Maldives on a budget

Traveling the Maldives on a Budget

Simply mention the word “Maldives” and you’ll inspire thoughts of white sand beaches, and palm trees swaying in the breeze as you sit legs swinging on the deck of your private overwater bungalow.  The second thought is usually that it’s a blow-the-budget expensive place to visit.  However, it is possible to visit the Maldives on a budget and while it’s not going to be your Southeast Asia budget travel, it’s definitely affordable and something to put on your travel bucket list.  Here’s our guide to visiting the Maldives on a budget.

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One of the best ways to save money when traveling the Maldives on a budget is to book your accommodation ahead of time – you’ll get the best rates – and the best choice of accommodation.

There are 1,192 islands in the Maldives, and while many of them are resort islands, there are also local islands, where you can visit, stay in more moderately priced accommodations, and still explore the natural (and underwater) world that makes the Maldives so special.   Our guide to visiting the Maldives on a budget includes getting around, paying for things, and the food you can expect.  And yes we also explored a resort island and detailed which one we selected and why!

Ready?  I’ll start with money.

Cash and Paying for Things in the Maldives

You CANNOT use a card to pay for everything when you’re traveling on a budget in the Maldives.  Transport like public ferries must be paid in cash.  If you’re taking a speedboat, unless you’ve booked it (and paid for it) online, then you’ll need to pay in cash.  Cafes and restaurants on some islands don’t accept cards. 

Maldivian Rufiyaa

Using a credit or debit card in the Maldives

Paying for accommodation, day trips, diving, and watersports on the local islands by card will in 99% of cases result in a 3.5% credit or debit card charge. 

Obtaining Cash in the Maldives – ATMs in the Maldives

There are two ATMs at Male Airport.  There are also multiple ATMs on the island of Male.  You’ll also find an ATM (note that’s a SINGLE) on Maafushi, Thulusdhoo, and Dhiffushi islands.  However, ATMs in the Maldives have a 100 Rufiyaa (MVR) charge on each transaction.  At the time of writing 100 MVR = US$6.49.   ATMs only dispense Maldivian Rufiyaa.  Read our guide to paying for things, cash, and ATMs in the Maldives here.

ATM in Thulusdhoo Island

Using US Dollars in the Maldives

In many locations – including all the local islands mentioned in this article – you can use US dollars to pay for your speedboats, day trips, diving, and accommodation.  So if you have the opportunity to bring US dollars with you on your visit to the Maldives, then you’ll save on ATM withdrawal fees and currency conversion charges.  If you don’t, then bring a debit card that doesn’t levy foreign currency fees, you’ll still get charged the standard 100 MVR ATM withdrawal fee, but no more.

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Accommodation in the Maldives Local Islands

You can book hotels and guest houses online just like you can in lots of other countries.  You’ll find places to stay on the usual sites – booking.com, Agoda, and so on.  There are several ways that you can save on your trip to the Maldives when it comes to accommodation.

1.     Book accommodation in the Maldives early

As soon as you know your dates for travel to the Maldives it’s worth booking your accommodation.  We tend to book refundable rooms and check regularly to see if it gets cheaper.  It rarely does. Most of the hotels in the Maldives that we booked had cancellations up to 48 hours before we traveled.  If you’re traveling in high season, which is also the dry season in the Maldives (December to April), then the cancellation policies are likely to be more stringent (and less in your favor).

2.     Prepay your accommodation in the Maldives

If you book accommodation on local islands in the Maldives, that comes with a “pay at property” and you use a card to pay, then you’ll 99% likely be subject to a 3.5% card charge.  So opt for properties that allow you to pay ahead of time through the booking platform.  And, of course, opt for cheaper rooms too!

You’ll want to make sure that you have the right travel adapter for the Maldives – our guide to what you need for power in the Maldives is here.

Isla Dhiffushi Room

3.     Paying the Maldivian Green Tax

You’ll have to pay the local green tax in the Maldives.  This amounts to US$3 per person on the local islands or US$6 on resort islands or boats, and in all except one place, we paid this in cash.  Note if the hotel that you’re staying at (even on a local island) has more than 50 registered rooms, then it’s also charged at US$6.

4.     Book hotels with breakfast included in the Maldives

Many of the hotel options on the Maldives local islands come with an included breakfast.  It’s well worth taking this option. All the breakfasts that we had on our visit were filling and meant that you often didn’t want to eat again until the evening.  Most breakfasts include an omelet, toast, fresh fruit, fruit juice, and coffee or tea.  Some hotels provide Maldivian breakfasts on alternate days, and it’s well worth it!   

