Wildlife in Paradise
Please note that this article contains affiliate links. While we only recommend products that we believe in, we may receive a small commission from any purchases you make, at no extra cost to you.
Heaven is a Place on Earth
The Maldives may be the ultimate bucket list destination. But travelling the Maldives on a budget is not something most travellers believe possible.
Whether you’re looking for sun, sea, sand and relaxation, or opportunities for diving and snorkelling, the Maldives have something for everyone.
Famously, however, paradise comes with a hefty price tag attached. For those of us hoping to save the pennies, this can sometimes put us off booking that trip.
A Marine Dream
For those of us who enjoy travelling the world in pursuit of wildlife, the costs can already be pretty steep.
We often find ourselves venturing off the beaten path where transport costs are higher. Much of what we seek requires specialist equipment like boats to access. Experienced guides and spotters can be an invaluable resource, but a costly one.
But the Maldives can offer us one big benefit in this respect: you can access wildlife right off the shore, with just a snorkel to assist you.
Disclaimer: you should always swim with a buddy. Currents can be strong even in the turquoise waters of the Maldives, and accidents still happen no matter how idyllic those waters may look.
Plus, getting offshore couldn’t be easier. Every resort and guesthouse will offer excursions abound to see reefs and giants. Click here to get an idea of the wildlife you might see in the Maldives.
Wildlife watching in the Maldives on a budget is by no means easy, but it’s definitely possible.
Keep reading for my suggestions on how to achieve this in a relatively frugal manner. I bet you have not considered the lesser spotted option 2…
Reality Check: Why Travelling the Maldives on a Budget is NOT Like Elsewhere in Asia
If you’ve spent time in other parts of Asia, you may have experienced that moment of realisation that your perception of money has become extremely skewed as you determinedly barter over a purchase, before realising that you are squabbling over the value of about 10 cents.
Many Asian countries, particularly those in the Southeast, allow travel on the narrowest of shoestrings. It’s not uncommon to find beds in hostels for just a few dollars a night and meals for next to nothing.
Before we go any further, it’s important to realise that the Maldives is not that.
Here are a few things to be aware of that might result in increased costs.
Barriers to Budget Travel in the Maldives
- Everything is on its own island- This is no exaggeration. Each resort is its own island. The capital city is its own island. Even the airport is built on its own man-made island. This means that EVERYWHERE you go will incur a fee, and often a large one. Mostly, people stay on one island but if you are wanting to move around, this is something which stands to become very costly.
- Supermarkets are not a thing- Travellers to the Maldives on a budget, might be hoping to save money by staying on local islands and buying their own food from supermarkets. These don’t really exist. There are a few local shops stocking some very basic supplies. Male has a number of markets.However, mostly you are going to need to rely on restaurant dining, and most of that is in tourist accommodation, particularly of travelling during Ramadan.
- The necessity of imports– The geography on the Maldives makes it very difficult to farm or cultivate anything. This means that almost all food and other goods are imported into the Maldives, increasing the price tag on most items.
- Boats, boats, boats- Whilst the Maldives wildlife is more accessible than most, bear in mind that anything not directly accessible from your island will require a tour. This really isn’t a self-guided kind of place.
So, whilst it’s possible to travel the Maldives on a budget, it’s wise to come with some perspective. Far cheaper trips are available elsewhere in Asia.
If, like me, however, your mind is still made up on going, I have a couple of options that might save you some cash.
Option 1: Local Islands
A Bit of History
For many years, tourism in the Maldives was restricted to the resort islands only. However, in 2009 a change in legislation meant that a select few local islands were able to open up to the visitors.
The term “local island” refers to the fact that these islands are inhabited by local people who live and work in the area.
Guest houses now exist across a number of these islands, offering tourists an alternative look at the Maldives.
The Benefits of a Local Island
You Room Will Be Cheaper
Generally, accommodation on local islands is far cheaper than on the resorts.
Again, this is not necessarily cheap by global standards- we paid around $100 per night for a double room. However, it’s certainly cheaper than almost any resort you’ll find, and cheaper options are available if you shop around a come in off-peak times.
Check what is included in your stay. The government charges a 12% tax which may not be included in your quoted price. You’ll also want to consider whether breakfast is included as it can be hard to come by outside of the hotel.
You’ll Be Supporting a Local Economy
The big resorts are often owned by big chain companies which operate outside of the Maldives.
One of the big benefits are opening up the local islands, is that normal Maldivian people are now able to profit of the tourism in their own country. Staying on a local island often support the people who live there rather than big conglomerates looking to profit off paradise.
You’re Getting a More Authentic Experience
Staying on a local island offers you an insight into Maldivian life that you won’t get on a resort. Take a stroll around the island and you’ll see houses, mosques, schools and shops. People go about their daily lives around you.
Visiting during Ramadan, we heard the quiet chanting of prayer as people broke their fast at sundown. We watched men out fishing on the ocean. We saw children out to play.
You Can Borrow equipment
Resorts will be keen to charge you extra on whatever they can. This includes snorkelling equipment, which local guesthouses will often loan you for free.
The Excursions are Cheaper
Likewise, a resort will try to charge you an exorbitant price for any and every excursion you want to jump on. These are much more reasonably priced at guest houses and you’re getting the exact same experience.
It’s Oh So Quiet!
The local islands are still a lesser-known option for travellers to the Maldives. On multiple occasions we found we were the only ones on the beach or walking through the little patch of jungle.
On my trip I opted to stay on the local island of Dhigurah.
It’s Expensive to Travel Between Islands.
You’ll be largely relying on internal flights or local ferry and speedboat services if you’re wanted to move between multiple islands. This cost is not small and should be factored in if you are travelling in the Maldives on a budget. Routes are limited and often include multiple modes of transport. You will likely have to return to Male or the main international airport to get anywhere.
