How to Travel the Maldives on a Budget - South Ari Atoll - Detailed Guide for the Top Local Islands
How to Travel the Maldives on a Budget - South Ari Atoll

How to Travel the Maldives on a Budget - South Ari Atoll


When Is the Best Time

The Maldives are a bucket list destination, but most think these islands are too expensive. However, the perception is that these idyllic islands have a hefty price tag. Fear not! My recently updated guide will reveal how to explore the Maldives without breaking the bank. Whether you’re a luxury traveller staying at a resort or a budget-conscious adventurer like myself, there are ways to enjoy this tropical paradise.

A big lunch at the sea.
Compass Beach and Bistro; was our favourite restaurant in Dhangethi.

We just returned from our vacation, which was truly one of our best winter getaways. We indulged in fantastic experiences while keeping costs for tours and food reasonable. Every meal felt like a feast but was affordable. Curious about the different food and prices? Read on to discover how much we paid for lunch and dinner.

You do not need to buy a guidebook; just read my three Maldives Guides, watch our YouTube video and start planning your best journey ever. 

The Moon Swing with two women on it at high tide
The Moon Swing in Dhangethi - our second favourite island.

I will show you how to travel around the Maldives on your own. You can stay on one island the entire time or take the ferry or speedboat and explore different islands like we did. I highly recommend staying on several islands. Each local island is different in its highlights, tours, the house reef, restaurants, and the locals. It was amazing how kind some of the residents were. This was such a relaxed holiday.

Visitors on the sandbank at low tide
The famous sandbank in Dhigurah leads to the island resort in the distance.

I describe in detail our favourite islands, not those you can miss. Nevertheless, although Mahibadhoo, the capital of the South Ari Atoll, wasn't beautiful, the restaurant Flame was the best of our trip. We don't regret any of our experiences and the islands we chose. The three of us had a blast.

We enjoy the view to the emerald green sea
We chilled out in Omadhoo, our last island.

Tourism on local islands was established roughly a decade ago. Your and our visits make the difference; the locals get jobs, and you can benefit from the beauty of their islands for an affordable price. If you are staying in one of these beautiful but expensive island resorts, you do not get contact with the locals because people from Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh provide service. What we liked most was that we were not dependent on any transport and walked a lot daily. My Garmin Watch tracked more than 15 thousand steps every day.

Snorkelling with Whale Sharks and Manta Rays

Whale Shark and snorklers

Check out my newly updated guide on when and where to spot whale sharks and manta rays.

How to get to the Maldives and Island Transfer

The colourful Maldives entrance sign at Velana airport.
My brother René at Male airport and harbour - all close together.

To get to the Maldives, you fly via Velana-Male Airport, the capital of the Maldives. The airport is situated on the "airport island" Hulhule. You usually have to plan a night here at the beginning or end of the journey, as either there are no more boats to the islands or the plane leaves Male too early in the morning. We had booked a night flight and arrived early in the morning, but for the return, we booked a night in the Marukab Plaza Hotel, which picks you up and drops you off the following day. This hotel is excellent, and we had a great last night.

The Endheri Express Boat in the emerald green sea
One of the speedboats between Dhigurah and Dhangethi - price $10 in cash.

The next question that came up was how we could get to the different islands and how much it cost. I will give you an overview of roughly how much you must expect for each transport.

  • Ferry from Male to South Ari means taking two ferries, first to Mahibadoo, which takes more than 4 hours, and then a second one in the afternoon - timetable below- it operates three times a week. The price is ridiculously cheap, around $5.
  • Shared speedboat - 2 hours ride - $60-65 one-way to Dhigurah or Dhangethi
  • Plane - check-in, flight 20 min + speedboat at the end 2 hours - $175 one-way
  • Seaplane is the most cost-effective and fastest - $350 one-way and makes sense if you stay in an island resort.
A seaplane at the jetty of a luxus resort
A seaplane is the most expensive way to travel the Maldives.

How to get to Dhigurah and Dhangethi?

You can get here by ferry, which I do not recommend because of the long distance. The ferry from Male goes to Mahibadhoo, and from here, you have to take another one to continue your journey to the south. After you arrive in Male, you usually wait a couple of hours for your speedboat, and these boats depart twice daily, except on Fridays. The ferry boats operate roughly only three times weekly, taking at least half a day to get to your vacation island. Trust me, you are tired; the climate is totally different, with high humidity. Our only wish was to get into our hotel/guesthouse, therefore I highly recommend to take the speedboat..

Our huge ferry in the harbour of Mahibahoo.
Our ferry from Mahibadhoo to Omadhoo in the morning. Price 22 MVR = 1,35€

How to arrange your speedboat? This is amazingly easy. Just inform your hotel or guesthouse, and they book it for you. They also let you know where to meet up at the airport. Harbour and airport terminals are the same. You usually pay the speedboat transport fee at your accommodation. Price: $ 60-65. The better the hotel, the higher the price. Our hotel was fully booked, and my brother stayed in the centre of Dhigurah. He paid five dollars less.

