The Maldives has reputation of world- class luxury, with state- of- the- art island resorts and a hefty price tag which deter many fellow backpackers. Behind this reputation lies a 100 out of 1000 Maldivian islands which are exclusively designed and expertly marketed to cater for those who afford $$$. Up to a decade ago - the Maldives was open only for this kind of tourism, but the good news is - not any more.
The truth is, the Maldives is indeed a unique and special destination, both for the rich and famous, but also for those seeking to bask on the Maldivian beaches on a shoe string budget. Like many couples and newly- weds from all around the world, my partner and I chose to spend our anniversary in the Maldives. We had a mission; to explore this island state fully with a budget of €50 per person per day. That is €100 for both of us, and for the duration of our stay - €1000 for 10 days. We put our backpacking experience to test, and we succeeded. Myth busted- you don't have to spend 1000s to visit The Maldives, and we will show you how by tracing our footsteps. Here's how to do Maldives on a budget.
PS. This blog aims to bring this beautiful island destination closer to those who dream about it but are weary of the $$$ resort expenses. It’s not my objective to describe and comment about the islands - you can refer to Lonely Planet or the web for that. What I can say about the islands is that each and every one has its own particular characteristics and is worth visiting. We island hopped 6 islands; Male, Fulidhoo, Maafushi, Guraidhoo, Gulhi and Huraa. All were random guesses and all where worth stopping and sleeping over. Do not be afraid to try a new island! You will be surprised at what you will find.
The first thing that hits you upon landing here is the 50 shades of blue of the sea and sky. While landing try get a window seat and you're guaranteed a bird's eye view of tiny islands sprinkled in blue lagoons which will make your jaw drop. If you are unlucky and have an isle seat, do not worry - once you clear immigration and exit arrivals, across the road is the sea, bluer than any blue. It has to be seen to be believed. This is your first welcome to The Maldives.
The next thing you'll notice is that everything runs smoothly and timely. This is not Asia. Forget haggling even for a bottle of water, forget hasslers or beggars, and forget also moulded rooms and lack of basic necessities. Because in The Maldives, even the most economic of accommodations (respectful word for cheapest) are genuinely decent and 3- star level.
Wealth does feel in the air - judging by the amount of seaplanes and speedboats. We shared the aircraft to Male with men in Ralph Laurens and lady- likes with Prada handbags - making me almost cringe under the weight of my backpack and fake Ray Bans from India. I wondered how many thousands they'll be spending to swim in the same sea as me and bask in the same sun as me. But some wealth and class never harms anyone does it? Better then cockroaches and pile ups of plasticy rubbish which plagues neighbouring countries.
One more thing before I get to the boring budget part - have I mentioned that this island paradise is postcard- gorgeous? Wait till you see the under water. A Garden of Eden awaits once you slip on your snorkelling gear. The sea here is generously blessed with creatures of all shapes and sizes - it has to be seen to be believed. The clarity of the waters add up to the vividness. Every time you'll dive or snorkel, expect to be impressed - be it a sting ray, reef shark, lion fish, clownfish, turtle or corals, you will encounter by the dozens. The islands are typically surrounded by reef you can easily swim too. Be cautious of currents, the tide here rises and recedes every day. Typically snorkelling gear is given free of charge by most guesthouses, therefore viewing this maritime wonder is free, anytime.
The finance part
First of all, the Maldives welcomes you on arrival with a free on-the-spot visa. No hassles. You need to show immigration a return ticket, a pre- booked accommodation and proof you have enough finances for the duration of your stay.
The cheapest way to arrive on this island paradise is by getting a flight from neighbouring India or Sri Lanka, which will cost you between €80- €120 per person, one way. We flew in from Kochi in Kerala, by low- cost airline Spicejet. The airfare also include 1 piece of luggage and hand luggage per person, unlike many other low cost airlines. Flying out, we flew Eastern China Airlines to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Again the cost was less than €100 per person, luggage included.
A quick glimpse at Maldivian accommodation, sorted 'Lowest Price First', and you will be impressed how many guesthouses cost a fraction of the resort prices, that is around €50-70 per room per night. Not too bad, considering that AC, hot shower, snorkelling gear, towels, parquet flooring, free coffee and tea, breakfast and such luxuries included in the price. To top it off, occasionally you will be surprised with further treats, like welcome drinks, heart shaped bed linen (Orchid Island Lodge), the beach right at the doorstep (Sancia Lodge), coffee in porcelain crockery and your own kitchen facilities (Cozy Beach View). They are little things, but for the general backpacker it is luxury. In the Maldives, this is what we got for paying €25-35 per person.
