort of products you’d find in South or Southeast Asia. We were very surprised to find prices were not much higher than countries we had just visited, despite everything having to come by boat.
Average meal cost: $5 low end, $12 high end. $5 daily snacks.
Budget-Friendly Activities on the Maldvies
Some of the best beaches in the world and crystal clear water, what more is there to do?! It turns out, not that much. It’s fun exploring the islands but they’re very small so it doesn’t take long. We did love seeing what it was like to live on such a secluded island.
Guesthouses all provide complimentary snorkels to borrow. We did go scuba diving on one island to see manta rays, the cost was slightly higher than elsewhere but not unreasonable. There are very few tourist activities so plan to get in some relaxing beach time to fill your days.
Activities Budget: Most likely zero. $100 for a two tank dive.
- The Maldives strictly follows Islam which means there is no alcohol available on the islands.
- You are also required to cover up everywhere other than the designated tourist beaches
- During evening prayer the entire island will shut down (restaurants and stores)
- We were very surprised to find mosquitos on both islands. Bring your bug spray
- Only Rufiyaa, the local currency, is accepted and the only place you can easily get it is the ATMs at the airport or in Male. The majority of local islands do not have ATMs. Calculate how much you think you need and take it out upon arrival. Guesthouses will accept credit cards with an added surcharge but everywhere else is cash. Use up the cash or convert it before leaving because most exchange centers won’t take it.
An island vacation doesn’t get much better than the Maldives, and fortunately, it has become more accessible and affordable to travellers not interested in spending $10,000 or more. Altogether, for two of us with 10 full days in the Maldives, we spent $600 on flights, $500 on accommodations, $350 on food, $80 on transportation, and $200 on diving for a little over $1600 total. Well worth it for two weeks in paradise!
Jason Kraemer is the co-founder of Flashpacker Co, a lifestyle brand aimed at helping the growing number of global flashpackers get the most out of their adventures. He’s been a long-term traveler and digital nomad for the past 5 years. Follow Flashpacker on Instagram @FlashpackerCo and their website; flashpackerco.com
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