The Maldives is a fascinating country to travel to independently, not least because it’s only been possible to do so for the past five years. Now, guesthouses are springing up on local islands on a seemingly monthly basis, offering budget travellers an affordable way to explore the country.
And, in many ways, travelling on a budget in the Maldives is far superior to staying in one of the luxury resorts. Each resort is built on its own island, isolating you from the rest of the country so you never get a chance to experience local life. Staying on the local islands has given me an insight into life in the Maldives that very few people have experienced so far.
But things are changing rapidly.
The number of guesthouses on some of the more popular islands are doubling each year as more and more travellers turn up in search of paradise on a budget. On one of the islands I visited, Dave and I were the only tourists — we had every beach to ourselves! I suspect this won’t be as commonplace five years from now.
So, now is the perfect time to travel to the Maldives.
I spent three weeks in the country and visited three of the local islands — Maafushi, Fulidhoo and Guraidhoo. I also splurged on two nights on a resort stay at Olhuveli Island in an overwater bungalow so that I could experience the differences between the two ways of travelling.
Here’s everything you need to know about travelling in the Maldives on a budget.
Independent and Budget Travel is Very New to the Maldives
Tourism in general is relatively new to the Maldives. The first resort opened in 1973 and for thirty years, the only way to visit as a tourist was via these expensive island resorts.
Five years ago, however, the government changed its regulations to allow guesthouses to open on the local islands. For the first time, tourists were allowed to stay with locals and gain an insight into Maldivian life. At present, most budget travellers remain unaware that it’s possible to do this. A few times, I felt like one of the only independent travellers in the country.
When I arrived at Male airport, Dave and I were the only backpackers in sight. We were the only people to step outside without a travel agent. On Fulidhoo, we were the only tourists on the island for almost a week.
Any downsides? At times, it felt like I was invading the islands against the locals’ wishes. I felt as though Dave and I were regarded with suspicion — or perhaps curiosity. On some of the smaller islands, our greetings of “hello” towards the locals were often ignored, as we received little more than stares in exchange. I don’t know if they were shy, or curious, or even angry that we were on their island home. This did, however, occur predominantly with the older residents.
Having said all that, the majority of the locals were friendly and welcoming and happy to chat. It was just the occasional stare that left me feeling like I was intruding. Additionally, while Dave and I were mostly left alone when walking as a couple, when I was wandering the islands alone, the local women were all excited to chat to me. Whether it was just to say hello, or to offer me a piece of Maldivian chocolate to try, travelling as a solo female offers a different experience to travelling as a couple.
It Can Be Done Cheaply
The Maldives were always my dream honeymoon destination for a couple of reasons.
1. It looked like it had the best beaches in the world
2. The resorts were very expensive.
I’d assumed that the Maldives was a once in a lifetime destination that I’d visit only for a very special occasion.
Finding Cheap Accommodation:
The first thing to note is that there aren’t any super cheap options for accommodation. You won’t find dorm rooms in the Maldives, or a crappy $5 a night bungalow on the beach like you would in Southeast Asia. However, there are still plenty of budget guesthouses, and they’re surprisingly good value.
For $30-60 a night, you’ll receive an clean, modern, and spacious room with air conditioning, a hot shower, free breakfasts, snorkeling gear, a bottle of water each day, twice daily room cleaning[!], and fast Wi-Fi. The rooms are seriously nice — much higher quality than the rooms I stayed in in Eastern Europe, for example, at the same price.
We found Airbnb to offer the best accommodation options on the local islands. There are 150 guesthouses on the islands listed, with 100 under $100 a night and 25 under $50 a night. A quick reminder that if you’ve never used Airbnb before, you can get $20 off your first stay through Never Ending Footsteps.
Maafushi: We stayed at Water Breeze Guesthouse and paid $61.71 per night. This was my favourite guesthouse from our time in the Maldives and I fully recommend staying here. The breakfasts were enormous, the owner was lovely, and our room was incredibly fancy and felt like great value for money.