Maldives South Ari Ferry Timetable
You must read the timetable from the right to the left.

Here are all ferry timetables for your planning, but remember they can change. Let your accommodation confirm the departure time. The price for a ferry ride is a few dollars only. Taking the ferry in the Ari Atoll is cheap and can easily be done. Our accommodations always assisted us. Letting us know the arrival time, they picked us up on the arrival day and dropped us off. This service is included.

South Ari Atoll - 2 Top Islands

Drone Shot of Dhigurah Island
The small but 3 km long Dhigurah island and the long stretched forest and beach.

The South Ari Atoll, officially named Alifu-Atoll, is the second biggest atoll with 105 islands. Eighteen of the islands are inhabited by locals, and roughly 30 are resort islands. We visited three islands in the South Ari Atoll and one in the north.

If you want to take a plane, you arrive in Maamigili, with its airport and harbour 100 km southwest of Male.  Google Maps Location. Honestly, this island is ugly and looks more like an industrial area.

A woman on with her feet in the crystal clear sea.
I enjoyed the pristine beaches and the azure water of the Maldives - here in Dhigurah.

These are the 2 top islands from south to north, all in proximity to areas where whale sharks are frequently spotted the entire year and mantas in the winter. However, what no one tells you is nearby at the Mahibadhoo Rock Manta Point north of these two islands, mantas are frequently spotted from May to October.

  1. Dhigurah is north of Maamigili, and it takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours from Male. It depends on the sea conditions and how long it takes to get here. The sea was rough during our stay, and it took us two hours.
  2. Dhangethi is approximately a 15-minute boat ride and half an hour by ferry to the north—7,5 km/ 4,7 miles from Dhigurah. The speedboat price is $10, which we paid in cash on the boat!
A romantic dinner at the beach at sunset.
Most hotels and guesthouses arrange such a dinner for you.

These two islands have a good infrastructure and offer so much that you can easily spend one week on each island. Dhigurah and Dhangethi are great locations to spot whale sharks and manta rays. First, I will give you an overview of our two favourite islands in the south Ari Atoll.

1 Dhigurah Island

The sun bathers in the shallow waters of the sandbank.
Dhigurah and the endless long beach and sandbank.

Dhigurah Island is one of the longer islands, with roughly 3 km/ 1,9 miles, but pretty narrow. This island offers long beaches, an endlessly long sandbank, a patch of forest, and a traditional Maldivian village.

Important: Pay attention to the tides when you enter the sandbank. The way back at high tide can be difficult due to the currents. Tide Times Dhigurah Island

Sea Turtles at Turtle Reef in Dhigurah
We spotted lots of turtles at all islands and on tours.

Bring your own snorkel gear and swim shirt and check out "Turtle Reef", where you can snorkel with turtles, baby reef sharks, moray eels,  colourful fish, lobster,  and more in shallow water. This was the biggest house reef during our trip, with the most colourful corals.

The sunset watched through palm trees from higher elevations.
You can watch the sunrise and sunset from all the islands.

You can watch the stunning sunset from the white Bikini Beach. Each island has a "Bikini Beach" the only beach where it is permitted to walk in your swim clothes. This amazing long beach was the whitest and most beautiful one. 

A women in front of a white and red fishing boat.
I am in front of a traditional "dhoni", a Maldivian fishing boat.

What makes Dhigurah unique is that the island's charm has been preserved. Before tourism was approved on this island, it was stipulated that no building could be higher than four storeys. If you approach the island by boat, you will see palm trees but no tall buildings like on other islands.

A flying fox hanging in the tree and eating a fruit.
We spotted plenty of flying foxes on most islands.

This island has a town centre close to the harbour with older guesthouses and newer hotels and private accommodations near Bikini Beach. My brother stayed close to the harbour in the lovely Sands Grand Hotel, and we were in the newly built Whale Shark Beach Hotel. Our hotel was closer to most of the restaurants and the famous beach. The room rate was slightly higher, but the location was better.

A roof top restaurant at sunset.
Our Whale Shark Beach Hotel offered dinner with such a spectacular view at sunset.

You are able to walk on the sandy paths in all the villages. Some residents are happy to see visitors on their islands and always wave happily to you. You can get water and snacks in many small shops around the island. More about everything you need to know before you visit the Maldives in my additional article, which I will publish soon.

A man walking on a gravel road in the village.
This is Markus in one of the many narrow side streets in the village.

Would you like to book a romantic dinner on the beach? Most accommodation provides this. Almost everything is possible on these islands.

