10 Things You Should Know Before Traveling to the Maldives
You know that soothing, yet vibrant, photograph of the palm tree stretched out over a perfectly smooth white sand beach, with gentle lapping waves that are an almost clear, turquoise blue that your coworker has as her screensaver? That drone video overhead a sun-kissed model laying on a hammock in the middle of a secluded overwater bungalow with private pool? Or that underwater shot of a green turtle swimming amidst clownfish, brightly colored coral and a bunch of other sea life you’ve only seen in aquariums? Well those were probably all taken in the Maldives.
Yes, the Maldives are all they’re chalked up to be. And yes, going there is completely worth the hype. The water really is that blue and that clear. The marine life is insanely diverse, so the diving is pretty incredible. The temperature hovers around 80° year round and even if you get the occasional tropical storm, the weather is almost always pretty pleasant. But there are some things you should know before going. Keep these 10 points in mind before booking that absurdly expensive Maldives vacation.
1. The Travel is a Bitch
There is no better way to say it—the travel to get to the Maldives is a total bitch. There are no direct flights from anywhere in the US. Most flights have a layover in Dubai, Hong Kong or Singapore. From LAX, you’ll have a 15-16 hour flight to one of the layover destinations, almost always a long layover because of the significant travel time, another 4-5 hour flight to the Maldives, then either another domestic transfer, seaplane or boat transfer to your resort (or all three!). It’s nothing short of exhausting and with that many stops, something is bound to go wrong.
We chose to stay a few days in Dubai on each end to break up the travel a bit, thinking it would help break up the long flights and also assist in getting us acclimatized sooner. The reality is, we didn’t get adjusted to the time any quicker and because we really didn’t love Dubai, we found ourselves just wishing we went straight to the Maldives. Like, maybe it would have been better to just endure the 30+ hours of straight travel time and sleep on the beach in the sun in the Maldives instead of forcing ourselves to get out and play tourist in a bustling city like Dubai… but that’s a whole other story.
With that said though, the travel on our way over was definitely easier. Mind you, we flew Emirates business on our 16 hour flight from LAX to Dubai (which was so lovely that we honestly and truthfully didn’t want to get off the plane—more on that in my post, Flying Business Class on Emirates), but our travel to Dubai was only ONE flight, albeit a long one. Then when it was time to fly to the Maldives a few days later, that travel in itself was relatively painful, so I could not even imagine how much worse it would have been if we had done it in one leg. The flight out (like most flights to the Maldives—see why below) was at 2:45 am, so with the jetlag still in full force, staying up that late was nearly impossible. We got to the airport early and thankfully managed to take advantage of one of Dubai’s new airport concepts—the Sleep n’ Fly pod—which was a nice way to pass the time and get a few z’s before leaving at almost 3 am, but that really didn’t make the travel any more enjoyable—just slightly more tolerable.
The flight to the Maldives is about 4 hours from Dubai, which is good and bad: 4 hours isn’t too long (especially after you’ve recently done a 16 hour one), but it’s also not long enough to actually get some sleep. I can sleep easier than most people on a plane (ask anyone who has traveled with me—I can easily get 8-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep on a plane and can fall asleep just about anywhere, in any position) but the duration and odd timing of the flight make it nearly impossible to sleep on the flight to Malé. After staying up for about an hour after getting on the plane, I got in only about an hour of sleep before being rudely awoken by the stench of fish curry being served for breakfast (not a pleasant way to wake up, trust me). But like I said, after doing a long-haul flight, four hours really isn’t that bad.
But the problem with the Maldives is that most of the decent resorts (with the exception of a select few) are hard to get to. They often require a seaplane transfer, or if unique diving experiences and UNESCO bio-reserve house reefs are what you are after, then you may also have to do what we did and take another domestic flight and then a speedboat transfer. The travel is made more comfortable by the fact that our resort handled all the transfer stuff (everything from booking our domestic transfer ticket, checking us in and taking our carry-on bags) and because you can eat a meal and use free wifi in their airport lounge, but when all was said and done, we didn’t actually get to the resort until about noon the next day. After landing in Malé, we waited about 2 hours for our domestic flight to Koodoo and then hopped on a 20 minute speedboat to our resort, The Residence.
