Epitomised by idyllic islands, white sand beaches and extraordinary marine life, the Maldives is the stuff of dreams for many – but a diving holiday in paradise comes at a price. The country has long been regarded as a destination for the rich and famous, leaving other travellers to admire its beauty from glossy travel magazines or celebrity social media feeds. But not anymore!
Affordable dive destinations in the Maldives
For decades, tourism in the Maldives was confined to either private resort islands or liveaboards. But in 2009 the government began to allow tourists to stay on local islands, opening up more opportunities to experience the Maldives and grab an affordable diving holiday. Although you might not stroll along the same beach as Lewis Hamilton, or swim in an infinity pool with Kim Kardashian, you will certainly enjoy your own slice of Maldivian paradise, without a call from your bank manager!
Thulusdhoo and Dhiffushi Islands
Surrounded by luxury resorts offering day-pass access, Thulusdhoo Island provides an a la carte-style approach to Maldivian getaways. Guests can stay in a budget hotel in popular Male Atoll, while experiencing many of the first-class facilities the Maldives is famous for. Plus, this island is a surfers’ heaven, with several world-class breaks just offshore.
Further north on the edge of North Male Atoll, Dhiffushi Island is one of the cheapest and most accessible islands to visit the Maldives. With an impressive series reefs to explore, and several bikini beaches, this small local island is well-suited to guests looking for the ultimate, affordable tropical holiday.
North Male Atoll offers some of the Maldives’ most popular and well-explored dive sites. Lucky divers can spot anything here from mantas and eagle rays, to turtles and reef sharks. Popular local sites include Colosseum, Girifushi Thila, Manta Point, Banana Reef, and the Maldives Victory Wreck.
If you’re visiting Thulusdhoo Island, we recommend staying with Canopus Retreats. Boasting magnificent views of the lagoon, and just a short walk from the ‘bikini beach’, this affordable local guesthouse is a haven for divers, surfers and travellers alike. Canopus Retreats works with several partner dive centres, offering a fantastic selection of professional and experienced guides.
- Great for: Incredible manta ray encounters and a convenient location.
- Best time to go: The best conditions occur between November and April, but for manta rays, visit between June and September, during the southwest monsoon. The surf season runs from March to October
- How to get here: Regular speedboat transfers depart from Male and the international airport, taking less than an hour to reach these islands. A ferry service also operates, lasting up to 2.5 hours
2. South Male
Maafushi is one of the most affordable local islands in the Maldives and a popular base for a budget holiday. Value for money is the order of the day here, with chic guesthouses, sublime palm-lined beaches, adventurous watersports, and easily accessible day trips – without the hefty price tag. Maafushi’s location also means scheduled ferry or speedboat transfers from the international airport are very affordable.
Located on the eastern edge of South Male Atoll, Maafushi is conveniently situated to visit many of the region’s most exciting dive sites. Kandooma Thila, Cocoa Thila, Guraidhoo Corner, Kuda Giri Wreck are just a few of the exceptional sites lying within easy reach.
We recommend diving with the Maldives Passions team and staying at the Stingray Beach Inn. This small, purposefully-designed hotel offers an authentic and easy-going atmosphere, and a superb dive centre run by Maldives Passions – voted the best attraction in Maafushi for 6 years in a row!
- Great for: Exciting walls and channels, manta ray encounters, and world-class surfing.
- Best time to go: Conditions are best between November and April, but for the highest chances of manta rays, visit between July and October.
- How to get here: Regular speedboat transfers depart from Male and the international airport, taking less than an hour to reach Maafushi. A ferry service also operates that takes around 1.5 hours.
3. Baa Atoll
Situated on Baa Atoll’s eastern edge, just five minutes from the legendary Hanifaru Bay, Dharavandhoo is a small, sleepy island with sandy streets, charming coral-coloured buildings, and plenty of affordable accommodation.
Unsurprisingly, Dharavandhoo’s main attraction is the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve within which it is located. Protected by law, the surrounding dive sites, such as Dharavandhoo Thila, Dhigala Haa, Maavaru Kandu, and Dhonfanu Thila deliver some impressive dives. Hanifaru Bay, in particular, offers extraordinary experiences, with sometimes hundreds of manta rays gathering to feed.
We recommend a stay in Aveyla Manta Village – an environmentally-conscious resort offering a five-star experience minus the five-figure price tag. With an extraordinary location overlooking the iconic Hanifaru Bay, and sleek, professional dive centre, Aveyla Manta Village is a genuine paradise for budget-savvy dive buddies.
- Great for: Truly unbelievable location with direct access to Hanifaru Bay.
- Best time to go: Feeding aggregations of manta rays and whale sharks in Hanifaru Bay run from May to November, with the best times usually from late July to early October.
