Maldives Itinerary

How to Plan a Maldives Itinerary [Islands, Transport & Budget]

You could spend a lifetime here in the Maldives, exploring the 1,192 islands of this, Asia’s smallest nation by landmass.  But there are a few ways in which you can narrow down the islands you plan to visit and the things to see and do while you’re on your trip to the Maldives.  And so in our guide planning the perfect Maldives itinerary, we’ll cover arriving in the Maldives, transport, accommodation, activities, and paying for things here.  We’ll give you the highlights of specific islands, consider whether a resort island trip is for you, and cover internet connectivity and, of course, the public ferry system. 

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One of the best ways to save money planning your Maldives itinerary is to book your accommodation ahead of time – you’ll get the best rates – and the best choice of accommodation.

While the non-resort islands of the Maldives have been open to travelers since 2009, it wasn’t until 2014 that visitors started to come here.  As travel has opened up since the beginning of the pandemic, these islands are a lot easier to visit for the independent traveler.  Our Maldives itinerary takes in 6 islands, and a resort island and uses a variety of transport – public ferries, shared speedboats between islands, and a resort island speedboat too. You can see the specific two week itinerary that we put together here.

Maldives public ferry
Maldives public ferry

What to Know About Planning a Maldives Itinerary

There are two types of islands in the Maldives. Those designated as resort islands and those designated as local islands.  If you’re wanting a resort island vacation, then this is NOT the article for you.  If you’re wanting a local experience, then keep reading.  We spent time on 6 different local islands and we also stayed on a resort island.  We stayed in the capital city of Male too, as we never truly feel that we’ve visited a country unless we’ve visited the capital.  But that’s us.  Here are a few more things you need to know about planning a Maldives itinerary.

3 Key things to planning a Maldives Itinerary

  1. Plan your trip around the activities that you want to do (e.g. snorkeling from the beach, diving with Whale Sharks, seeing rays from the beach)
  2. Plan your Maldives trip based on both the time you have available and also the budget you have available.
  3. Plan your Maldives on a budget trip around the specific days of the week that the public ferries run (read my guide to Maldives public ferries here)

Arriving in the Maldives

You’re going to arrive in the Maldives at the Velana International Airport on the island of Hulhulé.  This is where 99% of international visitors arrive. And when you arrive you will NEED to complete the Maldives IMUGA, aka the digital immigration form.  It’s here.

You have to do this within 96 hours of your arrival in the Maldives.  Even, if like us, you were first off the plane (after our fabulous flight here with Saudia Airlines), you’ll have to go back and complete it.

If you forget to fill it in, like we did don’t worry, there’s free WiFi at the airport and also a whole load of QR codes to scan to complete the details.  You will need

  1. A photo of the photo page of your passport
  2. The details of your passport (number, expiry, country of residence)
  3. Your inbound flight number and the PNR from your flight
  4. Your date of arrival, and port of arrival (there’s a drop-down)
  5. The island on which you’ll be staying (pick the first one) + the name of the guesthouse, there’s a drop-down menu for this
  6. Your duration of stay and your next destination after the Maldives

Note that there is a form to complete to LEAVE the Maldives too.  It’s at the same link.

After you’ve got through immigration you’ll need to know where you’re going.  This is NOT a rock-up-and-wing-it type place for the following reasons.

  1.  The Maldives are a 100% Muslim country.  (Citizenship depends on this) – therefore the Friday religious holiday is rigidly enforced.  That means that public services do NOT operate on Friday.  That means that your main mode of transport – the public ferries do not operate on a Friday.  (There are other boat transport services)
  2. If you haven’t figured out how to get to an island, then you’re going to be staying in Male – the capital city that’s also the island of Male.  And while that’s not a bad thing –and you can easily spend a day in Male – it’s just another city.  Albeit in an island nation of 1,192 sand islands and coral reefs.
  3. Traveling the Maldives on a budget isn’t the South East Asia budget type of travel.  It’s more expensive.  You’ll want to book your accommodation in advance to get the best prices.  These sand islands are of limited size.  This means there’s limited accommodation, which generally means that it’s a seller’s market. Find a great place, and book it early.

How long to visit the Maldives?

Any itinerary for the Maldives depends on how long you have to spend here.  You’ll find 5 day Maldives itineraries, 7 days itineraries, 10 day itineraries for the Maldives.  We decided to spend 14 days in the Maldives and think it was the perfect amount of time for an independent Maldives itinerary.  Why?