Maldivian Breakfast

These are the hotels we stayed in and recommend in the Maldives.

Sun Shine Villa, Maafushi (excellent place to stay, great host and super snorkel gear)

Malas Island View, Fulidhoo (friendly, great room, huge bathroom, laundry service for 100 MVR)

Malahini Island Resort (our resort island in the Maldives.  Gorgeous, fabulous food, great room, stunning snorkeling)

Batuta Maldives Surf View, Thulusdhoo (right on the beach, great location, excellent breakfast, our room was comfortable but we didn’t get the room with a view!)

Isla, Dhiffushi, Dhiffushi (the best room of the local islands, fabulous room, great location)

UMET Sea View, Malé (great location, good, if small room, lovely staff, and a free transfer to AND from the airport)

5.     Make use of the supplied drinking water in the Maldives

All of the hotels and guesthouses in the Maldives will supply you with drinking water.   Make sure you take a reusable, refillable bottle with you to the Maldives and keep it topped up.   Tap water in the Maldives comes from rainfall, which tops up the aquifers.  However, the fact that your guest house is supplying you with specific drinking water is a good indicator that if you’re going to drink tap water you should filter it first.

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Some hotels will supply you with plastic bottles of water, others will use refillable glass bottles that are decanted from larger vessels < we like this!   It is also very easy to buy additional bottles of water, it’s available everywhere and costs around 20 MVR (US$1.29) per 1.5 liter (50-ounce) bottle.

Travel to Local Islands in the Maldives – not resort islands

There are 1,192 islands in the Maldives.  And most of them don’t have those overwater bungalows.  The resort islands of the Maldives are the ones that you’ll see in tourism advertisements.  Private villas, beachfront pools, immaculate powdery white sand, and, yes, overwater bungalows.  They cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars a night.  We know, we stayed on a resort island for two nights (you can read our review here).

But there is a cheaper way to explore the Maldives.  And that’s to stay on what is generally known as “the local islands”.  If you’ve traveled at all in South East Asia you can characterize them as pretty much like any of the smaller Thai, Indonesian, or Malaysian islands with a few differences.

Bikini Beach on Dhiffushi

The “local islands” of the Maldives are just regular islands.  Ok, they’re sand islands, but they’re where people live and work.  And where you stay in hotels or guest houses, just as you would on islands in South East Asia.    So you’ll pay to stay at a hotel, and, well, visit the island and the waters around it.

The most visited of the local islands is Maafushi.  (our guide to Maafushi, which includes the reasons to visit is here) It is part of the Kaafu Atoll islands and you can reach it by public ferry (but not on a Friday as public ferries in the Maldives do NOT run on a Friday).  Don’t worry there are other ways to get to Maafushi on a Friday.  (Read my guide here on how to go from Male to Maafushi on a Friday). 

Maafushi is the island where tourism began on local Maldivian islands.  It’s the biggest and has the biggest infrastructure.  That often makes it the cheapest local island to visit in the Maldives.

Our trip to the Maldives was for two weeks and we used this 2 week itinerary.

Budget Transport in the Maldives

There are two types of transport in the Maldives, first of all, there’s getting between islands and then there’s transport on the islands.  Let’s start with transport between the islands.

Getting between islands in the Maldives

There’s only one bridge in the Maldives – a nation of 1,192 islands (only 187 are inhabited) – and that’s the Sinamalé Bridge, which links the islands of Malé, Hulhulé, and Hulhumalé.  This is where the airport is and the bridge links Male – the capital city island.  You can walk across this bridge, cycle across, drive across, or take a bus across it.  However, there’s also an airport ferry that goes from right outside the airport terminal to downtown Male.  I wrote about your options for going from Male Airport to the City here.

Transport between all other islands in the Maldives is either by boat or seaplane.  If you’re traveling on a budget in the Maldives, then you won’t be taking a seaplane.  And there are two types of boats you can take between islands –public ferries and speedboats.

Speedboat in the Maldives

The most cost-effective way to travel between islands in the Maldives is to take a local ferry aka the public ferry.  Maldivian public ferries are run by the government on a well-publicised, but hard-to-read timetable.  You download the timetable for all the ferries here.  You’ll want to read our guide to public ferries in the Maldives to understand how it works – that’s a hint that the timetable is initially going to confuse you.