- How to get here: Flights depart daily from Velana International Airport, taking just 20 minutes to reach Dharavandhoo. Speedboat transfers also depart from Male several times a week, lasting up to three hours each way.
4. North Ari
Rasdhoo is a classic Maldivian island and has been inhabited for hundreds of years. Colourful properties line the streets bordered by walls of washed-up coral and bougainvillea flowers. Buddhist relics of the past can still be found and locals still enjoy a more traditional way of life.
Rising out of the ocean depths, this tiny island atoll has found fame as one of the best locations in the Maldives for encounters with hammerhead sharks and for some spectacular dive experiences with manta rays and big fish. Take a trip to Rasdhoo and explore deep reef walls and dramatic underwater scenery, relax on beautiful beaches and enjoy the warm and welcoming hospitality.
Drop Dive Maldives is an enthusiastic, eco-conscious dive centre offering exceptional value for money. With its own engaging not-for-profit marine protection program, and an impressive list of 24 speciality courses, Drop Dive is a one-stop-shop for budget-savvy and sustainably-minded divers.
- Great for: Hammerheads, epic diving and manta rays between November and April
- Best time to go: Conditions are best between November to April. For the highest chances of seeing hammerheads in Rasdhoo, visit between January and April
- How to get here: The best way is to take one of the scheduled speedboats from Male which run twice a day. Each journey lasts under 1.30 hours
Ukulhas Island is the ideal eco-friendly budget option in the Maldives. This island, located in North Ari Atoll, was awarded a Green Leaf Award in 2014 for outstanding services to protecting and preserving the Island’s environment.
The island’s location at the northern tip of North Ari - also known as Alifu Alifu Atoll - means guests are well placed to dive some famous sites: Maaya Thila, a submerged pinnacle covered in marine life and home to eagle rays, turtles, barracuda and much more; Fish Head, an oblong shaped reef with schooling fish and snapper as well as resident Humpback wrasse; and nearby Rasdhoo Atoll and the legendary Rasdhoo Madivaru site, with its resident hammerheads that are often encountered on the early morning dive.
We recommend staying with West Sands Ukulhas. Just a minute’s walk from the beach, they offer modern, well-appointed accommodation as well as running excursions, diving trips with their partner dive centres, manta ray safaris, dolphin cruises and sand bank picnics.
- Great for: Variety of diving and selection of excursions.
- Best time to go: Conditions are best between November to April, but for the best chances of seeing hammerheads in Rasdhoo, visit between January and April
- How to get here: Guests can choose either a 1.5 hour speedboat transfer or a 3.5 hour public ferry from Villingili ferry terminal in Male
5. South Ari
Known locally as ‘long island’, Dhigurah measures just three kilometres in length and is no more than 250 metres wide, with a thin, streaking sandbank trailing into the distance. Although not the cheapest way to visit the Maldives, this island boasts some spectacular highlights and is well worth a visit.
Located in the far south of South Ari Atoll, and forming part of the South Ari Marine Protected Area, Dhigurah Island is a mecca for budget-savvy scuba divers visiting the Maldives. This unique region offers year-round whale shark encounters as well as seasonal manta ray congregations and more. Iconic nearby sites include Kuda Rah Thila, Manta Point and Reethi Thila.
Overlooking a spectacular 2.5km beach, and the atoll’s glimmering lagoon beyond, you’d be forgiven for thinking Boutique Beach is an exclusive private island resort. Built with divers in mind, this chic resort is well-equipped for exploring South Ari’s word-class diving without breaking the bank.
- Great for: Diver-focussed facilities, direct access to South Ari’s iconic whale sharks
- Best time to go: Whale shark sightings are common year-round, with larger congregations occurring during the northeast monsoon, between November and April
- How to get here: Guests can take a 20 minute domestic flight to Maamigili Airport followed by a 15 minute speedboat ride to Dhigurah. Speedboat transfers also depart from Velana International Airport daily, lasting around two hours
6. Vaavu Atoll
Fulidhoo Island is located in Vaavu, an atoll renowned for its diving with sharks, manta rays, and vast amounts of fish life, as well as yellow soft corals carpeting the reef walls and overhangs. Fotteyo Kandu is often regarded as one of the best channel dives in the Maldives and the night dive at Alimatha jetty – with dozens of nurse sharks and whiprays – is not to be missed!
This beautiful island is 700m long, 200m wide, and has only 200 local residents. It is home to one of our favourite dive centres in the Maldives, Fulidhoo Dive - the only PADI 5-Star dive centre on the island, run by Four Seasons veterans Ali Miuraj and Adele Verdier-Ali. They combine first-class service, a wealth of diving experience and knowledge, and friendly Maldivian hospitality to make your experiences here unforgettable.
