Maldives on a budget

How to visit the Maldives on a budget?

The Maldives has always been one of those luxury tropical getaways we’ve always dreamed of visiting but dismissed due to the high costs.

But, since 2009, the Maldivian government officially allowed tourists to stay with the local population rather than just on the privately owned pricey resort islands. This has allowed backpackers and budget travellers to enjoy the pristine waters of the Maldives.

Although not as cheap as say India or Nepal, it is still very possible to visit Maldives on a budget especially now that locals are allowed to have guesthouses.

So, we decided we would go and find Nemo in this tropical paradise in between our travels to India and Sri Lanka.

Finding Nemo in the Maldives

After lots of research and planning, we decided we’d go and find Nemo in the Maldives

The Maldives: where is it?

The Maldives is a country made up of around 1,192 coral reef islands, straddling the equator in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It is the smallest country in Asia, located just off the Indian sub-continent, south west from India and Sri Lanka:

Map of Indian subcontinent

Map of Indian subcontinent and the Maldives

The Maldives comprises around 1,200 coral reef islands.  Around 200 of these islands are inhabited and 90 of them have been developed as privately owned expensive tourist resorts, like the beautiful Gili Lankanfushi charging upwards of £1,400 a night.

We stayed on a local island called Thoddoo, based in the Ari Atoll, some 67km from the capital city, Male:

Map of the Maldives

Map of the Maldives and its atolls

Getting a cheap flight to the Maldives

Flights from Europe to the Maldives are pricey and not the cheapest. However, if you book your tickets in advance, you may find some surprisingly good deals: the cheapest return flight we found from London to Male on was £460 ($700) per person.

But the real bargain is to make a trip to the Maldives part of your travels to India or Sri Lanka. We flew from Kochi airport (south India) to Male for £55 ($85) per person.  Our return flight from Male to Colombo (Sri Lanka) cost us £65 ($100) per person.

We flew with Spicejet from Kochi (south India) to Male

We flew with Spicejet from Kochi (south India) to Male paying £55 (around $85) per person

How to choose which island to visit?

When planning a budget holiday to the Maldives it’s important to choose the right island.  For example, if you like scuba diving, ask if there’s a good diving school on the island or on an easy to reach nearby island.

If you’re a snorkeler, you’ll love islands which have house reef close by to avoid the expense of a boat trip.

Stefan snorkelling in the house reef of Thoddoo island

Stefan enjoying snorkelling in the house reef of Thoddoo island

For women, we advise you book a guesthouse on an island which has a private ‘bikini’ beach, ie where you don’t have to swim fully clothed (this is a Muslim country after all and women are required to be fully covered at all times, even when swimming).

Finally, check the transfer fee from Male.  The further away the island is from Male, the more expensive it will be to reach it:

Private boat transfer or the public Maldivian ferries

We stayed on Thoddoo island, around 67km from Male and took the overnight public ferry to and from Thoddoo island (3-4 hours, $10 per person each way).

The only downside to the public ferry is that it’s very basic: you will sleep on the floor on a thin cover with pillow supplied to you with the cargo (fruit exports, motorbikes etc) next to you.  But at $10 a ticket, you can’t really complain…

The interior of the public ferry

The interior of the public ferry – the height of luxury for us

Finding advance information about the public ferry timetables can be tricky as they are weather dependant.  Therefore, exact times are not advertised until the day before.  But we learnt that they usually operate during the night so that the boats can be used for other activities during the day.  Our ferry left around midnight each way.

Ask your guesthouse before booking if there’s a direct public ferry from Male as the transfer cost of getting to the islands with a private boat can be upwards of $300 per person.

Remember this is a Muslim country so Friday is a religious day with few public services running, so avoid booking flights scheduled to arrive in Male on Fridays.

The public ferries are used by locals as a way to travel between the islands and to export their produce and goods:

Finding a cheap guesthouse is EASY!

You will find plenty of good quality and cheap accommodations for less than $50 / night on Agoda. We stayed on Thoddoo Island, a small island perfect for those who want to experience the local life and healthy coral reefs.

We chose to stay at Serene Sky guesthouse, attracting tourists varying from honeymooners on a budget, backpackers and scuba/snorkelling enthusiasts.

We paid £42 (around $65) a day for an ensuite room with breakfast and other perks like free snorkelling gear rental, a fishing boat ride, one water sports session, fruit, free tea/coffee and water and it included a communal kitchen to cook.

Seby posing at the entrance of Serene Sky guesthouse

Seby posing at the entrance of Serene Sky guesthouse on Thoddoo island

Tourism is still very new to most of the local islands like Thoddoo.  This will work to your benefit because you will be spoilt rotten.  When we went there (November 2014), there were just 6 tourists on the entire island.