The Maldives ferries are cheap.  For example, the 2.5-hour trip from Male to Dhiffushi costs just 22 MVR (US$1.42).  These ferries are cash only.  However, the ferries do not always run every day, nor do they run more than once a day, except for the airport ferry.  NONE of them run on Fridays.

Public Ferry in the Maldives

Friday is the day of prayer in this 100% Muslim country and there are no public ferries running, so that same trip from Male to Dhiffushi will cost you US$25 in a shared speedboat run by private operators.

We arrived in the Maldives on a Friday, (it was deliberate, and part of our planned Maldives Itinerary) with our first destination being Maasfushi.  The public ferry wasn’t running that day, so we prebooked and took a speedboat. 

You can prebook and prepay for speedboats with a card around the Maldives here. 

However, you can also organize speedboats with your hotel – but you’ll 99% of the time be paying cash that way.  We organized the speedboat via our hotel on Maafushi (While we paid for our hotel by card, with an additional 3.5% charge, we could only pay for the speedboat in cash – either US dollars or MVR).

Food and Eating Out in the Maldives

Things have changed a lot in the Maldives since 1972 when the first resort island opened in the Maldives – it was the Kurumba island resort in Vihamanaafushi.

It has changed a heck of a lot more since 2009 when tourism was first opened up on the local islands.  While many hotels provide additional meal options aside from breakfast, there are also a variety of cafes and restaurants open.

Paying for Food at Restaurants in the Maldives

The cheaper places to eat in the Maldives won’t accept cards (although the Sun Beach Café on Maafushi does and it’s consistently cheap, with good food and great service), so you’ll need cash.   Some restaurants have menus with pricing in US Dollars, others use MVR on their menu.  They’ll all accept either currency. There is a tendency that those prices in dollars tend to be slightly more expensive, but do the conversion and work it out for yourself.

Menu from Bouganvilla Restaurant Fulidhoo

If you have access to a kitchen, or have a kettle (or carry a portable water boiler with you) then there are small stores on all the islands, and you can pick up cup noodles and other food items that you can cook yourself.

The Cheapest Things to Eat in the Maldives

Generally speaking, the cheapest thing to eat will be fried rice/fried noodles, usually with tuna.  Fish is the only foodstuff that the Maldives is self-sufficient in.  While there are some fruits and vegetables that are grown in the country, much of it is shipped in from the UAE, Sri Lanka, and India.

You won’t be able to escape tuna during your visit to the Maldives.  We ate it every day.  And it was marvelous.  I particularly like smoked dried tuna – it’s called Valhomas here – think of it as tuna jerky and you’ll get the idea.  It’s moreish, tasty, and adds flavor to everything.  Even in the dhal curry, I always found Valhomas lurking at the bottom as an additional surprise.  There’s more on Maldivian food in my guide here.

One of the great ways of saving money on food is to make sure you get a hotel with breakfast, and they’ll usually fill you up until dinner time.

Drinks in Restaurants in the Maldives

There’s usually a huge variety of non-alcoholic drinks available at cafes and restaurants.  Here’s what you can expect.

Drinking water in Maldivian Restaurants

Most restaurants will put a small bottle of chilled water on your table when dropping off the menus.  If you don’t return it or drink it you’ll get charged for it.  So take action on it straight away.  If you want water it’s ALWAYS cheaper to go for a big bottle, rather than three small ones.    You’ll pay a minimum of 20 MVR (US$1.29) for a large bottle of water.  Small bottles of water (500 ml/17 ounces), tend to start at 10 MVR.

Fruit Juice in the Maldives

There is no alcohol on any of the local islands in the Maldives.  If you really want some, you’ll need to go to one of the Floating Bars or Booze Boats that are sometimes anchored off an island.  (more on this shortly).  You will however find a great selection of fruit juices – from coconut to lime to passionfruit, watermelon, kiwi, and green apple. 

Fruit Juice on Dhiffushi

Generally, they’re very, very good.  They will always come with sugar added, so if you, like me, prefer the mouth-puckering sour of passionfruit or lime, ask for no sugar.

Soft Drinks in the Maldives

There’s a Coca-Cola canning factory in the Kaafu atoll, on the island of Thulusdhoo in the Maldives.  (read more abou visiting the factory and other things to do on Thulusdhoo here) And so there’s a local supply of all things coke.  You’ll find Diet Coke/Coke Zero in most places, Schweppes soda water, and other soft drinks readily available.  They’re usually priced at 30 MVR for a 440 ml (15 ounces) can.