Fulidhoo: We stayed on Thundi Guesthouse, one of only two guesthouses on the island and paid $53.59 per night. Again, we were really happy with our choice and I’d wholeheartedly recommend staying here. The shower was hot, the air conditioning was cold, it was incredibly peaceful and the Wi-Fi was super fast!
Guraidhoo: Do not stay at Coral Heaven Guesthouse on Guraidhoo (we paid $63.64 per night here). Our owner tried to scam us out of $80 by lying about the price of a boat trip. They also forgot to pick us up from the ferry terminal, leaving us to wander around the island in search of the guesthouse for an hour. It was just pretty crappy overall. Avoid like the plague!
A quick note: There were dozens of accommodation options around for $40 a night, so we could have travelled for much cheaper. However, I don’t really travel as a super budget traveller these days, and was happy to pay $30 a night when splitting the costs with Dave. Also, note that these prices don’t include the taxes and fees the government charges — more on those below!
Finding Cheap Transport:
Transport is also cheap. Local ferries run on a somewhat infrequent schedule but shouldn’t cost more than $2-4 for a three hour journey. We paid $0.60 for the ferry from Male Airport to Male, $3 for the ferry from Male to Maafushi, $4 for the ferry from Maafushi to Fulidhoo, and $2 for the ferry from Maafushi to Guraidhoo.
If you want to visit a resort, you’ll have to pay for a speedboat, as the local ferries don’t stop at the resort islands. These speedboats are very expensive — we were quoted $280 per person return trip for a 45 minute journey, or $200 per person return for a ten minute journey. One possibility could be to turn up at the nearest local island, and ask around to see if a local fisherman will take you across on his boat. We managed to arrange a transfer from Guraidhoo to Olhuveli (which, by the way, was incredible, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a resort stay) for $40 per person return trip — but given that the resort was only 6 kilometres away this is still pretty pricey.
Avoid the seaplanes if you’re travelling on a budget — these will usually cost around $500 return for a 20 minute journey.
Finding Cheap Food:
Food will set you back around $5-10 per meal, but with most guesthouses offering an enormous free breakfast, Dave and I found ourselves skipping lunch and only paying for dinner. You can’t complain about spending $5 a day on food!
In general, the smaller the island, the less food options there are, and you’ll likely be eating at your guesthouse for most meals. On Fulidhoo, the smallest island we visited, we were charged $10 per dinner whether we ordered chicken fried rice, curry and rice, or a gigantic fish barbecue. There were only three restaurants on the island and they all charged the same price — for the tourists, at least.
For a busy island, such as Maafushi, there were plenty of food options. There are maybe a dozen restaurants on the island, all offering reasonably priced dinners. We paid around $5-10 a meal for fish curry and rice, fish and chips, tuna fried rice — lots of fish based meals!
Finding Cheap Excursions:
The cheapest way to go on an excursion is to book it through your guesthouse. Don’t be afraid to shop around for prices, though! Wander into four or five guesthouses and ask for their prices before you make a decision. Also check to see what’s included in the price — some guesthouses will include lunch, water and a soft drink, some won’t include any extras.
I’m not a diver but many of you expressed interest in knowing how you can dive in the Maldives on a budget. If you decide to dive through your guesthouse, or arrange it through a dive shop on a local island, you’ll be looking at paying around $100 for two dives. The cheapest option for diving in the Maldives, however, is doing a liveaboard trip.
Other options for excursions include lots of snorkeling trips. If you’re lucky to be visiting during manta ray or whale shark season, you’ll be able to arrange a trip to see them. We tried to do this in Guraidhoo but sadly didn’t get to see any manta rays. We paid $50 per person for a half-day snorkeling trip. It was pretty pricey but it was also the best snorkeling of my life! Amazing visibility, thousands of tropical fishes, and even adorable sea turtles swimming alongside us.
Most guesthouses will also arrange fishing trips ($50 per person), or day trips to the resorts ($50 per person plus a $30 per person entrance fee). You can also take trips to sand banks ($25 per person) and go island hopping around the atoll ($50 per person).
There’s So Little Information Around
I’ve never visited a country where independent travel is so new, and it certainly made planning a little tricky.
