Maldives On The Cheap: How I Backpacked Maldives For Less Than USD 300
I bet you’re about to hate me.
You’re huddling in your cramped office cubicle, wishing that you were anywhere else but there.
You wince as you scroll through the page. One after another, photos of sparkling turquoise waters revealing itself slowly and almost mockingly. You can almost breathe the balmy air; taste salt on your lips.
Reading about someone else’s vacation on the Maldives is like smashing salt into your gaping wound, and yet, you can’t seem to tear yourself away from the page.
Because I’m about to tell you how you can do the same without having to sell your first-born. Or that shiny new gadget of yours.
Maldives was never on my bucket list. If I’d wanted to escape to a dazzling tropical island, then I’d want it as isolated as possible. The idea of spending a hefty sum of money on a place that everyone deems as a perfect honeymoon destination, irks my clichéd indie traveller nature. And yet.
Somewhere around October last year, TigerAir offered some awfully too-good-to-be-true promo deals to Maldives. I’d seen them going on for a while. I’d ignored them initially. But then, there was all this talk recently about how Maldives could be done on the cheap. Changes in the Maldivian government have allowed locals to open up their houses to foreigners and run tourism on a smaller and a more local scale. Tourists can now stay in locally populated islands instead of being whisked away to private islands dotted with only luxurious over-the-water bungalows. Which means, if you don’t care about luxury and all you want is a cosy bed to sleep on after a fulfilling day of diving and suntanning then you’re in for a bit of luck.
Cheap is relative anyway. If that British backpacker could do it, then the thrifty ‘Asian’ in me could cut those costs into half.
Return flights from Singapore to Male for USD161. Unbelievable.
I was sold.
Independent Travel Around Maldives For Six Days
Do a quick check on Skyscanner or Google Flights and you’ll find that the cheapest flights leave from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Bangkok. Budget carriers like TigerAir or AirAsia offer deals from as low as USD150 for return flights. Personally, I prefer TigerAir. They have more frequent flights and their flights leave in the morning, allowing you to catch the afternoon ferry to the other islands.
Local islands like Maafushi, Hulhumale, Guraidhoo and Fulidhoo all offer a wide variety of budget accommodations, ranging from USD30-150 a night for a double room. Trawl through Booking.com and you’ll find something clean and comfortable with an affordable price tag. Take note that all accommodations will incur a standard Service Charge, GST tax and tourist tax (as of Oct 2014, it was USD8 per person, per night).
We picked Picnic Inn on Maafushi Island as our base for 4 nights (USD 47 per night, taxes inclusive) and it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. Granted we didn’t have sea views or even a balcony to begin with, but our relatively cheap accommodation had allowed us to spend on other more important things like food and excursions. The service was excellent and our room was very quaint, sweet and immaculately clean. A lovely daily breakfast was also included in the price so we saved heaps!
On our last night, we stayed in IBerry Inn on Hulhumale. Hulhumale was nice enough but it was also sprawling with residences. Maafushi was way smaller and exuded a certain sort of small-town charm.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to come across hostels. If you’re a lone adventurer, CouchSurfing and AirBnB may be your best bet.
Take The Local Ferry
Forget private transfers. They cost a bomb and they’re not the only way to get around. Do your homework and you’ll work out easily the cheapest ways to get to your island of choice. Ferries to Maafushi (and perhaps to other local islands) leave from Villingili Ferry Terminal on Male.
To get to this particular ferry terminal from the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, you’ll have to take a 10-minute ferry ride (RV15 per person/USD 1) from the jetty near Airport Arrivals.
After arriving in Male, seek out a taxi driver that will take you to Villingili Ferry Terminal for RV 25 (USD 1.60). Most drivers will charge the standard fare. We were a little apprehensive initially and were ready to haggle for a good price but it turned out that our concerns were unnecessary. Our driver was affable, polite and took no detours. Ferry tickets to Maafushi (RV 30 one way/USD 2) are available at the pier and the journey lasts about 90 minutes.
Plastic and wooden seats are available at the bottom deck. But if you want to dangle your feet across the water, you can climb up to the roof deck and take in the beautiful ocean scenery for the whole duration. You might even see some dolphins on the way.