Coffee in the Maldives

The coffee that you find on the local islands is in general Nescafe.  Mostly it comes as black as standard, with a sachet of coffee whitener, it’s not usually the 3-in-1 that you’ll get in countries like Malaysia.  There are some cafes where you’ll find filter, espresso, and other specialty coffees.  The quality coffee of choice across the islands appears to be Lavazza (and that made me very, very happy).  But unless the café is offering an espresso or specialty drink, you should expect a cup of Nescafe instant coffee.

How to drink alcohol in the Maldives

Alcohol is not illegal in the Maldives, it’s just heavily regulated (it is not allowed on any local island).  You’ll easily find alcohol on the resort islands, but if you want a beer, cocktail, or wine while you’re traveling the Maldives on a budget, then you’ll need to find yourself a Floating Bar.

These boats are moored offshore, about 5-10 minutes boat ride from a few of the local islands – notably the islands of Maafushi and Thulusdhoo.  Our guide on going from Male to Thulusdhoo is here. Expect to pay from US$6 to US$10 (in either dollars or MVR) per drink.  You’ll also need to pay for a return boat ride to get there.  The boat rides usually cost US$10 round trip.  These floating bars are only open at certain hours, usually in the evening.

Watersports on a Budget in the Maldives

Even with more than 1,000 islands, 99% of the territory of the Maldives is water.  And so, it goes without saying that the majority of the attraction is underwater.  And these particular activities can cost you a lot.

Snorkeling for free in the Maldives

You can snorkel off the beach on all the islands in the Maldives. If you want to see some sea life without a day trip, then pick an island like Maafushi, which has a GREAT house reef, that you can walk and then swim to from the beach.   The Sunshine View, run by a local teacher and his family provides great snorkeling gear – masks, snorkels, fins, and lifejackets if you need them. 

Maafushi House Reef Snorkeling

While snorkeling from the shore in the Maldives we saw black-tipped reef sharks (the biggest was about 4 feet long and rather close!), multiple rays, squid, and lots of fish on house reefs (without taking a trip) and dolphins accompanied the ferry on our way to and from Fulidhoo. Read about going from Maafushi to Fulidhoo here.

Bring your own Mask and Snorkel to the Maldives

Bring your own mask and snorkel (or make sure you stay at accommodation that provides them for free).

If you arrive in the Maldives without a mask and snorkel, then head from the airport to Male Island and the Apnea Dive shop.  They have a superb budget mask and snorkel set for 189 MVR (you can preorder it online or jump on WhatsApp with them and reserve it. We used their kit at the Malahini Resort Island and found it the best-fitting mask we’ve used in over 10 years, so headed to their shop to buy one.  (they also do rashguards, which you’ll definitely want if you’re snorkeling in the local areas, the sun is super strong here)

Pick your Island Carefully for budget Watersports in the Maldives

Maafushi was the first local island to open up to tourism.  It’s where the then Prime Minster was from and that most likely had a lot to do with it.  This is also the island that is most like the Thai islands in terms of facilities and watersports.  It’s the busiest island (apart from Male, which I wrote about here) and has the most places to stay and eat.

Maafushi also has many of the cheapest day trips, watersports, and activities of all the Maldivian local islands.  So if you want a day on a sandbank, or a snorkeling trip with turtles, rays, or sharks, then this can be the cheapest place to go.  It’s usually also the cheapest place to go for diving day trips.

Watersports Trips in Maafushi

Day trips to snorkel with turtles/sharks/rays come at about the same cost.  Half-day trips are US$35.  Again, there’s a credit card charge of 3.5% to use a card, if your provider accepts them.  These are the cheapest prices, some islands will be more expensive.

Diving in the Maldives

If you’ve come to the Maldives and want to dive, then it’ll cost you a minimum of US$70 to dive (single dive, double it for two).  We dived from Fulidhoo – and did two dives, which cost us US$70 per dive (with all equipment), plus a US$12/day/person insurance fee, which if required, would include emergency seaplane transfer to Male, the nearest medical facility.  (Diving insurance for a week costs US$20). They will also accept your own dive insurance if you have it.

Diving is one of our 6 reasons to go to Fulidhoo, read more here.

