The following is a guest post by my friend Stephanie who just returned home from a trip the Maldives. To say I’m slightly jealous is a mild understatement.[dropcap style=”square” title=”I”] recently had the opportunity to travel to the Maldives, after a two-week business trip to India. The beaches are glorious and the weather is eerily consistent, but let’s be real – the Maldives are NOT a budget vacation. Even with our airfare (90%) covered, we still managed to drop enough cash in four days to almost pay off my car. With that said, there are some workarounds, and many ways to make the most out of your time, particularly if your goal is more than a luxury beach vacay.
Here are some of my favorite tips from my recent trip:
1) Consider ALL of your airfare options.
Arriving into Male typically requires at least one transfer, if not two, so you’re probably going to be spending time on planes. We were limited to a very specific client budget for the return flight, which was prohibitive out of Male. However, Colombo, Sri Lanka, is an hour away by plane, and often has airfare at a fraction of the cost (though you may need to book two separate one-ways). It could also be an easy (and cheaper) tag to a trip, and typically costs fewer miles than its Maldivian counterpart, at least from the U.S. Just be aware that any transit through Sri Lanka requires a visa, which must be applied for in advance (and is free, provided your transit is under 48 hours).
If you are committed to flying out of Male, be sure to look into all of your options. My travel hacking idol, One Mile at a Time, recently found one-way business class to JFK for 1450 on Cathay Pacific! The caveat is that it was NOT listed on any major travel sites and needed to be booked directly through Cathay’s site. Bottom line: make sure to exhaust all of your options, and don’t be afraid of booking one-way tickets.
2) Book the right resort for you.
Bali, Thailand, or Hawaii this is not – regardless of whether or not you typically consider yourself a “resort person,” you WILL be spending the majority of your time at the hotel. As a matter of fact, most of the major resorts in the Maldives are built on their own private island, accessible by speedboat or sea plane, depending on the distance from Male’s major international airport. The result is that you will be spending most of your time there: eating, sleeping, and booking your major excursions. So naturally, picking the right one could be the make-or-break for your trip. Lonely Planet has a GREAT guide to the majority of the major resorts, and rates them in 10 different categories.
Here are few factors that I would consider when booking your Maldives holiday:
- Proximity to the airport – Do you want a quick, easy transfer, or the peace and quiet of a remote island? Most of the outer resorts require a sea plane transfer, followed by a speedboat ride, which can add an additional half day of travel and north of $500 in cost per person. However, many visitors swear by this approach, claiming that this is the only way to appreciate the seclusion of the islands.
- Restaurants – This may seem like an afterthought, but after spending four nights at a hotel with nine restaurants, and having spent the previous eleven nights in a hotel with three restaurants, I promise you, this matters.
- Total number of rooms – While the resorts may seem lacking in culture, people from all over the world travel to the Maldives for their holiday, and one of our favorite parts was meeting everyone. This was absolutely not a problem at our 190-room mega-resort. A resort with 30-50 rooms, on the other hand, will not deliver the same social atmosphere – but you’ll have no problem finding a private stretch of beach!
- House reef – One of our favorite parts of the trip was snorkeling, and while it’s one thing to go on a guided excursion, it’s quite another to walk out of your room and see reef sharks five minutes later!
- Hotel loyalty programs – This could be its own dedicated post (or series!) but if earning and/or burning points is your priority, Hilton, Hyatt, Starwood, and Intercontinental all have properties in the Maldives (come on, Marriott, step it up!) The Park Hyatt Maldives Hadahaa and Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (Hilton) are extremely popular for redemptions, while the Holiday Inn Kandooma (Intercontinental) offers one of the best values out there.
As for our stay, we have nothing but great things to say about the reef, the service, the luxury, the beaches and the nightlife at Kurumba Maldives – although it’s a 10-minute ride from the airport, so expect the noise, freight boats and airplane flyovers that accompany the location. It’s also quite possibly the best value for a 5-star property in the Maldives.
3) Dive early, dive often…if you know what you’re doing!
While the diving here is world-renown, it is not for the faint of heart. Strong currents and drift dives are characteristic of the archipelago. Granted, we are total beginners and my panic threshold isn’t exactly low (I’m pretty sure they could hear my breathing back in India any time I got scared) but even our divemaster expressed concern over the “washing machine” effect that we were lucky enough to experience on one of our dives.