Now, keep in mind that we later figured out that our first resort was nearly at the bottom of the Maldivian island chain—and that even most locals acknowledged that it was “really far”—but a lot of the great diving spots and more remote resorts are either down at the bottom of the chain or are similarly remote and tricky to get to.
Well-known resorts like the Four Seasons at Kuda Huraa and the Sheraton are both so close to the airport that you only need a quick speedboat to get there. And there are about a dozen other resorts nearby that are just as close. So for these, you can hop on your morning flight out of Dubai and be at the resort in time for breakfast.
With the ease of travel comes negative trade-offs though. What might you expect to find if you are relatively close to an airport? Planes! And noisy air traffic! So if you are traveling thousands of miles to get to a “remote” tropical island, why would you sacrifice peace and quiet for slightly better ease of travel? The point is that you shouldn’t. While the resorts I mentioned above are great (and you should keep in mind that I have not personally stayed at either), I have read a lot of traveler reviews saying that you either can hear the air traffic or look directly out at another resort across the water, taking away that feeling that you are in a remote place. When we were at The Residence, there was not another resort in sight—nothing but water and sun on the horizon. So the point is, although some resorts are harder to get to than others, you really shouldn’t allow a couple hours of travel to sway your decision when choosing a place to stay in the Maldives. Just be mindful before making the trek to the Maldives that the travel in general is not for the faint of heart.
You must also keep in mind that there is a good reason for the fact that the flights to Malé leave at like 3 am and get in at 7 or 8 am. You should know ahead of time that if you are required to take a seaplane, they only operate during daylight hours—and there’s not a whole lot of daylight in the Maldives. The sunrise was around 6:30 and sunset was at like 5ish. Just about every negative review you find about a Maldivian resort (the resorts really are all tremendous, so it’s hard to believe that people would have negative things to say other than the ass-raping prices) starts with something about the reviewer’s difficulty getting to the resort. Often times it’s because they either weren’t told the seaplanes don’t run after 4 pm and booked a flight coming in late, or they got in to Male late because of a delay or missed connection, and the result is that they cannot even get to the resort until the following day (despite still having to pay for the pre-booked room) and on top of it have to book what amounts to a not-so-nice divey hotel room in Malé for the night. That’s what travel insurance is for though my friends—if you don’t plan for the worst to happen, then yes, something like this could ruin your vacation (or at least start it off on the wrong foot), as is the case with just about every negative traveler review about the Maldives.
2. Stay Long Enough to Make it Worthwhile
If what I said in point number 1 doesn’t drive this home, I don’t know what will. The travel is so painstakingly brutal and offensive that you really should make sure you give yourself enough time in the Maldives. You want to not only give yourself enough time to get adjusted to the time so you’re not jet-lagged the whole time, but you really don’t want to have to endure 2-3 days of travel only to pick up and do it all over again after a few days.
Though our trip was 15 days in total, we spent 8 of those in the Maldives and that honestly didn’t seem long enough. A lot of those 15 days were travel days, including one lost day crossing over the international dateline. Now, perhaps it’s because we switched resorts halfway through (which required a speedboat to Koodoo, then the 55 minute domestic flight from Koodoo to Malé, and then a 20 minute seaplane ride after waiting about an hour in the lounge), and maybe it’s because we didn’t get situated at one resort for longer than 4 full days, but when you think of the time it took to get there, 8 days really wasn’t all that long.
I do recognize that with this point comes a tension—for me, although we obviously wanted to stay in the Maldives longer, the price for both the lodging and everything you eat and do while you are there is exorbitant, making it difficult to be able to even afford to stay longer. Though this is typically not my regular analysis, if I was given the choice to stay longer at a more affordable resort or a day or two less at a phenomenal one, I would actually choose the cheaper resort because it’s just so important to actually be able to relax and enjoy your time there, and not having to pick up and travel home all over again.
3. It’s Expensive
Like, ungodly expensive. This is quite possibly the most important thing for people to be aware of before embarking on this kind of trip. Yes, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip for most people. But my trip to the Maldives was hands-down, no question the most expensive trip I have ever taken—anywhere. The cost is compounded by the fact that it requires not only several long-distance flights and at least one seaplane or boat transfer to get there, but everything from the rooms to the food, the drinks and the activities is all wildly expensive. You just don’t get a break anywhere, so you have to expect to get gouged at every corner.
