The stunning Indian Ocean archipelago of Maldives has built a reputation as a luxury destination. Yet in recent years, travelers on tighter budgets have been welcomed as well.

Since the first tourists began to wash up on its immaculate coral sand shores in the late 1970s, the country has cultivated an image as an exclusive collection of private islands affordable only to certain people. It wasn’t until 2008 that independent budget travel became genuinely possible, when Maldives’ first democratically elected government abolished the rules obliging all foreigners to stay in resorts. This change allowed licensed locals to open their own guesthouses on so-called “local islands” – atolls where Maldivians live, as opposed to the self-contained resorts, each effectively a private island that exists in almost total isolation from day-to-day life in the country. 

Maldives offers such an incredible combination of dazzling beaches, cerulean waters and fantastic diving that its opening up to travelers without limitless financial resources is definitely a cause for celebration. Keep in mind, though, that Maldives’ sheer isolation from the rest of the world means it will never be a true shoestring destination. The following are some simple tips for keeping your costs down in a destination with a well-earned reputation for exorbitance.

white sandy beach hermit crab on sunny tropical paradise island with aqua blue sky sea water ocean
Prices can drop by more than half in Maldives’ low season ©MotionWorksFilmStudio/Getty Images

Travel during low season, or at least try to avoid high season

Maldives is cheapest during the southwest monsoon, which begins in May and ends in October, handily coinciding with the Northern Hemisphere summer. As it’s the rainiest time of year, guesthouse prices can drop to half their high-season levels, and while it can be overcast and wet at this time of year (particularly in June and October), you’ll never need to worry about being cold thanks to the year-round warmth of the equatorial air. 

Since accommodation prices reach their peaks from the start of December to the end of February, it’s smart to plan outside this time frame if possible.

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Select your flight carefully

Unless you happen to have your own yacht, the only way in and out of Maldives is by air. The islands’ remoteness means flying to Male is never going to be cheap, though the average fare has happily ticked downward in recent years. Relative bargains can be had using charter airlines like as Condor or Edelweiss, while Indian low-cost airline Go First now offers direct flights from Mumbai and Delhi. A stopover (or two) may reduce your airfare costs significantly.

Stay in a guesthouse rather than a resort

Finding the right guesthouse will represent the biggest single savings you can make on a trip to Maldives, as even the fanciest guesthouse will cost significantly less than the cheapest resort. Unlike at self-contained resorts, a guesthouse necessarily puts you on a local island giving you food, drink and activity options – which means the freedom to pick your own restaurants, select your own diving crew and compare prices accordingly.

passenger ferry dhoni boats in North Malé atoll harbor, Maldives
The inexpensive and ubiquitous dhoni ferries are the way locals from atoll to atoll in Maldives © Getty Images

Travel like a local and take the ferry

MTCC ferries, the state-run public transport system, is a superb – if not particularly rapid – way to get around, with tickets costing almost nothing. On an often crowded but very sociable dhoni (the multipurpose Maldivian sailing vessel), you’ll have plenty of time to sun yourself on the roof while looking out for dolphins as the boat wends its way slowly to your island. At only a few dollars per ride, you’ll save a fortune compared to the expensive speedboat or seaplane transfers most resorts require.

Choose an island popular with backpackers

The further you go from the crowds in Maldives, the more you’ll pay to get and stay there. Busier islands with well-established guesthouse scenes are where competition for the tourist dollar is stiffest. As a result, you’ll find the widest choice of restaurants and activities,  as well as (in most cases) better public-transport links to Male and its airport

The most popular Maldivian island for budget travelers is Maafushi, though the growing number of visitors has arguably eaten away at its charm. Other popular islands full of guesthouses worth considering are Dhigurah, Fulidhoo, Thulusdhoo, Huraa, Ukulhas and Rasdhoo.

Stick to one island…or island-hop by public ferry

Moving around in Maldives either takes days or costs a fortune. Even if you find two fantastic accommodation deals, you may find getting from one atoll to another might bust your budget. Savvy savers know to spend their whole trip on one island – or else split their time between islands in the same atoll that are connected by a regularly scheduled MTCC ferry.

scuba diver admires fish and red fan coral, Maldives
To save money, reserve your diving adventure in advance of your travel – then plan your accommodations accordingly ©RainervonBrandis/Getty Images

Book your diving package in advance

If diving is your main reason for traveling here, hunt around for the best diving package deal in advance of your trip, then work backward to organize the rest of your trip around that. Many guesthouses catering to divers will offer generous discounts for buying packages in advance, as this allows them to manage their dive schedules and maximize use of the dhonis.

Pick up a SIM card at the airport

Since roaming costs can become significant if you use the internet on your phone outside of Wi-Fi hotspots, you’ll save money by picking up a local pay-as-you-go SIM card at the airport upon arrival. For as little as US$10, these cards normally include plenty of data, more than enough for a couple of weeks. Top up in the atolls should you run out.

Bring your own snorkeling gear

Many guesthouses offer masks, snorkels, fins and other non-motorized water-sports equipment to guests at no extra charge. Still, it’s a good idea to make sure that’s the case at your lodging before you depart. If your guesthouse is not stocked, you’ll save a significant amount by bringing your own gear on the plane with you.

Try to pack everything you’ll need during your stay

It’s hard to exaggerate just how little is available in shops in Maldives. While top-end resorts import every possible luxury for their guests (with charges to match), finding even the most basic items on local islands can be a challenge. 

The national capital and the only real city in the country, Male has the best selection of goods in its shops. But you’ll save both time and money by bringing everything you need with you in your own bags. Avoid importing alcohol, however, as authorities will confiscate it when you enter the country.

Avoid high taxes on alcohol

Unless you’re staying in a resort, any holiday in devoutly Muslim Maldives is going to be alcohol-free, which can be a dealbreaker for some. The only way to get a drink if you’re staying in a guesthouse is to arrange an excursion to a nearby resort or liveaboard diving boat for the evening. 

Popular islands such as Maafushi have a dive boat semi-permanently anchored next to the island, making getting a sundowner relatively easy. But you may find your bill from a night of drinking fairly sobering, as huge taxes are levied on alcohol here. This is one destination where it pays to be abstemious.  

Sample daily budget for Maldives

Guesthouse double room: US$60–100
Cheap resort double room: US$150–350
Ferry ticket: US$5-10
Dinner for two on a local island: US$20
Two-tank dive: US$50–100

You might also like:
It’s easy to get a visa for Maldives – here’s how
When is the best time to go to Maldives?
How to choose the best Maldives island for your travel style

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