No longer an exclusive hub for luxury honeymooners and fancy celebrities, the scope of Maldives travel is quickly changing to suit the trend of budget travellers and career-break backpackers. The Maldives has always been a dream destination of mine, and no limited bank balance was going to get in my way!
Local Maldivian Islands
Armed with weeks of research under my belt, I set off for the vacation of a lifetime, all on a limited backpacker budget! Since returning from my trip, I’ve been inundated with messages and requests from people asking how exactly I could afford such a luxurious holiday. I have two magic words for you: LOCAL ISLANDS.
Once best known for its exclusive pricey resorts, equipped with over-water bungalows and private villas, the Maldives has now embraced the new concept of local island travel. The Islamic country previously only let tourists holiday in these exclusive resort islands, out of sight from the Muslim locals who frown upon too much skin exposure and alcohol consumption.
However, in 2009, the Maldivian government opened the local islands to tourists and soon, budget hotels and guesthouses were shooting up left, right, and centre.
Cheapest way to get to the Maldives
Unfortunately, like most things on a shoestring budget, sacrifices must be made to save as much as possible. If travelling from Europe, expect a long travel period with a few layovers. If you keep expectations real and dedicate an entire day for travelling, you can fly from Dublin to the Maldives for as low as €400 one way. Expect to fly from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur and from here on to Male, the Maldivian capital.
Flights from Kuala Lumpur leave daily to Male for as little as €40! Try nab yourself a deal on Heathrow to KLA. Regularly check Skyscanner for deals and set up an email alert for cheap flights.
If you are already in South East Asia, flights are cheap as chips. I was travelling Indonesia before my trip to the Maldives. It was quick, easy and super cheap to get a flight to Kuala Lumpur then on to Male.
Local Islands versus Resort Islands
Probably the biggest thing to note and something not commonly known, is the big difference between resorts and local islands regarding Islamic culture. Life on resort islands is like any other holiday destination. You can sip away on your cocktails by the beach, while topping up your tan in your new bikini.
However, on local islands, the local way of life is followed, meaning Shari’a law is followed. Tourists must adhere to the culture and respect the local law. These include no alcohol, a conservative dress-code (i.e. no bikinis or booty shorts) and there is no business conducted on a Friday, the Muslim rest day. Sunbathing is only allowed on certain beaches or areas of a beach known as “bikini beaches”. Here, tourists are allowed sunbathe in their swimwear and men can go shirtless.
Hotels differ greatly on resort and local islands. When you think of the Maldives, most think of water bungalows and private villas. These are the resort islands. The accommodation is luxurious, but can be extremely pricey. You can find some cheaper resort islands for a couple of hundred a night, but most islands will average at €400-500 per night. Some islands will provide more basic accommodation for a cheaper price, while the Instagram worthy overwater bungalows are a lot pricier. While in a resort, expect phenomenal service, excellent food and great cocktails.
Hotels on local islands have really upped their game recently, with service and staff going out of their way to make your stay special. Guest houses and hotels can go for as low as €40 a night, based on two people sharing. Expect to pay roughly €80-100 a night for a decent hotel on a local island. While they may not have all the luxuries of a resort, the hotels come with all the expected mod-cons of a hotel, white linen, daily house-keeping and all the necessities to make your stay as comfortable as possible.
All excursions and trips are booked through the hotel or resort you are staying at. There is an unsaid rule, that while you are staying on local islands, you book all your trips through your hotel.
Excursions through resorts will be fantastically catered to. You may travel on a fancier boat, have better food options and your guide may speak a few languages. While on a local island, your tour may not be as luxurious, but it is a FRACTION of the price compared to the resorts. Resorts may offer a few extra services, like a romantic sunset cruise for two, or private fishing charters. Our excursions booked from the local islands were by far the highlight of our trip!
When booking a stay at a resort island in the Maldives, what a lot of tourists do not take into account is the airport transfers to and from the island, which is not included in the room price. Be mindful where your island is, the further away from the airport it is, the more pricey the trip will be. Since the resort has monopoly on transfers, they charge an extortionate amount, on average €200+ each way, per person!! Sometimes the only option to get to the island, is by seaplane, which can be upwards of €500!
An advantage of staying on the local islands is the travel is super cheap. Local ferries shuffle tourists and locals back and forth between islands for just a couple of euros. However, they are slow and work on of a timetable (remember no Friday business means no Friday ferries!). If you don’t want to stick to the ferry schedule, arrange travel with your hotel. They can organised speedboat transfers from as low as €20.
As previously mentioned, alcohol is permitted on the local islands. It’s a big deterrent for tourists who enjoy their evening cocktails while on holidays. However, there are ways around it if you’d like to have a cool bevvy after a day of sunshine!
- Some islands like Maafushi, sneakily get around the prohibition by setting up floating bars in the ocean! Your hotel will drop you off by speedboat for a few hours and you can sip away to your heart’s content, enjoying the blue waters all around you.
- Hotels on local islands offer day trips to resorts, so tourists can experience the luxury life for a day. For roughly €80 you can spend the day in the resort and see how the other half live. Included in the pricing is an all-you-can-eat buffet and as much booze as you can sink.
Local islands are definitely less glamorous. The beaches aren’t as “Instagram-worthy” and the hotels not as fancy. But this is the sacrifice that has to be made, if you are thinking of a budget holiday to the Maldives. While backpacking around the Maldives, I used the islands as a bases, or “launch pad”, for my activities for the day. The local islands have a lot more of the Maldivian culture, which when respected is very unique and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
If heading off the beaten track and embracing a new culture is what you desire, local islands are definitely for you.