Let’s start with the flights. We paid about $1200 per person for our flights from LA to Dubai and then from Dubai to Malé (then tack on another couple thousand to upgrade). That’s on the lower end of what those flights typically cost because I did my research. So with our very reasonable business class upgrade (just on one leg), the Emirates flights cost us $5400 (those business class seats, by the way, cost about $10,000 a piece if you just book them straight off the website and don’t wait for an upgrade. First class is $30,000!). Then the transfer fees to our first resort were $350 per person, so $700 total. Then our seaplane transfer to and from the W ended up being $475 per person, or $950 total. When all was said and done, just our transportation alone cost us $6,750. Wow—writing it down makes it seem even more ludicrous. I can only imagine how painful that number would be if we flew business class the whole way.
Then come the rooms. Those stunning overwater bungalows you see on Instagram with a private pool can run you anywhere from $500 to several thousand dollars a night. For example, the St. Regis is just a shade under $2,000 a night for their cheapest room. Six Senses, Four Seasons at Kuda Huraa, Jumeirah, Anantara Kihavah, and the Conrad all run around $1,000 a night for their base-rate rooms. That’s NOT the overwater bungalow you pictured in your head. On average, if you want an overwater bungalow at one of the lower-tiered resports, it will run you about a thousand a night or about $1,500-2,000 a night at one of the bigger named properties. The sky is the limit in the Maldives though. The Conrad just opened their brand new underwater suite, which you can enjoy at a cool 50 G’s a night. No big deal. And the John Astor suite at the St. Regis can run you as much as $30,000 a night. So put simply, shit can get expensive, and when the starting point for any decent resort is about $500 a night, you’re in for another ass-raping for the rooms, so for a 10 day trip, you’re looking at $11,750 JUST FOR YOUR ROOM, spent before you even set foot in the Maldives and have to pay the atrociously priced rates for food, drinks and activities.
Now, with that said, that’s not what I paid. I simply could not have afforded to even go on this trip if just the lodging and the flights alone were going to cost me $20k. The rate for our overwater bungalow with pool at the Residence (which, by the way, was the cheapest price I found for an overwater bungalow at a five star resort) typically runs about $500, but I paid about $440 per night before taxes and fees. It ended up being about $2,200 before the ++ tack on (more on that below), so the rooms ended up being about $550 a night. This was all made more palatable by the fact that I actually booked and paid for these rooms in March—eight months prior to our trip. I don’t know if that’s why I got a “deal” or not, but paying for those rooms ahead of time lessened the blow once we got there.
I used my Marriott Rewards points to stay three nights at the W. I’m told the rates will change at the start of 2019 after the recent Starwood Marriott merger is completed, but when I cashed in my points in August it cost me 60,000 points per night, or 180,000 points total. Using points for half of our stay also helped lessen the blow on the cost, rather significantly. Those rooms would have cost us about $1,100 per night after taxes and fees. So had I not used points, that would have been an additional $3,300 for our room at the W.
Alright, so let’s hope you were lucky enough to cash in points for your rooms and maybe you were even luckier and also cashed in a lifetime of credit card or airline miles points to pay for your flights (which could cover the long-haul travel, but you’re still stuck paying for the seaplanes and/or domestic transfers). Well, don’t you think you’re a smarty pants? I bet you are thinking a trip to the Maldives will actually be affordable now? WRONG!
Next is the food. Every single thing you will order on the menu will be 2-3 times more expensive than what you are used to paying in the States (or probably anywhere for that matter). Literally everything other than fish and coconuts has to be imported to the Maldives, so the prices are understandably expensive. Sometimes the prices are just laughable though. Think I’m lying or exaggerating? Allow me to give you some examples:
Though one might assume staying at the W comes with “W-like prices”, in looking at the menus for other resorts, I actually found the prices to all be relatively similar. The Residence was slightly cheaper, though not by much. For example, at the W, the in-room continental breakfast for two, which includes a selection of bread and danishes, cereal, yogurt, cheese and meats, will cost you $82. Their champagne breakfast, which offers a choice of truffled scrambled eggs OR smoked salmon on rye bread with caviar (not both) with a bottle of champagne, will put you back $210. A bowl of cereal is $15. The lobster scrambled eggs are $85. That’s just breakfast.
