I’m a backpacker at heart, and I want to go everywhere in the world. I’ve seen the Maldives and its over-water bungalows in books and websites, and to me, it always seemed like an unreachable destination with a backpacker’s budget. That was until a few months ago when I took the challenge to prove wrong that general notion. I wanted to visit the Maldives, and I wanted to do it as a backpacker.
Changes in government and the way tourism is done in the country have allowed for a small but growing budget travel industry to emerge. Since 2009, locals can open their houses to foreigners and operate small accommodations in inhabited islands – where tourism was formerly prohibited.
But, was my trip as cheap as I hoped it would be? Honestly, no, but I did it much cheaper than the average tourist who visits the Maldives. I did it with an average budget of $60 per day, and while it was higher than my typical $40 a day backpacking budget, what I got from this trip was well worth more than $60 a day.
So, without much further ado, I’ll dig in on how I traveled the Maldives on a backpacker’s budget.
Getting to the Maldives
The only way to get to the Maldives is by flying to Male, the capital. Now, this is usually quite expensive, especially if you fly from Europe or the Americas. On the other hand, if you’re in Asia, jumping to the Maldives will prove to be much cheaper, and in some cases, very very cheap.
If you’re not in Asia, my recommendation is to travel to the Maldives as an add-on to another destination like Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Dubai, or India, among others. This way, you would travel to that first destination, spend time there, and have a separate round-trip airfare to go to the Maldives.
In my case, I flew from Bangkok with SriLankan Airlines for $320 round-trip. Not bad considering I also spent time in Sri Lanka! I also know that FlyDubai, Emirates, and Malaysia Airlines fly cheaply to Male. AirAsia used to fly with really cheap airfares, but they recently canceled this route.
How to Find Cheap Accommodation in the Maldives
I’ll start by saying that my trip didn’t include me staying at a resort. While they represent the iconic Maldives, they are too expensive for backpackers. Instead, I booked a budget hotel at HotelsCombined. The one I stayed in is called Transit Beach View Hotel (Update: It seems to have closed permanently, but you can see more hotel options in Hulhumale here), and it is right in front of the beach in Hulhumale. Staying in Hulhumale (the island where the airport is) is cheaper than staying in Male, and I think it is better since Male has no beaches. But, you can easily cross from one island to the other with ferries.
There is also the option of using Airbnb, where you can find even cheaper options to stay not only in Hulhumale and Male but also in several islands in the Maldives. Expect the typical budget price not to be under $25 a night; but if you’re two, you can split that! If you’re going to islands that are far from Male Atoll, there is the possibility to find even cheaper accommodation. Another site where you can sometimes find deals on certain guesthouses is Guesthouses in Maldives. These tend to be a bit on the upper scale, so they might not fit on a backpacker’s budget, but take a look anyway in case they have an excellent deal.
Note: With this link, you get $35 off on your first reservation with Airbnb. Get your credit here.
An even cheaper option is using Couchsurfing, which is free! While I would recommend trying it, I have to say that searching for a couch in the Maldives proved to be frustrating for me. Most couchsurfers in the Maldives are actually hotel or guesthouse owners looking to promote their accommodation. Only a few are “real” couchsurfers willing to give a hand to a fellow traveler. So, if you go this way, start sending your request, at least, three weeks ahead of time. I didn’t have luck, but I know it is possible to couchsurf in several islands.
Just to consider: Most flights arrive late to Male, so if you’re planning on staying at other islands, you’ll still probably need to stay the first night in Male or Hulhumale since long distance ferries don’t travel at night; neither do flights nor speedboats.
If you go for local food, which is mostly made out of seafood, you will have no trouble finding a local restaurant in the city. This is the cheapest option, and a meal will cost you around MVR 50 (about $3.50). Other than grilled fish, typical Maldivian cuisine includes tuna with onion and lime juice, sweet and thick milk tea, and flat bread called Roshi – similar to Indian roti.
If you’re not into seafood, like me, you can still find decent meals with curry, chicken, or other meats that will be just a few more dollars more expensive (ranging between $5 to $10). Now, if you go for western food, that’s where you’ll be paying over $10 per meal.
If you’re on a guesthouse in one of the inhabited islands outside of Male Atoll, it is possible that the islands might not have any restaurants, so in that case, your guesthouse will include meals in its daily rate.
What to Do
As I wrote in my previous post, the Maldives is well known for its beaches and diving, but there’s also a bit of history in the capital. While Male can be seen in a day, I recommend staying in Male for two days to get used to the vibe and to familiarize yourself with how to move around the Maldives and what to do there.