I’m a chronic over-planner, so trying to choose between islands while having no idea what they were going to be like left me more than a little anxious. The first thing I do when I decide I want to go somewhere is head to Google Images. I’m a visual person and I like to see exactly where I’m going. When I did this with the Maldivian islands, I came across stock photos of the Maldives, photos of resorts, and satellite photos of islands. I wasn’t sure if any of the photos were actually of the islands we were going to.
Searching for detailed information was just as tricky. Most of the islands had a paragraph on Wikipedia mentioning their size and population, and that was mostly it. I couldn’t find any travel blog posts, I couldn’t find any online travel guides. The best I could find were a few TripAdvisor reviews of guesthouses that briefly mentioned what the islands were like.
Ferries Run Infrequently
If you want to visit several islands while you’re in the Maldives, the ferries will be your biggest barrier. Ferries don’t run on Fridays, and typically run every other day to the main island of each atoll. There are also inter-atoll ferries, but the timetables aren’t online, and I’m not sure of their frequency.
Because the ferries run so infrequently island hopping can be a bit of a pain in the ass. If you want to avoid spending time in Male, then you’ll have to make sure that your flight arrives on a day that the ferry runs, and several hours before that ferry leaves.
Trying to get from one island to another can often involve multiple changes, and coordinating these travel days to coincide with the ferry timetable can leave you overnighting on other islands.
It’s a Strict Muslim Country
The Maldives is an Islamic state operating under sharia law, and requires all of its citizens to be Muslim. Upon entering the country, you have to sign a declaration stating that you are not bringing into the country “materials deemed contrary to Islam including ‘idols for worship’ and bibles, pork and pork products, and alcohol.”
Furthermore, in the Maldives, Friday and Saturday is the weekend, with Friday being a day of rest. Everything but restaurants close down on Fridays and ferries cease to run.
Pork and alcohol is banned, and there are also no dogs in the country. You won’t be able to find a drink anywhere outside of the resorts. It’s not even like it’s banned but you can secretly buy it at expensive prices — we didn’t see it for sale anywhere, and weren’t offered any while we’re there. If you’re hoping for cocktails or beers at sunset, you’ll have to stick with bottles of water instead.
So what should you wear on the local islands?
For both females and males there’s a strict dress code: shoulders and thighs to be covered at all times, even when on the beach. No see-through clothing, either. Guys, you won’t be able to go shirtless or wear shorts that expose your thighs, and females, you won’t be able to wear a bikini or swimming costume.
I would swim in board shorts and a baggy t-shirt in the ocean. For walking around the island, I usually stuck to jeans and a t-shirt. I’d wear a knee-length dress when heading out for dinner and wrap a shawl around my shoulders.
If you’re going on an excursion away from the local islands — a snorkeling trip, for example — then you can wear whatever you like once you get on the boat.
There are Beaches Especially For Tourists
On some of the local islands, there’ll be one designated beach for the tourists, typically called Bikini Beach. A barrier will be erected between the beach and the streets of the island, and once you pass that barrier, you’ll be able to take off your clothes. Well, some of them. Topless sunbathing (for ladies) is illegal in the Maldives and could land you in jail.
Some of the guesthouses have a small garden area where they’ll allow you to sunbathe in bikinis if there isn’t a Bikini Beach. It’ll say in the listing if this is the case, so be sure to check in advance if sunbathing is important to you.
There was a beach for tourists on both Maafushi and Fulidhoo.
Mostly Anything Goes on the Resorts, But They’re Crazy-Expensive
On the resorts, women can wear bikinis, men can go shirtless, and alcohol is available at Australian-ish prices ($8 for a beer, $15 for a cocktail).
Fancy a special trip to one of the fancy resorts while you’re in the country? Prepare to pay a lot of money. For a room on the beach, you’ll be looking at $200+ per night, for one of the beautiful overwater bungalows, you’ll struggle to find anything under $400.
Each Island is Different — And There Are So Many to Choose from!
Before arriving in the Maldives, I had naively assumed that each island would be pretty similar. I was wrong.
There are 1200 islands in the Maldives, 200 of them inhabited. Of the inhabited islands, you’ll find guesthouses on maybe 50 of them. You’ll also, as I keep saying, know very little about any of them. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to discover that each island I visited offered something different. The only thing they had in common: none of the streets were paved!