Fulidhoo Dive works alongside Thundi Guesthouse – a down-to-earth eco-conscious guesthouse. Located on the sandy beach, just metres from the ocean, this modest property is just a stone's throw from some of the best local dive sites including Fulidhoo Cave.
- Great for: Exhilarating channel and night dives, learning to dive or snorkelling, laid-back, tranquil island life and gorgeous deserted sandbars for day trips and surface intervals
- Best time to go: Year-round, but conditions in the channels are best from November to April
- How to get here: Choose between an hour-long speedboat ride or a 3-hour public ferry which departs from Male’s Villingili ferry terminal several times a week
7. Fuvahmulah Atoll
Situated in the far south of the Maldives at 0°17'S, Fuvahmulah is the country’s closest island to the equator. This isolated and relatively uncharted island promises pristine reefs, large pelagics such as oceanic manta rays and mola mola, as well as big shark diving with threshers, tigers and oceanic whitetips.
We recommend diving with the big shark lovers at Fuvahmulah Dive School. They’ve pioneered diving and exploring these waters and are definitely your best bet to get some awesome shark encounters. Fuvahmulah dive school can easily arrange accommodation at several local guesthouses – each carefully selected for comfortable accommodation at reasonable prices.
- Great for: Sharks and big pelagics,‘Tiger Zoo’- the special dive site for tiger sharks, the only beach break to surf in the Maldives and remoteness means complete escapism!
- Best time to go: Year-round, due to reduced impact of monsoon seasons. But, for your best chances of seeing oceanic mantas, visit during the month of April
- How to get here: Being so far south, a domestic flight is your only option. Flights can be booked directly online or Fuvahmulah Dive School can assist with your travel plans.
8. Addu Atol
In fact, Addu Atoll and Addu City are one and the same, comprising several small islands. Addu offers a rich history and authentic island culture, mingled with luxuriously laid-back beaches and diverse wildlife. Boasting plenty of quirky charm, this destination is perfect for anyone looking for something a little out of the ordinary in the Maldives.
The Maldives’ most southerly atoll, Addu is also home to some exhilarating diving packed with turtles, sharks and resident manta rays that can be encountered year-round. And, as if you could ask for more, visitors can also explore the largest wreck in the Maldives, the WWII British Loyalty.
We recommend staying with Aquaventure Maldives on the western island of Maradhoo. This dive centre’s convenient location provides direct access to the British Loyalty Wreck – and Addu’s other dive sites beyond – and provides an ideal base for exploring Addu’s attractions. Self-catering, full, and half-board packages options are available to suit every budget and travel style.
- Great for: Year-round manta ray sightings and the largest wreck in the Maldives.
- Best time to go: Addu offers great diving all year-round
- How to get here: From Male, you’ll need to take a domestic flight to Gan International Airport on Addu Atoll’s Gan Island. Speedboat and car transfers between islands in Addu are readily available.
Affordable liveaboards in the Maldives
If you are looking to explore a little more of the Maldives’ unique marine environment, there are some exceptional dive liveaboards that offer affordable itineraries, particularly those focused on the central atolls. These dive trips never venture far from Male - helping to keep fuel costs down - so you can book a seven night liveaboard cruise for less than US$2000 and dive Male, Ari and Vaavu Atolls in search of manta rays and whale sharks!
For an affordable liveaboard experience, we recommend the Blue Shark One, run by Eco Pro Divers, or the Emperor Atoll, run by Emperor Divers. Both offer enticing itineraries, exceptional service and facilities, and - best of all - affordable rates!
- Great for: Exploring a wider area of the Maldives without breaking the bank
- Best time to go: The best conditions in the central atolls occur between November and April, but if you opt for a dive trip heading north to Baa for manta rays, book a cruise between June and October, during the full or new moon
- How to get here: All itineraries in the central atolls start and end in Male. All you need to do is fly into the Maldives and a representative from the boat will meet you at the airport ready for boarding
As you’re looking to visit the Maldives on a budget, you’ll likely find yourself considering cheaper flights that land at inconvenient times. Also, if you plan to venture further than the central atolls, the thought of boarding a three-hour ferry after a long-haul flight is probably not an exciting one. Luckily, Hulhumale – the location of the Maldives’ international airport – offers plenty of budget-friendly transit hotels to rest up between journeys.
Get in touch with the ZuBlu team and a travel expert will recommend a suitable hotel in Male.
Some pros and cons of budget travel
- It’s cheaper! Accommodation, activities, and food are all significantly less than resort islands. Guesthouse rooms range from US$50 - US$150 a night, dives around US$50-60, and full-board is roughly US$20-30 a day. The cost of scuba diving courses with dive centres on the Maldives’ local islands is also generally cheaper.
