How We Did the Maldives on the Cheap

"Budget travel" is relative, so when speaking about the Maldives our definition needs to be a bit flexible, and our expectations need to be adjusted.
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Come on, dream with me for a moment. Imagine you're on a beach. You're lying in a hammock, body as loose and floppy as a rag doll. The soft strains of playful island music kisses your ears, its provenance indeterminable. Your skin is warm to the touch -- the sun gilds it with its penetrating golden rays. Just within your reach is a fruity drink, and beyond that the clear, turquoise water stretches forever and a day.

You sigh and smile. Oh, the Maldives, there is nothing better. Paradise. Unparalleled beauty.

Extreme expense.

*record scratch*

Alas, the gorgeousness of Maldives has long come with a hefty price tag. The Islamic island nation, comprised of 26 atolls that stretch between the Indian Ocean and Arabian sea, is bursting with luxurious resorts at which stays easily run $300 - $1000 USD per night. Combined with the eye-watering cost of transportation to get to and from said resorts once in Male, the capital (boat transfers and seaplanes from the Male's airport cost anywhere from $170- $300 USD), a trip to paradise simply is not cost-effective for the average traveler.

Until now.

Budget Maldives
DISCLAIMER #1: Okay, so just so that we're clear from the start, doing the Maldives on a budget is not the same as doing, say, Mexico or Morocco on a budget. You will not be able to travel on $20 USD a day here unless you are eating sand and sleeping outside. "Budget travel" is relative, so when speaking about the Maldives our definition needs to be a bit flexible, and our expectations need to be adjusted.

DISCLAIMER #2: I don't purport myself to be an expert in budget travel in the Maldives (or budget travel in general). What follows is simply what my husband Liebling and I did to save $$$ during our short three-day stay.

Ahem. Now, with that out of the way, back to regularly scheduled programming -- our budget Maldivian getaway.

Accommodation: Go local
Staying on a local-inhabited island (as opposed to one owned by a mega-resort) is perhaps the best advice I can give to anyone hoping to experience the Maldives without doing too much damage to their wallet. About five years ago the Maldivian government allowed locals to open up guesthouses on their islands, finally providing an alternative to the expensive resorts mentioned above and thus making independent travel accessible to the budget traveler. Now, as far as I saw and researched, $5 USD hostel beds just don't exist here, and you're not going to be able to eat for $2 USD a day. However, simple guesthouses/hotels with affordable nightly rates ($40-$100 USD for a double room) have been springing up on the islands of Maafushi, Hulhumale, Guraidhoo, and Fulidhoo. While the market is small, we discovered quite a few options on TripAdvisor and Airbnb.

Where we stayed: Arena Beach Hotel in Maafushi
After a fair bit of research, we decided to lay our heads at the Arena Beach Hotel, found on the local island of Maafushi. While on the more expensive end of the "budget" range (we paid $120 USD a night for their Deluxe Double room), we had a spacious "penthouse" boudoir with a sprawling balcony and a wicked sea view. Basic but clean, the hotel is located steps from the beach, and we were able to frolic in the ocean without making much of an effort to get there. Our reservation included a hearty continental breakfast which gave us all the energy we needed to luxuriate in the sun. In retrospect, however, there were nicer, newer, and slightly cheaper options on Maafushi that had me briefly regretting our choice, like the Kaani and the Crystal Sands Hotel. Still, the Arena Beach was a perfectly good place to stay.

Transportation: Take the public ferry!
As I mentioned above, transfers to your accommodation from the Maldivian capital of Male can be eye-wateringly expensive if arranged through your hotel or resort. But if you're not in a rush, using local ferries can potentially save you hundreds of dollars. The ferry from the island the airport is on to Male proper is only $1 USD per person. Luckily this runs frequently. But the ferries to the local islands, while also cheap, are often sporadic, running at odd times and on alternate days (see schedules here). Upon our departure from the Maldives, we took a local ferry from Maafushi to Male for the low low price of $2 USD per person -- a huge savings from the speedboat transfer Arena Beach Hotel wanted to charge us $175 USD for! The 1.5 hour ride on the public ferry was relatively comfortable and I highly recommend it.

But if you're short on time and need to take a speedboat:
While the local ferry is great, its infrequent and irregular schedules may not jive with your itinerary. This is what happened to Liebling and I. We arrived in the Maldives at 10 a.m. and the local ferry to Maafushi wasn't meant to leave until 2 p.m.. What to do? We were exhausted from the early morning flight in from Sri Lanka and had luggage. Luckily, we randomly stumbled on a gentleman from a tour company who was willing to cut us a deal on the 30-minute speedboat transfer to Maafushi. At $40 USD per person we decided to go for it. I have included a picture of his business card below. Get in touch with him!

Before heading to the Maldives, I had read that food and water on resorts were ridiculously expensive, so wondered how costs for grub on Maafushi would stack up. Turns out that, like everything else on local territory, tasty eats can be had for not so much money. Maldivian cuisine is unsurprisingly heavy on seafood, particularly tuna, and our hotel offered a seafood buffet feast both nights we were there for only $12 USD per person! Grated coconut and various curries also feature heavily on the Maldivian menu so be sure to try them.

A note on alcohol
There's bad news for those who enjoy spirits and other alcoholic beverages: under Islamic law, alcohol is strictly prohibited in the Maldives. Actually, correction: alcohol is strictly prohibited in the Maldives but available for sale in hotels on those (pricy) resort islands. So if you're planning to go local, this is something to be aware of. This is not a problem for me as I don't drink, but I know that Liebling definitely would have enjoyed a beer or two during our stay. And don't think of bringing your own stash for your personal consumption either -- even possession is illegal.

And if all else fails and you REALLY want a taste of luxury
We discovered that in addition to being able to book excursions (like tuna fishing and snorkeling) through our simple hotel, it is also possible to book day trips to certain resort islands so you can get a taste of how the other half lives! Day passes usually allow for an 8-hour stay, include transportation to and from the resort, and sometimes buffet lunch. If you're willing to pay up (I believe a day pass at extremely fancy places like the Four Seasons are north of $200 USD), it could be a way to have that high-end experience without completely draining your hard-earned savings.

The takeaway
The Maldives is not just for the rich anymore. Choosing to stay on a local island and in simple accommodation significantly reduces your costs. So with some planning and a bit of sacrifice, you can finally make your dreams of a Maldivian holiday a reality!

Is the Maldives on your travel wishlist? And, for those who have been, what do you think?

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