Maafushi is the touristy island, although it felt far from it while we were there. There are 30 guesthouses on the island — the most of any island in the Maldives right now. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, the locals are used to tourists, and there are many souvenir shops.
Fulidhoo is the quiet island paradise that’s a little off the beaten track. This is where we were the only tourists for almost a week. The downside to the peace and quiet is the lack of eating options. There’s something like three restaurants on the island, but nobody speaks English and our attempts to order food failed often. One night we ended up sitting in a restaurant for an hour before we realised our food was not going to be turning up. Because there are so few options, we were charged $10 per meal, drastically higher than what we paid on any others.
Guraidhoo is a hangout for surfers. There isn’t a beach for tourists here, and the beaches aren’t incredible. The waves are huge, though, and there’s plenty of badass looking Maldivian surfer dudes wandering the streets. Everyone tries to sell you Maldivian chocolate in Guraidhoo — a mixture of coconut, sugar and jasmine.
The Taxes and Fees are Horrible
The Maldivian government charge you a whole load of taxes and fees, and they’re a pain in the ass to pay. For every night you spend in the Maldives, you’ll be looking at:
A $8 bed tax. That’s $8 per person per night.
8% GST for the room.
10% service charge.
I also don’t know why you’re paying a service charge to the government. Correction! The service charge isn’t collected by the government but is a compulsory charge from service providers — accommodation, restaurants, etc.
Guesthouse owners try to get you to pay this fee in US dollars. It’s frustrating and expensive, and you can’t pay in advance. That’s an issue because:
Running Out of Money is a Real Concern
The only ATMs in the country are in Male, which makes paying for things on the local islands kind of frustrating. The UK has an annoying rule that you can only withdraw $350 per day from an ATM and, as I was in Male for just six hours, that’s all the cash I could get out for a three week trip. (I travel with an emergency credit card that I’ve never used, and when I tried to get cash out of it at the airport, my bank blocked my card!)
That’s why it’s a good idea to book your accommodation in advance so that you can pay for it before you arrive. The guesthouses will occasionally take credit cards, but they’ll also charge you around 4% to do so. We didn’t see anywhere offering cash advances on the islands.
The taxes and fees that I mentioned above mostly have to be paid in cash and, although the guesthouse owners will ask for it in USD, we got away with paying for it all in Maldivian Rufiyaa.
In restaurants, on the local ferries and in the local shops, everything has to paid for in rufiyaa.
It’s also quite hard to get rufiyaa changed back into anything useful when you leave, and there are quite a few reports online saying that all of the currency exchange places in Male refused to change their currency back. Getting out lots of money in advance with the idea that you can just change back what you haven’t spent at the end of your time isn’t a great idea. I’d recommend bringing a few hundred US dollars into the country with you as a backup supply of cash.
Note: Since publishing this post, a few locals have commented to let me know that there is at least one ATM on each atoll. For the islands that I visited, the guesthouse owners often travelled to Male to get cash, and when we were close to running out, told us we’d need to take a trip to Male if we didn’t want to pay by card. I’d therefore recommend asking guesthouse owners before you arrive whether there’s an easily accessible ATM near to the island if this is a concern for you.
It’s a Great Location for Digital Nomads
I was fully expecting to spend my three weeks in the Maldives offline due to unusable Internet.
On Maafushi, our Internet speeds were 6mb/s download; 3mb/s upload. They were a bit slower on Fulidhoo and Guraidhoo but marginally so. We had one day without Internet on Guraidhoo, which was a network-wide problem, but other than that we stayed connected all the time.
Getting a sim card in the Maldives is simple. It costs $3 for the sim card and $14 to top it up with 1.2GB of data. We were shocked to discover that we received a data signal everywhere we went — even during a two hour ferry ride across the open ocean where we couldn’t see land in any direction. I guess that’s what happens when there’s no tall buildings to diminish the signal.
Working and travelling in the Maldives is therefore easy. Wi-Fi speeds are faster than I’ve received in many guesthouses around the world, and data is very reliable.