We’re both PADI Advanced Open Water Divers, but you can also do “fun dives” if you don’t have a qualification.  Diving in the Maldives is to a maximum of 30 meters, whatever your qualification.

Our two dives got us up close to lots of fish, grey reef sharks in the Miyaru Kandu, lobsters, and lionfish too. The coral wasn’t great, but the fish life was abundant.

The Fulidhoo Dive and Watersports is a great place to come if diving is your thing.  They offer great deals for 5+ days, which include board and lodge. There are more details here.

Doing Laundry in the Maldives

If you need to do your laundry while you’re in the Maldives, then you’ll find laundries on Maafushi.  Check the opening hours carefully as it might not suit your travel.  Your hotel will likely have a laundry service.  We paid 100 MVR for a washing machine full of laundry at the Malas Island View on Fulidhoo Island, which was then line-dried, folded, and handed back to us on the same day.  We paid cash for this.

If you’re traveling on a budget in the Maldives and other areas, then you should consider getting a Scrubba.  It’s a fold-down portable washing bag with an inbuilt washboard.  We bought ours in 2014 and it’s still going strong. 

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WiFi and Internet on a Budget in the Maldives

Everywhere we stayed in the Maldives had free WiFi internet access.  Some of it was very, very slow.  Some of it was faster.    Some cafes and restaurants had free WiFi – but all of it was password protected, so you need to make a purchase to use it.

Local SIM cards are not cheap in the Maldives,  but if you need to be online and don’t want to rely on the free WiFi then you’ll have a choice of two physical SIM cards – the providers are Ooredoo and Dhiraagu.  And you can buy them at the airport in Male. It’ll cost you US$40 for 20GB of data that lasts for one month.  You CAN use your phone as a hotspot with this data.  If you want more data than this you can pay US$50 for 100GB or you can rent a mobile hotspot device with 100 GB for US$100.

The islands are all very flat – the highest point in the entire chain of Maldives islands is 2.4 meters above sea level (it is Vilingili Island in the Addu Atoll).  Cellphone transmitter towers are high so aside from small parts of the longest ferry journeys you’re likely to get good mobile data coverage even when you’re sitting on a ferry!  We got access EVERYWHERE.

Visiting a Resort Island in the Maldives on a Budget

Maldives Resort Islands are famous the world over for their luxurious accommodations, white sand beaches, private pools, and overwater bungalows.  There are even underwater restaurants here.  But I’ll let you know you won’t be visiting these on a backpacking budget trip to the Maldives.  You can however visit a resort island without paying thousands a night.  There are two ways to do this.

First of all, you can visit as a day visitor.  You’ll pay between US$200 and US$300 at the lower level to do this and get to use (most of) the facilities and enjoy the food and drink too.  Which ones can you visit?  Well, there are a few, but the easiest ones to book are available through Klook.

Klook.com

Secondly, you can pick a resort island that is relatively close to Male.  One of the costs associated with visiting a resort island in the Maldives is the transport.  You can’t take a local ferry here, and in many cases, you can’t hire a speedboat to drop you off, as the resort islands have very clear rules as to which speedboats can stop there (and here’s a hint, its only ones that belong to them!).

That’s how we picked the Malahini Kuda Bandos Resort.  It was relatively close to Male, making it a shorter transfer, and therefore cheaper (and *just* cost us US$85 per person return shared speedboat transport < and yes that was cheap compared to all the other resorts that we looked at staying at).

Here’s our review of our stay on the Malahini Kuda Bandos Resort

It also got good reviews and had a selection of accommodation types.  There are no overwater bungalows here, but there are beachfront sunrise villas with private pools and beachfront sunset villas with private pools.  There are also garden rooms (the cheapest option), and superior and deluxe rooms.  We opted for the deluxe room and here’s the view from our door.  Pretty good eh?

View from our room door at Malahini Kuda Bandos Resort

You can check out the pricing for the Malahini Resort here (we went all-inclusive, but you don’t have to) and for many more details read my full review of the Malahini Kuda Bandos Resort here.

Tips for Traveling the Maldives

Final Words on Visiting the Maldives on a Budget

Traveling to the Maldives on a budget is not like traveling to South East Asia on a budget.  You’ll need to set aside more money to travel here than you will for traveling in countries like Thailand, Laos, or Cambodia.  While the public ferries are very, very cheap, the accommodation will cost you much more than in those countries. The food is more expensive too!  Much of the food that you’ll consume in the Maldives is imported and not locally produced, which makes it more expensive.

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