The stunning images of plush resorts in The Maldives might give the impression that you need to be Mr. Moneybags to do any kind of vacation in this archipelago. However, that is one of the biggest myths surrounding this beautiful country. Cash-strapped travellers have many unique options to holiday in this South Asian nation. Discover what to do in Maldives on a budget, from nature park visits to eating from the local shacks.
Maldives’ weather is charming, irrespective of the season you pick for your vacation. The country gets a majority of its tourist influx in the winter months of November to January. The budget traveller should visit in the shoulder season of September to October or February to March when the hotels are relatively cheaper and the weather is still pretty good.
Scout for online deals on air tickets for your flight to the Velana International Airport, Maldives. Low-cost carriers such as Indigo, SpiceJet and GoAir offer seats at throwaway prices if you book in advance.
#1 Stay on a Public Island
While Maldives’ luxury villas on private islands grab most of the limelight associated with tourism in the country, the public islands are its best kept secret. There are only about 200 inhabited islands in The Maldives of a total of approximately 1,200 isles in all.
Scattered across 26 atolls, local islands are inhabited by the Maldivians. There is no compulsion to learn to speak in Dhivehi – local language of The Maldives. But it sure helps to have deeper discussions with the Maldivians if you are conversant with some of the commonly used phrases.
Malé – the world’s smallest capital, Guraidhoo, Maafushi, Huraa, Hulhumalé, Fulidhoo, Dhiffushi, Mathiveri, Thulusdhoo, Himmafushi, Ukulhas, Gulhi and Rasdhoo are some of the better known public islands which welcome tourists wholeheartedly. In fact, Maafushi is famous for its guesthouse tourism approach.
Guest houses in The Maldives are the cheapest type of accommodation you will find in this country. They are much more affordable than multi-star hotels or sprawling resorts in the best all-inclusive islands in The Maldives.
Aside from the cost-factor, you will be able to get a meaningful glimpse into Maldives’ history and culture when you live around the Maldivians and watch them closely. For the inhabitants, it is mandatory to be Muslim. If a foreigner wishes to become a citizen by naturalization, he must convert into Islam and religiously follow all the tenets of that faith.
#2 Choose Local Ferry for Island Transfers
Doing Maldives on a budget may seem challenging but it is actually quite simple. Since every island in The Maldives is located several kilometres away from the other, separated by vast swathes of ocean water, the options of local transportation become limited.
While many wealthy tourists prefer private seaplane transfers from one island to another, Maldivians travel in local ferries. Not to be confused with dhonis – traditional Maldivian wooden boats, the public slow dhoni transfer employs diesel-powered boats for travel between different islands of an atoll or between two atolls.
Compared to seaplanes, local airlines, private yachts and even speedboats, public ferries work out to be the cheapest. For as little as USD 5 per person per trip, you can avail a public slow dhoni ticket. By contrast, the other modes of transport, particularly chartered seaplanes, cost upwards of USD 200 to USD 1,000 per head.
The only downsides to local ferry transfer are their limited frequency and routes, and the long duration they take. Speedboats are up to 3 times as fast as slow dhonis. You might also need to change ferries at Malé – capital city of The Maldives, if there is no direct connectivity from your starting isle to the destination atoll or island.
#3 Snorkel on the House Reef
Snorkeling is undoubtedly one of the most popular activities to do in Maldives. You only need a snorkel and a mask before you can jump into the turquoise lagoon in search of exotic marine life. In fact, you don’t even need to know swimming if snorkelling in shallow waters.
One way to explore the coral lagoons is to go on Maldives snorkeling tours that take you to different diving spots in an atoll or even across various atolls. Spanning a full day or just half a day, these Maldives day tours provide multiple chances of sighting extensive barrier reefs, rare coral formations, shoals of fishes and even turtles.
A regular 3-point snorkeling tour in Maldives costs less than USD 100, and is worth every dollar. You even get your complimentary lunch served on a deserted sandbank between dives. However, if you want your snorkeling experience to be absolutely free, make the most of the house reef of the hotel or guest house you are staying at.
You can check with various hotels in The Maldives if they will let you rent fins, safety jackets and other snorkeling gear to swim through the shallow lagoon regions immediately surrounding the property or their private beach. You may not find turtles on the house reef, but you will be able to enjoy the colourful display of coral columns, schooling fish and perhaps some types of rays and sharks.
Book Day Tours with Snorkeling
#4 Visit Local Beaches
It costs absolutely nothing to be a beach bum in The Maldives! Who said you have to spend a bomb on Maldives beach villas to get some vitamin-sea? Do not neglect to visit the local white sand beaches of the public islands. You will never have to pay any sort of entry fee, even to use the sun loungers, coconut choir hammocks or wooden swings on the local beaches. You can ask your guest house for extra towels or blankets which you can throw on a clean patch of sand and lie down to relax.
On inhabited islands, one must remember to dress appropriately. Wearing bikinis, topless sunbathing or changing clothes in public are a strict no-no. What may be acceptable in most liberal Western countries, is frowned upon in The Maldives. The locals are easily offended by immodesty, even at the beach.