Different type of juices.
Instead of cocktails, we got excellent fresh juices.

We tried out four different restaurants, and the Ufa Escape, near our hotel, was our favourite one in Dhigurah. You may want to know how much you pay for a proper meal and beverages. On average, we paid 30-50 euros for three, including fresh juices, iced coffee, and sometimes a dessert. Attached, you can find some menu examples of the UFA Escape:

However, I always say you pay a price to be in paradise and in Dhigurah, it's the mosquitoes. Plenty of mossies in the forest come out at dusk, dawn, and after rainfall. The best protection is long clothes and insect repellent, which you can get on these islands. Usually, I recommend a biodegradable one, but these mosquitoes are persistent.

Plenty of fish at colourful corals.
Longfin Batfish School, which let me get close.

Nevertheless, if I could, I would return to this island in a second. This was the most beautiful island of all. The house reef was fantastic, full of fish and colourful corals.

Hotel Tip

A double bedroom in Male
Our room in Male, in the "Marukab Plaza", on our last night in the Maldives.

For budget-friendly travel, I strongly advise reserving your accommodation ahead of time. Keep in mind that all the islands have limited space, and the top-rated hotels and guesthouses tend to be fully booked quickly. Booking your hotel at least three to four months in advance is ideal to secure the best price and more availability. The earlier, the better! While most hotels offer half or full-board options, we found that overall food expenses are low, allowing us to decide when and where to dine out.

2 Dhangethi Island

Two backpackers accessing the beach
One of the many breathtaking views of the azure waters.

This much smaller island is roughly one km long and 300 m wide. Also, on this island, you can experience a Maldivian village. You can either book full board in your hotel or choose one of the local restaurants and enjoy the fresh seafood caught during the day.

A couple in a huge pool.
We enjoyed the pool each evening and loved the Perla.

We spent four days in the excellent-rated Perla Dhangethi in February, and it was a perfect choice. Each room provided a kettle and fresh drinking water daily. The breakfast buffet offered a good variety and changed daily. What we loved most was the huge pool; flying foxes flew over it in the evening.

Dhangethi and the azure waters of the Maldives.
Dhangethi view with a hotel to the right - view from our tour boat.

The gravel road in the town centre is lined with souvenir shops, clothes stores, grocery shops, and friendly locals who greet passing tourists. 

Black-blotched porcupinefish in the crystal clear water.
Black-blotched porcupinefish, like a pufferfish, is poisonous and was spotted in shallow water.

Also here you can find a Bikini Beach and reef for snorkelling. The water is shallow, and snorkelling is best at high tide - Tide Times Dhangethi Island. There are sun loungers and parasols that can be used free of charge. Please respect their religion - don't walk in your bikini or bathers through the village.

A visitor on the moon swing at sunset.
The Moon-Swing is a picturesque spot at Dhangethi.

Tip: Don't miss the romantic "Moon Swing" at the island's southern tip. We came here for the sunset, at high and low tide. This is the most picturesque spot on this island.

Restaurant Tip Dhangethi:

A table full of seafood dishes at the sea.
What we three ate daily at the Compass Restaurant was a feast.

After a long day trip out at the sea, we were starving and ordered four dishes. The price for all meals and beverages on this table was MRF 800, which is below 50 Euros or $52. You can dine out for roughly $20 if you travel on a budget. Curious about what we ate for dessert? Check out the link to see our sizzling brownie, which we got addicted to. 

Aja and Danu, the waiters at the Compass, walked an extra mile for us. They know how to satisfy their customers. Thanks, guys, you were terrific! Location Compass Restaurant on Google Maps

    The three of us and the staff from the restaruant.
    Aja, Danu and the rest of the staff of the Compass treated us like guests in a 5-star hotel.

    More about Maldivian food and restaurants soon in my new Maldivian Food Guide.

    My Underwater Camera

    I with my Olympus TG underwater camera

    I have been using the Olympus TG for seven years already and am super happy about the photo quality. It is essential to clean the camera with fresh water to remove the salt or use an underwater chassis (more details about the new TG 7 at my affiliate partner Amazon). You need an underwater chassis for depths of more than 15 meters. 

    North Ari Atoll

    A couple on the Omadhoo Swing in the sea.
    Markus and I at the Omadhoo Swing at low tide.

    We also wanted to explore the North Ari Atoll a little, and the first island is Omadhoo. It was definitely worth it for us. You get to this small local island from Mahibadhoo.

    • Mahibadhoo is located far north, one hour ride by ferry - approx. 20 km/ 12,4 miles from Dhangethi.
    • Omadhoo is a 15-minute boat ride north of Mahibadhoo.
    A coral tree at the edge of the reef.
    There are colourful corals where it goes deep down due to the colder water.