Fishing trip: Stefan caught 3 tuna

On our fishing trip on Thoddoo island, Stefan caught 3 large tuna

Thoddoo island is small, around 1km across with a population of around 1,400.  Wherever you are on Thoddoo, you’re never far from the beach.

Seby going papaya crazy on the beach

Seby going papaya crazy on the beach on Thoddoo island

Eating cheaply in the Maldives

Food in the big resorts is expensive.  For example, a simple green salad can cost around $30. But on the local islands, food is a lot cheaper.  Local Maldivian restaurants are affordable.  A meal in the local ‘cafe’ restaurant on Thoddoo island (called “Ice Tea”) cost us $11 for two.

On Thoddoo island there are several small supermarkets where you can buy the basics to cook your own meals.

Small supermarket on Thoddoo island

One of the many small supermarkets on Thoddoo island

Our breakfast was included in our accommodation package and was a hearty mix of omelette, mashuni, roshis and lots of fruit.  For lunch and dinner we normally cooked our own meals.

Our total food budget during our 10 days stay in the Maldives came to £47 ($72) for 2 people.  This averaged just over £2 ($3) pp each day.

Seb going papaya crazy with the food budget

Seb going papaya crazy on Thoddoo island with the food budget

The splurges

We did some scuba diving on Thoddoo, which blew our Maldives budget above our daily £30/$50 aim.  Other water activities will also be pricey, so it’s worth trying to negotiate some of these into the ‘package’ you will agree on with your guesthouse.

On Thoddoo, we paid $50 pp per dive including all equipment and boat ride.  Whilst this is a lot cheaper than the average price for scuba diving in the Maldives, it was still a splurge for us.

As part of our accommodation package, we had some water sports included: an opportunity for Sebastien to show off his jet ski skills.

Water sports in the Maldives

Water sports in the Maldives included as part of our accommodation package

Dual currency: dollars and rufiyaa

Taxes in the Maldives have to be paid in dollars.  We were therefore asked to pay our accommodation in dollars only.

The Maldivian currency is the rufiyaa: £1 is around 23 rufiyaa and $1 is around 15 rufiyaa (November 2014).

The dual currency of the Maldives: dollars and rufiyaa

The dual currency of the Maldives: dollars and rufiyaa are both used on the islands

There are unlikely to be any cash machines on the local islands (Thoddoo had none). Cash machines in Male will give you rufiyaa not dollars, so we had to stock up on dollars in India before arriving.

In the Maldives, we found that we could pay everywhere in dollars and would receive change in rufiyaa.

Visa for the Maldives

The visa for the Maldives is easy.  We (Stefan has UK passport, Seb, French) got a free 30 days visa on arrival at the Ibrahim Nasir airport in Male.

But they did ask to see Seb’s onward ticket and evidence of accommodation because his passport is almost 10 years old.

Our Maldivian 30 days visa

Our Maldivian 30 days visa: costs nothing and you get it on arrival

The weather in the Maldives

The Maldives has a tropical climate so getting good weather is a massive gamble, especially in these days of climate change.  The season we visited (end of November) was supposed to be the start of the peak hot/sunny season.

Instead we experience quite a bit of heavy thunderstorms for most of the time we were there, the cause of a few tantrums:

With hindsight we discovered that the south Asia area experienced a late monsoon in 2014, hence the stormy weather we experienced in the Maldives (which irritatingly continued into our onward travels to Sri Lanka).

On the upside, the sea water will always be warm despite the rain and we found that if the waves were choppy on one side of Thoddoo island, they would be completely calm on the other side.

Sunblock cream and mosquito repellant

You will need sunblock cream in the Maldives as the sun is very strong, even when it’s stormy.  We cannot stress the importance of buying your sunblock cream before you arrive.  It is all imported and therefore very expensive (for example, a bottle of Nivea Suncream will set you back $40).

Also, there are mosquitos everywhere, so stock up on good mosquito repellant and long loose fitting clothes to wear at dawn and dusk.

Seb modelling his 'mosquito clothes'

Seb modelling his fetching loose fitting long sleeved ‘mosquito clothes’

So, how much in total?

During our 10 days stay in the Maldives we spent a total £994 ($1,523) for 2 people: around £50 ($77) pp per day.

Without the flights, this figure comes to £694 ($1,063): around £34 ($52) pp per day.

For snorkel lovers, remove our scuba diving expenses and this figure comes to £409 ($626): around £20 ($30) pp per day.

Not bad for your dream holiday in the Maldives, right?