Typically, resorts will offer a two-tank “advanced” dive boat in the morning, and a one-tank “beginner” dive boat in the afternoon. We were perfectly happy sleeping in, snorkeling, and making the most of our one-tank afternoon dives, with plenty of time to come back for happy hour. I tell you, it’s rough out there.
That said, I certainly didn’t mind the easy access from the resort (we had over 40 dive sites within a 20-minute boat ride), the near-private boats, and the close-ups of sea turtles and morays! If diving is a priority, check out a Euro Divers resort – the service and safety are outstanding!
4) Visit a local village.
It’s easy to get caught up in the barefoot luxury that most resorts offer, and even easier considering how segregated the resorts are from the local islands. However, visiting a local village is one of the best reality checks, and allows you to see another side of the Maldives.
This is not a hugely impoverished country like some of the others you see on the Indian sub-continent or in Africa, say, but an excursion like this really breaks up the resort life.
5) Activities are good…free activities are better!
In addition to the free (high-end) snorkel gear that our resort offered, we had activities on offer almost daily. These included a Maldivian cooking demonstration, completely with free lunch and wine, a cocktail making “class” (our bartender told us what went in the cocktail, and we drank it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.) and a wine tasting in the lagoon. Remarkably, we never saw more than 10-15 people at one of these activities.
Is this a substitute for all meals? No. Does it help, both with spending guilt and with overall savings? Absolutely. And honestly, the free Maldivian lunch was my favorite meal of our entire 3-week trip.
6) Try the off-season.
Weather is always a risk when booking a vacation, and the low season (May-November) offers a higher likelihood of rain than other times of the year. However, our hotel is at least 30% cheaper this June than it was in February, and the same holds true for most of the major resorts, so there is great opportunity to book a 5-star hotel at a discount rate (and mingle with Aussies and Kiwis escaping the “winter” down under!) Budget vacation it is not, but I’d still take a $500/night over-water bungalow over a $2,000/night over-water bungalow!
Just keep in mind that most goods still have to be imported (fun fact: the Maldives on their own do not make enough produce to support the tourism industry; pineapples and other tropical fruits often have to be imported from nearby countries). This means that you are still paying for your passionfruit mojito’s plane ticket to your own private island (fun fact #2: mojitos are always awesome, especially when accompanied with a sunset, passionfruit, and no shoes). But travel in the off season, or even in the shoulder months of March and April, may help you save some cash or open up more high-end resort possibilities.
7) Splurge on at least one meal.
Okay, when you’re paying $30 for a pizza, everything probably feels like splurging. But you’re probably not there to save cash in the first place, and hopefully you know that by now. So take advantage of it, and enjoy one of the unique Maldivian offerings. Most hotels will allow you to hire a boat, drop you off at a deserted island with a picnic basket and snorkel gear, and come back to pick you up several hours later.
If you don’t have the time or desire for the full-day excursion, a private meal for two on the beach is an awesome way to spend a romantic evening with your partner. (And a great birthday/valentines day present!) It’s also a great way to make your friends uber-jealous. And the private butler and wine pairings don’t suck, either.
8) Layovers are your friend.
Let’s face it – there is no easy way to get to the Maldives. If you are traveling from the U.S., you are in for a particularly long haul. A layover is a great way to break up the trip, particularly if the Maldives are your only destination. Hong Kong, Seoul, Istanbul, and Dubai are all relatively easy cities to get into, and have national carriers that serve Male international airport.
No matter what your goals and expectations are, the Maldives are truly a once-in-a-lifetime destination. So enjoy, remember your sunscreen, and be sure to take lots of pictures!
About Stephanie: When she’s not busy consulting with different global organizations, Stephanie enjoys spending her time building creative itineraries and making the most out of “work trips” and personal trips alike. She is an avid climber, skier, hiker, “noob” diver, and beer and wine drinker. Steph is an avid points-and-miles enthusiast, and she is equally comfortable camping in the wilderness or staying in a five-star hotel.[divider style=”bold” title=”” text_align=””]
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