    What makes Omadhoo unique is the underwater world at the wooden boardwalk. Some local women feed sharks and rays in the afternoon with their leftovers from the kitchen. What looks slightly disgusting attracts stingrays, nurse sharks, moray eels and large fish.

    Several eagle rays close to the shore.
    You do not need to snorkel. We saw eagle rays and nurse sharks from the boardwalk.

    On top, the boardwalk leads to the edge of the reef. From here, you can get into the deep blue sea. We also let the current drift us from here to Bikini Beach.

    The shallow reef to the right and the deep blue sea left.
    My brother and I at the reef edge.

    The reef was stunning, and you don't need a tour to feel like you've been transported to a Nat Geo movie. I even watched two moray eels fighting, one injured in the neck. Amazing! Google Maps Location boardwalk and best snorkel spot

    Two fighting moray eels.
    More about this fight in my YouTube Maldives video soon.

    This local island is absolutely charming and not crowded. Several small shops provide everything you need, like water, ice cream, fruits or beverages. Although it was a small island, it took us over an hour to circle it.

    Sunrise in Omadhoo at the beach.
    My brother at sunrise.

    Getting back to Male was easy. We informed the staff of our guesthouse, and they arranged the speedboat transfer. Price: $45. They picked us up and dropped us off at the harbour. Nice and attentive local staff.

    Our huge double room with balcony in Omadhoo.
    Our spacious room in the guesthouse "Turtle Maldives" in Omadhoo.

    There are several smaller guesthouses in Omadhoo. Our Turtle Maldives has seven rooms, breakfast buffet was included, and most guests from the island came here for lunch and dinner buffet or a la carte. We preferred to choose from the menu daily, which was better and cheaper IMO. 

    Price Overview to Travel the Maldives on a Budget

    A woman having rice and fresh fish for lunch.
    Fresh fish, veggies & rice for $9 at the Flame in Mahibadhoo.
    • Speedboat to South Ari Atoll around $ 60
    • Ferry or speedboat between the island is about $2 for the ferry and $10-15 for the speedboat.
    • Price for one night is between $50-120, depending on your desired luxury.
    • Lunch and dinner prices: fried (tuna, meat, veggie) rice around $6, tuna steak $10 - max $15 - you get lobster but calculate $35-45. The big resorts order most of them.
    • Fresh Juices $5 max.
    • Manta Ray Tour: $60-75 (depending on the island - distance to travel)
    • Whale Shark Tour: $75-100
    • Reef Snorkel Tours: $25-50

    Prices may vary depending on the island's location and the restaurant you chose. These are the prices we paid roughly.  Due to the extensive buffet breakfast we got provided in all hotels, we ate lunch in the afternoon and skipped dinner. Our daily food, water, beverages, snacks, and ice cream expenses were between $50-60 for three.

      Top Resorts - Closer to Manta Rays and Whale Sharks

      These are my two top tips if you would like to book a luxury stay. The advantage of these resorts is that they are closer to the spots where we spotted whale sharks and manta rays, the gentle giants.

      A luxury resort with waterfront accommodation
      Pure Luxury - with private access to the sea from each bungalow.
      • Hotel: Lux South Ari Atoll by - Thanks for booking via my website. With your support, I am able to provide all the information for free.
      • Island: Dhidhdhoo between Maamigili and Dhigurah
      • This island and hotel is a little slice of heaven; you do not have to worry about anything.
      • The hotel offers many activities so it’s hard to get bored.
      • The diving and snorkel tours are fantastic.
      • There are top restaurants spread around the island.
      Island Resort with bungalows above the sea.
      The newly opened Barceló Whale Lagoon in the South Ari Atoll

      We were close to this fantastic resort when we spotted and snorkelled twice with a whale shark. Not many tour operators go that far and search for a whale shark. 

      Best Months to Visit


      Location and Tips

      Male, Maldives

      The Maldives are on everybody's bucket list, but most people think they are too expensive to travel to. I like to show you how you are able to travel to the Maldives on a budget. I will give you all the information about the best time, when, and where to swim and dive with manta rays and whale sharks. Of course, there are more excellent spots for diving and snorkelling in the Maldives, but these are the islands we visited. This guide is written from my own experiences.

      Nurse Sharks at the surface
      My favourite tour was snorkelling with nurse sharks.

      I make a difference; I only write about my personal experiences and give honest tips. If you like my Maldives Guide, please share it with your friends and on social media. This would already help me a lot.

      The World Wide Web has changed a lot, and rewriting honest travel content with AI and taking images from Shutterstock or Getty is the new business for many fake travel websites. Do you wish to know more about this topic and how to unmask such websites quickly? Read my article “The Truth About Fake Travel Websites and Picture Theft.” 

      Does honest travel content from real experiences have a future? I don't know any longer. Now, it is up to you to check wisely if you can trust the source.

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