How to find these accommodations
The good news is that the local islands have a number of family- run guesthouses who are very keen on welcoming you at their place. Tourism on local islands is relatively new to the Maldives, yet the Maldivians do a wonderful job in ensuring you get to enjoy your stay fully. The hospitality we've experienced here deserves a shout. And even better, people here leave you minding your own business, no one bothers you unless you ask for help, and everyone who helps does it with genuine intentions. On every island we visited, we showed up without any pre- bookings. The islands are tiny and you can walk from one guesthouse to other within minutes, check their rooms, meet the owner, make a deal - and hey presto - all sorted. In peak season, booking online is recommended but expect to pay a little more.
Believe it or not, we found it quite easy to spend €20 or less for our daily meals. We both love trying out local food, and speaking for myself, I binge on local food owing to the fact that I have only a few days devouring this food, so might as well make the most of it and eat as much as my belly can handle. It's worth noting that tuna and coconuts are the staple diet here. Maldivian cuisine is tuna- centric so if you dislike tuna, you either go on a coconut diet or start to like tuna.
Breakfasts were usually incorporated in the lodging prices, and this included either continental breakfast (eggs, toast, tea etc) or Maldivian breakfast (yes of course, tuna breakfast!). When breakfast was not included or expensive, we opted for fresh fruit. Papaya, coconuts, bananas and pineapples are relatively cheap here costing €1-2 per kilo. For lunch, we scouted for locals eateries. You can usually spot them teaming with locals nibbling areca nut, with plastic chairs and turquoise sand washed walls, and ceiling fans to keep the midday heat at bay. These restaurants typically have a glass display with a variety of savoury snacks which cost 20-30c each. This was our typical lunch- a dozen or so pieces, combined with rice or the occasional tuna / fish. While in Maafushi, they had a whole freshly grilled tuna for €3. I couldn't believe my eyes.
You can also be creative and buy some food from the grocery. While in Fulidhoo on our private terrace 50 metres from the crashing waves, we made a wholesome lunch of fresh bread, nutella, extra vigin olive oil, salt and pepper. Cost us €5, and it was by far the most memorable. Grocery stores even on little islands stock anything from Nutella to Toblerone to Magnum (yeah I'm a chocoholic).
Dinner at the local eateries once again, if you decide so, you can eat local dishes such as curry rice and Kottu for €3-4 per person. If you feel like a burger or a pizza, expect to fork out €8-10 per person. Sometimes the craving for these foods are too hard to neglect. If you want to surprise your partner, you can also book a dinner al fresco on a resort islands but expect to pay minimum €200.
Tours and activities here are mainly marine related. You can find the most options with the best prices on Maafushi Island. Many young companies produce a healthy competition with quality services and low prices. Among our choices was an off- shore snorkelling trip with turtles, dolphin watching, plus a landing on a sand bank in the middle of the ocean. While on Maafushi, iCom had half day tours for the above for only $10!! Other travel agents were selling the same for 3 times as much. Owing to our budget, we tried iCom half expecting it would be a flop, but it turned out it was one of the highlights of our trip and we highly recommend them. It was so worth it that the next day we opted for another of their packages. You can find their offices opposite the landing jetty on Maafushi.
Diving is also a must- do while in The Maldives. The best deals can be found once again on Maafushi, around $40 for a dive. Not to be missed is a dive with the massive mantas if it’s the season.
Another activity you could do to step off from your little island is to visit a neighbouring resort island. This is usually at a fee, plus an additional charge for the private speed boat. If curiosity gets you and you want to spend your money this way, you are in for a treat. The resort islands are indeed spectacular, blending in the natural aspect of the island with the charming huts and villas. However beautiful this may be, staying on a resort island isolates you from the country and the Maldivian way of life completely.
I hope that by now, you've already started planning your Maldives trip. To make it on a budget, the trick is simple- you visit the islands which are inhabited by locals rather than the artificial resort islands. If you wish to get a taste of how this nation flourishes in the middle of the Indian Ocean, you have to live on local islands and experience for yourself the real Maldives and the Maldivian culture. Ohh, and if you really want to visit, make it quick because with this rate of global warming these islands will soon disappear underwater.