  • We got to visit 6 different local islands.
  • We traveled mostly using public ferries, but we also used publicly bookable speed boats and a resort island speed boat.  We also took a car transfer back to the airport from Male, which was included with our hotel, the UMET Seaview (we recommend this place, they were great!)
  • In Male City, we walked everywhere
  • We spent 2 nights on a resort island to see how different it was from the local islands.  We took this resort island trip in the middle of our local island visits and it was a great way to do this. Read about our visit here
  • We stayed in Male, the capital city for one night, right at the end of our trip.

Our recommended 2 week Maldives itinerary is here.

Dhiffushi Island Bikini Beach
Dhiffushi Island Bikini Beach

How to Plan a Maldives Itinerary

When you’re planning an itinerary for the Maldives you’ll need to put a stake in the ground and figure out how long you’re going to stay.  The primary consideration for this will be budget.

Budgeting for a Maldives Itinerary

If you’re planning on staying only on local islands in the Maldives and staying in basic, but good accommodation with private bathrooms (there are no hostels in the Maldives),  and using the public ferries to travel between the islands then you can figure on spending a minimum US$33 per person per day on accommodation based on two sharing a room with a private bathroom.  Our average accommodation cost on the local islands was US$69 a night (for both of us)

Add in a resort stay in the Maldives and the sky is the limit.  We picked our resort island stay in the Maldives based on its proximity to Male (and therefore a shorter speedboat trip) and the reviews.  The Malahini Kuda Bandos Resort, was for us, a great place to stay.  You can check out our review here – and here’s what other people think of it too.

Malahini Island Resort
Malahini Island Resort

We paid US$1,025 (gulp!) for two nights all-inclusive at the Malahini Kuda Bandos resort.  That’s a heck of A LOT more than the cost of the local islands.  It’s also by far the cheapest we could find.  That did include our return (mandatory) speedboat transfers to the island from Male airport.

If you want to visit a resort island but don’t want to stay overnight, then you can book a day visit – this option from Klook is relatively cost-effective.

Klook.com

The islands in the Maldives are sand islands.  The main attractions of visiting the Maldives are in and under the water.  So you’ll need to budget for seeing them.  Sure there are house reefs on all the islands, or close to them.  But the best reefs and snorkeling tend not to be near to the local islands.  They usually involve a boat trip.  Or a visit to another island.

Including all the costs, but NOT our resort island trip – so public ferries, the speedboat to Maafushi on a Friday, when the public ferries weren’t running, all our food, our accommodation, food and drinks, our 12 nights of local island exploration in the Maldives cost US$120 a day for the two of us. (US$60 per day each).   That includes all our accommodation, food, drinks, and transport (apart from the resort island which I covered separately.)  Our costs on the local islands also included US$170 each for a two dive trip in Fulidhoo.  It costs US$85 per person per dive including all equipment.

Dive Boat on Fulidhoo Island
Dive Boat on Fulidhoo Island

That does NOT include any inbound or outbound flights.

And US$1,025 for a two-night stay on the Malahini Kuda Bandos Island Resort – which included US$85 per person for a roundtrip shared speedboat.

Finally, on budgeting your Maldives itinerary, let’s talk about alcohol.  Alcohol is NOT illegal in the Maldives, it’s just heavily regulated.  That means generally that you can obtain and drink it on the resort islands.  Outside of that, there are floating bars (aka boats) moored “offshore” some of the local islands where you’ll pay US$10 and up for a boat ride of 2-3 minutes and US$6-10 for a beer or alcoholic drink.

So, generally, you’re going to save on not drinking alcohol.  Unless you want to visit a resort or a floating bar.

You’ll find floating bars off the island of Maafushi and Thulusdhoo.

Understanding the Maldives Geography and the Maldives Atolls to Plan a Maldives Itinerary

There are 1,192 islands in the Maldives.  Only 187 of them are inhabited.  This includes 160 resort islands.  The island nation of the Maldives is the smallest in Asia, with the islands covering a land mass of 298 square kilometers (115 square miles).  However, it’s spread over a total area- including the ocean between the islands of 90,000 square kilometers (34,749 miles).   The Maldives stretches for 871 kilometers from north to south.

All these islands are geographically arranged into 26 different atolls. However, for administration by the Maldivian government, they are arranged into 20 administrative atolls.

So why is that important?

Well, if you’re using the public ferries they are MOSTLY arranged around the atolls, which means that if you want to travel between the atolls you (usually) need to return to Male, the capital before transiting to another atoll.

TLDR?  Plan your Maldives itinerary around visiting islands in the same atoll. (Or a small number of them) and also read my guide to the Maldives Public Ferries here.

