Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I always pictured the Maldives as a place for honeymooners and the occasional extreme destination weddings. Indeed many of its famous strings of pearls of atolls and isles are taken up with luxury all-inclusive resorts that require a chartered boat or plane to get to, where four-figure prices are not uncommon.
But when I visited recently I found that there’s also space for the backpacker — okay maybe not the starving student in a dorm type of backpacker, but certainly for the budget-conscious. For that matter, there are even budget-conscious honeymooners. I met one such honeymooning couple, Marine and Sebastian from France and Colombia, who scoffed at the boredom they’d experience in a resort, who spent even less than I did.
Here then, are a few tips for those interested in visiting the Maldives on the cheap.
Fly in from Somewhere in Asia
There may not be a lot you can do about where you fly in from. If you live in North America, for example, you’re probably looking at over US$1,000 roundtrip. But if you happen to find yourself somewhere in Asia, even somewhere quite far from the Maldives, you’re likely looking at far lower prices.
My one-way flight from South Korea to the Maldives via Malaysia cost only about US$200. A quick search for October and November flights turned up roundtrip tickets from Hong Kong for as little as US$329. From Singapore, that number is as low as US$247.
Stay on Hulhumale’
The commercial and political center of Maldives is its capital city Male’. Measuring only 1.7km long and 1km across, Male’ by some measures is one of the densest cities on earth and an extreme contrast to the far-flung islands that host luxury resorts.
The best alternative to both congested Male’ and exorbitant resort islands is Hulhumale’, a stone’s throw away to the east of Male’ on the other side of the airport. Actually an artificial island, Hulhumale’ was created precisely to help relieve the population pressure in the capital. Its spacious streets and relaxed atmosphere are certainly a tonic after a day in Male’. And it offers many reasonably comfortable hotel options in the range of US$40-60 per night (although don’t forget to factor in the taxes; always taxes in the Maldives). Easily located tour operators and dive shops run day trips from here, whether for serious divers or island-hoppers.
Eat at “Cafes”
In the Maldives, the word “cafe” denotes a cheap restaurant frequented by local Maldivians. In a cafe, a plate of Spaghetti Bolognese might run to US$5-6, a biriyani might be US$4, and a tea US$0.25. You’re hardly going to break the bank. The more expensive “restaurants” often offer practically identical fare.
Bring US Dollars
The best way to pay for both hotels and activities in the Maldives is in cash in US dollars (though the cafes and supermarkets will take Maldivian rufiyaa). A 3.5% fee is slapped on all credit card payments. And hotels and tour operators quote prices in dollars, so if you try to pay in rufiyaa, the merchant will typically calculate the conversation using a slightly inflated rate. Some businesses accept other major currencies such as the Euro or even the Chinese Yuan. But these are relatively rare.
And try to bring your cash with you. It is not easy withdrawing dollars in the Maldives. And Bank of Maldives ATMs charge a fee of about US$6.50 per transaction when you withdraw rufiyaa. Some of the other banks seem to be better about fees, and it also depends on your bank back home. But instead of running around looking for an acceptable ATM, it’s better just to have the dollars with you when you come.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."