Do take note that ferries don’t run on Fridays to Maafushi. To be on the safe side, check out the ferry schedule here.
While it probably won’t be as cheap as eating out in Malaysia or Singapore, you can still have local Maldivian meals for USD 4- USD 10. Local delicacies feature curries, tuna rice, grated coconut and tomatoes, roshi and grilled fish. You may also find locals sidling up to small cafés, savouring samosas and other puff pastries with their afternoon coffees. Western meals and BBQ Buffets are available but expect to pay more than USD 11 for a meal.
Menus usually show food prices before taxes, so don’t be surprised if your final bill adds up to be a few dollars more.
Cash is king in Maldives.
You can use either US Dollars or the local currency, Maldivian Rufiya. Hotels and guesthouses take both currencies while smaller eateries prefer the local currency. Don’t leave the airport without changing what you have into local currency or without taking advantage of the ATM there! We’d learnt this the hard way because we’d spent more than 30 minutes walking around Male, under the scorching sun, with our backpacks, looking for a functioning ATM. We found two but one didn’t work and the other only worked with local cards. On Maafushi, there were no money changing facilities or an ATM. Hence we were slapped with an additional 3.5% when we used our credit card to settle our hotel bill!
Making The Best Out Of Your Excursions
Apart from a ‘tourist beach’ where tourists can lounge around freely in their bikinis and board shorts, there was not much to do on Maafushi island. For best snorkeling or diving spots, Manta Ray/Whale Shark/Dolphin watching, fishing, or experience a day of luxury on private resort islands, you’ll pay for an excursion or a day trip. Most hotels and tour agencies offer a comprehensive catalogue of trips and activities in-house but prices differ greatly from one guesthouse or shop to another.
Be shameless and negotiate. Drive a hard bargain if you can.
Recruit a team of other travellers so that you can have the excursion for a lower price.
We were lucky to have met a Singaporean family in our guesthouse. The Father was skeptical of the prices offered at Picnic Inn so he took the initiative of ‘doing research’. On the very afternoon of our arrival, while we were lounging in the courtyard of our guesthouse and trying to recover from our early flight, the Father strode up to us and whispered conspiratorially that Sun Tan Beach Hotel were willing to waive off the service charge and some other compulsory taxes if we were to go on more than one excursion with them. He’d managed to secure a few good deals for his family and was happy to share the tip. Apparently, he was already on first name basis with the Manager there.
We declined his offer for an evening fishing trip and dolphin watching with his family, but agreed to join them for a Manta-ray snorkeling trip and a day trip to the Fihalhohi Resort instead. The non-negotiable entrance fee to the resort was USD 40 but the speedboat rate to and fro was reduced from USD65 to USD35 per person. A little discount here and there all adds up!
Respect The Local Culture
Tourism may be developing quickly in these local islands (including Male) but do remember that Maldives is still a strict Muslim nation. Older women are shy. They are conservatively dressed and tend to look away when you speak to them. Bikinis are strictly forbidden on public beaches so it is not uncommon to see girls and women swimming and frolicking on beaches while being completely dressed. If you must show off your latest Bikini collection, you may do so on the ‘Bikini beaches’ where a small strip of the coastline is walled away specifically for tourists.
If you’ve imagined yourself sipping a sugary sweet Pina Colada while watching the sun sinking slowly over the horizon, then you’ll have to escape to a private island (like Fihaalhohi or Olhuveli) to do so!
Absolutely no alcohol or pork is allowed in the local islands and frankly, I believe that’s a good thing. Locals of a paradise archipelago don’t have to put up with the careless nature and the bad behaviour that some foreigners tend to exhibit when they are on a vacation.
Having said that, I find Maldivians very friendly and hospitable. A few had patiently assisted us to look for an ATM machine in bustling Male city. Another had invited us to a work BBQ function in Hulhumale.
So why not share a part of their land for a brief period of time with some curiosity for their way of lives and good manners?
Is Maafushi of the Maldives that cheap and that awesome? Read next The Other Side of Paradise: Maafushi, Maldives