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The Shocking Truth about the Maldives: On a Budget? Listen up!
While many independent travelers dismiss the Maldives as too expensive or as a luxury tourist trap, we’re going to blow these misconceptions out of the water (no pun intended).
Now you can have an interesting, real cultural adventure in the exotic Maldives islands for a fraction of resort prices.
This is no typical beach bum holiday – unless of course you want it to be!
How is this possible? How did a couple of travelers on a budget get to experience this island retreat? It started with a bit of research, a bit more bravery and leaving decisions to the last minute.
But you don’t need to follow in those exact footsteps – we’ve done the hard work for you and will share our experience with you. We’ve even got some tips to discover the real Maldives easily and without spending the typical $200-500 per night on a hotel room.
Discovering the Real Maldives
In the middle of the Indian Ocean, surrounded by blue-green lagoons, decorated with tiny islands here and there, we found ourselves in the Maldives. Frequented by wealthy resort-goers and famous people like David Beckham and Michael Phelps, it’s not the obvious destination for adventure or cultural travel experiences.
In recent years, though, some political changes have opened up a whole new area of accommodation options. Not the water bungalows that Maldives images often portray, but local island hideaways, among Maldivian people with comparably stunning surroundings.
This is where we ended up when we took advantage of a flight deal to go on a long-awaited holiday from the desk job day-to-day in the UK. What we didn’t know was that we had landed right smack in the beginning of a tourism trend. When we realized this, a lightbulb flashed and a wave was set in motion that would carry us to a whole new life, just 2 years later (almost to the day) when travel would become our lifestyle.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Our discovery began in the Maldives capital airport, in Male. Stepping out into the arrivals area you can already see the ocean and feel the heat – a great island welcome.
No matter where you go, you’re reminded that you’re in the islands. The airport is on a neighbouring island to the capital city, Male, also an island which is small enough that you’re never more than a few minutes from the sea.
Just a couple of bucks got us to Male by ferry, than another couple for the local ferry to Guraidhoo – the island where our guesthouse awaited. We’d been recommended this guesthouse by the airport info desk as we had taken the risk and hadn’t booked in advance.
*Note: This is not recommended as immigration can be sticklers – requiring the name of your hotel and proof of a return flight ticket. Best to book in advance if you can.
Local Island Living in the Maldives
We passed a couple hours on the ferry, the only foreigners, and stared out into the watery horizon from which seemed to appear islands almost out of nowhere. It started to hit us – just how secluded and expansive this island nation really is. And how beautiful.
We arrived on Guraidhoo and were greeted by a smiling little man we would come to know as Handu. He was the local island guide for tourists visiting the island and the relative of our guesthouse owners.
We began to realize that in these isolated communities, everyone basically knows each other or is related, so almost anyone can help you find what you want – for a price of course. That is the thing with Guraidhoo, it’s set up for tourists with a “Main Street” (a short stretch of unpaved road) lined with souvenir shops, since this was a stop for resort tourists on their excursions.
This makes Guraidhoo different to other islands – a bit more tourist-oriented. We would later find out that this is not a typical village and while it is a nice place to stay for the cheaper guesthouses, we saw that there are even quieter local islands to discover.
“We stared out into the watery horizon, from which seemed to appear islands almost out of nowhere. It started to hit us – just how secluded and expansive this island nation really is.”
We were so excited to be there and to have scored a great deal on accommodation. We were happy with our ensuite room (all guesthouses in the Maldives have ensuite bathrooms) in a small apartment with living area and balcony. And we hadn’t even gone on any excursions yet.
When we stepped onto beach islands where we were THE ONLY PEOPLE there it really started to feel like something special. We hired a dhoni (traditional boat) and our driver, a local fisherman, took us on trips to sandbank islands, snorkelling, to deserted and resort islands – we even fished with him and saw dolphins randomly on the way back in the evening.
These excursions made up most of our days, as the island we were on didn’t have bikini beaches- though some local islands have private beaches. Most days we went off the island and the evenings were quiet and peaceful.
We hadn’t done much diving or surfing prior to that trip but the Maldives is well-known as a dive, surf and water adventure sport destination. Liveaboards have long been around taking avid divers around the countless Maldives dive spots. Guesthouses can arrange excursions as well, that’s how we planned ours, or they can come as part of the room rate package.
Let Me Upgrade You: The Secret to Cheap Stays in the Maldives
Much like getting a free upgrade to a superior room at a hotel or first class in an airplane, we constantly had a sense of value and felt like we were getting a deal, like we were “special” somehow. Paying less than resort tourists but surrounded by the same beauty, it’s the feeling we hope to pass on to readers.
So without further ado, and you may have already guessed it, the main secret to a traveler’s experience (not a holiday maker) in the Maldives is: Guesthouse accommodation.
Guesthouses? In the luxury Maldives? Why have I not heard of this?
Well it’s only since 2009 that foreigners have been permitted to stay on local islands. No longer limited to resorts, privately owned islands, tourists can now stay among the local population. Guesthouses have been popping up ever since, but the numbers remain small compared to resorts.
