Maldives Travel Guide: How to Plan Your Trip to Paradise

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So you’ve seen pictures of overwater villas and private islands on Instagram and decided that you want to plan your own bucket list trip to the Maldives. You’re in luck - this beautiful country has something for everyone!

While it’s not quite as cheap as Southeast Asia, we were able to plan a budget-friendly trip. We spent a month exploring several of the 1200 islands and got to experience a little bit of everything from local life to all-inclusive resorts. Hopefully our experience can be helpful as you plan your own adventure!

If you’re still looking for inspiration, check out our videos from the Maldives on our YouTube channel! If you want to follow our journey, please consider subscribing or following us on Instagram :)

When to Visit the Maldives

High season in the Maldives runs from November to April. This is the also dry season, with an average of 8 rain days per month, and as low as 3 in February. May through October is the wet season with 12 rain days per month at the minimum. While these numbers might sound high, the weather is always warm and sunny when it’s not raining, so visiting during the off season is very possible. We visited in June and while it rained around half the days we were there, on many of those days it was only for a few hours in the afternoon. You can decide if you want to risk bad weather depending on how long you’re in the country and what your plans are.

Besides the weather, there are a few other factors you might want to consider when planning your trip. Prices for accommodation will be higher during peak season, but because each individual island is so small, you don’t have to worry about big crowds like in many other popular tourist destinations. If you’re a surfer, scuba diver, or snorkeler, the waves and marine life also vary throughout the year, so be sure to look up the best time to visit based on the activities you’d like to do. Our divemaster in Dhangethi told us about “open mouth season” in January, when low rainfall causes plankton to float to the top of the ocean and you can see whale sharks and manta rays feeding from the surface!

Additionally, during the month of Ramadan (which changes every year), many local businesses and nearly every restaurant in the country will be closed until after sundown. If you’re staying at a resort, this likely won’t affect you as much because all the facilities will still be open for guests.

 
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What to do in the Maldives

 

Next, figure out what you want to do in the country. There are plenty of activities available besides the pristine beaches and fiery sunsets! What you want to do will affect which specific islands you decide to stay on.

The marine life is among the best in the world if you’re a scuba diver, snorkeler, or even just interested in riding in a glass bottom boat. Because we really wanted to dive with whale sharks, manta rays, and hammerheads, we chose to visit the Ari Atoll. If you’re not yet a certified diver, you can get your certification in the Maldives and we guarantee it will be an experience you’ll remember forever!

Other places you might want to check out include:

  • Hanifaru Bay, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a protected feeding and breeding ground for manta rays. Look it up on YouTube. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of rays and sharks all together.

  • Fuvamulah Atoll, at the south tip of the Maldives. You can see 7 (yes, seven) different types of sharks in one dive, Mola-Mola, giant oceanic manta rays and mobula rays all year around! Our dive master told us that all the big creatures can be so dense that you’re scared to go in the water because they might bump into you. Sounds exciting, right? 😁

It’s also possible to join a sailboat or yacht for a live aboard experience, whether you’re a diver or just eager to see as many islands as possible. See liveaboard.com for pricing and availability.

There’s great surfing throughout the Maldives. North Malé Atoll in particular is known to be world-class. The waves depend on the region and the season, but March through October are generally the best months to visit.

Last but not least, if you’re looking for a different kind of travel experience, consider volunteering to do whale shark research or help sea turtles :)

 
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Where to Stay in the Maldives

Now comes time to decide where to stay. If there are particular things you want to do, you may already have some idea of where you want to be. If not, no worries! Read on for how we chose our accommodation.

Local Islands Vs. Resorts

The Maldives is famous for its plethora of amazing resorts, but there are actually lots of local islands as well! While you won’t get full-service treatment, they are much more affordable and a great way to experience the Maldives. The main differences are as follows:

  • Because the Maldives is a Muslim country, alcohol is effectively banned on local islands.

  • On local islands, you’re only allowed to wear swimsuits on designated “bikini” beaches. Men must have their shoulders covered and women must have their shoulders and knees covered otherwise.

  • Some of the same facilities are available (for example, there were small gyms on both local islands we visited) but if you’re looking for an infinity pool or tennis court a resort might be a better choice!

It’s also possible to visit a resort on a day trip when you’re staying on a local island. Prices vary but we saw $50-150 quoted for round trip transfer and all-inclusive meals, drinks, and uses of the facilities for the day. It’s still expensive, but much cheaper than the room rate of $250-1000+ per night.

