Maldives has always been known to be an exclusive and expensive holiday destination with luxury resorts occupying entire islands. This used to keep the budget conscious traveller away. Till a few years back the government never used to encourage the concept of homestays & guest houses. But now things are changing and many of the islands have numerous guest houses where a traveler can stay and get a real feel of local life. These guest houses can be booked for anywhere from USD 40 to 150. In general these rooms are pretty clean, have air conditioning, 24-hour electricity, and are comfortable. Wi fi and western-style bathrooms with hot water are not a guarantee however, so do some reading up on amenities before you book. There are a lot of travel booking websites through which you can make your booking for these guest houses.
I personally stayed at a guesthouse which ran at $100/night but included meals. I really enjoyed the local experience it provided and was able to get everything planned ahead of time by speaking with the highly attentive staff there. They were also able to help me get from Malé to Mahibadoo, which is on Ari Atoll, easily by using local transport.
It seemed that most guesthouses did include meals, which can otherwise be found at local coffee shops that dot all of the islands.
Keep in mind that once you arrive in Malé, you’ll need to get to your destination of choice. Some hotels offer a transfer service while others do not. You can get a ferry from the airport to Malé itself which is a few dollars and leaves when full. From there, take a taxi to the ferry station that services the rest of the islands. Be forewarned that not every day offers a local ferry (which ran at about $20 for Mahibadoo). Check the ferry schedule when considering your flight bookings.
Most smaller guesthouses offer tons of awesome activities from snorkeling to fishing to scuba diving. These are things that can typically be booked on the ground in person but do heavily depend on what your guest house owner can provide.
I personally paid $30 for Manta Ray snorkeling, which ended up being a nearly-private tour with just my travel buddy and myself and our guesthouse owner, who doubled as our tour guide. He mentioned that the boats coming from the nearby resorts charged hundreds of dollars per person. It was clear who got the better deal!
Diving and excursions were closer to $60-$75 each, but still provided a very small-group feel that I absolutely loved.
Staying on a local island vs. a resort is not without its differences. For one, the Maldives is a Muslim country, therefore bikinis are a no-no on the local islands. This is not a huge deal as most of the excursions take place in the middle of the ocean or on bikini beaches where it’s perfectly fine to don a bikini.
One other big consideration is alcohol. You can forget about toasting with wine on the local islands where alcohol and pork are forbidden. I’d also suggest NOT staying on Malé which is just a big city without the beautiful beaches and swaying palm trees you’d probably expect in the Maldives. Moreover, there’s a bit of instability recently due to elections.
Lastly, the local islands are not as pristine as the resort islands. Though they’re catching up and are still absolutely beautiful, be forewarned that there are still some growing pains and some room for improvement.
That said, I wouldn’t have changed my experience for anything, and truly enjoyed being able to do the Maldives for far under the thousands of dollars per day I feared it would cost. Being able to experience it from an authentic, local experience made it the trip of a lifetime for me.