When we returned to the Maldives some time later, we got to see some of the range of guesthouses there are out there. Genuinely, we were floored to see the quality and comfort offered at these local places. From an Eco-lodge in the northern islands run by a lovely, enterprising Maldivian couple, to a modern hideaway in the village of Omadhoo with welcoming hosts. We felt we just had to share these places for others to experience them. This is how Guesthouses-in-Maldives.com was born.
During our first trip we paid 80/night room only for a double room and we ate at the local restaurants – there are a few on Guraidhoo. Once we learned more we found the best way to get value is to book a package including activities and meals.
Here are a few more tips to getting the most value out of a stay on a local island:
5 Top Tips to Pack in Value & Immerse Yourself in Maldives Local Life
1. Have afternoon tea.
Well it might not be the fancy afternoon tea you get in the UK, but there are sweets and tea the Maldivian way. In the late afternoon you can kick back at a simple cafe where you’ll be surrounded by locals, just one part of the laid back way of life.
2. Attend local events.
Even in the remotest corners of the earth schools hold fundraisers and people gather around to let the music move them. We were on Hanimadhoo Island when they had a school event and I think they were as interested to see us there as we were to see them. The children were divided into teams and each group had a station set up to sell different snacks or goodies. We went around and bought something at each one. There was music and we wore the badges some of the teams were giving out… it was a cool experience to be part of the community. In the evenings the local band practiced, which not only added to the island atmosphere, but could be a chance to join in on the dancing and merriment.
3. Just ask.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, why something is the way it is, in a polite way of course. Showing interest can make the locals realize you’re there to understand, not just to take photos.
On Guraidhoo the tsunami destroyed many buildings and funds were given to rebuild them, so the island you see now is not the island it has always been. Every island has its culture and its story to be told; each local island we visited in the Maldives was very different in its atmosphere.
4. Seek Out Culture.
On the culture note, ask about historical or cultural spots to visit around your guest house region. We had a private tour of Utheemu Palace in the north of the Maldives, which was unique. If you don’t ask it might be assumed you want to stick to the usual tourist activities.
5. Know what you’re getting into.
The local islands of the Maldives are unlike the resort islands in a few ways that you may not be used to. Local islands have beaches – but not all of them have private beaches where foreigners can swim in their usual swimwear (bikinis, etc). In addition, alcohol is not permitted for sale on local islands so any guest house “bar” will be serving cool refreshing juice and mocktails.
But before you dismiss this as a reason not to go – remember that almost all stays are booked as packages so you’ll have excursions to deserted islands and resort islands that have the more traditional beach holiday feel. Also, many guest houses are enclosed giving private space to guests where they can tan and relax with their toes in the sand, right inside the guest house. There are tons of options.
So there you have it – your ticket to visiting the Maldives even if you’re not featured in People Magazine this month. And speaking of tickets, one last item on budgeting to go to the islands of the Maldives – the flight conundrum. It’s not the staying in the Maldives that’s the costly part, it’s getting there. How to get around this?
Several tips for keeping costs down when travelling to the Maldives:
1. Use Skyscanner.net to find the cheapest flights. Fortunately Maldives weather holds up year round (search “whole year” instead of a specific date if you’re flexible).
2. Make the Maldives an add-on to another trip and fly from Sri Lanka or India.
3. Go in the off season. Even though the weather stays good in the Maldives all year, it’s the increased traffic from more northern countries with cold winters that makes November to April the pricier season. Try booking at the beginning or end of that period or outside it all together.
4. Choose a guest house that suits your budget and expectations. With more and more guest houses popping up on the islands, there is now a range of services on offer. Some are almost at the level of a resort, with onsite swimming pools, etc. On islands with more guesthouses, like Maafushi, you can find cheaper rooms, but the experience will not be the same as that on a more secluded island.
5. Decide whether a package with meals and activities or just meals suits you best. With limited restaurants on the local islands, getting meals included is likely in your best bet. However, on the activities is where you could save further on your stay. You’ll need to decide whether you want activities to be included, so you can do excursions every day, or whether you just want to get out of the island for an excursion or two over a longer duration. Then, compare the package price versus the individual excursion prices to see which option will work out cheaper for your needs.
Almost all have private beach access now, so if that’s all you’re looking for you may not want to pay more for excursions.
Once the flight prices are figured out you’re basically there! Grab your sunscreen, swimsuit and snorkel mask – you’ll be dipping your toes in in no time. Check out the different locations of the many guesthouses to pick your favorite.
We genuinely hope more travelers will get to experience the real Maldives, like we did!
In the meantime, you can pop over to Guesthouses-in-Maldives.com to see our recommended guesthouses. And the info above is still relevant including our 5 Top Tips to Pack in Value & Immerse Yourself in Maldives Local Life.
A lot has changed in the Maldives since our first visit in 2010. Then, guesthouses were just getting started; they were limited in location and what they offered in terms of facilities.
In just a few short years, guesthouses and local islands have become more popular and many properties now offer private beaches and even resort-like facilities, including swimming pools.
So much has changed so quickly that we are releasing a whole new source of information. We’re putting together a guide to guesthouses in the Maldives.
We’ve continued to strengthen our relationships with new and old guesthouses, and their owners and guests, so we have great insights on the best places to be NOW depending on your budget and your expectations. Sign up for our newsletter to be the first to know when our guide is published!
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