Oh, you want to eat lunch? Okay. A simple Caesar salad is $28. The charcuterie board at the W is $140. A sushi plate for two is $145. The lobster salad is $52. Oh, you want something heartier for lunch? You mean you’re not on the model diet? Well, you’re going to pay for it then. The calzone is $62, the snapper is $56, the wagyu burger is $48 and the pizzas are anywhere from $35-$50, depending on what kind you get (for a fucking pizza!).
I assume you actually want to eat dinner too? Of course. The prix fixe menu at Fish our first night was $425 per person. We opted not to do that. As a general rule of thumb, you could expect to pay what you would at a nice restaurant here in California, but you would have to take that number and then double it. For example, the average cost for a plate of pasta (no meat, just pasta and sauce) was about $40.
Now, certain items are obviously cheaper than others. If you want a steak, you’re going to pay dearly for it. Think anywhere from $150 on the low end to about $400 on the high end—and we’re not talking for A5 Wagyu beef, we’re talking about a “basic bitch” New York strip from some no-name cattle ranch. Things like lamb, pork (though there’s usually not a lot of pork because the Maldives are a Muslim country), and chicken entrees will run between $40-$100. But if you don’t want to pay those prices, stick to local fish, curries, and pastas and you may actually find stuff to eat in the $30-$40 range. Lucky you.
Thankfully, some of this cost was lessened by the fact that breakfast was included at both of our resorts. Everyone staying at The Residence—whether you opt for a full board, half board, or none (like we did)—has the breakfast buffet included in their stay. Then we had the same breakfast buffet included in our stay at the W, but only because I am a Platinum Elite member with Marriott Rewards.
Oh, and you probably want to have a cocktail or two (or 50 if you’re my husband) on vacation, right? Well get ready, that’s going to make your bill at the end of the trip take a turn for the worse. The cocktails are all jiggered and extremely weak, yet they’ll still cost you about $25 a drink. Beers were surprisingly not the cheapest thing on the menu, and most were about $20 a beer. Bottles of wine ranged anywhere from the sort-of-reasonable to astronomical, though that’s not surprising since wine can just do that.
While at the W, we actually found that the best bang for our buck was to make our own cocktails using the bottles of gin or vodka in our room. Those were I think somewhere around $80 a bottle, but the juice was free, so we could at least get 4-5 cocktails out of it instead of relying on the half-shot cocktails at the bar for about the same price. There were also a select few options for cheap white wine, which were about $75 a bottle, that we took advantage of.
Want to hear the best part? All the prices I noted above are before what the Maldivians have so cutely coined the “plus plus” add on (which looks like “++” on your bill). Every single thing that gets put on your bill at your resort—everything from the room to the food to that dive you did—gets an additional 12% GST (government tourism tax) and usually about a 12% automatic gratuity applied to everything, so the prices you see are before tacking on another 25%. Fun.
I should note that I am not easily scared by soaring prices. I’ve happily spent a couple thousand dollars at dinner for Michelin star dining. My husband and I both have really expensive taste when it comes to wine. And we don’t skimp when we eat out at home. But I think that because you don’t really get any value for what you are paying in the Maldives (the food is good but not that good), it’s hard not to feel like someone just punched you in the stomach when you get the bill at the end of the trip.
I should also note that there are a lot of places that I have traveled to that are quite remote, but don’t cost nearly as much as the Maldives. A prime example is Bali. While it’s quite difficult and rather expensive to get to Bali from the States, once you get there the resorts, the food and everything else is dirt cheap, so it balances out. Fiji is also just as remote with very little produce actually grown on the island, yet their prices still aren't nearly as high as in the Maldives. I found the same to be true in Morocco—while some things could get spendy if you went super high end (think: Royal Mansour) but most of the time you could find deals to even things out. The Maldives are just plain expensive—for everything, and they get you at every turn.
4. Book Early to Guarantee Your Preferences
If you’re traveling to the Maldives for your honeymoon, or for a special occasion, or you just want to make the most of the vacation you are going to spend an ungodly amount of money on (like me!) you will want to plan ahead so you can be guaranteed to get a good room. Yes, there is such a thing as a good room and a bad one.
First of all, ask yourself if you want a sunrise room or a sunset facing room. Most people want the sunset facing room so you can watch the sunsets without leaving the comforts of your villa. Most resorts intentionally lay out the rooms so that they are either sunset facing or sunrise facing, so request a sunset facing room if that’s what you would prefer.
