The Maldives is one of the top bucket list destinations in the world for many travelers. You may be dreaming of exploring the underwater world of the Maldives or sunbathing on soft, white sand beaches with views of endless turquoise water. However, most of what you see is fancy, expensive resorts that make it almost impossible for the average person. Luckily, there is another option allowing you to visit the Maldives on a budget!
Quite a few years ago the Maldivian government began to allow the citizens on the local islands to build and operate their own guesthouses. This not only helps build the local economy with more tourism to the local islands but also helps a larger group of people to travel to the Maldives and experience its’ beauty.
Find out how you can plan your own affordable trip to the Maldives and visit one of the most beautiful destinations in the world!
I know what you’re probably still thinking. How can a trip to the Maldives, one of the most beautiful places in the world really be budget friendly?
I promise you– it’s possible.
DISCLAIMER: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you use these links to purchase a product or service I will receive a small compensation at no additional cost to you. Everything I recommend are products or services that I personally use and have been essential for me as a travel blogger.
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Quick Facts About the Maldives
Number of Islands: There are 1,192 islands in the Maldives. 200 inhabited (local islands) and 97 resort islands. Each resort is located on its own private island.
Number of Atolls: 26
Population: 436,330 as of 2020
Maldives Currency: Rufiyaa (MVR) 1 Maldivian Rufiyaa = $ USD
Language: Dhivehi (Maldives in Dhivehi is ދިވެހިރާއްޖެ)
Where is the Maldives Located?
The Maldives is any ocean lover’s dream destination. This small South Asian island nation is located just southwest of Sri Lanka and India. The Maldives islands are so tiny that they are often not seen on any world maps.
Situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Maldives is made up of almost 1,200 islands. These small islands are grouped into 26 ring-shaped atolls.
Each island is made up of white sandy beaches leading into crystal clear lagoons. These oceans contain some of the most colorful sea life you’ll ever see. Out of the 1,200 islands, 200 of them are inhabited and 154 are private resort islands.The rest are uninhabited islands and sandbanks.
I’ve been to the Maldives on many occasions and continue to return often. During one of my visits I stayed for two months.
Each time I’ve stayed in the South Ari Atoll, which is one of the largest Atolls in the Maldives. It consists of 105 islands divided up into Northern and Southern sections.
Visas and Passport Control in the Maldives
For most countries, the Maldives gives a free visa on arrival. You will need to fill out a landing form which will be given to you on the plane. There will be questions such as where are you staying, reason for visiting, how many days and so on.
You will also need to print or have your travel details available to show to the immigration officers upon arrival. They will ask for your departure flight information and guesthouse reservation confirmation.
The immigration process is very easy but the line can sometimes be long. Be sure to fill out your card on the plane and hurry to get to the front of the line. Once you’ve gotten your stamp, you’ll put your hand carry luggage through the x-ray machine and exit to go to baggage claim.
TIP: When booking your flight be sure to check the speedboat schedules to know when the boat leaves to go to the island you are staying on. Give yourself a few hours from landing time to speedboat departure time so that you don’t miss your boat transfer.
How to Get to the Maldives
To get to the Maldives you will fly directly into the Malé International Airport or Velana International Airport located on Hulhumale in the Male Atoll. The Maldives airport code is MLE. There are numerous airlines that fly to the Velana airport in the Maldives so check skyscanner or similar websites to find the cheapest options available.
Starting in 2020 the airport on the island of Maamagili in the South Ari Atoll will begin to operate select international routes.
How to Get Around the Maldives
If you look at a Maldives island map you’ll notice that there are no roads or bridges connecting any of the local islands. Since the Maldives is an island nation, there are only two ways to transfer between the different islands. Therefore you will need to take either a boat or an airplane to your final destination.