Those who defy the Islamic law or make the Maldivians uncomfortable with body exposure may be reported to the local police, so play it safe. The only exception to this rule is the specially earmarked ‘bikini beaches’ which are secluded tourist-only private areas on public islands. You can safely wear a bikini here, but nudism is banned.
Bring some Lycra or spandex-based clothes which cover your torso and shoulders and reach below your knees. Most sweat-wicking track pants and t-shirts, commonly used for sports, will also do a great job of a swimsuit. It is not necessary to wear a wetsuit to cover your entire body, though. As long as your clothing is not sleeveless, skin-tight, see-through or shorter than knee-length, you are fine. You can also consider buying conservative swimming costumes from the local shops. Checkout the list of water sport activities in Maldives that you can do on budget.
#5 Eat from Food Carts & Shacks
Most Maldives vacation packages include an elaborate meal plan for all the days of your stay, especially if you are staying in an expensive private island villa. But there is no need to pay through the nose for good food. Public island hotels often offer complimentary buffet breakfast to its guests.
If that is not an option for you, get out there and browse through the local cafés, beach shacks and food carts on the inhabited island. The prices are very reasonable and there is an abundance of choices. You can savour a hearty lunch for less than USD 10, whereas light snacks will barely cost a dollar! Dig into aromatic seafood curries, delectable savoury fritters, fresh tropical fruits and even vegetarian and vegan items.
Back from one of the tiring Maldives diving tours? Cool down with coconut water from a juice cart, served straight in the green coconut shell which is hacked open in front of you and shaped for aesthetic appeal. You must also try garudhiya – a clear soup made of tuna and tempered with fragrant Asian spices and onions.
If you are vegetarian, you will still have plenty of culinary delicacies to relish. Huni roshi (grated coconut chapati / hand-rolled flatbread), bis keemiya (a type of deep-fried stuffed pastry / samosa), yam fries and boshi mashuni (banana flower salad) are highly recommended.
#6 Walking Tours
The most economical way to do sightseeing in The Maldives is to walk. If it is your very first time in this island nation, you can consider booking Maldives walking tours which last anywhere between an hour and a full day. Some of these walks also include snacks and lunches and even island transfers from one local isle to another.
Look for Maldives tour packages that have such interesting and interactive experiences included. If not, you can always separately book a walking tour at rates that start from just USD 40 per person. Some of these walking tours will take you to mangroves, freshwater lakes and local mosques, apart from offering insights into shipbuilding, coral planting, and drying and curing of tuna.
A full day Malé City walking tour will expose you to the country’s faith, education system, tea-time hedhikaa (a sweet or savoury snack) culture and many important points of interest. Visit the tomb of Abu – al – Barakaath (the philosopher who introduced Maldives to Islam), the stunning Old Friday Mosque, the sprawling Sultan Park and several other attractions of note.
You will even be able to witness the bustle of the fish market and the local vegetable market before ferrying off to the nearby island of Villimalé. Understand the importance of balancing Maldives’ delicate ecology as you go on an eco-tour of this little village. For a completely free sightseeing tour of Malé, go on a self-guided walk to the tourist spots on this small island.
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#7 Bike Through Nature Parks
A new trend which is catching on among well-informed travellers to The Maldives is a visit to its nature parks. Many of the southern island atolls and cities are blessed with diverse landscapes which include wetlands, sandy beaches, marshes, tropical woodlands, freshwater lakes and mangroves.
Visit the nature park in Addu Atoll, home to the Eedhigalhi Kilhi wetlands and the Koattey Protected Area. If you are into birdwatching, you will be dazed by the myriad of avifauna that can be sighted here. Bring your own binoculars or rent the equipment you need from the entry point.
Similarly, in Fuvahmulah, which is an island and an atoll in itself, two freshwater lakes beckon to be explored quietly on canoes that glide past lotuses floating on these serene lakes. A great way to get around in this nature park is to hire a bicycle. Don’t miss the sight of flying fish in the coastal regions of this island.
#8 Resort Day Trips
You may not be living in any of Maldives’ luxury resorts on water, but you can still tour them and be dazzled by their elegance. Day trips to private island properties are a pocket-friendly alternative to shelling out big bucks on an all-inclusive stay. Quite a few 5-star resorts such as Cinnamon Dhonveli, Taj Exotica and Olhuveli Beach and Spa accept guests on such trips.
Maldives full day tours that focus on one luxury resort per day can be booked for as low as USD 75. You can also upgrade your trip to include an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch, access the private island’s own dive centre to go canoeing, surfing or stand-up paddle boating.
It is a good idea to pre-book activities in Maldives, especially on the private island resorts. Nevertheless, if you are planning to take it as it comes, you can just spend the day lazing at the beach, swimming in the common pool or snorkelling on the house reef. You will have complimentary access to changing rooms and sometimes, even a towel.
These are not the only things you can do without burning a hole in your pocket. If you want more tips on what to do in Maldives on a budget, there are island hopping tours, sandbank tours, culinary excursions, dolphin sightings, sunset cruises, and many others.