When you mention the Maldives, thoughts of overwater bungalows, idyllic beaches, private islands, and most importantly, unaffordable luxury come to mind. It’s not wrong, the Maldives has some of the most high end and most expensive accommodation options in the world. It has always been marketed this way and I commend the Maldivian Tourism Board for being so successful in this.
But what if I told you that this isn’t the only side to this beautiful country? That there exists life outside of the luxury resorts. That you can visit their beautiful archipelagos without having to spend thousands of dollars? In recent years, the Government has opened up their tourism so the locals can also stand to benefit. Islands inhabited by locals have opened up their doors and locally run guesthouses have been springing up left and right.
This means you can skip the ultra luxury resorts where you can pay over $1,000 a night for a more modest but quaint accommodation option surrounded by culture and local food for a tiny fraction of the price.
The best part? The Maldives is a collection of islands and you can be sure to find extremely beautiful beaches no matter where you stay. I do still recommend you experience something like the Park Hyatt Hadahaa as it IS something special, but it is not cheap!
Visit the Local islands of the Maldives
The secret, that is not that much of a secret to traveling cheaply around the Maldives is realizing that there is more, MUCH more, to the country than just romantic resorts with the fancy overwater villas. These just purely for tourists and many of the people working on these resorts aren’t even Maldivian. As soon as you get past that, and realize that the islands where the locals live also have accommodations (albeit more modest), then you can really have a good time here for cheap.
Of the 1200 islands that exist in the Maldives, 200 are inhabited. Of the 200, perhaps a third of them have stellar beaches and are built up for tourism. That means you have an abundance of islands to choose from to build out your Maldives adventure.
Finding cheap accommodation
Ten years ago, you probably would not have been able to find many locally run guesthouses on local islands. Fast forward to the modern day, and some of the popular islands like Maafushi and Rasdhoo have hundreds of beds available. This will only grow which means your options will be greater, but also it will become more touristy. Don’t worry, because there are many many islands that are not even remotely overdone yet.
Almost all the guesthouses put their accommodations on booking.com so you just have to know which island you want to stay on. As I wanted to do scuba diving, I chose Thoddoo Island, which is one of the only islands not part of a greater Atoll. I saw plenty of cute and amazing guesthouses on the island at different price ranges ($40-$150). Ultimately, I settled for one that was about $70 a night. It as not luxury by any means, and of course nothing like staying in the Park Hyatt Hadahaa. But for the price, can you really complain about anything with how beautiful the nearby beaches were?
Or Stay in an overwater villa for cheap
Yes this may seem crazy but if you are willing to forego complete budget travel, you can actually find some good deals on the iconic overwater villa that made the Maldives famous. It won’t be the creme de la creme, but if you wanted to wake up over the turquoise ocean, there are many resorts in the Maldives now that can make it happen for a much cheaper price.
It’s still not cheap by any means, but for under $500 a night and sometimes even $250 a night, you can find an overwater villa on some local islands. You may have to fly to some of these islands which adds to the cost but why not treat yourself at the end of a trip with some luxury?
Some of the top options for cheap villas are the following:
- Kuredu Island Resort
- Reethi Beach Resort
- Ellaidhoo Maldives by Cinnamon
- Thulhagiri Island Resort
- Paradise Island Resort and Spa
Cheap Transport around the Maldives
Domestic flights are quite expensive. There are only 2 airlines that service the domestic route and most flights are geared towards the high end vacationer looking to visit luxury resorts (and flight costs are not an issue).
However, for the budget minded, the Maldives is serviced by a solid and comprehensive network of ferries and speedboats. It is an archipelago with hundreds of islands after all. These ferries run on a fixed schedule which can be seen on their main website, and service most of the populated islands in and around the Maldives.
From Male, the capital of the Maldives, you have ferries and speedboats to dozens of islands around the atoll. From another island, you can have another set of ferries that go to islands even further out. The possibilities are endless. If you want to go from one atoll to another, Male atoll to Baa Atoll (where Dharanvandhoo is), this is better served with a flight.
Local Ferries in the Maldives
If time is not an issue, the local ferries are extremely cheap. For example, a local ferry from Male to Maafushi is $4-5, and from Maafushi, you can continue on to Fulidhoo which is another $2. 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.
Local ferries are very slow however and often times you will find overnight ferries. The ferry from Male to Thoddoo for example leaves overnight and takes 5-6 hours.