Maldives Travel by Boat
The most common method of transportation for travelers visiting the Maldives on a budget is to take a local speedboat or ferry. The cost ranges from $20-45 USD one way depending on which atoll or island you are traveling to. You will need to pay in cash (either rufiyya the local currency or USD). You will also need to have your guesthouse reserve your seat prior to your arrival. The boats have limited seats available and are also used by locals so you’ll want to make sure you have a reservation.
The local ferries are significantly less expensive than the local speedboats but will take much longer to reach your destination.
Also keep in mind that there are occasions where the speedboat transfers have been cancelled due to bad weather. Make sure to have a back up plan just in case.
TIP: If you are planning to do any island hopping in the Maldives you will want to check all of the departure ferry times for your destination. Many of the islands do not transfer between each other and you would need to return back to Malé, the capital island to catch your boat. Meaning, if you arrive in Malé after the ferry or speedboat you want to take departs then you will be stuck staying in Malé overnight.
Maldives Travel by Plane
For islands that are located in atolls far from Malé there is the option of flying domestically. There are a 13 domestic airports on different atolls within the Maldives. You can fly domestically with Fly Me Airlines (http://www.flyme.mv), Maldivian Airlines (https://maldivian.aero) and Manta Air (https://mantaair.mv).
If you are staying at a resort you will either take a private speedboat or a seaplane directly from the Male airport to the resort. This will be organized through your resort so you won’t need to worry about that. However, there will be an additional cost for these services which will be dependent on the distance from Malé to your resort island. Typically these services can cost an additional $100-$800 per person round-trip.
Best Time to Visit the Maldives
Due to its proximity to the Equator, the Maldives has a consistently warm temperature year round. However, there are two distinct seasons: wet season and dry season. Dry season typically runs from December until April when the Maldives experiences the highest amount of sunshine and lack of rain. The wet season is from May until November when the Maldives is cloudier and has a higher chance of rainfall.
The weather can be quite finicky. It may be raining on one island but sunny on another one nearby. Also, don’t bother checking your weather app. If two months in the Maldives taught me anything, it’s that the weather predictions are almost always wrong.
If you are traveling the Maldives on a budget then it would be best to visit the islands during shoulder or low season. This will significantly reduce your costs and you’ll see the least amount of tourists.
Where to Stay in The Maldives on a Budget
Less than a decade ago the Maldivian government relaxed its rules on tourism and began allowing those living on the inhabited islands to open their own guesthouses. This was a huge success for the locals, as many of them were already working at resorts but had aspirations to one day own their own businesses in tourism.
Once the restrictions lifted, their dreams came to life and many Maldivian’s began opening guesthouses. With over 200 local islands in the Maldives it can be difficult to choose where to go and which place to stay. There are a few factors that can help you decide such as what you want to see & do, duration of your stay and budget.
The most popular atolls for budget travelers are the Ari Atolls (North & South), Malé Atoll and Vaavu Atoll.
These are the most popular islands within each of those Atolls:
- South Ari Atoll: Mahibadhoo, Omadhoo, Dhangethi & Digurah
- North Ari Atoll (Alif Alif Atoll): Rasdhoo & Thoddoo
- Vaavu Atoll: Fulidhoo
- Malé Atoll: Thulusdhoo, Gulhi, Guraidhoo & Maafushi
Each of these atolls can offer different opportunities for sea life sightings. The whale shark is a year round visitor to the South Ari Atoll and can be found outside of Maamigili Island. Therefore, day excursions from the islands in the South Ari Atoll will be less expensive than from the other atolls. The South Ari Atoll is also where large groups of manta rays migrate through during the season. So if those two sightings are at the top of your bucket list then I suggest staying in that atoll.
On each of the islands you will be able to find guesthouses that range from $50-$150 USD a night. These prices will vary based off of what is included in your stay or how luxurious the guesthouse is. You can book with the options of breakfast included, half board or even full board.
Also, check to see if the mandatory 12% government tax is included in the booking price or not. Additionally there will be a Green Tax or tourist tax that is mandated by the government. This fee is $6 USD per person per day for tourists staying at resorts & liveaboards and $3 USD for those staying at local guesthouses.
