Spending eight nights in the Maldives was a dream come true. Being a rather thrifty traveller by choice, I never really thought that the luxurious archipelago could be visited as part of my long-term and budget-conscious trip around the world. But it was, and as most people seem rather surprised upon hearing my account of the time I spent there, I decided to put a lot of the focus of this article into how to visit the Maldives on a budget, rather than just sharing my personal experience enjoying the stunning archipelago.
For those willing to visit Maldives without cost having to be a concern: you couldn't have chosen a more beautiful destination! Enjoy every aspect of it, and try to absorb a bit more of all that the islands have to offer rather than the resorts. Now, for those who are craving postcard-perfect beaches but aren't sure whether it is possible without spending a small fortune, please read on…
Recent changes welcoming a wider range of visitors
Most people picture the Maldives as a place that can only be visited by people that can afford the luxury of 5-star-plus resorts. That has indeed been the reality of the country for a long time, but it has been going through some really interesting changes over the past few years, especially when it comes to the tourism industry.
The government used to forbid local islands from being visited by tourists, keeping only the capital, Male, and resort-owned islands as an option for travellers looking for their own little piece of Maldivian heaven for a week or two. With the recent changes, the Maldives have been opening up, which has been heavily benefiting independent travellers on a non-luxury budget, but also the local population, that finally have the opportunity of taking their share of the country's profitable tourism pie, which generates an enormous income to their country – such an income that used to be concentrated in the hands of only a few, most of which were foreign investors.
Male – an interesting starting point
I would highly suggest that any traveller hoping to experience the Maldives sets aside a few days for the capital, Male. I am one of the opinion that visiting a country's capital is essential to understand the local culture, but even to those that disagree, and are really just looking for some relaxation, Male is a great starting point from where one can organise their activities of choice for the following few days.
Anything a visitor might wish to book will be cheaper from there, and the options are plenty. It is a highly densely populated city, with a charm of its own. Locals are friendly yet conservative, something that should always be kept in mind. An important point not to ever be disregarded is that the Maldives operates under rigid Islamic laws in many parts of the country. The resort-owned and operated areas are a world of their own, with rules of their own, however, things as such as alcohol consumption or sun bathing in bikinis or bathing suits are strictly forbidden elsewhere in Male and other local islands.
Male lacks in amazing architecture but has a very nice promenade and an interesting artificial beach. It offers accommodation catering to all pockets, including budget travellers, such as small, two-star rating guest houses and modest hotels that have a very decent standard.
I spent a fair bit of time in Male, as I was fortunate enough to meet some really interesting residents that were in my age group. The country had just gone through a coup d'etat, something that surprisingly didn't quite make it on the global news scope, and there was a fair bit of political activism going on during the time of my visit. Local youth seemed to also be taking the dangers that global warming present to their island very seriously, and were doing their best to get the world's attention to their cause.
Between protests and small gatherings, I also really enjoyed visiting Male's daily market and strolling around its serene promenade. A few other interesting activities I enjoyed a fair bit included spending time at the Trader Hotel's rooftop pool sipping coconut flavoured coffee or simply getting lost while making my way all around the island.
Passenger ferries, day use of resorts and islands geared to budget-conscious travellers
The idea that only five-star resorts are available in the Maldives should be forgotten. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, that reality is long gone. A traveller may now head to the local islands. Which can either be done quite economically in the local passenger ferries, or in private boat charters available everywhere.
The beaches are stunning, food cost is reasonable and the only thing you will not find is alcohol. I would recommend taking the time to enjoy the nature of the archipelago and getting out of the party atmosphere for a little while. Alcohol is available on resorts though, as well as on "booze cruises", filled by tourists that could really be cruising anywhere in the world.
There is one bar available at Male's airport, which is mostly frequented by members of the expat community and by airline crew members. Not quite glamorous, I must say. One should really just let go for a little while and partake on everything else the island has to offer, in my view, after all, one does not visit such paradisiacal beaches everyday.
The few islands that have recently opened up for tourism have been developing fast, but as tourism in such islands is still very recent, one should lower their expectations when it comes to having high standards. Enjoying their authenticity might be a better bet, although most hotels and guest houses I saw were extremely clean and comfortable.
Some of these islands are catering more to the surfers market, such as Rasdhoo and Shiny Beach. Some tour operators offer packages including meals and dormitory style accommodation – a rarity in that region!
But for the proximity to Male and accessibility, I highly recommend travellers on a budget or on a time restraint to go directly to Maafushi Island.
Maafushi is very easily reached on a passenger ferry from Male, and has many beautiful guest houses starting at US$40 per night for a generous double room with air conditioning The beaches are extremely beautiful, locals are friendly and it takes about 2 hours to reach it from Male.