Speedboat Ferries in the Maldives
The alternative to local ferries are the speedboats. These boats all have twin engines and can really fly through the water. Like local ferries, they run on a set schedule every day from Male and other ports. These are much more expensive than local ferries but will get you to your destination in a fraction of the time. The speedboat from Male to Thoddoo was $70 round trip and only 1 hour one way (compared to 5 hours on the local ferry).
It’s pretty much possible to get to all the tourist friendly local islands by speedboat. If it’s not a direct transfer from Male, there will be a connection available.
Eating the Local Food of the Maldives
Perhaps one of the best perks about traveling to the local islands is the local food. If you’re a fan of spicy food and seafood, then you’ll be in heaven. Maldivian cuisine is similar to Sri Lankan food which is incredibly delicious and flavorful. Due to the abundance of seafood in the country, expect to eat loads of fresh tuna and other fish.
The best part? The cost. Food costs at big resorts will give anyone heart palpatations. I paid $100 a day per person (for just food) while staying at the beautiful Park Hyatt Hadahaa, and I wasn’t even trying to eat that much. A combination of having to import everything and just general markup at high end resorts means everything will cost a fortune.
On local islands like Thoddoo and Rasdhoo, you can expect to pay $3-5 for a hearty dish of Kottu Roti or spicy curry with tuna. $2-3 will buy you the tastiest fruit juices you can find. You can also find Western style foods like burgers, pizzas, and the like for slightly more (but rarely more than $10) but nothing outrageous.
For breakfast, the local Maldivian dish called Mashuni might be one of my all time favorites. A combination of coconut, tuna, chilis, and fresh thin pieces of roti bread makes this the ultimate tropical island breakfast. I couldn’t get enough of it and is one of the main things I will miss about the cuisine in the Maldives!
It’s a Muslim Country, so adhere to the customs
If there is one downside, and many may not consider this a downside, it is the strict laws against drinking in the Maldives. The official religion here is Islam and they very much adhere to the rules of the religion. On local islands, alcohol is strictly forbidden and no restaurants or guesthouses sell alcohol of any sort. There’s not even any under the radar alcohol dealings that I could find.
I think you could probably bring smuggle alcohol onto the islands if you were really desperate to have a cocktail, but is not something I’d bother with. Respect the customs and stick with an unlimited amount of delicious fresh fruit juices like papaya juice, watermelon, coconut, mango etc.
How to dress on the local islands
Dress codes are also different on local islands. While you can wear bikinis, go shirtless for men, and not worry about it on resort islands, local islands are another story. You should look to shoulders and thighs and save any bikinis and skin for strictly when you are on the beach.
Different islands may have different expectations so just use your best judgment. As a guy, I wore shorts above the knees and tank tops while walking around the island. It was far too hot to wear anything besides that. The locals never seemed to mind and perhaps that is because they’ve become more and more accustomed to seeing tourists nowadays. However, as most places I’ve been in the Middle East, women always have a stricter standard than guys.
What to do on the local islands
Like any island with beautiful beaches and reefs, there are a ton of things to do on local islands like beach hopping and water activities.
Find the tourist beaches
Each local island that is open for tourism will have specific beaches that cater to tourists. Expect to see some of the most fantastic beaches you will see and you can sunbathe all you want. Of course, no nudity of any sort. The best part? You’ll find no hecklers or anyone trying to sell you stuff at any point. This could change in the future as tourism continues to increase but there’s nothing here like the beaches in Zanzibar.
Find the sandbanks in the Maldives
One of the most stunning things in the Maldives are the endless amounts of sandbanks. These can be close to one of the islands, or require a speedboat ride. The sandbanks are truly something special, especially if you can find the ones that are devoid of people (which is not difficult). Imagine completely deserted stretches of the most beautiful beach, water, and feeling you can imagine. I had the pleasure of visiting two sandbanks while in the Maldives.
The first one was right next to Rasdhoo which was part of a surface interval during our day dive trip from Thoddoo Island. This was great as it saved us the money we would have paid to get there for the day on our own. We were the only ones there too. Drones are the best way to take pictures and fully capture the beauty of a sandbank so here are some hopefully envious pictures.
I went to another sandbank nearby the island of Dharavandhoo in the Baa Atoll. Three of us started talking to the owner of a souvenir shop and he said he would take us around the area and do whatever we liked for $100. I asked for a sandbank, and it is exactly what I got. He took us sandbank hopping about 40 minutes away from Dharavandhoo to a group of sandbanks that were completely out of this world. There were no resorts and certainly no other people here so it’s definitely one of those things that only locals know. We even saw a dolphin in the shallows!