Additionally, the speedboat transfer prices will vary depending on the location of the island within the Maldives. To get to islands like Mahibadhoo, Omadhoo, Guilhi and Maafushi the price will be $25 USD or 400 MVR for one way. Whereas it can cost $45-50 USD one way to get to Dhigurah and Dhangethi.
One of the popular islands that I mentioned above is Mahibadhoo, the capital island of the South Ari Atoll. Located 42 nautical miles southwest of Malé, this small island is only 1 mile in circumference but offers a lot of options when traveling the Maldives on a budget. Cumulatively I have spent around 6 months on this small island during my many travels back and forth to the Maldives. Therefore it holds a very special place in my heart.
Upon arrival into Mahibadhoo’s new harbour you will be greeted with the picturesque, postcard worthy views of the traditional Maldivian wooden boats, known as Dhoni, anchored in the crystal clear waters.
The charming island is surrounded by a turquoise lagoon, flourishing coral reefs and an abundance of incredible sea life which is only a snorkel and a few fins away.
Currently there are many guesthouses on Mahibadhoo, a number that will likely increase in the upcoming years. There are a few highly rated guesthouses on the island at different price points. Some of them are Vilu Thari Guesthouse, Noovilu Suites, K Villas Guesthouse, Liberty Guesthouse and Sundive Lodge. A few of these guesthouses also offer diving excursions which you can still book even if you are staying at another guesthouse.
How to Get to The Local Islands in the Maldives
Once you arrive at the Male (MLE) airport you will need to take a public ferry from the island of Hulhumale, where the airport is actually located, to the capital city of Male. As of 2019 there is now a bridge that connects Hulhumale to Male. Therefore you can either take a taxi for around $5 USD (100 MVR) to get to the Male speedboat terminal or take the ferry.
Upon arrival on Hulhumale, most of the guesthouses will have a representative there waiting for you at the airport exit and will travel with you on the ferry to make sure you get to the Male seaport and board the correct boat.
The public ferry from Hulhumale to Malé runs frequently, takes about 10 minutes and costs 15 rufiyaa (about $1).
Once you arrive in Malé, your guide will take you to either the public ferry or the public speedboat. Depending on your arrival time and your budget you can either take the ferry or the speedboat to Mahibadhoo or one of the other local islands.
The public ferry to Mahibadhoo is very inexpensive but takes just over 4 hours to get there. Whereas the public speedboat takes 1.5 hours (weather permitting) and costs $25 per person one way. You can pay for the speedboat in US dollars or rufiyaa once on the boat. The speedboat is quite popular with both tourists and locals. Therefore, it is best to have your guesthouse reserve a seat for you prior to your arrival.
1. The Speedboat Schedule for Mahibadhoo
The public speedboat from Mahibadhoo to Male and back is operated by HMHI Travels or Myna Express. The price per person is the same for boat companies. This speedboat will also stop on the island of Meedho and Omadhoo.
Male to Mahibadhoo schedule is as follows:
The public speedboat runs Sunday through Thursday at 4:00 pm; Friday 9:00 am; Saturday 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.
The public ferry runs on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at 8:30 am. There is also a night ferry that runs at 6:00 pm on Wednesday and Saturday. This is convenient if your flight arrives after 4:00 pm.
Mahibadhoo to Male schedule:
The same public speedboat runs every day at 7:00 am with an extra time at 10:00 am on Thursday and Saturday.
The Public Ferry is Tuesday and Sunday at 10:30 am or overnight on Wednesday and Saturday at 2:30 am.
2. Taking the Speedboat to Other Local Islands
There are many different speedboats that go to different local islands within the Maldives. It is always best to check with your guesthouse to know the time schedule. Based on which island you are staying at there are also a few domestic airports located around the Maldives.
Keep in Mind: Depending on weather the speedboats will sometimes be cancelled. So prepare for that and have a back up plan if you aren’t able to travel on your designated day.