We decided to spend some time at a resort because we wanted the luxury experience, but we probably would skip it and spend more time on the local islands our next visit. The people were some of the friendliest we’ve met anywhere, and that’s saying a lot!

 
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How to Choose a Local Island

When choosing a local island, you should consider the following:

  • Distance from Malé: it’s much easier and cheaper to get to islands that are closer to the capital. This is the first thing you should look at before booking. We’d recommend figuring out how long the transfer will take and the total cost. See the next section for more details.

  • Activities: when booking a hotel, you can often find photos of the activities and excursions on their website or TripAdvisor page. In particular, there may be nicer reefs or sandbanks in certain atolls.

  • Bikini beach: look up photos of the bikini beach. They will vary in size and quality but if you’re planning on sunbathing be sure to look ahead of time.

We stayed on Rasdhoo and Dhangethi and really enjoyed both. Maafushi is probably the most popular island for tourists and has slightly lower prices for accommodation and activities but otherwise costs will be pretty similar island to island.

 
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How to Choose a Resort

With more than 130 resorts in the Maldives, choosing one is no easy task. It doesn’t help that they all have long Maldivian names and that they look very similar in all the photos online! Here are the criteria we used to plan our stay:

  • Star rating: resorts in the Maldives are rated 4*, 5*, and 5+*. The biggest differences between the tiers are the level of service, price, and availability. We stayed at Vilamendhoo, which is a 4 star resort, and we were still treated like royalty. There are some crazy stays out there, like huge villas with water slides and sun roofs, but those are a bit out of our price range!

  • Location: discussed below. Transfer costs can be significant - it can be the difference between $100 of boats and a $500 seaplane.

  • Food: the restaurants at resorts are either buffet-style or individual restaurants that serve a specific cuisine. Most resorts will be able to cater to your diet and will have a variety of options from Maldivian and Asian to Western food.

  • Sports: if you want to play tennis or beach volleyball, or just go to the gym, be sure to check out the facilities online! Most resorts will have dive shops and watersports available.

  • Traveling with kids? Resorts are sometimes designated family friendly or adults only. Check for a kids program or day care if necessary.

  • If you’re a photographer, some resorts don’t allow drones for privacy reasons. Vilamendhoo is one of those, but we just woke up for sunrise and didn’t have any problems 😉

 
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Getting There and Getting Around

Flights

There are 4 international airports in the Maldives: Malé (the capital), Gan, Hanimaadhoo, and Maamigili. Nearly all flights from outside the country go to Malé, so we’ll assume that’s the case for the rest of this section.

Flights and transportation in the Maldives can be a huge portion of the final cost of your stay. Flights are fairly expensive from most of the world. If you’re trying to save money, check for flight deals to nearby hubs such as Kuala Lumpur, where you can find flights to Malé starting as low as $150 round trip.

Transportation

Getting around in the Maldives can be difficult and expensive. There are a few options for getting around: local ferry, speedboat (shared or private), domestic flight, or seaplane. Because the country is more than 500 miles long, in many cases flying is your only option to get to your final destination. I’ll discuss the options from cheapest to most expensive:

  • Local ferry: usually only runs once or twice per week, and the routes cover many of the local islands. The fare is cheap - around $4-10 per person depending on the route. However, we arrived planning on taking the public ferry from Malé to Rasdhoo and back, but it was canceled without any notice so we were forced to take a speedboat. Check the routes and schedule here.

  • Speedboat: public speedboats run many routes the ferries do not, and run several times per day. Prices will start around $35 per person one way for a seat on a shared boat. Private speedboats will start around $180 one way. You can book these through your hotel before your arrival or online here. Ours was extremely bumpy due to the weather and many of the passengers were sick, so bring some Dramamine if you’re prone to seasickness!

  • Domestic flight: flights within the country cost $130-250 each way. There aren’t a lot of airports and you will likely need to take a speedboat to your final destination on the other end. You can see the routes and prices with FlyMe and Maldivian. Best if you’re visiting a part of the country that’s far from Malé.

  • Seaplane: The Maldives is notorious for seaplane transfers to your resort from the airport in Malé which can run anywhere from $250 to upwards of $1000 per person, round trip. These will be organized (and labeled “required”) by your resort and the fee should be listed when you’re booking your room. Another money-saving tip - it’s possible to skip the plane and organize your own transportation if you’re already on a nearby island for significantly cheaper. Check with your hotel or a dive shop to organize a boat.

