The Maldives. Land of white sand beaches, swaying palm trees and luxury resorts. It’s a dream that only the rich can fulfill. Or is it? Changes are afoot and today I’m going to show you how to travel the Maldives on budget!
After having recently visited the Maldives with very little money, I thought it would be great to report back on how I did it, how much it cost and what you can expect when you go! Until 2009, all local islands in the Maldives were closed to foreign visitors meaning you either had to stay in a big resort costing $1000+ per night or simply not go at all. That has all changed now and local islands are slowly building infrastructure such as guesthouses making visiting the Maldives on a budget a real possibility and one you’ll probably want to do now before everyone else finds out and it gets too busy.
The official currency of the Maldives is the Rufiyaa (Rf) which is currently around Rf15.42 = US$1. This changes periodically so it’s best to check the latest exchange rate before you arrive.
Money can be tricky when visiting the Maldives as none of the local islands have ATMs and many hotels and restaurants don’t accept credit card meaning you need to know in advance of your visit how much money to take with you. So when you land in Male, you’re going to have to withdrawn a lot of local currency to cover your stay or have with you the equivalent in US dollars. Whatever the case you will need some local currency for small purchases such as ferries and snacks at local shops.
For 9 days, I withdrew the equivalent of $350 in local money and paid for some accommodation online in advance. I also had a couple of hundred US dollars as back up if I needed it. $350 was the minimum I thought I would need and I didn’t withdraw a cent more. Why? Because it can be very difficult to change your money back to another currency when you already have Rufiyaa. It’s just one of those currencies that people don’t want.
The official language of the Maldives is Dhivehi, but many people do speak some broken English. In the more popular islands and the resorts, many people speak English to a good level, but the further the you get off the tourist trail, the less likely you are going to be conversing with anyone in English — sign language is a good substitute.
Note: The Maldives is pronounced (maul – deevs).
Arriving at Ibrahim Nasir Airport can be a bit confusing at first because it is on an island of its own meaning if you want to go anywhere, you have to catch transport. You cannot walk anywhere. For this there are a number of options:
1) catch an onward flight to your luxury resort,
2) catch a speedboat to your luxury resort,
3) catch a local ferry departing every 10 minutes at all times of the day to the capital Male (Rf10 / $0.60) for onward travel by ferry, or
4) catch a bus to a hotel on the island (Hulhumale) attached by a causeway to the airport (Rf16 / $1, departing hourly).
What you do when you arrive really depends on where you plan to stay that night — it is certainly possible to get to an island such as Maafushi on the day you arrive if your flight lands early enough. If not, Hulhumale is going to be your best option.
Transport within the Maldives is generally by boat, although on a few islands there is land transport such as taxis and buses. A taxi within the island of Male costs Rf25 plus Rf5 for luggage. You are going to need to catch one of these taxis when you arrive in Male from the airport via ferry in order to get to the Villingili ferry terminal on the other side of the island.
Between islands, ferry prices are extremely cheap. For example, the ferry from Male to Villingili is Rf3.25 (~$0.25) and the ferry to Maafushi and Gulhi is Rf22 (~$1.40). But cheap also means having to work out how the ferry schedules work.
Most ferries in Male depart from the ferry port on the southwest corner of the island otherwise known as the Villingili ferry terminal. From here it is possible to travel to most of the Maldives’ inhabited islands. The tyranny of distance is a limiting factor on where you will choose to stay in the Maldives. By far the most popular local island at this point is Maafushi, about 1h 30m from Male. I also stayed on Gulhi which is not popular, but very special nonetheless. It’s best to get your head around the ferry schedules before you arrive by checking out the official Maldives ferry website here.
Note: 1) Ferries do no run on Fridays. 2) There are private ferries also plying some routes with a 3pm express ferry also departing Male for Maafushi daily except for Fridays. 3) Apparently the 10am ferry to Maafushi on Thursdays can get booked out in advance as we discovered and you’ll be forced to wait around all day for the 3pm ferry. If you really need to catch the 10am ferry, perhaps Thursday is not the day to try it. 4) If your flight lands before about 1:30pm, try and catch the 3pm ferry to Maafushi.
Once you’ve gotten your head around the ferry schedule, you should be able to decide which islands to visit. By far the easiest are those such as Gulhi and Maafushi which have almost daily connections and are close to Male. I did in fact stay on Maafushi and Gulhi and I can safely say that both were incredible in their own separate ways.
Maafushi has a fantastic tourist beach with unbelievably blue crystal clear water. The hotels here are well equipped for tourists with comfortable rooms, snorkelling gear, buffet breakfasts and credit card facilities. The problem is that in the higher season you’re not going to have the place to yourself and that might be a turn off for some. But with the additional tourists comes fresher food and a more lively beach scene. In early December there would have been about 40 tourists on the beach every day, but I would have preferred about half that. My friends Dave and Lauren had fewer than 10 every day when they were there in September. Guesthouses on Maafushi start at about $40 per night which is extremely good value for a place with aircon, hot water, massive buffet breakfast and WiFi. I stayed in Ocean Vista for $43 per night which I can strongly recommend — make sure you check the current price on Agoda.