Scuba Dive or Snorkel
I’m a big fan of scuba diving and the Maldives has some absolutely fantastic diving. I dived while on the local island of Thoddoo. We dived around Thoddoo and the nearby island of Rasdhoo which is famous for their mantas schools of fish.
I also dived with Carpe Diem liveaboards sailing through multiple atolls. Of course, nothing can compare to a liveaboard experience, but land based diving from the local islands is still fantastic.
The prices are also much more reasonable on a local island with two tank boat dives on Thoddoo going for $100 or so. Compare that to the diving I did at the Park Hyatt Hadahaa which cost about $250 for the same thing and it is a down right bargain.
Get cash before you go
Up until recent years, you could only get cash on Male. Nowadays, while ATMs are more readily available, they are still not available on every island. I would highly recommend taking out enough cash with you before you go on a local island tour. Thankfully many of the guesthouses take credit cards nowadays so you can earn points while visiting the nicest, and cheapest beaches in the world. However, all of the restaurants and street vendors will only take cash.
Nowadays, other bigger islands like Dharavandhoo and Maafushi have ATMs but you are better off getting enough cash in Male or very carefully researching the islands you’re visiting to make sure they have ATMs. ATMs will only give you Maldivian Rufiyaas which are pegged to the dollar at 15.4 to $1. You can easily exchange these back to dollars when you leave the country.
So many islands to choose from
There is a plethora of local islands to choose from. While I’ve only visited a handful, here are just a few options to choose from! Again, almost everyone will arrive by way of Male, the capital so the closest and easiest islands to visit are the ones around Male. The North Ari, South Ari, and Male Atolls will generally not require a flights (except islands in the south of the South Ari atoll).
Mathiveri , Ukulhas, Dhangethi, Omadhoo, Dhigurah, Rasdhoo, Thoddoo are in of North and South Ari Atoll.
Mathiveri , Ukulhas, Dhangethi, Omadhoo, Dhigurah, Rasdhoo, Thoddoo are in of North and South Ari Atoll.
Dharavandhoo and Fulhadhoo are a part of Baa Atoll.
Hanimaadhoo is a part of Thiladhunmathi Atoll.
The cost of excursions, food in café, souvenirs, products in local supermarkets almost the same on each island.
Day Trips to Resorts
As I mentioned before, the Maldives is chock full of ultra lux resorts ranging from hundreds of dollars a night to thousands of dollars a night. On many of these local islands, you can arrange a day tour to visit one of these super nice resorts and have spa service, alcoholic cocktails, dinner, and the likes. You just pay for a round trip transfer and then pay the exorbitant prices of the resort once there.
This is a good way to see both sides of the Maldivian tourism scene. Don’t expect to be able to visit ultra exclusive resorts like the Jumeirah, Park Hyatt, or Four Seasons, but rather something in between.
Maldives Beach Hopping Itineraries
The question is should you only visit one local island or do an island hopping tour? That is for you to decide and up to your schedule. Personally I think exploring multiple islands is simple to do and gives you exposure to multiple islands and all their differences.
Of course, the cheapest and easiest way to do an island hopping week to two week itinerary would be to stick within one atoll.
North Ari Atoll
For example, the Ari Atoll consists of multiple islands with solid infrastructure: Thoddoo, Rasdhoo Ukulhas, Mathiveri, etc. Ferries start from Male, and you can easily plan your rote as such:
I would stay 2-3 nights on each island and just make sure you are cognizant of when the ferry times are as they usually only run once or twice a day. Following this schedule, you can travel from Male to Thoddoo, from Thoddoo to Rasdhoo, from Rasdhoo to Ukulhas and so on.
South Male Atoll
One more possible route is Male-Gulhi-Maafushi-Guraidho-Male. This is visiting the popular island of Maafushi that was probably one of the first islands to really go main stream. There are a ton of resorts here.
South Ari Atoll
Another one is Omadhoo-Dhangethi-Dhigurah. Dhangethi and Dhigurah are perfect places to see whale sharks and manta rays. We stopped by Dhigurah on our Carpe Diem liveaboard and saw a beautiful whale shark!
And finally Himmafushi-Huraa-Thulusdhoo-Dhiffushi.
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