Second, do a little research regarding which rooms are best and which are not as desirable. Often times other travelers on TripAdvisor will make specific notations about which room they stayed in, and will tell you if it was a good room (far away from other people with lots of privacy) or a not-so-good room, perhaps because it faces the resort instead of the open ocean or maybe it is close to the restaurant, a generator, or some other thing that might be loud and disruptive.
Though we were never “guaranteed” a particular room type before we went, I did reach out to both resorts by email and specified my preferences. At The Residence, though each time they told me they could not guarantee my sunset-facing room request, they not only accommodated it but ended up giving us their nicest room at the resort (the two-bedroom sunset-facing villa right in the middle). Then at The W we were able to get a room that was fairly far away from the beach and the main part of the island, which meant our room was very quiet and felt more private. Though nothing is guaranteed, it pays to plan ahead and at least ask.
Worried about costs after reading Tip # 3? Save on flights and hotels by booking through Skyscanner using the link above.
5. The Maldives is a Muslim Country
I point this out not as something that should be a deterrent but so that travelers can be prepared to be culturally-sensitive. Though you won’t really experience the cultural differences that a Muslim country brings while you are in the comforts of your secluded resort, you will really feel it if you go into “town” (Malé).
First of all, alcohol is illegal and not sold anywhere in Malé (more on that point below). Second, most women you see will be wearing either a niqab or a hijab. This really means nothing when you are at your resort, because it is perfectly acceptable to be romping around in your bikini (it is a resort, after all), but you should be mindful of this when traveling through the airport and if you go into Malé. Though you certainly don’t need to cover your head in a scarf, women should aim to have their shoulders and knees covered. Just be respectful.
Finally, most places do not have pork, and bringing pork products into the country is illegal. So if you’re on a gnarly strict keto diet that has you packing your own snacks, leave the chicharones and sausage sticks at home. You may notice several other cultural differences, but these were the ones that stood out the most to me.
6. Alcohol is “Illegal”
I know what you’re thinking: “What!? I can’t possibly go on vacation and not drink a single drop of alcohol?!” (Well, you might not all be thinking that, but rest assured, that is what my husband and me thought when we first read about alcohol being illegal in the Maldives). I think even someone like my mom, who doesn’t really drink, might be a little sad not to be able to at least have a celebratory cocktail while on vacation. But not to worry, for all my fellow boozers out there, you will be happy to hear that this law has absolutely no impact on what you do at the resorts and yes, they all serve alcohol. Nearly all the resorts are licensed to sell alcohol, though usually with a steep markup because of the cost for the license and the cost to import liquor into the country.
When I first looked this up on Wikipedia before our trip, I read somewhere that legally, if you’re above the legal age (18) and not a muslim, you can drink and buy alcohol. So I was like, “Oh, well I’m over 18 and I’m not Muslim, so that must mean I can buy alcohol in Malé.” Wrong. We were surprised to find that when we got off our resort to head home—when we unfortunately had a 6 hour layover time between our sea plane and our flight out of Malé—they told us that nowhere in Malé served alcohol at all. They did not serve alcohol in any of the airport lounges and you could not even go to a restaurant in town and have a drink. The only exception was a “resort” near the airport (which required another speedboat transfer so we opted not to go) where you could drink because of the resort alcohol exception. If you do find yourself stuck in Male for a long time though, and you don’t think you want to either start or end your vacation sober, head over to the Hulhule Island Hotel, also commonly known as HIH or the airport hotel.
7. Get Used to “Island Time”
If you’ve been to places like Fiji or Hawaii, you are familiar with the term “island time.” I recall locals in Fiji using it to excuse just about every delay. It is a real thing, and the Maldivians are no different. Do not book flights with short connections or expect to arrive to the resort quickly; everything takes longer than expected and often times there are issues with the domestic island-to-island flights. Service at restaurants is unbearably slow. Requests to resort staff take forever to get a response or a reaction. Just go into it with the expectation of things taking longer than you are used to and you’ll be fine. Relax and enjoy.
