The majority of visitors to the Maldives have package holiday bookings. While independent travel in the Maldives may present some challenges and may take some planning because the infrastructure for budget travellers is in its infancy, it’s certainly not impossible and in many ways makes the experience all the more exciting.
Maldives is keen to diversify the tourism market and is looking at ways it can get more visitors to explore the side of the Maldives that can’t be found at resorts. Combined with a boom in the number of scheduled airlines flying to the Maldives, the number of budget travellers is rapidly growing.
As a budget traveller, be prepared to be met with a certain amount of puzzlement as a tourist travelling without a package holiday booking, but the Maldivian people will be extremely friendly and keen to help.
It’s good to be prepared to expect to find getting around a bit trickier and day-to-day budgets higher than in other neighbouring Asian destinations like India and Sri Lanka, but new public transport services are a very useful resource. And, as the market grows no doubt many entrepreneurial Maldivians will see opportunities to launch more services and facilities for budget travellers.
Visas and customs
Travellers from all countries get a free 30-day visitors’ visa on arrival in the Maldives. Tourists are officially required to be able to produce a two-way air ticket if requested and also either have a confirmation of a reservation at a hotel/resort or show they have enough funds to cover expenses for duration of their stay (calculated at USD $100 + $50 dollars per day) but a credit card is usually accepted as evidence of funds.
Getting to the Maldives
Despite its proximity to India and Sri Lanka, as yet there are no international ferry services for travellers to the Maldives. However, a large number of airlines fly to the Maldives and many offer competitive rates. Budget traveller can try price comparison websites, booking direct with airlines or booking flights through travel agents.
Carriers operating flight routes to the Maldives include: Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines, Bangkok Airways, Qatar Airways, Oman Air, British Airways, Air Berlin, China Eastern, China Southern, Air India, Maldivian, Condor, Edelweiss, Thomson Airways (TUI), Meridiana Fly, Neo Spa and many more airlines coming soon.
Air Berlin and Thomson are amongst the airlines which frequently run some of the cheapest flights to the Maldives from Europe.
It will soon be possible to buy a cheap long-haul flight to another destination in the region and tie it in with a short-haul budget flight from elsewhere in Asia. Low-cost airlines AirAsia, SpiceJet and IndiGo may begin budget routes to the Maldives.
Getting around the Maldives
Unlike in most of Asia, it’s not just a question of hailing a tuk-tuk or hopping in a taxi boat to get around the Maldives because of lack of demand – there are so few budget travellers compared to the long-established market of package holidaymakers, who have pre-booked boat or seaplane transfers from the airport. On the plus side, this means that the usual crowd of hustlers found across Asia isn’t there to greet every new arrival.
There are lots of taxis in Male’, and a new public bus and ferry service between many of the islands and atolls. Dhonis (boats) can be chartered from the area around the airport jetty in Male’ (Jetty 9), but they are larger and pricier than, say, the longtail taxi boats of Thailand. Prices start at 1,200Rf per day (£50/ USD $78) depending on where you want to go and what you want to do.
A ferry service operates between Male’ and the neighbouring islands of Hulhumale, Hulhule (the airport island) and Villingili. Ferries for Hulhumale depart from Hulhumale Ferry Terminal (5Rf, 20 minute journey) and Villingili Ferry Terminal (on the west side of the island, 4Rf, five minute journey). A ferry service to further-afield islands also operates to Thulusdhoo.
There is a choice of hotels, guest houses, three-star resorts to choose from, with prices typically starting from around $40 per night for a guest house. It’s possible to turn up and book on the spot, but is a good idea to book as much as you can in advance.
Few local islands have hotels/guest house on them, the rest of the accommodation to be found is either in the form of a resort – with one resort allocated per islands.
Male’ has plenty of hotels of various star ratings, as well as guest houses, but no youth hostels. The same goes for Hulhumale, although there are only a handful of guesthouses on offer as the island is only 25 percent developed.
For those wanting to travel further afield, and feeling more adventurous, local island guesthouse-stays are an option.
If you want to push the boat out for a night, or maybe a few nights, it’s possible to book accommodation directly with a resort, either directly or by calling them. There are no bargain-basement prices at resorts, but the three-star resorts often a taste of what the Maldives has to offer.
Safari boats (also called liveaboards) are another, affordable accommodation choice. They cruise the islands and are ideal for dive or surf enthusiasts.
There is also an emerging CouchSurfing scene, and startup companies like Surf in Maldives help budget travellers in the Maldives with an interest in surfing to build a tailor-made itinerary.
It’s worth noting that it’s illegal for holidaymakers to bring alcohol into the Maldives. No alcohol is for sale in the capital city, or any of the inhabited islands, even in guest houses there. The exception is the airport island of Hulhule (five minutes by ferry from Male’), where travellers can buy alcoholic drinks at Hulhule Island Hotel (HIH). A free shuttle bus runs to HIH from the airport. There is also a free ferry service from Jetty 1 in Male’ throughout the day and evening, or a dhoni to the airport runs every ten minutes (10Rf or US $1) from the jetty opposite the Nasandhura Palace Hotel.
Watersports activities are confined to resorts, but several dive schools operate in Male’ and Hulhumale, which budget travellers can make bookings with. They go out to various sites around North and South Male’ atolls.
There are several inhabited islands within the vicinity of Male, including the former resort island of Villingili. It offers an interesting house reef for snorkellers and several pretty beaches. We recommend female visitors should observe local customs by bathing in shorts and t-shirts since it is an inhabited island.
Male’ is the capital city and makes for an interesting day trip. There are several historical sites to explore as well as countless restaurants, local cafes and tea shops where you can soak up the local culture. It also has a sweet artificial beach as well as an adjacent surf beach – again, it’s best to wear a t-shirts and shorts to swim here because it is an inhabited island.
The same goes for Hulhumale, which is a 20-minute ferry ride from Male’, but it offers a beautiful, long sandy beach and shallow turquoise lagoon. The leafy island and wide roads offers a welcome break from the buzz of Male’.
Thulusdhoo is one and a half to two hours from Male by public ferry and offers a great insight into local island life. A handful of guest houses are available on the island and highlights include several wrecks and a great reef, not to mention the sandy streets, welcoming inhabitants and slow pace of life. The Coca Cola factory is a quirky visitor attraction, and is the only facility that produces Coca Cola from seawater.
Gan, in the southern Maldives there is the former RAF (Royal Air Force) base of Gan, which travellers can tour. There are also several inhabited islands nearby. Unusually for the Maldives, several of these islands are connected via causeway, which provides opportunities for cycling as well as ease of access. Bicycles can be hired from the resorts in the area. The fascinating wreck of the British Loyalty is also in the area.
There are many historical sites in the northern and southern atolls, which are being excavated. These include mosques and other structures dating back several centuries, as well as ancient Buddhist remains. Budget travellers can charter dhonis and guides to take them there, but as yet there are no official tours.