The Maldives is not only a playground for the rich and famous – it’s paradise for people on all budgets. Discover how you can save thousands of dollars and turn that once-in-a-lifetime Maldives trip into an anytime trip.
Travelling cheaply to this dream destination doesn’t mean you will have less fun, especially if you like the idea of having an entire beach to yourself, getting around by speedboat and immersing in the local culture.
It also doesn’t mean relinquishing that VIP feeling, because you can find it on quiet islands, too. As budget travel in the Maldives is a relatively unknown concept, there is almost no tourism in some places, so you might be the only visitor in town. If you would rather be surrounded by locals than tourists, a non-resort island is the perfect choice.
The unusual thing about the Maldives is that each of those iconic ultra-luxury resorts is built alone on its own small island. While this sounds decadent, it can also be an isolated experience. Staying in a guesthouse, on the other hand, offers a taste of Maldivian life and the freedom to go island-hopping.
On many of these non-touristy islands, it’s easy to find a secluded spot to swim or snorkel, because the Maldives has dedicated “bikini beaches” for foreigners, which are hidden from view. Affordable activities, food and ferry transport can also be found for peanuts.
With these independent options, there is no need to wait until your honeymoon or lottery win. Thrifty couples, families, groups of friends, solo travellers and scuba divers can have an amazing holiday for a surprisingly low cost.
So, why is it such a secret that the Maldives can be great value? It’s because of a law that quietly changed in 2009, when the Maldivian Government decided to allow its citizens to run guesthouses for tourists. This big policy shift meant visitors could stay in the country for super-low prices.
To cater for this new type of traveller, enterprising residents also began offering tours and activities, such as kayaking, diving or night fishing with a local fisherman.
More than 1000 guesthouses have popped up across the Maldives in recent years, and not many people know about them, so you can take your pick. Rooms are advertised for as little as $30 a night, but it’s smart to shop around and pay more for a well-managed guesthouse with extra comforts such as air-conditioning and wi-fi. All the usual booking sites have customer reviews.
Breakfast or simple meals, such as curried fish and rice, may also be included in the price. Some guesthouses offer special packages including three meals a day, non-alcoholic drinks and activities. The Amazing Noovilu (theamazingnoovilu.com) on Mahibadhoo island is a popular option, with nightly packages for about $150 per room.
Another recommendation is the boutique, hotel-style Bliss Dhigurah (bliss.mv), which offers PADI diving certification courses, whale shark and manta ray snorkelling trips, fishing, a bikini beach and boat trips to sandbanks in the Indian Ocean. A compact room goes for about $105 per night; suites from $140 per night. Dhigurah is considered to be one of the Maldives’ most beautiful non-resort islands.
On these islands, it’s much easier to learn about the local lifestyle, meet people, eat with them and explore the region with them, while also enjoying some downtime for reading or sunbathing.
But not every island welcomes tourism, and not every beach boasts pristine white sands, so be sure to do your research.
In between the options of cheap guesthouses and fancy resorts, the Maldives has a range of hotels which can be booked at reasonable rates. Whatever your choice, you still get access to the same azure seas as those people staying in overwater bungalows.
Some properties have rooms with water views and infinity pools. Larger hotels have onsite spas where you can treat yourself to a massage, often with discounts for early-morning or late-evening bookings.
Hulhule Hotel (hih.com.mv) is close to the international airport in Malé, so you can head straight there after a long flight from Australia. With panoramic ocean views, it has all the features of a resort without the exorbitant high prices (about $320 per night). Facilities include a day spa, pool, gym, golf putting, beach volleyball, tennis, badminton and basketball courts.
In the same vicinity but cheaper (about $150 per night) is Mookai Hotel (mookaihotel.com), a few minutes’ walk from the airport ferry terminal. It has a rooftop pool and ocean views.
To head to another island, try Maafushi, where the four-star beachfront Kaani Palm Beach (kannipalm.com) has the highest rooftop infinity pool in the Maldives and a private beach. It feels like a resort but without the hefty price tag (about $170 per night).
Don’t completely rule out resorts if you’re not a millionaire. The best tip is to go all-inclusive at the top price you can afford. Located closer to the mainland, several resorts offer packages that include dining and activities such as wellness classes, snorkelling tours and sunset beach parties.
Another way to pay less for luxe is to keep an eye out for new openings. High-end resorts that have no track record or established clientele are often priced lower when they first open. Of course, always consider travelling outside the peak period. Discounts are never offered at Christmas, New Year or during the Northern Hemisphere winter.
The Maldives is made for snorkelling and diving, with opportunities to see turtles, manta rays and whale sharks. Other fun activities include jet skiing, kayaking, parasailing, day cruises to other islands, shore fishing and night fishing. Guesthouses can help you book private tours with guides.
Out of the water, you can go shopping at markets, take a guided food tour or cooking class, relax on a sunset cruise or do a Male city walking tour.
Dining out is not common, as most people eat at home or at the guesthouses, but a few cafes serve authentic Maldivian cuisine and sandwiches. The bill will be much, much cheaper than anywhere in Australia. If you want to splurge, dinner at a nice restaurant on the beach is about $20.
Tips for the budget traveller
Singapore Airlines flies to Malé from Sydney with return fares in June priced from about $990.
From the airport, the 20-minute ferry to Malé leaves every 10-15 minutes and costs US$1. Then take a taxi (about US$5) to the main ferry station to reach the other islands.
An inter-island public ferry (‘slow dhoni’) costs about US$2-$5 per trip, although departures are not reliable or frequent so check the timetables. Speedboat journeys cost about US$30 per ride but usually depart only once a day.
When to go
The monsoon period, from May to October, is the cheapest time to travel. In between the rainy periods, look forward to sunny days and fewer crowds.
Diving can be enjoyed year-round. For other watersports, such as surfing, visit from mid-February to November.
As a Muslim country, the Maldives has beaches where you must cover up your body, but foreigners can use ‘bikini beaches’ more freely. Women should dress modestly in public.
Alcohol is not permitted, so the Maldives is not the place to party. If you want to sit by a pool sipping cocktails, book a luxury resort with an exemption.
Be aware that some comforts, such as wi-fi and hot showers, are not guaranteed if you travel very cheaply. Note: all prices quoted in this story are low season rates quoted when booking directly on the hotel or guesthouse’s websites.
The Maldives’ currency is the rufiyaa, but US dollars are widely accepted, so exchange your Australian dollars pre-trip into cash. ATMs charge high fees for withdrawals.
Explore more: visitmaldives.com