Public Ferry in the Maldives
Public Ferry in the Maldives

Map of the Maldives

The BEST map for the Maldives, when you’re planning a Maldives itinerary is actually the ferry map from the MTCC (the Maldives Transport and Contracting Company), which runs all the public ferries in the country.  This will help you to understand how to get between the islands.

You can download the map of the Maldives and the ferries from the MTCC here.

How to get around the Maldives

In a nation with 1,192 islands, your primary mode of transport for a Maldives itinerary is going to be a boat.  There are several types of boat transport available in the Maldives.  The BEST (IMHO) way to travel around the Maldives is to use the Public Ferry Transport system.  (Reminder, my full guide to the Maldives public ferries is here)

However, we used the Maldives public ferries in conjunction with a privately booked speedboat transfer and also a speedboat to a resort island too.  We also took a transfer back to the airport from our hotel in Male, the UMET Seaview, (where we spent one night and where we recommend)

We arrived in the Maldives on a Friday, despite knowing that the only public ferry that was running was the airport ferry (more on that here).  This was deliberate.  It coincided with the fabulous Saudi Transit Visa that we used to explore Jeddah .

Transport in the Maldives

If you’re staying on a resort island in the Maldives, then you’ll generally be transported from the airport to the resort by either a private speedboat or by seaplane, depending on how far from the airport your resort island is.

If you’re traveling to what are generally known as the local islands (which are all other islands apart from the resort islands), then you (may) have a choice of public ferries or speedboats. There are two types of speedboats to the local islands in the Maldives

Shared Speedboats

These run at set times and set prices.  You can book these shared speedboats through your hotel or guesthouse, or you can book them online here.  If you book via your hotel then you’ll need to pay for the speedboat part of your bill in cash.  (and you’re going to want to read more about cash and ATMs in the Maldives here)

Speedboat in the Maldives
Speedboat in the Maldives

These speedboats run at different times on different days – if they’re going from the airport to an island, then they cluster the boats around inbound flights. 

Are these speedboats expensive?  Well, they start from US$25 upwards for about an hour-long trip.  I’ve just booked an hour-long trip from Langkawi to Koh Lipe (Malaysia to Thailand) and that’s costing me US$40, and that’s the standard price.  So no.  These speedboats in the Maldives are not *that* expensive.  They’re really not.  But they’re a lot more expensive than one of the local Maldives public ferries, which come in at US$2.41 for the same trip.

Private Speedboats

Of course, there are also private speedboats available too.  You can book them online here  – and if there are 6 of you, then this could be a cost-effective option.  Check out the costs for private speedboats here.

Using the Maldives Public Ferries for a Maldives Itinerary

If you’re planning a budget Maldives trip, then you’ll want to use the public ferries here in the Maldives.  They’re extremely cost-effective, aka cheap, but they don’t run every day, and they also don’t always run point to point.  You may have to route your travel back through Male.  We used a combination of public ferries and shared speedboats for our Maldives itinerary, although our primary mode of transport was public ferries.  The public ferry timetable should be your key consideration for transport when looking at a Maldives itinerary. 

Best Local Island Maldives Itinerary

The best Maldives itinerary for you is going to take into account your

  • Budget
  • Time available
  • Interests

For us, we wanted to explore several different islands.  We set a timeframe of 2 weeks – for a 14 day Maldives Itinerary, so we could see a variety of islands.  We wanted to experience local islands, see the capital city, try different forms of transport, and also stay on a resort island. 

Best Time to Visit the Maldives

The best time to visit the Maldives is during the dry season, outside of the monsoon season.  This is between November and April. You’ll get little rain and lower humidity during this time.  December and January are peak season, which means that prices are higher.  You’ll get lower prices, and wetter weather from May to October, so that’s the time to visit if you want to go to the Maldives on even more of a budget.

Tips for Visiting the Maldives

Here are a few tips that will help your trip to the Maldives.

