The Maldives is an incredibly hyped up place for its beautiful beaches and laid back lifestyle leading many travelers to think it might be too over hyped. It isn’t. The Maldives delivers on every aspect and has been one of the best places I’ve ever been. The most surprising thing I discovered about the Maldives is that it can be done on a budget for far less than you’d expect to pay. I hope to write this as a story of my time in the Maldives and as a guide for others considering going there.
First and foremost, I want to credit Lakwatsero for writing an excellent blog post on budget travel in the Maldives. I followed his guide and therefore won’t replicate it entirely in this post, but I will add some useful tips I discovered as well. You can view his article here.
The reason I ended up in the Maldives was because I was traveling from Thailand to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan where I am currently. Bishkek does not have many reliable flights to the capital from around the world, so I had limited options of airports to fly from. I could have either gone through Beijing, India, Istanbul or Dubai. Beijing and India require visas for Americans and Istanbul was pretty far out of the way, so I decided I would fly to Dubai and then to Bishkek. I could have either gone from Bangkok directly to Dubai or go the slow way and see some sights. I decided to fly from Chiang Mai (Thailand) to Kuala Lumpur and then from KLIA to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Both the flights ended up being around $150 combined. I spent a week in Sri Lanka and then flew to Maldives for another $100 flight. After four days in Maldives, I flew onwards to Dubai.
If you want to follow Lakwatsero’s itinerary, there are a few pieces of advice I can give on arrival times. The best local island to go to is Maafushi, but ferries from Male only leave once a day at 3pm and take two hours. Male is very boring so you want to maximize your time on Maafushi especially if its a short trip. I recommend arriving into Male before 1pm if possible. This means you can catch the ferry that day rather than spending a night waiting in Male. Additionally, do not fly out on a Saturday morning from Male. This was my second mistake. Friday is a the Muslim holy day and no ferries run. You will end up having to take a ferry back from Maafushi on Thursday morning and wait until Saturday morning in Male for your flight. The ferry on Saturday morning from Maafushi arrives in Male at 9am so unless you flight is before 10:30, you have to come back two days early. Private speedboats are an option, but you’ll have to shell out $150-200 for the trip. Worth it if you have a large group of people, but you won’t have any luck finding others to share with if you’re a small group. Almost everyone takes the ferry and not many people live on the island, so a private speedboats do not come often. They only come when requested by guests of the island. Fortunately I changed my flight from Sri Lanka to an earlier one and avoided the first problem, but I ended up having to kill two days in Male rather than on Maafushi which was disappointing. I would of liked more time on Maafushi. Lastly, I came during Ramadan which wasn’t bad exactly, but if you have a choice, try to avoid the holy month. It was fascinating to see, but things got really quiet during the day. You can’t eat in public so every restaurant will be closed. Fortunately, hotels have private dining rooms where they can feed you.
There are two kinds of islands in the Maldives. There are uninhabited and inhabited islands. Uninhabited islands can be actually uninhabited or have a private resort on them, but still be considered “uninhabited” because locals do not live there. On these islands, people can drink alcohol, swim in bikinis etc. Laws don’t apply if the island is uninhabited. This is the expensive private resort side of the Maldives. Within recent years, the government has allowed guesthouses to open on the inhabited islands which allow tourists cheap alternative options to the expensive resorts and an extraordinary opportunity to see the local culture. The Maldives is an incredibly isolated place. In fact, its barely a place. Its mostly ocean. The islands are incredibly small. Even the capital of Male is incredibly small. You could walk around the circumference of the island in 20-30 minutes — the diameter in 10 minutes. The culture is very unique. Maldives is a very strict Islamic country. If you’re a backpacker looking to party, you came to the wrong place. None of that kind of stuff is allowed there and the hostel scene does not exist because of it. People are very serious about their religion and are skeptical of allowing tourists to more islands because they don’t want hippies coming and corrupting their culture, in their eyes.
While there is no partying, there is relaxation, quiet, and exceptional value for your money. The cheapest guesthouses you can find will be in the $40 a night range and with two people that’s very affordable. What you get for that $40 dollars is really exceptional. I stayed at Holiday Lodge on Maafushi and it was such a nice guesthouse. It was impeccably clean, great food, and a very good free breakfast every morning. The staff were extremely nice and helpful with planning activities. It was worth every dollar. They also rent out snorkels for free and have a chart where you can let other guests know if you’re hiring a boat to go to another island during the day. Other guests can jump on and cost share with you. Ferry transfers were maybe a dollar or two to and from the islands, and food costs are very low. Bottled water was about the same price as it would be anywhere in SE Asia — much less than American prices. Activity prices are quite low and the beach — the #1 attraction — is free.
I spent my first two nights on Maafushi and my last two nights at a hotel on Hulhumale waiting for my flight. Hulhumale wasn’t bad, but two nights was a little too long there. One would have been better. Hulhumale is a newly created island near Male and its developing rather quickly. There is still a lot of open undeveloped land, but it was cool to see the island. It represents the future of the Maldives — reclaimed land. It was cool to see locals live and go about their daily life.
On Maafushi, I managed to go scuba diving for such a good price. There are several dive shops on the island, and I went around asking the prices and dive schedule my first evening there. Most shops were $50 a dive, but one called Shark School was $25. I thought this odd and maybe a little sketchy so I asked my hotel for advice. They said all the shops are exactly the same, but Shark School recently lowered their price to get more business. Well, they got my business because I decided to dive with them and had a great time. We did a ship wreck dive and the whole time I couldn’t stop thinking… I am paying $25 dollars for this? I wish I could have dived more with them. The staff were professional, friendly, and the price was unbeatable. Most of the rest of my time on Maafushi was spent walking around the island or snorkeling on the beach. Just standing and floating in the water on the white sand bars a little off from the shore was an all afternoon activity in and of itself. Things get quiet at night as you would expect. The stars shine brightly because there aren’t many lights to block the view. Without a night life, the Maldives might drive some people crazy, but I really liked it. I like strict Muslim countries because of this. It just makes the place so much more relaxing. I like to have a drink from time to time, so its not somewhere I’d want to live forever, but its a very nice change of pace to normal life.
I spent the last two nights in Hulhumale and flew out early Saturday morning. I stayed at UI Inn and they offer a $15 airport transfer or pick-up, but while on the island earlier I found that a 5 minute walk from the hotel, I could catch a bus that runs every 30 minutes two and from the airport for $1. Hulhumale has a land bridge that connects it with the airport and while it may be a small island, it has two a regular bus service that loop around the island. They run very frequently and can save you a bit of money even though you can pretty much walk anywhere on Hulhumale.
I didn’t spend much time in Male because everything was shut down due to Ramadan. It was a quaint little city and very dense. While it was so dense, it felt odd because it didn’t have any sort of rush or tense feel to it like most big cities do. It was such a relaxed place for how urban it looks. It was very odd to see. The Maldives is such a small country and I think that gives it such a relaxed vibe.
All in all, while my time there was short, I am really glad I went to the Maldives and really glad I got to see the local culture. A lot of people come here, stay in the resorts, and never see how it actually is for the people that live there. Its a fascinating place, isolated from the world and even from their own neighboring islands. This gives it a really unique relaxing vibe.
I spent $160 on hotels, $25 on scuba, $3 on transport and not more than $30 on food, probably less. Totaling $215 for a 4 day vacation. Not bad. If I had someone else with me, I could of split the hotel rooms and it would have been even less.