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It’s a popular misconception that the Maldives can’t be experienced and enjoyed on a budget – it certainly can. Local water taxis to idyllic outlying islands and staying in budget friendly local accommodation will save you a fortune.
With a little bit of research, the white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters can be yours too, to enjoy without breaking the bank.
When to Go?
Peak season is dictated purely by the weather and runs from 1st October through to 31st March. Accept a few fleeting warm showers in September or April, and it will reduce the prices you pay dramatically. Travel during the monsoon off-season is great for surfers, though you do risk fewer guest houses being open and much choppier sea conditions.
Everyone prefers to fly direct or have as short a transfer as possible. The prices for this are, of course, higher.
Take a look at flying into Southern India (Kochi, for example) or Sri Lanka and then taking a lower cost airline into the Maldives. Seasoned travellers will know to use the likes of Kayak, SkyScanner and Skiplagged to find the best fares. But, these sites don’t always combine long haul airlines with local ‘no frills’ airlines, such as SpiceJet and IndiGo, from India and Sri Lanka. Take the time to build your own ‘hacker’ flight itinerary.
What about looking at a longer layover as an opportunity? Get out of the airport and have lunch in Dubai or dinner in Istanbul? Is it worth buying access to a business lounge for unlimited food, drink and WiFi to see you through?
This is where the costs can start add up, as the local “Maldivian” airline internal flights cost an eye watering USD 200 – 300 for a round trip.
Option 1: Stay in Malé or Huahale
There’s a decent array of accommodation on the main two islands, from which you can enjoy the beaches, coral reefs and use as a base for longer forays to more distant atolls. Simply grab a taxi from the airport and you’ll be at your accommodation in minutes. Easy!
Option 2: Stay on an island that is only a short boat ride away
More often than not, your accommodation will come and get you for free. The harbour is just outside the airport entrance: cheap and convenient.
Option 3: Use the extensive local ferry network
Here’s the big travel ‘hack’: for USD 5 – 10 per journey, you can access the outlying islands through a comprehensive network of local ferries, large and small. The boats are not luxurious and passengers are expected to bring their own food and water. The main ferry terminal is Villingili on Malé, MTCC’s Ferry Link is the official ferry operator. Their timetables can be found here.
Atoll Transfer list full public and private ferry timetables on their website. To start your planning, click right here for their comprehensive set of route maps. Wild Maldives also have a useful, if not foolproof, interactive timetable here.
Option 4: Hire a local speed boat
It would pay to stay in Malé for 24 hours and head to the Villingili ferry terminal to arrange a private speed boat charter. Spread across a group of you, it will work out cheaper than flying and faster than the public ferry. The good folks at Atoll Transfer, your accommodation and lots of independent boat owners all stand ready to assist.
Here’s your second massive travel ‘hack’: in 2015, the Maldivian government relaxed its tourism rules, which previously restricted all tourism to resorts on otherwise uninhabited islands. Now, cheap and authentic guesthouses are popping-up all across the atolls, on the smallest and most beautiful of islands.
There are ample listings on all the usual sites for bed & breakfasts, guest houses and homestays from as little as £25 per night. Follow the links below direct to some of the amazing properties on offer:
AirBnB – HomeAway – Trivago – booking.com – agoda.com
You can expect a far more local experience than a private resort island. You will likely be on a public island, which does come with a couple of warnings, as the Maldives is a surprisingly strict Muslim country:
1) Alcohol is not permitted and will not be for sale or otherwise available on the island
2) Women should wear modest attire. Swim wear is only allowed on designated ‘bikini’ beaches. (Take a read here of the consequences, if you don’t!)
Food & Drink
Eat local for a fraction of the price of expensive imported Western food. Expect seafood, spice and coconut, which play a big part in the local diet. It is all incredibly tasty and an opportunity not to be missed. Some dishes to look out for include:
Garudhiya: fish broth served with rice, onions, lime, chili.
Mas huni: shredded smoked fish with grated coconuts and onions (a breakfast fav!)
Fihunu mas: fish basted with chili and barbecued
Hedhikaa is the local word for snacks in the islands. Some favourites are:
• bajiya: pastry stuffed with fish, onion and coconut
• gulha: pastry balls stuffed with smoked fish
• keemia: deep fried fish rolls
• kulhi boakiba: spicy fish cake
• thelui mas: fried fish cooked with chili and garlic
Traditional local drinks include, “Raa,” tapped from palm trees.
Last minute tourist items are not excluded from the high prices. Plan ahead and make sure you bring all the sun cream, masks and snorkels that you require. Such items command premium prices on the atolls.
The author travelled to the Maldives at his own expense.
Photo credits: Trans Maldivian, Dream Inn, Cokes Beach, Swan Tours