A Maldives vacation (and all of this gorgeous water to yourself) doesn’t have to break the bank — Photo courtesy of FilippoBacci / Getty Images

Much like I used to believe in Santa Claus, I used to think you had to be rich — or at least upper, upper middle class — to vacation in the Maldives. None of my peers, friends, or family had ever been to this archipelago nicknamed the “Money Islands,” nor had I ever seen it on any budget-friendly destinations list.

As a travel writer who nets about $30,000 per year, I look at those lists a lot. On the contrary, the Maldives is a country that frequently appears on lists of the most expensive places to visit in the world. What some travelers see as a barrier to entry, I see as a challenge.

At least 50 hours of online research (including trolling the depths of Reddit) and two trips to the Maldives later, I’m proud to report that a Maldives vacation is possible without having to take out a second mortgage. Here’s how you do it.

Go during the cheapest time of year

In a perfect world, the Maldives’ low season would coincide with North America’s winter. But it doesn’t. Instead, your best bet for saving money is to visit the Maldives between May and November, the wet season. For example, rates at the Holiday Inn Resort: Kandooma Maldives start above $300 per night in January. In October, they start around $200 a night.

Expect the unexpected when traveling off season, however. When I took a Maldives vacation in October a few years ago, a planned boat trip was canceled due to rain (the waves were too big), but we still had an amazing time and enjoyed at least five to six hours of sunshine each day. Plus, June through November is the best time to spot manta rays in the Baa Atoll. Snorkeling with them is incredible!

Pay with points or miles

Hans Mast, a travel agent with Golden Rule Travel, says it’s silly to pay cash for a trip to the Maldives. He recommends taking advantage of credit cards with strong reward programs, and use the $2,000 to $4,000 minimum on expenses you usually incur to qualify for the sign-up bonus. Then use the bonus points for your trip.

“And I say that as a travel agent who loses out when customers choose to use miles instead of my services,” he told me.

I did this a few years ago when Chase Sapphire Preferred was offering 100,000 miles as a bonus. That was enough for a roundtrip ticket to the Maldives, a savings of at least $2,500. (If you don’t have good enough credit, it’s probably best to work on that before spending money on a big trip.)

Stay on the cheapest islands

On the Ari Atoll, you can stay in a guesthouse for as little as $250 a week for a perfect Maldives vacationOn the Ari Atoll, you can stay in a guesthouse for as little as $250 a week for a perfect Maldives vacation — Photo courtesy of Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation

Much like it’s more expensive to stay in Manhattan than Queens, there are islands in the Maldives where you won’t find anything under $1,000 a night, and there are islands where you can stay an entire week for that amount. The cheaper islands include Maafushi, Dhiffushi, Maroshi, and Fulidhoo, all of which cater more to backpackers than billionaires.

While you won’t find fancy, five-star resorts on these islands, you will find plenty of highly rated guesthouses for an affordable Maldives vacation. Two good examples are Gaskara, where rates start at $30 per night (breakfast included) and two-star beachfront hotel Kinan Retreat, where rates start around $100 per night for a deluxe double room with a view of the sea.

Keep in mind, however, the cost of transportation to get to these islands. For that reason, I don’t recommend booking accommodations until you book your transportation — or at least figure out how much transportation will cost.

Take ferries, not flights

Speaking of transportation, the Maldives comprises nearly 1,200 islands, and many of these islands are miles away from the international airport in Male. Seaplanes are the fastest way to hop to most islands, but averaging $300 to $800 per person, they’re also the priciest.

Fortunately, you can take much cheaper public ferries to the atolls closer to Male. Just keep in mind that booking a ferry can be complicated. For instance, you can’t do it online unless you use an operator like Atoll Transfer, which charges a service fee. But with ferry tickets ranging between $5 and $30 per person, ferries are a great way to save money in the Maldives.

You also can take speed boats, which are cheaper and slower than seaplanes, but more expensive and faster than ferries.

Domestic flights also are an option. For example, when I stayed at Reethi Beach, a family-friendly resort, we took a $45 (one-way) 20-minute domestic flight on Manta Air from Male to an island, where we then boarded a speedboat (from $25 one-way) that had us at the resort in 15 minutes.

Embrace the Maldives’ culture

The Maldives is a Muslim country, and Islam is the official state religion. Consuming alcohol is generally frowned upon, but it is available — albeit, heavily taxed. (Think $25 for a glass of wine you’d pay $5 for in Europe.) Therefore, I’ve found that it’s best — and cheapest — to embrace my inner Maldivian and stay sober while on the islands.

Also, tipping etiquette in the Maldives differs from what’s practiced in the U.S. Tipping 10% is standard, and many tour operators and restaurants automatically include this as a service charge, so check your bill before paying. For exceptional service, tipping over 10% is always appreciated, but it’s not expected.

Also, skip the hotel concierge in favor of asking local residents for restaurant recommendations. Locals will know where to find the freshest fish at the lowest prices.

Take advantage of day passes

Reethi Beach Resort welcomes day visitors who aren't staying overnightReethi Beach Resort welcomes day visitors who aren’t staying overnight — Photo courtesy of Reethi Beach Resort

Many fancy resorts offer day passes to use their facilities and access their beaches for a fraction of what you’d pay to stay overnight. For instance, you don’t need to be a guest at Reethi Beach to snorkel there. Simply ask in advance by email or phone.

To book day passes, Visit Maldives recommends working with your host (if you’re staying at a guesthouse) or hotel reception, which can contact other resorts on your behalf.

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