The Speedboat to Gulhi & Maafushi
The speedboat companies to go to Gulhi and Maafushi is called Maasfushi Tours or Go Maafushi. These boats go multiple times a day making it a bit more convenient for travelers with varying flight arrival times.
The cost is $20-25 USD per person per way and takes about 20-30 minutes
The Speedboat to Dhigurah & Dhangethi
The speedboat company is called Endheri Express. The journey from Male takes about 1.5 hours and costs $45 USD per person per way.
Excursions in The Maldives on a Budget
Regardless of whether you are in the Maldives on a budget or not you should make sure to participate in the many different excursions. Luckily, if you are staying at a local guesthouse the price for these daily activities will also cost less.
Below are just a few of my favorite ones that are offered through the guesthouses. The prices will vary depending on which island you are staying on and how long it takes to reach the excursion point.
1. Swimming with a Whale Shark
One of the true highlights of the Maldives is the opportunity to swim with a Whale Shark in its natural environment. Year round in the South Ari Atoll, these gentle giants can be found swimming against the current feeding on plankton.
To reach the whale shark point near the island of Mamagilli you will take a scenic 45 minute speedboat ride from Mahibadhoo, passing by many beautiful sandbanks and resorts. You’ll pass by patches where the deep blue ocean turns to turquoise and you can see the shallow depths below. Keep your eye out for flying fish, leaping manta rays and (if you’re lucky) pods of dolphins along the way.
With no real schedule, the guesthouses are able to be flexible with time. They prefer to head out early before the resort boats get there to give you optimal opportunities to swim with the whale shark. You’re also likely to be one of the last boats to leave. This is just another added bonus of staying with the smaller guesthouses.
While swimming with a whale shark isn’t always a guarantee, your chances are pretty high in the South Ari Atoll. I’ve been lucky and have swam with them on every occasion I’ve gone out. They will also communicate with their friends from both the guesthouses and resorts to confirm sightings from the day or days prior.
2. Snorkeling the Different Reefs
Snorkeling in the Maldives is truly an indescribable and exciting experience because you never know what you will see each day.
Every time we lowered our mask and snorkel covered faces into the Indian Ocean we would become face to face with some of the most colorful and curious marine life that live in the South Ari Atoll.
With such a large array of reef inhabitants, including tropical fish, stingrays, sea turtles, sharks and coral, its no wonder the Maldives is known for some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world.
The water clarity is incredible and on most days you can see up to 30 meters deep just from snorkeling at the surface. There are few dangers to snorkeling and diving in the Maldives, but always be sure to check with your guide about any potentially threatening sea life– like the stone fish, lion fish, and fire coral, just to name a few.
3. Swimming with Manta Rays
During the Manta season, which runs from the end of May through December, these graceful creatures glide through the Maldivian waters just a short 15 minute speedboat ride from Mahibadhoo. These curious and playful filter feeders are the largest in the ray family. They are En Madi in the Maldivian language.
Unlike the Stingray, the Manta Ray does not have a venomous spine and is, therefore, not dangerous to swimmers or divers. The Manta tends to swim in an oval-like pattern while feeding so all you have to do is move slowly in the water while they glide past you.
4. Spend the Day at a Private Island
Only second to swimming with a whale shark, a day visit to a private island is one of my favorite excursions in the Maldives. Could there be anything better than escaping to your own deserted island for an entire day?
With no one else in sight besides the group you arrived with, you will spend the day doing what ever you’d like.
Want to go snorkeling?
Want to take a leisurely stroll around the island?
Want to take a nap in the shade?
We won’t judge.
5. Octopus Hunting
These sneaky, camouflaging eight-legged cephalopods can be, very carefully, spotted all over the coral reefs. It is quite a thrill to watch the Maldivian’s catch an octopus that will ultimately end up on your dinner plate!
