The tropical nation of the Maldives, southwest of the Indian subcontinent, brings images of perfectly-hued waters and slender coral islands filled with sand. It's like living in a real-life screensaver.
There are over 1,200 islands spread over 26 ring-shaped atolls, and most have elegant beaches with the powdery sand that honeymooners love. The region has come under the spotlight recently with a spate of world-class resorts opening their doors. The private island Kudadoo Maldives in the Lhaviyani atoll has 15 Japanese-style water villas with lofty standards, private butlers, and an organic and sustainable mindset with solar-powered buildings. The Fairmont Maldives Sirru Fen Fushi opened its doors in the summer in the Shaviyani atoll, with 120 luxury accommodations (there’s even a "tented jungle” villa) and the nation’s only dedicated “Teen Town” for families. Raffles Maldives Meradhoo recently opened in the Gaafu Alifu Atoll, the first Maldivian hotel under the brand; and the Waldorf Astoria Ithaafushi in the South Male atoll plans to open in 2019 with thatched roof villas, an overwater yoga pavilion, and a tree house-style dining experience.
With all these impressive options—most going for well north of $2,000 per night during peak season—it might seem daunting to attempt a stylish trip to the Maldives on a budget But it is totally doable. Here's how:
Stay in Guest Houses
With the relaxation of the government rules in 2009 that restricted tourism to resorts on uninhabited islands, the Maldives paved the way for more affordable guest houses. Now, visitors can find such accommodation options in most atolls.
Guest houses are run by locals. Some come in the form of bed & breakfasts, while others are all-inclusive. They're generally comfortable with all the amenities a traveler could want, including a comfortable bed, coffee makers, an on-site restaurant, and lounges. Many go for $40-$90 per night, and some, like the Beach Residence in the secluded and romantic island of Ukulhas in the Alif Alif atoll, give you the feeling of being on an resort because of the unhurried feel of the location, with a crystal clear lagoon enclosing it, along with enormous coral reefs. The average guesthouse runs $90 per night.
Book Transfers Via Seaplanes or Speed Boats
When traveling in the Maldives, there will be an added cost of island- and atoll-hopping via seaplane. Your best bet is to book charters run by Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA), which boasts the world’s largest seaplane fleet. Fares could cost anywhere from $200 for a roundtrip ticket per person (be sure to book with a reputable operator like Smartfares, which has lower unpublished fares if you call). There are additional seaplane operators at the Velana International Airport in Male, and visitors often chance it by grabbing a plane upon arrival, but booking with an operator in advance can save you hassle and money. Seaplane rides are typically 45 minutes to an hour long, depending on the location of the atoll. If these fares still sound steep to you, a less-expensive option to the atoll of your choice is to buy tickets on a speed boat (Atoll Transfer is one). Expect the commute to be four times longer, on average, than a flight. Speed boat fares to an atoll like Ukulhas are around $55 per person, each way.
Use Reliable Online Booking Agents for Hotel Rooms
Finding a hotel room on the fly in the Maldives — especially during peak season — is not advisable. Book rooms ahead of time using reliable online agents and read the fine print when it comes to wifi and perks. Some, like Booking.com, have a terrific inventory of budget hotel rooms spread across several atolls and include breakfast in the rate — a big perk compared to other portals that don’t (the clean and spacious Vinorva hotel in Villingili, a short taxi and ferry ride from the Male airport, is steps away from the ferry terminal and rooms start at $50). Some sites allow you to filter your search according to your preferences, including “beachfront” views, “airport shuttle” availability, and spa facilities — all of which give you a feeling of being at a resort without having to pay resort prices. Other portals, like Agoda.com, claim to match prices found elsewhere and have coupons and flash sales that help you with same-day bookings. If you want a hotel with perks close to the airport, Champa Central Hotel is a great choice for its spacious rooms, fitness center, breakfast, and an excellent dinner included (the hotel costs about $120 through an online booking agent).
Splurge on Resort Experiences for Day Guests
Some luxury resorts accommodate outside guests to get spa treatments at their property, as well as permit you to book a la carte options at their restaurant. A smart splurge would be to dine at the world’s largest undersea restaurant, 5.8 (a nod to the restaurant’s depth in meters below sea level) at Hurawalhi Maldives, an experience like no other. With panoramic views of the local underwater life including streams of glass fish, parrot fish and the stunning coral, a five-course lunch sets you back $225 per person, and you’ll have some pretty gorgeous aquatic dining memories. Dining is barefoot.