11 Tips for Traveling the Maldives on a Budget
For a long time, the Maldives seemed like a place that we would only get to see through other people’s Instagram feeds. We had dreams of diving with whale sharks and waking up in overwater villas, but the cost was out of our price range when we were working full time, let alone on our current backpacker budget! When Lucille’s birthday was coming up I decided to take a stab at planning a budget-friendly month in this picturesque country to see if I could make our dreams a reality. While the cost was still higher than what we’ve come to expect in Southeast Asia, it ended up being possible - read on for how we did it!
Look for flights from nearby, easily accessible places
Flights to Malé can be very expensive from many parts of the world. To help reduce the flight costs, try pairing your vacation with another city or country it might be easier to find cheap flights to. For example, AirAsia offers round trip flights from Kuala Lumpur for under $150 (only includes 7kg carry on luggage) and flights from/to nearby Sri Lanka start around $200. It might be significantly cheaper to find a flight to somewhere else in Asia and make the short hop to the Maldives on a local budget airline.
Stay on a local island
There are many options for places to visit in the Maldives that aren’t five star resorts. Islands where locals live will usually have some guesthouses and tourist infrastructure at a much lower price point. You options might be a lot more limited, because many of the islands are quite small (population <1000), but we were able to find housing on Rasdhoo and Dhangethi for under $40 USD per night. Meals at the few local restaurants started around $3.50. There are other popular islands near Malé where you can find cheap housing as well, notably Maafushi.
Plan in advance
Normally, we don’t plan our travels more than a week or 2 in advance. The abundance of cheap housing and easy transportation in Southeast Asia mean that it’s not necessary, and the flexibility is often nice if we want to stay somewhere a little longer or change our plans at the last minute.
However, because the Maldives has so many islands, transportation is not nearly as cheap or easy. It’s a lot more necessary to book your accomodation in advance and plan your route through the country. Because the supply is so limited, prices also rise as you get closer to your travel dates. I booked everything about a month before our trip started and had good luck but we’d recommend even longer if possible for the best rates.
Plan your own transportation
Whether you opt to stay in a resort or on a local island, getting there is often a huge component of the overall cost of your stay. Domestic flights will run you around $150 per person (roundtrip to Malé) and seaplane transfers start at double that!
There are two ways we found to mitigate this exorbitant cost: stay within boating distance of Malé and take local transportation. Local ferries will cost under $10 (per person, one way) but the schedule is quite limited (see it here). For some routes they only run once or twice per week, so make sure you look at the schedule before you book flights or housing. Shared speedboats start around $35 and run up to twice a day, often with the exception of Fridays. Your guesthouse will be able to reserve you seats in advance.
Be aware that the public ferries are often delayed or canceled due to weather or mechanical issues, and we weren’t able to find an online source to see if they were running or not. We ended up having to take more expensive speedboats several times throughout our trip. Having travel insurance (we use World Nomads) can help mitigate the risk and extra cost of these delays, especially if you end up missing a flight.
These budget-friendly options are available even if you are staying in a resort that only organizes seaplane transfers! We stayed at Vilamendhoo, which required a $180 plane transfer, but were able to organize a speedboat from Dhangethi for a fraction of the cost.
Stick to the same atoll
As previously mentioned, getting around can be quite expensive. The names of the islands and atolls can also be confusing which makes it difficult to plan your route! Find a few things you’re excited to do in the country and plan your travels around them.
For us, that was seeing hammerheads and whale sharks, so we chose to visit the Ari Atoll. As a bonus, it’s easily reachable from Malé! Rather than spend our time shuttling back and forth to Malé and then on to another part of the country, we were able to take a quick local ferry between islands.
Visit during shoulder season
Like many destinations, the Maldives are still very nice in their low season (May-October) and are less crowded and more reasonably priced. While it’s technically the rainy season, it’s still sunny much of the time. We visited in late May/early June and ended up with about half sunny versus rainy days, which was a bit more than what we expected from what we had read online. If you visit in the rainy season, it’s worth staying as long as you can to maximize your chance for nice weather.
If you’re interested in seeing marine life, make sure you check the seasons online - while there are always things to see, it’s a bummer to show up and be told you missed the window to see your favorite animals in the wild.
Visit resorts on a day trip
If you’re staying on a local island, you will likely have the option to visit a nearby resort on a day trip. This will include transportation both ways and all-inclusive access to the restaurants and bars there. Unfortunately, some activities, spa treatments, and other things will cost extra. We saw prices starting at $50 per person which is very reasonable when compared to the cost of actually staying at the resort ($200 to well over $1000 per night, not including transport or meals)!
Opt for accommodations that include meals
All-inclusive isn’t only offered at resorts in the Maldives! There are many options available online for cheaper accomodation that offer half board, full board, or all inclusive rates. Eating at your hotel can be expensive so if you’re on a smaller island with less local food options consider rolling those costs into your room rate if you think it will be cheaper. It can help to look at reviews and prices for restaurants online to compare costs.
On a related note, we stayed at South Ari Dive Center which offers a package that includes scuba diving with the room rate. This ended up being a great deal!
Consider using credit card or hotel points
There are many name-brand resorts in the Maldives that have loyalty programs that can be used to book your stay. Depending on what credit cards you have, you may be able to transfer and use those points to lower your final bill! Hyatt in particular has a very fair award chard and the Park Hyatt looks amazing.
Earning and using credit card points is a pretty complicated topic, but it can enable you to have experiences you wouldn’t be able to otherwise! If you’re interested in learning more, leave a comment or send us a DM on Instagram and we’ll help out however we can :)
Check prices and bargain for activities
Make sure that you do a little price shopping before you sign up for activities. Like most tourist activities, prices can be pretty high when you hire a local to be your tour guide. You may be able to find better rates if you look around rather than going with the closest tour operator. In addition, it’s sometimes possible to do things DIY-style. We opted to rent a kayak to visit the tiny neighboring islands around Rasdhoo for $10/hour rather than book a tour for double the price that would have lots of other tourists around.
Many costs are negotiable in the Maldives, including for things like scuba diving. We were offered lower rates if we joined dives that were already booked by another client. After a few dives, the dive shop told us the would be willing to discount even more if we signed up for more dives. Things also get cheaper the longer you book - there are 5+ and 10+ dive packages available, and lower rates for kayaks if you book 3+ hours.
Know your costs ahead of time
Related to the last point, make sure you know what things cost ahead of time. It may have been bad luck, but we had multiple instances of our hotels charging us a higher amount than if we had booked directly. For example, we were charged $10 for airport transfer when the government-mandated fare is around $4. Our hotel in Rasdhoo had an activity list with prices that were around four times as expensive as on the price sheet of the company they used to provide the activities. Make sure to know what things should cost before you book!
We hope these tips help you plan your dream vacation to this beautiful country! Have any other tips on how to save money in the Maldives? Please let us know in the comments below.