- The incredible dive sites will still be the same regardless of where you sleep! Many of the base leaders and local dive centre owners have years of experience in the luxury sector, so expect great service.
- You can get around cheaply by using inexpensive local ferries. For example, a ferry from Male to Fulidhoo Island (3.5 hours) costs only US$3.5 each way. You can also choose to splash out on a scheduled speedboat service, which are still incredible value for money compared to private transfers.
- Budget travellers may find it easier to get involved in island life and experience some Maldivian culture outside of the big resorts. Maldivians love music as much as they love fishing, and witnessing the local drumming, known as Boduberu, is always a highlight.
- Alcohol is prohibited on local islands, but a detox is never a bad thing!
- As a 100% Muslim nation, it’s important to respect local culture and women are advised to wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees, especially when exploring the island.
- Women can’t wear swimwear on the islands unless there is a designated “Bikini Beach” for tourists.
- Although the situation is rapidly changing, food options can be fairly limited on the more remote islands and can be basic, if not challenging, for vegetarians and vegans. Fish is eaten three times a day!
- In the low season, bad weather can affect the local ferry service and disrupt your plans.
What to pack
Beyond your toothbrush, t-shirts, and swimwear, a few simple items can make all the difference during your local island stay:
- Mask – we highly recommend purchasing your own well-fitting mask rather than renting from your dive centre or guest house.
- Fins and snorkel – yes, they take up luggage space but you can’t knock comfort in the water, and you can coordinate colour schemes with your swimwear and mask to guarantee that perfect Insta pic
- Sunscreen and Aftersun – try to use eco and coral friendly brands.
- Mosquito Repellent - one without harsh chemicals will be better for your skin, and the environment!
- Sarong – great for lying on the beach but also to cover your shoulders when exploring the islands. Even close to a “bikini beach” it is always best to respect local traditions and dress more conservatively.
- Packable shopping bag - great for picking up supplies from the village shop.
- Head torch – handy if you decide to go on a late-night stroll along the beach.
- Glass straw – purchasing your own reusable straw helps reduce single-use plastic waste.
- Water bottle – it’s always good to have water to hand in tropical climates plus having a refillable water container helps reduce plastic waste.
- Travel towel – these are great for beach use and quickly drying yourself after a swim. It also reduces your use of the resorts’ towels and takes the strain off their laundry requirements.
With regards to toiletries and grooming products, we recommend you bring everything you might need, however, the majority of local islands do have a collection of small shops selling groceries and souvenirs, as well as sunscreen or mosquito repellent in case you have forgotten to bring your own. As ever, we recommend that you pack environmentally friendly products, and bring any empty bottles back out with you.
Although the local currency is Maldivian Rufiyaa, US dollars are accepted throughout the atolls. And with English the country’s second language most shopkeepers and islanders will be able to converse in English, especially the younger generation.
- Currency: Maldivian rufiyaa, but US dollars are accepted everywhere.
- Religion: 100% Islam. Some cultural sensitivity is required with regard to dress code and no alcohol or pork is allowed on local islands.
- Visas: All nationalities are granted a 30-day free visa on arrival. You can find up-to-date with COVID-19 rules and regulations on ZuBlu’s COVID-19 scuba diving travel advice page.
Top activities in the Maldives
Of course we are a little biased, but the diving in the Maldives really is incredible. For the certified diver, the diversity of dive sites and marine life is breath-taking; from current-charged channel dives with sharks and schooling fish, to shallow reefs with cleaning stations for manta rays, the Maldives has it all. And with plenty of sheltered lagoons, the Maldives is also ideal for those wishing to learn to dive, especially with the prospect of seeing so much more once qualified.
The shallow reefs, known locally as Giris, provide aquarium-like habitats that can be enjoyed comfortably with little concern for currents. The lagoons around the islands act as vital nurseries for reef life as well as sanctuaries for spotted eagle rays and juvenile sharks, making them great to explore. As a rule of thumb, islands within the atolls will have better reefs and provide more enjoyable snorkeling as they are more sheltered, whilst islands on the exterior of the atoll are barrier reefs so the snorkeling is harder to swim out to and there is less coral in the shallows.
With its reefs and channels galore, this atoll nation is a surfer’s heaven. Almost regardless of the tides and winds, there will likely be a corner of reef somewhere that is barrelling, pumping, glassy or simply fun to muck about on. North and South Male’ Atoll are the most well-established surfing spots with accessible breaks and a large number of boats offering surf trips.
We appreciate that thrill-seekers may like to charge about on jetskis, but we prefer to get our kicks by enjoying nature, and the best way to do this is to head out into the lagoons on kayaks, SUP boards, or windsurfs. Being a lot quieter on the water will likely get you closer to spotted eagle rays, either looking for food or even mating, as well as juvenile blacktip reef sharks hunting in the shallows.