Spend some time walking around Male. See the few sights it has and enjoy the lifestyle. From Male, take a ferry to Villingilli to see the village and the beach; or if you’re planning on going to further islands in other atolls, you can also take a ferry from Male (more into that soon).
Visit Kuda Bandos, also known as Picnic Island, for a full day of watersports and activities. Make sure you go from Sunday to Thursday, as it is exclusive to locals on Friday and Saturday. There you can snorkel, dive, Jet Ski, banana boat, swim on the beach, suntan, and do other water sports. Usually, the boat to Kuda Bandos costs $30 round-trip, but if you get a package through your guesthouse, you can combine a few activities with the transportation for a decent price (from $50 for a few activities to $130 for a full day).
Tip: Make sure the weather will be nice the day you go to Kuda Bandos, as everything there is outdoors, and activities can be canceled last minute due to inclement weather.
Now, diving… the cheapest dives I found were with Dive Club Maldives, for $108 for two dives ($70 for one dive). They are located in Hulhumale, but if you go to other atolls, you can find even cheaper dives there too. And the dives? Spectacular and otherworldly! Totally worth it!!!
If you’re into surfing, you can go to Rasdhoo and Shiny Beach. Also, Maafushi island has excellent beaches… a paradise just two hours away from Male by ferry! There are many guesthouses there, so you can stay for the night.
I also recommend reading this blog. A local runs it, and he has some pretty good information on local events and “how-to” in the Maldives.
Getting Around the Islands
In the Maldives, you can reach any inhabited island with a ferry, or a few ferries. They have a really good and reliable ferry system, and it is cheap. The ferry between Male and Hulhumale costs MVR 5.50 (about $0.36) and takes only 20 minutes. The ferries to further islands range from $3 to $20 each way and can take up to several hours. Except during prayer times, which happens five times a day, ferries are always running and mostly on schedule.
One thing to have in mind is that not all ferries run every day (especially the ferries to islands far from Male), so you should check their schedule on the official MTCC website (ferry company) to know how you’ll move around and if you need to make connections between islands. Alternatively, this other site has all the ferry schedules, in addition to speed boats and sea planes.
When you arrive at the airport, if you’re staying in Hulhumale, your accommodation will probably have a shuttle (some of them free), if not, you can take the airport bus (MVR 8 or about $0.52) that goes all around Hulhumale. It is not that big of an island, so you can walk pretty much anywhere. Same thing applies to Male.
Now, while these are not budget options, if you want to go quickly to islands far from Male, you can either fly with the sea planes or take a speed boat. These options, though, can cost way over $200 each way.
Things to Consider
Be very respectful to locals, they are very friendly and welcoming but this is an Islamic country, so there are some limitations we must adhere to. It is imperative that you know that alcohol and pork are forbidden. The only places you can drink alcohol are either in the airport hotel, in one of the resort islands, or on a “booze cruise”. Outside of that, it is illegal. And, don’t even try to bring them into the country, as your bags are x-rayed upon entry.
If you want to go to any public beach, bear in mind that women can’t wear a bikini. You must dress modestly at all times. So, no bikinis or other forms of swimwear, no see-thru clothing and shoulders and knees should be covered at all times. Instead, if you want to wear a bikini, you should go to Picnic Island, a resort, or any uninhabited island. If you want to go to a resort without staying there for the night, several resorts offer day passes for as low as $50 (some of them including transportation). There you can enjoy the beach, suntan, drink alcohol, and see the famous over-water bungalows! You can coordinate this with your guesthouse or any tourist shop.
Finally, when you exchange money, don’t throw away the exchange receipt. It is the only way you will be able to change your money back to USD or other currency. Not even an ATM withdrawal receipt works. I never recommend exchanging money at the airport, but in Maldives, this is the best choice (to start) if you want to be able to exchange back to your leftover currency when you leave the country.
So, is it worth visiting the Maldives outside of the famous over-water bungalows?
Sure thing!! Budget tourism in the Maldives is just in its initial stages and not too many foreigners are venturing out of the resorts. So, for a while, you can enjoy certain islands just by yourself or explore the town with you just being the only foreigner! Think of this; I was the only foreigner in most ferries I took!
As you can see, Maldives is not as exclusive or as expensive as it seems to be; especially if you do your proper research, planning, and are willing to go very local… which in my opinion, makes it even better!