You Will Pay per Excursion
Any excursions you want to take are additional to the price of your accommodation. At the time of visiting in the 2022, the cost of an excursion was around US$35 for a snorkelling tour up to US$75 for whale shark snorkelling. We paid around US$78 for a single boat dive. This obviously adds up quickly over a few trips.
Limited excursions each day
The hotel usually ran one excursion per day, usually sometime in the morning. This leaves the afternoon free to enjoy, but limits what you can do if you only have a short time.
Top Tip- contact your hotel in advance if there are specific excursions you are hoping to do. We really wanted to see whale sharks and only had one full day on the island. By contacting the hotel well in advance, they were able to schedule the week’s activities around us, ensuring we were able to go on our dream trip.
You’ll Be Eating Almost Exclusively in a Restaurant Setting
This isn’t a bad thing. The food we had was great. It does, however, mean that you’ve not got much control over what you spend on food and there aren’t a whole lot of other options.
One of my favourite things about the local islands was getting to experience a small piece of local life. In my opinion, the cultural restrictions actually added to the experience rather than taking away from it.
However, it’s really important that you respect the Muslim customs of the country when staying here. For some people this might be a deal breaker and I think it’s important to understand before you arrive.
You will not be able to drink alcohol on local islands. It is not sold here, nor will you be able to bring it in yourself.
Wearing of swimming costumes is in restricted areas only. These are called bikini beaches. Outside of these small stretches of coastline, you will need to dress respectably.
All in all, I loved my local island stay, saw tonnes of wildlife and would recommend it to anyone looking for wildlife in the Maldives on a budget.
Option 2: Take a Tour, Live on a Boat!
Why I Opted for a Tour
I spent the bulk of my trip to the Maldives living on a boat.
Those seven days were some of the best of my life.
Why It Makes Sense When Travelling the Maldives on a Budget
You might be asking yourself why on Earth I would recommend a group tour in an article about a budget wildlife watching trip.
I travelled with G Adventures who aren’t exactly known for being the cheapest or the best for wildlife watching.
The answer is simple: I couldn’t have done anywhere close to what I did on that tour in any other way for anywhere NEAR the amount I paid.
The tour cost me just over US$1200 in April of 2022. By no means cheap, but take a look at what that afforded me:
- 6 nights of accommodation
- All my food for six days
- Snorkelling equipment (though we brought our own)
- Transport directly from the airport
- Transportation across three different atolls
- A visit to a local island
- Dinner on a sandbar
- Visits to uninhabited islands
- Invaluable knowledge of a local guide
- A whooping 11 snorkelling trips taking in sharks, rays, turtles and a wealth of other marine life.
Now, consider the cost of this on the aforementioned local island. The accommodation alone would have set me back $600 and the snorkelling trips would have all but made up the rest. That’s before even considering the value of the food and travel.
If you’re wanting to lie on a beach for hours, then honestly this isn’t the option for you. However, for those wanting to take in all that nature has to offer, I think this is by far the most cost-effective option.
What It Was Like to Live on a Boat in the Maldives
In a word: spectacular.
This was a small group tour, so you are travelling with same group of people the whole time. If you are travelling with someone else you can room together. If you’re travelling solo, you’ll be paired with another traveller of the same sex. Or you can purchase the privilege of having a room to yourself.
The rooms themselves are relatively small cabins below the deck. Each had a private bathroom. There was a communal dining area and plenty of spaces to lounge around, sit and watch the world go by.
I believe our boat was actually upgraded for reasons I’m not sure about, but we definitely never felt cramped or restricted in any way. Even on a smaller version I think you’d have no problem finding a little space for yourself.
We basically spent the week living in swimming costumes and cover-ups. I don’t think I put on shoes the entire time. The wardrobe I had curated for the trip was definitely not needed! However, rash vests and swim shorts were a good move. As was water resistant sun cream (and lots of it). Click here for a full list of my recommendations for a snorkelling trip.
Food is all catered on the boat and was served buffet style. There was a mixture of Maldivian dishes and western food across the week. The crew would sometimes go out in the evenings to catch fish which we would eat the following day. These were some of my favourite meals. All of it was delicious and they were excellent at catering to any dietary requirements.
Whilst the bulk of the “activities” were snorkelling, every day was different. The trip is planned was planned to take in different types of reefs, different animals, or different sights each day. Visits to uninhabited islands, sand bars and local islands meant that there was always something fresh and new.
There are long periods of sailing, often 2-3 hours at a time. This gave everyone time to relax and socialise. No-one experienced and sea sickness as the waters are very calm. It’s amazing how quickly you adjust to the movement of the boat.
And The Rest.
One of the best things about this trip was how I got to see so many different parts of the Maldives. The in-between times where there was no particular activity happening, offered their own magical moments.
On one particular day we reached a spot where we could see the waves breaking on the edge of the continental shelf. The end of the Maldives. Where the high seas begin. We saw no other boats for hours that day. I lay on the top deck looking at the stars in the perfect night sky, wondering how many people ever come this far.
At other times we would be eating, and someone would spot a dolphin and we’d all rush to look.
My friend and I would jump in the ocean just to swim before breakfast. Or at sunset.
And trust me when I say, those Maldivian sunsets are something else.
If you are looking for wildlife in the Maldives on a budget, I really can’t imagine a better way than this.
How Do I Book?
You can book your own place on the Dhoni Explorer Tour by clicking here. I promise you won’t regret it!
If you’re worried about time spent at sea and want to stay a little more local to Male, it’s sister tour, Dhoni Cruise, can be booked here.
There are also options to pair it with a week in Sri Lanka on a longer tour.