What if I told you that you don’t need to win the lottery to be able to visit The Maldives? It all depends on how you travel the country, you could spend $10,000 a night for a water villa on a resort island OR you could pay as little as $30 for a nice en-suite room in a guesthouse on a local island. Yeah the resort islands look great but spending that amount of money on just one night literally makes me feel sick. So, instead we travelled to the local islands for way cheaper and best of all, we did a day trip to a resort island for only $25. So for us we found the best of both worlds so here’s how you can too…
FIRST THINGS FIRST | LOCAL ISLAND RULES
The Maldives is a strict Muslim country, in fact the law prohibits Maldivian citizens to practice any religion other than Islam. The local islands are not like the resort islands, alcohol is banned on them so if you crave a piña colada on the beach at sunset then you will have to pay the price of staying at a resort. You must dress respectively on the local islands including at your guesthouse and you must cover yourself from shoulders down to your knees, for men and women. But what about swimming and sunbathing, isn’t that why we’re all going to the Maldives? Well, each local island has a designated bikini beach with free loungers to use and as the name suggests bikinis are allowed there. Once you leave the bikini beach you need to dress respectively again. Dogs are banned in the Maldives along with pork and religious articles like bibles, Buddha statues etc.
If your on a budget then floatplanes will be off the cards as they cost around $500 so your options are speedboats or public ferries. Be aware that the islands come to a halt on Fridays due to it being the main holy day and the weekend for muslims. So you need to be careful what day you arrive and depart the country. The speedboats cost us between $35 and $50 per person one way (for about a two hour journey). The public ferry is considerably cheaper, we paid just $1.50 per journey. When we went from Thoddoo to Feridhoo it took two separate ferries and 5 hours on the boats but cost only $3. So if you have the time and flexibility they are the best way to keep your costs down. The speedboats and ferries change their schedules so it’s a good idea to email a guesthouse you plan to stay at and get up to date information from them. They can also book the speedboat for you which is convenient.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
We searched on booking.com for guesthouses and then privately emailed the hotels to get price quotes for accommodation, transport and excursions. We paid between $30 – $50 per night for two people in a double room with ensuite, including breakfast. That price included all taxes (about 22% and the environmental fee of $3+). The guesthouses gave us better prices when we booked directly through them, just make sure the price they quote includes the above fees.
Most islands have a few restaurants, but food can take awhile to make so we preferred getting half-board at our guesthouses and having dinner arranged for 7pm. Most guesthouses charge about $10 for lunch or dinner and I had no problem requesting vegetarian food. A bottle of water and soft drink were always included too. For our first 7 days we got full board, which we decided was too much food so at our next two islands we did half board, buying a papaya and biscuits from a shop for lunch (about $4 for both). Our final guesthouse in Ukulhas charged $15 per meal so we just got bed and breakfast and ate across the road in a nice, cheap restaurant with prices like this: $4 fried rice, $6 rice and curry, $1 large bottle of water.
When you enquire with guesthouses about transport and room prices make sure to also ask what their excursion prices are. In Dharavandhoo we only paid $25 per person for each trip: dolphin excursion, sandbank, snorkelling. Each excursion was about two hours long and our host even had his own boat so the trips were all private with just two boatmen and us onboard. Manta ray tours tend to be more pricey and we paid a whopping $60 each for that trip in Ukulhas but it was worth it. Our day trip to a resort island only cost $25 per person and that price included speedboat transfer, a welcome drink and golf buggy pick up on the island. We were very lucky with that find as some resorts also charge a transport fee or an even higher price like $200 but that might include food and drink for the day.
Bring USD in cash as they are accepted everywhere and if you have any leftover at the end of your holiday it’s much easier to change back to another currency. Most islands don’t have ATM’s and some guesthouses don’t even have card machines. Paying by card incurs a 3 – 5% card fee so it’s much better paying in cash and you should bring a mix of USD notes so you can use smaller bills to buy things in local shops as they will give change in the local currency. We spent a few days in Sri Lanka getting money from ATM’s and exchanging the rupees for dollars which was a pain to do and unnerving having so much cash on us but we saved a lot in the end by not paying card fees. The Maldives is still an expensive country so bring anything you might need with you….like suncream as we saw it for sale for $35! Most guesthouses offered snorkels for free but some charged $8 or so per day so we bought some for $14 in Sri Lanka and actually sold them to our final guesthouse for $10 so everyone was happy.
WHICH ISLANDS TO EXPLORE
I read so many blogs to suss out which islands we wanted to visit. Generally to keep the costs down its best to stick to one atoll (atolls are the groups of islands). We ended up visiting two; Baa Atoll in the north where we spent a week on Dharavandhoo Island and then we headed south for our final 10 days in Ari Atoll which involved a stop at Malé to change speedboats. We then stayed on Thoddoo, Feridhoo and Ukulhas islands with a brief stop on Rasdhoo Island. We found Thoddoo and Ukulhas to be too busy with tourists, the beaches weren’t that impressive and the excursions were pricey. Rasdhoo had an annoying hum from the village generator and the island felt a bit small and over-developed. Feridhoo was pretty damn perfect except for the awful rubbish in the snorkelling area but with a little clean up it definitely has potential to be a top local island to visit with one of the best and quietest beaches. But Feridhoo was quite far away from resort islands and snorkelling sites so excursion prices were expensive. This is why Dharavandhoo was our favourite island, the beach was beautiful and we basically had it to ourselves with snorkelling right on our doorstep. We were just a short distance from nearby sights like sandbanks and multiple resort islands so excursions were really cheap at just $25 each.
We visited in the middle of October for 17 days and had about 10 days of blue skies and 7 days of cloud, storms and glimpses of sun. Another thing worth noting is that the local islands aren’t maintained like the resort islands, they are kept fairly neat and tidy but a few bad beans throw rubbish into the sea which is a big shame. Overall we had a wonderful time on the local islands, enjoying the idyllic beaches, cheap excursions and the gentle sound of the call to prayer as the sun went down. I hope this information helps some of you to explore the Maldives on a budget.