MANILA, Philippines – The picturesque islands that make up the Maldives used to be an exclusive destination for the wealthy, one of those dream vacations we add to our bucket lists but have little hope of actually going on because of how prohibitively expensive it is.
When I added it to my bucket list a few years ago, flights alone cost around US$2,000 and hotel rooms at least $300 a night. A friend once told me they were set on having their honeymoon in one of the Maldives’ sun-kissed islands until she realized the money they would spend could afford a longer trip through several countries in Southeast Asia. (READ: The budget traveler's guide to Japan)
Changes over the past few years, however, have made this archipelago in the Indian Ocean accessible to budget travelers and allowed me to cross it off my list.
All in all, we spent about US $1000 per head for a 4-night stay, including airfare, food, accommodations, and activities.
Here’s how you can you can enjoy this unique island nation on a budget.
How to get there
In January of this year, the budget airline Tiger Airways launched four flights a week to Male, the capital of the Maldives. For about US$450 or P20,000, you can get a round-trip flight from Manila to Male.
The downside is that the trip can take about 14 hours, with a five-hour layover in Singapore. But Changi Airport has enough attractions to keep you busy and comfortable spots to take a nap in, so the stopover was a small sacrifice for us.
Since 99% of the Maldives is made up of water, with its 1,200 islands scattered over 298 square kilometers, it is one of the most geographically dispersed countries in the world. This means one of the major costs usually involved in a trip to the Maldives is the transfer via seaplane (around US$300 per person!) or speedboat from the airport to the island of your choice.
To keep costs down, we chose to stay on an island near Male called Maafushi. A 2-hour ferry ride from the airport to this island in the Kaafu Atoll costs a mere US$2. If you want to get there faster, you can try to find other travelers to split the cost of a US$150, 30-minute speedboat ride with.
Where to stay
The Maldives, being an Islamic country, prohibits the consumption of alcohol and pork and requires women to be conservatively dressed – except in resorts that for decades have only been located on uninhabited islands. In 2009, however, a new government keen on attracting more tourists has allowed guesthouses to be opened on inhabited islands.
Maafushi is one such island. With a population of less than 2,000, this small island is now home to more than 20 guesthouses or budget hotels providing rooms to travelers from all over the world for as low as US$50 a night, breakfast included.
They may not be the five-star accommodation typically associated with the Maldives, but they are mostly new and clean, with cable TV and Wi-Fi available.
The downside of being in an inhabited island is that Islamic laws apply. This means you can’t find alcohol or pork here, and swimming in your bikini is limited to a small stretch of covered beach. But this doesn’t have to ruin your vacation. (READ: 5 tips for your budget trips from '3rd World Traveler' author)
What to do
Most travelers who stay in Maafushi spend their days on trips to nearby islands or other excursions. You can go on a snorkeling trip for US$20-35 per person, or go on a barbecue picnic lunch on an uninhabited nearby island with a crystal clear lagoon for US$35 per person.
There are also early morning or night fishing trips offered for US$25-40 per person, with whatever you catch grilled for your next meal. I wouldn’t recommend the US$40 dolphin cruise though – there’s a good chance you’ll see dolphins race your boat in one of your many excursions anyway.
You can also take day trips to one of the island resorts around Maafushi, and there see the overwater bungalows the Maldives is famous for, as well as have your fill of booze and whatever dish fills your fancy.
A trip to Fihalhohi Island Resort, which has one of the best in-house reefs for snorkeling, costs US$24 for the boat ride and entrance fee. A buffet lunch is just another US$24 – cheaper than the hotel buffets in Manila.
Take a trip to Fihalhohi Island Resort, which has the best in-house reefs for snorkeling
If you want to experience the five-star luxury the Maldives is known for, you can take a day trip to the Anantara resort just 15 minutes away from Maafushi. Swimming in the turquoise lagoon around the overwater bungalows in Anantara Veli – one of the three islands that make up the resort – feels like being in giant but oh-so-pretty aquarium.
The attentive staff will bring you cold towels and refreshments as soon as you arrive, and while you’re lounging by the beach or infinity pool. It may be a bit expensive at US$75 for the boat ride and entrance fee plus a mandatory consumption of US$118, but it seems worthwhile considering it costs around US$500 a night to stay here.
One advantage of doing it this way is that you get to see several picture-perfect island resorts for a fraction of the cost. These resort day trips typically last until 6pm, but during the low season resorts usually allow day-trippers to stay for dinner. And while these trips and excursions are likely to be offered by your guesthouse (see this list for example), you can shop around to compare rates or look for independent travel and tour shops that are more open to negotiations.
More budget tips:
US dollars are widely accepted and normally preferred in the Maldives, but paying in the local currency is often cheaper. US$1 is equivalent to about 15 Maldivian rufiyaa and they tend to round up. A ferry ride that costs 22 Maldivian rufiyaa, for example, becomes US$2 if paid in US dollars.
Excursions are cheaper if more people participate because part of the cost is the boat rental. So go ahead and make new friends.