Maldivian Hammocks are Strange but Comfortable
And you’ll be spending a lot of time in them.
One of the first things I noticed when we arrived in the Maldives was the strange hammocks — I’d never seen anything like them. Made from a steel frame with netting sewed around the edge, you’ll find these uncomfortable looking contraptions hanging from sturdy tree branches on the beach. You’ll even find ground-based ones outside of most houses.
They’re surprisingly comfortable.
The Maldivian Language is Fascinating
The language spoken in the Maldives is similar to Sinhala, but also has aspects of Urdu, Hindi, Arabic and many, many more languages.
The script is thought to have originated as a secret code for writing magical formulas so that outsiders couldn’t understand what was being written. As far as experts can tell, the ordering of the alphabet is completely random.
Maldivian Breakfasts Are Divine
Maldivian breakfasts are incredible, and every time I’ve been served a continental breakfast, my least favourite of the breakfasts, I’ve felt like breaking down in tears.
The most popular breakfast in the Maldives in Mas Huni, pictured above. That bowl of awesome contains finely chopped tuna, onion, coconut and chili, which you roll up in freshly-baked roshi.
But the rest of the meals aren’t as exciting. Unsurprisingly, fish features heavily in Maldivian meals. So does curry and rice. Curry and rice every day. Every day it’s curry and rice. I wasn’t a huge fan of the curry in the Maldives, but it seemed that every time we ordered a “Maldivian dinner” from our guesthouses we were presented with fish curry and rice. Still, better than a continental breakfast.
The Weather is Hard to Predict
Online, I read that the wettest month in the Maldives is September but the locals say it’s June/July. Either way, it’s pretty hard to predict the weather.
Each island has its own climate, so if it’s raining on one island, it won’t necessarily be raining on an another that’s 20 km away. Because of this, every weather forecast sticks to the standard rainy season prediction: Dry until 3pm, rain for the rest of the day.
The smaller the island, the harder it is to find a weather forecast online. I spent most of my time in the country obsessing over the weather because I was so concerned it would rain over Dave’s birthday, when I’d booked a resort stay as a present. Spoiler alert: it did.
Low Season is the Time to Go
High season starts in October and the prices of guesthouses increase dramatically. Our $60 a night guesthouse in Maafushi almost doubles its prices to $100 and is now fully booked from October until the end of the year! While we were there, at the start of September, we were the only people in the guesthouse for our four day stay.
The other islands have also been pretty quiet in August and September. On Fulidhoo island it was so quiet that we were the only tourists. On Maafushi, the island with the largest amount of guesthouses, there were usually only around 10 people on Bikini Beach at any one time, so it didn’t feel busy there, either.
Go during this time of year! We’ve experienced one full day of rain over three weeks, and two rainy afternoons. The weather has been great, the prices are halved, and the islands are quiet.
It Won’t be Like This Forever
The douchiest, most overused sentence in travel blogging? Yep. But in this case it’s true.
Let’s take Maafushi. Last year, there were 100 beds on the island. This year there are 500. Next year, there’ll probably be something like 1000. They’re already building a big resort with 80 beds for the upcoming high season. The unbroken silence of the much smaller local islands no longer exists on Maafushi. Instead, there’s construction everywhere. We woke up and went to sleep with the gentle sounds of banging and crashing as people worked on building guesthouses all day every day.
Maafushi is a small island. It measures 1.2 km by 0.2km and the bottom third of island is taken up by a jail. That many beds feels like too many on an island like Maafushi. Especially when there’s only one “Bikini Beach” and it’s about 30 metres long. That’s going to get very crowded very quickly. This is a place that I think I would return in two years and barely recognise it.
I’m certain that the next time I return to the Maldives it’ll be unrecognisable from the quiet islands I experienced today.
Hey, maybe in 20 years I can be a grumpy old traveller bemoaning the state of the Maldives: “I remember, in 2014, there were just 2 guesthouses on this island and nobody on the beach! Now look at it! It’s been ruined!”
Phew! That was a long post! I’ve tried to cover absolutely every aspect of travelling to the Maldives independently as best as I could. If there’s something I missed out, leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to help! :-)
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