At the end of the day, we would recommend messaging your hotel to find out what their recommendations are and the associated prices. That will always be the easiest option and you’ll have someone to help you in the event of a cancellation. If it’s too expensive, it’s possible (although not always practical) to plan it yourself.

Related: 11 Tips for Traveling the Maldives on a Budget

 
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Food and Drink

The Maldives also has a bad reputation for having extremely expensive food. Because you’re going to be on a small island, the food options are generally very limited. If you’re staying at a resort, that’s doubly true because your only options period are the expensive restaurants the resort offers!

There were a few options for food on both Rasdhoo and Dhangethi. Local food (curries, fried rice, etc.) generally started around $3-4 USD. The food from our hotels was much more expensive in comparison - we bought 2 sandwiches that were barely more than bread for a whopping $20!

If possible, consider buying a meal plan with your accommodation. This option isn’t only available at the resorts! We opted for full board on Dhangethi as well as Vilamendhoo, and there’s no doubt that it would have been at least as expensive if we had tried to plan all of our meals ourselves.

We didn’t find many places we could refill our water bottles on the local islands, so we’d recommend bringing something like a LifeStraw so you don’t have to buy plastic bottles every day! In certain places, you can see piles of trash because there’s just nowhere else for it to go. Your actions truly make a difference!

Related: How to Use Less Plastic When You Travel

 
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Money and Visas

Visas

All countries are granted a 30 day tourist visa on arrival, which you can extend once to 90 days if desired. You don’t need to apply in advance, but you will need proof of an onward flight before you enter the country. Check the latest visa information here.

When you go through immigration, you’ll get a white slip of paper with the exit stamp that you need to return when leaving the country. Make sure not to lose it! We didn’t even realize it was in our passports until we left.

Money

If you’re staying on a local island, you will need cash. There were working ATMs where we stayed but we had to pay in cash for everything, including food, housing, and all activities. If you are changing money, hold onto the exchange receipt and make sure to change it back before you leave. There are restrictions on where it can be exchanged so if you head home with a wad of cash it’s unlikely you’ll be able to exchange it anywhere!

However, US dollars are widely accepted. In many places, prices are listed in USD and if not you’ll be given a fair exchange rate of ~15.5 MVR to 1 USD. Tourists generally won’t need to worry about using rufiyaa.

If you’re staying on a resort island, your credit card will be fine for everything.

Other tips

  • If you want to buy a tourist SIM card, do so at the airport. They aren’t sold anywhere else, including at official phone company stores. You may be able to buy a local SIM. We found that the only times we were out of WiFi we were in the ocean so we opted not to buy a SIM card and it was totally fine.

  • Try and buy anything you might need (like reef-safe sunscreen) beforehand, especially if you’re staying at a resort. Your options will be limited and we don’t like paying $40 for a small tube of sunscreen.

 
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Our Itinerary

Okay, I know this has been a lot of information to take in all at once. Here’s our full itinerary if you want something a bit more easily digestible!

  • Arrive in Malé, 2 nights at Beach Arena Inn on Hulhumale. We spent a day exploring the capital (there’s a local ferry from Hulhumale to Malé) but unfortunately it was raining the whole time!

  • Speedboat to Rasdhoo. We planned on taking the local ferry, but it was canceled due to Ramadan.

  • 7 nights at Madivaru Kro in Rasdhoo. We did 3 dives with Rasdhoo Dive Club, including a sunrise dive to try and see hammerhead sharks. The snorkeling was amazing and we enjoyed kayaking around to the nearby sandbanks!

  • Speedboat back to Malé and then onwards to Dhangethi. The local ferry was canceled again.

  • 7 nights with South Ari Dive Center in Dhangethi. They put us in rooms with Mala Boutique Inn, a partner hotel, and our room rate of $100/night included 7 dives each (a $900 value alone) and full board! It was an incredible deal and the locals were some of the friendliest people we’ve met anywhere.

  • Speedboat transfer to Vilamendhoo. The resort was really close to Dhangethi so we were able to save on transportation. There are more than a dozen resorts in this area you can choose from.

  • 7 nights at Vilamendhoo, 4 in a garden room and 3 in an overwater villa. The resort was nice and the food was delicious, but we would probably not stay a full week if we were to come back.

  • Domestic flight from nearby Maamigili back to Malé where we spent one night at Beach Arena Inn and caught our flight out in the morning!

We hope this guide is helpful! Have you been to the Maldives already or are you planning a trip? We’d love to hear your tips and experiences in the comments :)

 
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