Gulhi is quiet and hardly any tourists go there. I saw three other tourists there and even then it was only for about 10 minutes as we were on different beaches for most of the time. The water here is perhaps even more impressive than Maafushi, but there just aren’t any facilities here for tourists. Gulhi Beach Villa (owned and operated by a Singaporean/Chinese couple) does have beach chairs for guests, but no one else does. In fact, there are only 3 choices for accommodation on the whole island meaning your choices are limited. I stayed at a budget place called Silver Shade for $57 per night which had access to paid WiFi (Rf55 per day), aircon, hot water and massive breakfast — make sure you check the current price on Agoda. If you’re looking for something a little less busy than Maafushi, Gulhi a good choice.
Dave and Lauren also went to Guraidhoo and Fulidhoo where both had their pluses and minuses. I would suggest staying initially at Maafushi and then moving further afield for the next part of your Maldives journey.
Where to stay
Because budget travel in the Maldives involves visiting local islands, you find that the standard of accommodation is not as luxurious as those 5 star resorts with bungalows over the water. The places I saw were generally small scale, containing between 4 and 20 rooms, offering a simple restaurant and limited staff.
There are a number of ways to book these places but by far the best ways are via the internet on sites like AirBnB and Agoda. If you haven’t already signed up with AirBnB, now is a good time as you can get $25 off your first stay if you sign up through me.
I stayed at Ocean Vista on Maafushi and absolutely loved it — sooooo comfortable!. Facilities included WiFi, hot water, aircon, big comfortable bed and free buffet breakfast every morning. I stuffed myself with so much food that I didn’t get hungry until about 6pm when it was time for dinner. The best thing about this place is the lovely staff and the fact that they only have 5 rooms so it is incredibly personal and relaxing. We paid $43 per night, but please check current prices on Agoda to get an idea of what to expect. For me, it is THE place to stay on Maafushi on a budget.
The accommodation options on Gulhi are limited at this time, but there are new places being built right now. I stayed at Silver Shade for $57 per night and was looked after by the wonderful Kerey, a relaxed and down to earth surfer who wanted to make sure everything was just right for our stay. Every morning and night, a local lady prepared our meals and they were so huge, we could only finish half. Food included delicious dahl, lots of roti, salads, mas huni and some juice. They also supplied as much fresh water as was necessary for our stay. We were the only guests in this hotel and I got the feeling that perhaps they only get a couple of guests per month. Whatever the case, I think they’re doing discounts periodically meaning you’ll probably get a good deal. Check the prices here on Agoda.
If you’re looking for things to do in the Maldives, then you really are going to be limited to things involving relaxation and the water. This means that you will have your hotel offering you all sorts of trips such as those to reefs for snorkelling/diving and to resorts to use their facilities like the pool or house reef. I didn’t choose to do any of these activities as I was content just hanging around the islands and doing my own thing, although if I was in the Maldives longer than 8 days I probably would have done one of these things to break up the relaxation.
Prices for these activities varied wildly with kayak rental costing $10 for an hour, diving $40 per dive and a trip to a top resort costing $150 per person. You could even get a local to take you out to reefs not accessible directly from shore for about $10.
The food of the Maldives was pretty good. Of course you can have fish for every meal if you like, but as Susan isn’t the biggest fan of fish we only ate it a few times and it was delicious. Other foods involved chapatti, curries and local specialties such as mas huni, a fantastic dish consisting of coconut, onion and tuna.
As breakfast is generally included in your room rate, I chose to fill up silly on this meal. Every single breakfast I ate was massive and there was always food left over. Because of that, I didn’t eat lunch one single time during my time on the islands. I just bought snacks from the local shops to keep me going until dinner.
On Maafushi dinner was either at our guesthouse or one of the local restaurants. I especially enjoyed Sunset Cove and didn’t spend more than about $7.50/person for dinner during my stay in Maafushi.
On Gulhi the situation was slightly different probably more aligned to what you’ll find on most islands in the Maldives. Our guesthouse prepared our food for a flat $10 fee per person and basically filled the table with enormous amounts of food.
I never went hungry in the Maldives and I think most people will find something to satisfy their appetite, although long stays on remote islands could be challenging for picky eaters.
So how much does this all cost? I spent less than $70 per day for 2 people. But depending on the island you choose, the food you eat and whether you want to do any paid activities it could cost more. The biggest X-factor is accommodation as it will be your biggest expense. Also, I skipped lunch every single day because the breakfasts were just so huge and didn’t pay for any excursions which also brought down costs quite a bit.
So what can you expect to pay for two people per day? Let’s assume $50 for accommodation, $20 for dinner, $10 for snacks. Also, let’s add in $2 for transport (that’s being generous). You’re also going to want to account for lunch/drinks in a cafe in Male if you have to wait around for half a day for a ferry or your flight out of the country — $20 or $3/day.
That’s a grand total of $85/day for 2 two people in the Maldives! Of course, everyone has different standards so it’s certainly possible to do it cheaper than this as I did and it’s also possible to add a few dollars here or there to make your visit more holiday-like (ie spending lots of money on activities).
The final expense that should be noted is the airfare. A great place to fly from is Singapore as low cost carrier Tiger Air often has cheap deals meaning you can get flights for $200 return if you’re lucky. I paid $200 for a one way flight.
So that’s the secret to visiting the Maldives on a budget. No longer is it just a playground for the rich and famous, but also a place for flashpackers, backpackers and those with more sense than money.
Please let me know in the comments below if you have any questions and please share this post widely to get the secret of the Maldives out there!