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Jillian Kramer
November 06, 2018

Just say “Maldives” and you can’t help but picture overwater bungalows, pristine waters, and perfectly pure sand. The islands are, in a word, idyllic. Yet, budget travelers might use another word to describe this dream destination: Impossible.

Paired with those picture-perfect beaches are extreme price tags. Flights to the Maldives often top $1,000, with resorts charging that much — or more — for each night’s stay.

“The Maldives is so expensive because it’s a country that relies on tourism for the majority of its GDP and has branded itself as an intimate, private getaway to attract luxury tourism dollars,” said travel expert Anthony Berklich, who recently returned from the Maldives.

What’s more, “the Maldives are very geographically isolated — several hundred miles from mainland Asia at the closest — and therefore need to have everything imported,” said Alanna Smith, an editor at TravelPirates.

When you finally get there, getting around can put a cramp in your savings style, too. “The 1,192 islands of the country are spread out over 35,000 square miles,” she added. “To get between them, travelers have to take long boat rides or seaplane flights.” Those transfers “can tack hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars onto a vacation.”

But there is good news. You can travel the Maldives on a budget, and my husband and I just did it. You may have to give up some amenities such as alcohol, which is prohibited everywhere but those expensive resorts. But the crystal-clear water, amazing snorkeling, fine white sand, and beautiful bioluminescent plankton are available to all — regardless of budget.

How to Save on Flights to the Maldives

From even the largest airports in the U.S., flights to the Maldives’ main airport in Malé can top $1,000. So, rather than flying straight from home, Berklich suggests extending your trip by a long weekend — long enough to fly through a European city with a budget carrier, such as Condor, which flies out of Frankfort, or Neos, which has a hub in Milan. “A lot of search engines don’t bundle these fares, so you’ll have to search separately,” he said.

You can also fly to a Southeast Asian destination, then catch a separate regional flight on to Malé, Smith says, adding that flights from Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, or even Dubai are often steals.

“From those cities, you can catch cheap flights for $200 to $300,” Smith said. “This might make your journey a little longer, but think of it as a way to see two countries for the price of one.” From Penang, Malaysia, we scored tickets for just $147 per person, one way.

How to Find Affordable Maldives Hotels

Those beautiful overwater bungalows come with more than just a view — they come with a hefty price tag, too. But if you don’t want to drop $800 a night or more on paradise, there are more budget-friendly options to be found that are just as beautiful.

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While most of the islands in the Maldives are private islands owned by resorts, several islands are local, and those local islands offer guesthouses for a fraction of the price. “Guesthouses can cost $50 to $120 a night, which, compared to a $1,000 a night for an overwater bungalow, is quite the bargain,” said Smith. She suggests Maafushi, Fulidhoo, and Guraidhoo as great islands with low-cost guesthouses. (These local islands are also close to Malé, making the transport from the airport less expensive, too.) On these islands, you’ll find picturesque bikini beaches where you can don your two-piece suit freely. But unlike at a resort, you won’t be able to indulge in alcohol in this Muslim country.

We opted to visit Thoddoo, a local island home to fruit plantations and a bikini beach, with more fruit plantations than restaurant choices. It was absolutely lovely.

If you must stay at a hotel, event planner Aviva Samuels, who specializes in group travel for weddings and events, suggests the Holiday Inn Resort Kandooma, which is “less than 22 miles from Male and reachable by speedboat.” Rates there start as low as $150 per night.

Even a private island resort may be within reach for some budget travelers: Kihaa Maldives Island Resort offers double rooms for less than $200.

“The resort is a little slice of heaven,” Samuels said. “It’s true that getting there requires a 30-minute flight from the Malé airport, plus a boat transfer, making it the resort’s biggest drawback.” But, Samuels adds, “if you stay long enough to maximize your room savings, you may still come out way ahead.”

How to Save Money on Maldives Transportation

If you book a stay at a private island, your choices may very well be limited to the transport options your hotel provides. (And fair warning, they’ll be very pricey.) But if you stay on a local island, Smith suggests using the ferry system to get from Malé to your slice of paradise.

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“The Maldives have a pretty extensive and affordable ferry system,” Smith said. “Tickets only cost a few dollars, and as long as you’re prepared to wait for your ferry, you can save a lot of money.” (We took a ferry from Malé to Thoddoo for just $10.)

But for the cost savings, you’ll pay a price in time. Our ferry took five hours to reach Thoddoo, when a speedboat could have reached the island in about 45 minutes. If you can’t wait to commence your vacation, “you may also be able to find local speedboat owners who can take you where you need to go for less than a resort would charge,” Smith said. On our return from Thoddoo to Malé, we booked a speedboat for $35 per person.

How to Save Money on Food

When you’re not booking an all-inclusive, food in the Maldives does not have to break the bank.

“If you’re staying at a guesthouse on a local island, you’ll find that many guesthouses offer affordable dinners for around $10 to $15,” said Smith. “These may even be included in your nightly hotel rate.” If meals aren’t included, then “eating traditional Maldivian food is the cheapest way to eat. It consists of a lot of fish, curry, coconut, and rice.”

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We found meals on Thoddoo to be even less expensive. We routinely spent $12 on both our meals combined, enjoying two non-alcoholic beverages and entrees each time we dined.

Another way to save money on food is to “bring snacks and protein bars from home,” said Berklich. If you’re on a very tight budget, you could eat a protein bar for breakfast if your hotel doesn’t provide it, or “have breakfast — which is included in most hotel’s rates — skip lunch or eat a protein bar, and then only pay for dinner.”

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