8. Some Resorts Don’t Allow Drones
If your primary purpose for traveling to the Maldives is for photography, videography, or just to boost your followers on instagram (that was said tongue in cheek, but I’m actually fairly serious), and you plan to use a drone, then be sure to check with your resort before booking and ask if they allow drones. When we were at The Residence, there were no rules and no one ever said anything about us flying our drone around. We did make sure to try to be respectful (not flying it early or late and not flying it super close to other peoples’ villas), but I really don’t think any of the staff at the resort cared one way or the other.
When we got to The W, on the other hand, one of the very first things they told us was that they are a “drone-free” property, so as to protect the other guests’ right to privacy. Though I totally understand the reasoning behind it, it was a total bummer for us since we brought a drone and expected to be able to fly it and get some footage while at that resort.
Thankfully, since they expressly forbid the use of drones on the main island, they offered to guests to go out to their private island, Gaathafushi Island, which is just a 5 minute boat ride away. Guests had the option to “reserve” the island for about $100/hour. You could choose to simply pay by the hour, or they would arrange something like a lunch or a dinner and would provide you with everything you needed. Thankfully they did offer this option as a way around the “drone-free” rule—and we were able to get some really incredible footage—but if they hadn’t offered that, I would have been really bummed. And if I’m being really honest, knowing that they don’t allow drones ahead of time might have actually impacted my decision to stay there. So just be sure to ask about their drone policy before you go.
9. Be Sure to Pick the Right Resort
This is probably the second most important thing to know before going to the Maldives. Definitely do your homework about your resort, because you're stuck there. Traveling to the Maldives is not like most other places you may travel to; once you are at your resort, you cannot really “island hop” or head out into town to go to dinner. So what that effectively means is that if you hate the food at your resort, you don’t like the people there, or you don’t like the facilities, too bad—you are stuck there. Guests may sometimes take trips to local islands or even a private island if your resort owns one (like the private island at the W that I mentioned above, which was pretty amazing), but of course nothing is free. These excursions or private island trips typically cost anywhere from about $100 a person to several thousand dollars.
This seems like it would go without saying, but definitely do your research ahead of time about the resort, the rooms, the amenities, the activities offered and the food options available. Don’t just go to the resort’s website and look at the pretty pictures that they paid professional photographers to take (sometimes many years ago, which would not show the wear and tear). I like to flip through traveler photos on TripAdvisor to get a more realistic idea of what the resort actually looks like. Do the linens and furniture look dingy and used? Are there an unusual amount of reviews that talk about terrible food experiences? Do they only offer a very limited amount of activities? Do those activities cost too much to make them an option for you?
One thing you can (and should) do is to reach out to the resort directly before you go and get all their food menus, activities menus and drink menus. They will all send this stuff to you; if they don’t I would be worried. When we were narrowing our choices down from about 10 resorts to two, I got the menus from all of them. It actually was pretty enlightening. We learned that, despite what our assumptions would have told us, that the price for food and activities at the Sheraton were the most expensive. We also were able to rule out Vakkaru (a brand new resort) after looking at their food menus and finding that they not only did not have a lot of options for food, but the prices were even worse than what we paid at The W and The Residence. We also found that some of the smaller resorts have only one or two restaurants, which can get pretty boring and repetitive if you are staying there for a week or more.
Be sure to ask yourself what is important to you. Do you care more about diversity of food and availability of activities and things to do? Then the larger resorts might be better for you. If seclusion and quiet is what you’re wanting, then a smaller resort might be a better bet. But each comes with a tradeoff: the smaller resorts can get boring really fast, and the food options get old quickly as well, but the larger resorts generally have more families with children, are less peaceful, and just have more people, which can add a whole host of other problems, like noisy neighbors or unpleasant guests.
10. You Won’t Want to Leave
With all that said, another important point to keep in mind is to make sure you remind yourself to enjoy your time while you are there. Don’t let the astronomical prices for food bother you. Mentally prepare yourself for the high prices ahead of time. If you have a room issue, that sucks… but try to make the best of it because you are probably stuck with no other option. You traveled thousands of miles and countless hours, so just try to make the best of your time. Expect to spend more money than you think you will, and set your standards low for the food quality (that way when it’s actually good, you’ll be pleasantly surprised). And don’t let all my warnings discourage you from traveling to this beautiful destination—it really is one of the most incredible places I have ever been to in my life.
Questions? Comments? Feel free to reach out to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org