As a photographer who works for themselves, it’s a pretty big advantage to be able to take off work whenever you’d like to. People ask me all the time how I get so much vacation time, and let me just clarify – I work really hard to make it happen. I bust my booty when I’m home, and I work like a crazy person in order to take time off. I also do not get paid when I take time off, unless I am able to book a shoot while I’m on my trip, which is not always a guarantee. It’s challenging to market yourself in a country where no one has ever heard of you. BUT – if you work hard when you’re home, and take vacations in between your busy wedding schedule, you can make it happen if you prioritize it.

The Maldives always seemed like a far fetched dream, first, because they are just SO FAR AWAY from the United States. Second, because I always just assumed that I couldn’t afford it. But here’s how I did two weeks in The Maldives on a budget!

WEEK ONE: All-Inclusive Resort $1500 USD for 7 nights

Let me start out by saying, upon my very first Google searches for all-inclusive resorts in the Maldives, I realized this place was EXPENSIVE. The over-water bungalows you always see in photos are actually in the price range of $8000-$14,000 USD per night. No exaggeration. So I was on a mission to find a resort that didn’t take a year’s salary to book for a week. I found one, which honestly, I’m not even going to name the resort, because I wouldn’t stay there again, so I’m not going to suggest it to you all. But I will just say, it’s entirely possible to stay at a resort on a budget, but you absolutely get what you pay for. Mine was visually stunning, I felt like I was living in a beach jungle for a week, and the pool and staff were amazing. The rooms were private individual bungalows (NOT over water) with a sunrise beach view, and outdoor bathrooms. Which I loved. But in March, it wasn’t exactly busy season for them yet, so the resort itself was dead, which meant that a majority of the water activities that you could book during the day weren’t even happening because they didn’t get enough people to sign up. And my resort only had the ONE restaurant (a buffet) to eat at for every meal for 7 days. So, I don’t think I needed 7 whole days in the same place, with the same food the whole time, with nothing to do but lay by the pool and have some drinks. I would’ve loved a little more variety in both food and activities. Luckily, I traveled with 3 friends, so we had each other to stay entertained, but we definitely counted down until our second week when we booked an island hopping tour! I still had a great time at the resort, but if I were to do it again, I would’ve splurged a bit more on a nicer resort, or hit up a neighboring country like Sri Lanka, and explored that before hopping over to the Maldives for our tour. One of the highlights that we did at our resort was going on a dolphin cruise, where we saw HUNDREDS of dolphins swimming out in a cove near our resort, and that was SO cool.

WEEK TWO: Koda Sail Maldives Island Hopping Tour $1550 for twin share, with an early bird discount

The second week was easily one of my favorite weeks of my entire life. I faced many fears on this trip and did things I never really imagined I’d do…… ever. I have done a LOT of group travel in the past, mainly with large tour companies like Contiki and EF Tours. And honestly, I love all my group trips. But this one was just DIFFERENT. Koda Sail is a company who’s target audience is aimed at “young professionals” meaning the age range is a bit older than the other tour companies, and a little bit nicer quality than the others as well! The group was smaller, with a maximum of 20 people, which also kept it small and more personal. But the locations we stayed and the activities that we did were really what took it over the top. And our guide was INCREDIBLE. We even had the owner of the company come on our trip with us, so we got two awesome people instead of one. Some of the highlights from this insane week:

– Stayed in Dhigurah for the first 3 nights, a local island small enough to walk from one side to the other. Definitely felt like stepping back in time, but this was our home base for some amazing water adventures, and we were only a 1 minute walk from the beach.
– Had a rooftop dinner by candlelight our fist night with the group
– A full day out on the water searching for whale sharks (they didn’t come out for us, they were too shy)
– A fresh seafood lunch setup on the beach
– Snorkeled with many ocean creatures like bright colorful fish, manta rays, sting rays, and even nurse sharks
– Had lunch in the middle of a sandbank in the ocean
– Explored a shipwreck under water
– Went scuba diving for the first time
– We got day passes to two different resorts, one was 4-star and one was 5-star, and both were incredibly epic, and I wish I had stayed at one of those instead of ours the first week! One was called Centara Ras Fushi and the other was Amaya Kuda Rah
– Stayed on the island Maafushi the last 4 nights, which was my favorite island, and the most “western” meaning you could find a variety of food, mocktails, and fun water activities to book every day. Our hotel was great, we could walk to everything, there was fresh squeezed juice everywhere you looked, and a very safe environment to walk around morning or night.
– In my spare time, I enjoyed floating at the beach (bring water shoes, the coral is ROUGH on the feet) and I tried parasailing for the first time!

Important things to note about visiting The Maldives: it is a Muslim country. This means that you (especially women) must bring clothes to cover your shoulders, chest, and knees at all times, unless you’re out on a boat or at a resort island. Alcohol is completely illegal anywhere outside of resort islands. So you cannot just stay at an Airbnb and be able to have drinks on your vacation. You can ONLY drink at resort islands, or in some more “westernized” islands, they may have a “party boat” offshore that you can take a smaller boat out to, and enjoy a few drinks before coming back to your island. We also traveled in March, during Ramadan. Which meant that all the locals could not eat or drink during daylight hours, and they adjusted all of their store/restaurant hours to match that. A lot of the time, we couldn’t shop or find places to eat during the day, because it was all closed. Another little trick we learned during our first week traveling on our own without a tour group, is that the resort islands definitely have a monopoly going on transportation to and from their islands. Once we landed in Malé (the main airport), we then had to take a tiny plane out to Gan, get picked up by our resort staff in a speedboat, and take a boat for another 20 minutes until we got to our resort. That cost us an additional $350 USD each, and we had no control over our flights that they booked for us, and our group even got split up because they decided to bump 2 of them off of our tiny plane at the last minute and put them on the next flight available, with no warning. So pay attention to the location of your island and how you will be able to get there, and factor that price in before you book. It may just be easier to stay on an island closer to Malé and pay a little more for the resort. Also, just book with Koda Sail. They literally handle all transport for you, included in the price already. No questions or additional fees there at all.

All in all, it was easily one of the best experiences of my life. On my way there, it took me 30 hours of flights just to get to Malé airport, and that was before the additional flight and speedboat ride to the resort. On the way home, it took me 24 hours in flights and a 2 hour drive home. It was absolutely worth it, though, and I can’t recommend Koda Sail enough. Check out the other tours they do, too! They also do sailing tours around Croatia and Turkey!

UPDATE! I forgot to mention! CURRENCY! A very important part of international travel. This blew my mind, but the most widely accepted currency in the Maldives is the US dollar! I was shocked to learn that, and it made it so convenient for us. Sometimes, if you paid a small local shop in American dollars, they may give you back change in Maldivian Rufiyaa, which I would just turn around and buy myself small things like snacks and waters with before I left, because you cannot exchange any Maldivian currency in the US. So you may as well spend it if you get it. They DID accept credit cards at many places, but as usual, cash is king and makes it much simpler, especially if you’re traveling in a group who would prefer to do separate checks with credit cards. That will take forever, IF they accept credit cards. Another strange thing I learned is that they also would NOT accept a bill if it had ANY rips at all. So don’t bring your beaten up old dollar bills, they will turn you down. Maybe not everywhere, but someone rejected a $100 because it had the tiniest rip. So bring fresh ones from the bank, your life will be much easier. Also, when shopping, they do barter a bit! Nothing like the intensity of some places I’ve been, like Morocco, where they will literally chase you out of a store arguing with you, this was much calmer. I’d simply ask if I could get two for a better price, and usually they would. So keep that in mind as you buy souvenirs!