The Maldives is more affordable than you think. Travel writer Keelin Riley has discovered the simple secret to seeing this extraordinary part of the world on a budget
The Maldivian archipelago are infamously known for its over-water villas, celebrity clientele and high-brow honey-mooners, but this dream destination is a surprising steal if you know how to navigate around the 1,192 coral islands. Holidaying in this secluded paradise is still a relatively new phenomenon because of costs (despite almost 5.5 million tagged photos on Instagram of the uber-luxurious destination), but you too can snap the perfect dream-scape, white-washed photos with without loosening purse strings too much. What is the secret to the Maldives on a budget? Local island travel.
Prior to 2009, the Maldivian government only allowed a trickle of tourism to flow to certain islands, known as “resort islands”. These private destinations held a firm monopoly on tourism, meaning the cost of a family holiday for one week could far exceed €15,000.
Local islands have since opened to more tourism, and boutique hotels, quaint restaurants and tour agencies are popping up everywhere with prices rivalling the likes of Bali and Thailand. Local islands Maafushi, Dhigurah, Himmafushi and Thulusdhoo are leading the charge for budget travellers, while more exclusive islands – like private Kuda Hithi island – will still cost more than €2,000 a night. It's worth remembering before you travel that local islands aren’t home to the brochure-worthy, over-water bungalows that make the Maldives legendary, though they still have a lot to offer with simple-but-chic guesthouses equipped with all the amenities and services expected of a modern hotel.
I kick-started my penny-pinching Maldives trip with a stop on Maafushi Island. Here, I stayed a double-room with Kaani Hotels for €70 a night (based on two people sharing). This seaside accommodation ticked all the boxes with a buffet breakfast each morning and an activities desk to book all tours during your stay. Excursions are the holiday highlight of any Maldives trip and cost a fraction of the price when booked on local islands. Day-trip prices start from about €30 for snorkelling, island-hopping and even private picnics on your very own deserted sandbank surrounded by cerulean sea. The crystal-clear waters of the Maldives are home to a plethora of exotic marine life and provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come into close contact with them.
Keelin snorkelling with a whale shark, top, and a curious turtle, above.
A whale shark expedition around the island of dreamy Dhigurah was the most expensive excursion. At €60, the trip included a two-hour snorkelling encounter with these gentle giants, lunch and boat transfers. However, like all great bargains, there is a catch. Being a Muslim country, the Maldives follows Shari’a Law and while most tourist resort islands are exempt from this way of life, tourists on local islands must respect the Islamic customs. This means no alcohol, no holding hands, shoulders and knees must be covered and swimwear must be confined to the designated “bikini beaches”, reserved for tourists. If a week without a pool-side cocktail sounds like something you just can’t handle, don’t sweat it. Hotels on local islands offer full-day trips to the luxurious resorts so you can experience how the other half lives. For €80, you can live like a hedge-funder for a day, with an all-you-can-eat buffet, unlimited access to some of the resorts and all the cocktails you can drink.
Keelin's day-trip to exclusive near-by resorts
The thrifty travel scene is still one of the best-kept secrets in the Maldives; but not for long. If the Maldives is on your bucket list, consider travelling through the local islands before word gets out. Local islands are a secluded paradise with a cheap price-tag that’s just too hard to decline. A roundtrip for two adults and two children travelling over Christmas and new years eve will cost €4,152 (Etihad) and a stay at the Summer Villa Guest House on Maafushi Island will cost from €998. Though it's not the same as a 'budget' holiday to Spain or Portugal, you're guaranteed to leave with memories that will truly last a lifetime.
Expert advice for travelling the Maldives on a budget (that they don't tell you in a travel agent)
Use local ferries to travel between islands. They take much longer than speedboats, but fares are as low as €1 each way
Friday is a day of rest in Muslim culture, meaning not much business is conducted on local islands, including shops, ferries and some tours
The US Dollar is used alongside the Maldivian Rufiyaa, however, make sure your notes are crisp and clean, otherwise, they will not be accepted on the islands
Prices on restaurant menus do not include the 10% service charge and the 6-10% GST
Consider travelling to local islands Himmafushi, Thulusdhoo and Rasdhoo, which are all in close proximity to Malé, the capital, meaning easy access and cheaper airport transfers