  • The Maldives is a Muslim country.  There are rules about what to wear on the local islands, so if you want to wear a bikini on the beach, you’ll need to go to a specific beach for that. 
  • You’ll need cash to use the public ferries
  • US dollars are generally accepted here alongside the local currency, the Rufiyaa.
  • There might be 96 ATMs in the Maldives, but there are 187 inhabited islands.  You won’t find an ATM on all the islands, read our guide to ATMs and cash to find out where they are.
  • The sale and drinking of alcohol is heavily regulated. If you’re traveling to a local island then you’ll need to take a speedboat to visit a floating bar to drink. 
  • You must complete the digital immigration form – aka the IMUGA form in the 96 hours before you arrive in the Maldives.  Don’t forget to fill in the form to leave too.
  • The sun is super, super strong here, wear hats, sunnies, and good – reef safe – sun protection
  • There are mosquitos on the local islands.  This is NOT a malarial area, but dengue fever and chikungunya are present.  Take avoiding action.
  • The only foodstuff that the Maldives is self-sufficient in is fish.  Expect fish on all dishes, but the menus here are remarkably diverse – you can pretty much get everything.  So if pizza and pasta are your thing you’ll find it here.  Burgers too.  Noodles, rice, curries. 

What’s the Best Itinerary for the Maldives?

While the Maldives may have 1,192 islands, most of the attractions of this Asian island nation lie underwater.  So if you’re a diver or a snorkeler, then it’s best to take a look at what it is that you want to see.  If you want to see reef sharks or take a dive vacation, then Fulidhoo is a great option.  The possibility of seeing Whale Sharks?  Then you want to head to the South Ari Atoll.  There are rays right by the jetty in Fulidhoo, they’re one of our 6 reasons to visit Fulidhoo Island.

Rays at the Jetty on Fulidhoo Island
Rays at the Jetty on Fulidhoo Island

And we also got THIS close to a ray while snorkeling off the beach on the Malahini Kuda Bandos resort, just 10 minutes from Male!  And no.  There is NO zoom used on that shot.

Snorkeling with Rays Maldives
Snorkeling with Rays Maldives

If you’re looking at a general overview – which was our plan – different islands, snorkeling, a dive trip, and a visit to the capital, then our 14-day Maldives itinerary, is a great way to get a superb overview of the country.

Which Maldives Islands to Visit on a Budget

A budget Maldives itinerary means sticking to the local islands and using public ferries to get between them.  You’ll have to avoid traveling on a Friday when the public ferries don’t run, but that just means planning your travel around here. 

Getting yourself a local SIM card will help with finding the best options for ferry times, places to stay and eat while you’re here. The best option is a Maldives eSIM (buy it here), it means you can be online from the moment you arrive.

For details on phyiscal SIMs, then my guide is here.

And don’t forget that you’ll need a power adapter in the Maldives. My guide on everything you need to know about power in the Maldives is here.

Here are the most popular – and easy to reach – local islands around which to plan a Maldives budget itinerary.

Maafushi

Maafushi was the first island to introduce tourism.  It’s the biggest and busiest.  If you’ve traveled at all in Asia, then it’s very similar to Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai islands.  Aside from the fact that there’s no alcohol.  (Although you’ll also find that in parts of Langkawi for instance).  This is one of the cheapest islands to visit in the Maldives.  Our guide to the island of Maafushi is here.

Maafushi Beach Maldives
Maafushi Beach Maldives

There’s a lot of choice of accommodation, the biggest choice of water sports and a lot of places to eat that are open until – in some cases – midnight.

There’s a specific bikini beach here and a house reef to snorkel on (it is not part of the bikini beach, so cover up)

Stay at the Sun Shine Villa on Maafushi – good breakfast, great owners, excellent selection of snorkeling equipment to use on the house reef here.

Eat at the Sun Beach Café right on the beach – great staff here, the cheapest food we found, excellent dhal curry, short eats, and the juices are superb. You can pay with a card here.

There’s a floating bar moored off the island.  Ask your hotel to book the speedboat to get to it.

There’s an ATM on Maafushi.

Fulidhoo

Fulidhoo is a much quieter island than Maafushi.  There’s a great dive school here, a bikini beach, and several places to eat.   It’s a great island for watching the sunset, for chilling out, and for diving.  The dive school here is excellent and dives cost US$85 per dive, plus you can also do your certifications here.  The bikini beach signage is difficult to spot but it’s a great beach. Our guide to the island of Fulidhoo is here.

Fulidhoo Bikini Beach
Fulidhoo Bikini Beach

Stay at the Malas Island View for a great room, good breakfast, and laundry at 100 MVR per load.

The Dream Hut café is a great place for Lavazza coffee, filling meals, and good service (cash only)

There is NO ATM on Fulidhoo and several cafes do NOT accept cards.

Thulusdhoo

Lots of water sports trips here and a bigger island, you might want to rent a bicycle to get around, although walking is good too.  Great for a sunset walk.  The Coca-Cola factory here also allows short tours (arrange with your hotel).  There’s a floating bar that you can get to by speedboat.  There’s a bikini beach here, with probably the best signage on the islands. Our guide to Thulusdhoo is here.