The ferry is extremely affordable as it is the local way of travelling, and I really enjoyed riding on the top deck, enjoying the sun and admiring the stunning views. Surely they are a lot slower than private transfers, but are only a dollar or two! This is how locals travel around – most people in the Maldives cannot afford the insane rates private boats charge!
Keep in mind that finding their schedule online or anything as such is a bit of a challenge, which is why I recommend a few days in Male to get it all sorted. Passenger ferries are available virtually everywhere in the archipelago, and although they don't all have daily departures, the service runs frequently enough.
Some people might feel that going to the Maldives isn't quite the experience they were hoping for without experiencing a luxury resort. But there is a way of getting around that – in the case that travellers cannot afford many days or even nights at high-end resorts, why not enjoy a resort as a day trip?
There are quite a few resorts, both in Male and in other islands that offer day use. Prices range according to the rating and the inclusions, and most will include a boat transfer. The one I visited near Male, a four-star property, charged me US$50 for day use, including transfers, lunch and use of the resort facilities. It was interesting to have a chance to see up-close those beautiful over-water bungalows I used to see in brochures. They do look stunning indeed.
My overall feeling was that the archipelago can indeed be visited by travellers of all budgets, it just isn't as easy as many places to get the confirmation that it is possible, and furthermore, to find out how to do it.
The Maldives on a budget – A short summary
Before I go on about my personal experience during my eight-day stay in the Maldives, here's a brief summary on how to get the most out of your money while in the Maldives, if you are budget-conscious:
- Passenger ferries: From the moment you reach the airport to anywhere you care to go: it's the cheapest way to travel, comfortable and frequent enough.
- Spend a day or two in Male absorbing the local culture and planning your itinerary for the rest of your stay. Even if you are the type of traveller that is looking to join an island-hopping cruise, it will be much more economical if organised locally as you can haggle with the boatmen directly at the boat jetty.
- Visit the local picnic islands near Male for a daytrip.
- Go to Maafushi for the beautiful, postcard-perfect scenery you might be looking for, or for some of the up-and-coming budget accommodation in local islands!
- Be respectful! You are visiting a country that has governing laws different than what you might be used to in your own country! Girls: No walking around in hot pants and bikinis unless you are at a resort! Bring a tank top and shorts for swimming in local islands!
- Enquire about day use of resorts in order to get the resort experience out of your system and check out what those famous over-water bungalows people spend small fortunes on are all about.
The people in the Maldives were extremely friendly and I didn't have a single person bother me or harass me. Every person that offered to help was genuine. They are not used to non-resort type of travellers yet but it is a new market that they welcome into their country. They don't know a lot about the world around them because aside from being fairly isolated for decades, all they've had the opportunity to see, tourists-wise, were the rich and famous that come to their country to drink and wear skimpy clothes, in their view. Go out there and talk to them about your culture, about your country, and open up the world of travel to those who want to see it!
Now, my own experience taking my share of paradise…
This is a summarised account of what my days in the Maldives were like, as much of my experience can be accounted for through my tips on how to visit the island on a budget in the initial part of this article.
I was fortunate enough to have a few local contacts before arriving, which worked out much better than I could have imagined. Aside from having had a place to stay everywhere (people I met in Male ended up sending me to people they knew in other islands), I had the chance of seeing a different side to the island than the average visitor, not only for its culture, but politically, as mentioned before.
My local friend was extremely involved in the politic issues happening in the island at the time. He was also fantastic providing me with some amazing opportunities through his connections in the island: I spent a day with him and some of his friends at a deserted sandbank in the middle of the ocean!
Something I most certainly could not afford to do, and even if I could, I wouldn't have found my way into deserted ones in the middle of nowhere such as the sandbank we found. It was so exclusive and off-the-beaten-track that even the boat captain struggled to locate us at the end – for a moment we thought we would have to spend the night there.
Continuing into another island was magical. The Maafushi Island was simply great… Any words that I try to use to describe its beaches and palm trees will sound cheesy or repetitive. It really is that amazing "Windows wallpaper" image we all crave for during long winter months… To make it even better, over there I had the chance of doing some of the best snorkelling I have ever done! Incredible marine life; swimming with massive sea turtles, lion fish and much more.
Overall a dream come true
Time went by fast. The Maldives were so much more than I imagined. It was far beyond being just a picture perfect postcard land. It actually had a normal daily life for locals and a normal society that faced problems, like everywhere else in the world. It had a youth yearning for change.
Although it is indeed one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, with stunning beaches and wide, endless stretches of pure white sand and crystal-clear water, surrounded by palm trees; experiencing it was beyond rewarding.
I would certainly encourage anyone to visit the archipelago – whether one is looking to spend a fair bit of cash or not… Plan ahead, trust your guts and go for it! Nowhere in this world is only available to those able to travel on a no-expense-spared luxury budget!