Many of my days were spent snorkeling the reefs and assisting in the octopus catching. It is a unique experience to allow the arms of an octopus to suction and release on your skin, a sensation that feels and sounds like velcro.
6. Night Snorkeling
The underwater world looks completely different when lit up only by the narrow beam of your flashlights glow. There is something thrilling and dangerous but also magical and relaxing about not knowing what you will see. The sea creatures look different at night, the skin of the cuttlefish is iridescent, the lion fish come out to play and the bioluminescent plankton is the real show stealer.
Plankton reacts to tension or stress by emitting light from their cells, which to us, appears blue. We not only saw the blue sparks lights up as the waves crashed from the shore but during night snorkeling when we all shut off our flashlights, waved our hands arounds and watched as the ocean around us flickered blue.
The Local People and Religion in The Maldives
The small, local islands in the Maldives have small populations ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 people. The Maldivian’s are very friendly and welcoming people who open up their homes and islands to visitors each day.
1. Life on the Local Island in the Maldives
The pace of life is slower here and many people enjoy spending time with family and friends while lounging in one of the many jolie’s dotted around the island. You can find these handmade chairs almost anywhere on the island. However, my favorite spot was swinging under the shade of the large Banyon tree right next to the lagoon.
It is easily the best location on the island to watch the sunset as you sway in sync with the sounds of the crashing waves.
On the island there are many local shops, cafes and restaurants. Most of the guesthouses will over a full board option and the food is delicious. However, should you like to experience meals outside of the guesthouse, there are quite a few options around.
As it is the capital island in the atoll, it is also well-equipped with basic services like a hospital, banking facilities, ATM, phone shops and convenience stores. While the Maldivian Rufiyaa is their national currency, US dollars are generally accepted on the island as well.
Note: Many of the other islands do not have an ATM so be sure to check before you go. You might need to get money out at the ATM in Malé. Ask your guesthouse and they will be able to let you know if there is an ATM. Also, most shops and restaurants only accept cash and not credit cards or debit cards.
Exploring the charm of the inhabited island and interacting with the locals is all part of the experience so take a stroll and say hello.
When you aren’t out on an excursion, take the time to enjoy those softer moments and let your mind relax. You’ll be happy you did.
2. The Religion and Respecting the Culture
The Maldives is a Muslim country with rather conservative dress and appearance rules. Although the rules are slightly relaxed for tourists, the females will be expected to wear at least a t-shirt and shorts on local guesthouse islands. I wore mostly lightweight fabrics and longer shorts because it is very hot and humid. The guests can wear bikinis and swim gear when they’re out on a boat away from the locals or at a resort.
Now, more and more islands are creating what is called “bikini beach.” This is a designated area where tourists can go and sunbathe in their bikinis. Please to DO NOT leave this area without covering up as it is disrespectful to the locals and their religion. Additionally, if you plan to snorkel and enter from bikini beach but exit at another location it is necessary to be covered up in that case. Just remain respectful at all times as you are a visitor in their country.
During my stay in the Maldives I snorkeled a lot on the house reef. With respect to the locals, I would wear either my short sleeved or long sleeved rash guard and a pair of loose fitting swimming or athletic shorts.
Also, keep in mind that alcohol is strictly forbidden on all local islands in the Maldives. Therefore, it is not available on Mahibadhoo. It is also not allowed to bring your own alcohol into the Maldives so be sure not to pack any in your luggage.
Learn Some Dhivehi
Dhivehi is the national language of the Maldives. Many of the younger generation, as well as those working with tourists, know and understand English. However, it is still fun to learn a few words or phrases.
Baajja veri hendhuneh- Good Morning
Baajja veri haveereh- Good Evening
Haaalu kihineh?- How are you?
Varah rangalhu, shukkriyyaa- Very well, thank you
Keekuranii?- What are you doing?
Kon thaaku dhanii?- Where are you going?
Mi reethi- This is beautiful
Shukriyyaa- Thank you
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