How to Take Your Dream Trip to the Maldives on a Budget

Aerial drone view of a tropical island in the Maldives
Photo: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

The mere mention of the Maldives conjures up images of overwater bungalows, pristine waters, and perfectly powdery sand. The islands are, in a word, idyllic. Many budget travelers might use another word to describe this dream destination: Impossible. On the other hand, some have creatively found ways to experience the Maldives on a budget.

How much does a typical Maldives trip cost? Flights to the archipelagic state in South Asia often top $1,000, with luxury 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.

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, a former editor at TravelPirates.

When you finally get there, getting around can put a dent in your savings, 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 to the Maldives on a budget, and my husband and I did it in 2018. You may have to give up some amenities such as alcohol, which is prohibited everywhere but in 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 Frankfurt, 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 fairly affordable.

“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.

Tourists in the shallow water at a sand bank off of Maafushi Island, in the Maldives
Davor Lovincic/Getty Images

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. 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 Malé and reachable by speedboat.” Rates there start at $291 per night.

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.

Ferry boat in the Maldives
Dietmar Blome/Alamy

“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 hotel, 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.”

Sunset on the Maldivian island of Fulidhoo
iStockphoto/Getty Images

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 hotels' rates — skip lunch or eat a protein bar, and then only pay for dinner."

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