Thulusdhoo Beach Maldives

his known for surfing (and the Coke factory).  They’re building a new breakwater and jetty, so there’s a LOT of construction going on at the moment.

Stay at the Batuta Surf View for great views of surfing breaks, a super location, and great staff.  Breakfast is amazing here.

Eat at the Canopus Retreat down from the Surf View for a great view and selection of food.  Eat super budget at the RG Restaurant in the middle of town.

There is an ATM on Thulusdhoo. The harbor, where all the ferries from Male and the speedboats come in feels a bit like its in the middle of nowhere.

Dhiffushi

Fabulous bikini beach, the best we’ve seen.   A great harbor here and lovely places for sunset.   There’s a house reef here, but you’ll need to wade out about 100 meters (in calf-deep water) to get to it.  Our guide to Dhiffushi and the reasons for visiting this local island is here.

Dhiffushi Island Maldives
Dhiffushi Island Maldives

Stay at the fabulous Isla Dhiffushi – gorgeous rooms, a great breakfast and seating area inside the hotel, and lovely staff.

There is an ATM on Dhiffushi.

Male

Male is the capital city of the Maldives.  It’s here you’ll find the administration, public services, and museums of the Maldives.  There are historic mosques, a rather lovely park, and several food courts too.  There’s a tsunami memorial (for the 2004 Tsunami, which killed 82 Maldivians and caused damage estimated at a massive 62% of GDP.  The fish market, vegetable market, and stingray feeding point are worth a visit.

Stay at the UMET Seaview, with free transfers to AND from the airport, great A/C, excellent breakfasts on the rooftop, and a super location.

Eat at the Ebb & Flow, City View, and also check out the Harbor Food Court for a good selection of cheap eats in Male. There are lots of ATMs in Male and they’re all marked on Google maps. Our one day Male itinerary is here.

What budget do you need for a Maldives Itinerary?

We spent on average US$60 per person in the Maldives – NOT including the resort island that we went to.  This included two dives, it got us a double room with A/C.  We ate out every day, although all our accommodation provided breakfast as well.  We used public ferries and one speedboat.  You will be able to find cheaper accommodation than that if you need to, but book early to secure it.

Traveling the Maldives For Cheap

The cheapest way to plan a trip to the Maldives on a budget is to travel to the local islands.  You’ll want to book your accommodation well in advance to get the best rates.  And plan to use the public ferries for transport.  Food and drink don’t have to be expensive and pick islands that have house reefs so that you can snorkel for free, without taking expensive day trips.

Eating on a Budget in the Maldives

We travel a lot for food.  It’s a big part of the time that we spend in a place.  So I was disappointed to read so many reviews about how bad the food was in the Maldives.  People!  You’ve been eating in the wrong places!  There is great food available in the Maldives and you don’t have to pay a fortune for it.  I wrote about the food of the Maldives in more detail here.

Maldivian Breakfast
Maldivian Breakfast

But for now. You can get rice dishes, noodle dishes, and fresh vegetables.  Salads. Soups.  You can get freshly cooked fish, preserved and dried fish.  There is easy food to be got on a budget in the Maldives.

Accommodation in the Maldives

There’s a huge variety in quality and value for accommodation in the Maldives.  If you’re staying on local islands, then you’ll get the best prices by booking early.  You are unlikely to get a last-minute deal for a better price.

There are currently no hostels in the Maldives, but there’s a reasonable supply of air-conditioned rooms with private bathrooms.  Here’s where we stayed 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)

Note that we also had another night on Maafushi, at the Arora Inn, which we’d booked before we stayed at the Sun Shine Villa.  It was the cheapest place we stayed at in the Maldives. The staff were excellent, but the room, unfortunately, was not.  The drain smell that permeated not just the bathroom but the whole room was just awful and the room was right next to reception, which meant it was noisy.  If you can get a room there for a good rate, just make sure it’s not room 101 (that’s the room we had.)

Tips for Traveling the Maldives

Final Words on Planning a Maldives Itinerary

With 1,192 islands you might think you’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to planning a Maldives island-hopping itinerary.  You can narrow it down somewhat when you look at only the inhabited islands, that brings it down to 187.  However, the easiest way to start planning a Maldives itinerary is to look at the flights in and out.  Then to work out how long you want to stay, and what is it you want to do and that will drive a lot of your itinerary.  Then you can take a look at transport between the islands.  Here’s to planning a great Maldivian island itinerary!

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