When it comes to beach getaways, the Maldives is as pricey as it gets. Which is why it’s particularly curious that it should become the latest destination for Wizz Air – the budget carrier known more for obscure Polish city breaks.
Can Wizz Air’s service from Abu Dhabi – which launched in October – make it possible to do the Maldives on a budget? To find out, I planned my own DIY Maldives holiday to see if I could beat the high-end package deals.
Homework was required. Wizz Air’s fares seem cheap – £140 return from Abu Dhabi – but there’s an obvious catch: getting to Abu Dhabi in the first place. And just ahead of both the Grand Prix and the Qatar World Cup to boot.
After consulting Skyscanner, I had two options: a direct flight to the UAE with Etihad (£600 return, plus £140 for the Maldives leg with Wizz) or a multi-stop trip with Wizz (around £400 all in). Keen to make my trip as economical as possible, I opted for the latter.
Next I needed decent accommodation. In a destination where resort rooms can easily reach £1,000 per night, that wasn’t easy. Booking the wrong deal could wipe out all of my flight savings – and then some.
Looking at Booking.com, I found that several islands were offering special offers – sometimes up to 20 per cent off. If I was going to compete with the tour operators, I’d need all the help I could get.
After some thinking, I settled on the Sheraton Full Moon. As one of the older resort islands, Dubai-style extravagance appeared absent (I wouldn’t be dining in an underwater restaurant, for example). But it was still five-star and offered a competitive rate, at least by Maldives standards, of around £450 per night for a standard room (down from the £500 rack rate).
The Sheraton had something else going for it too. Situated close to the airport, it was possible to reach by a complimentary speedboat transfer. That meant I wouldn’t have to shell out £500 for a seaplane trip. If I really wanted to see the islands from above, I’d have to make do with a window seat on my Wizz flight.
I’d also had another idea. From reading backpacker blogs, I’d found out it was possible to stay in a beachside hotel in the city of Hulhumale. At just £50 per night, it cost just a fraction of a resort. Did I really need to spend my whole break being pampered? I decided to shave two days off my booking – and instead spend two nights in town, saving another £800.
I headed to the airport feeling rather smug. But would my penny-pinching prove to be a false economy?
The backpackers were right. Hulhumale wasn’t the height of luxury, but it certainly had its charms: combining silky, white-sand shores with the bustling vibe of a busy South Asian port city. As expected from the price, my room was rather basic, but good enough for a couple of nights.
After devouring a sublime biriyani (just £7 – easily the bargain of the week), I set out to walk the entire city. At just four square kilometres, Hulhumale isn’t much bigger than Hyde Park. But amongst the swathes of tower blocks (unlike Hyde Park, Hulhumale houses some 50,000 people) I found pockets of intrigue.
Traipsing through the fish market, for example, I watched in awe as muscular men hauled their gigantic catches (yellowfin tuna the size of sharks) onto the counter. As evening fell, I followed the gaggles of locals as they streamed out from the island’s distinctive mosque and into one of Hulhumale’s numerous karaoke bars – where they delivered impressively sober performances.
In a destination where visitors are so often sold a shoddy pastiche of Maldivian culture, it was nice to see something of the real place: a somewhat contradictory Islamic society whose nuances usually remain off the tourist radar. It wasn’t exactly Lahore or Mumbai, but it was certainly interesting enough.
But I was soon ready for luxury – and the Sheraton was happy to deliver. With its unblemished beaches and impeccable commitment to guests’ relaxation, the Full Moon resort was clearly the real deal. But would it end up breaking my modest budget?
To save cash, I’d planned ahead. Like most resorts the Sheraton offers a full-board dining package – the stress-free option – for an extra £200 a day. Via some online sleuthing, however, I’d managed to get hold of its restaurant menus in advance. With breakfast already included with my room rate, I estimated I could eat happily for around £120 per day, so declined the offer – saving £320.
It wasn’t the only trick up my sleeve. During my time on Hulhumale, I’d manage to gather supplies (including sunscreen) from supermarkets. Turning up to a luxury resort with a tote bag of Diet Pepsi (around £1 each) wasn’t the most sophisticated look, but it was certainly cost-effective (the Sheraton charges £9 for a typical soft drink).
While cheaper accommodation options are available, I was glad I didn’t completely short-change myself when it came to the resort. With just 170 rooms on the island, the Full Moon is refreshingly uncramped, with even the least expensive rooms coming with some private outdoor space. Lazing amongst the palm trees, I could still experience what makes the Maldives so alluring.
After a few days of bliss, I was ready to head home – with another trio of back-to-back flights (and an airport hotel in Abu Dhabi). As a solo venturer and regular budget flyer, it wasn’t too painful, but I can see why families may prefer something with more space and a higher luggage allowance.
Having successfully executed my budget break, I decided I could even justify a glass of wine – made all the sweeter by WizzAir’s ‘two for €14’ offer. After all, what’s the point of saving all that money if you’re not going to enjoy it?
Wizz Air (wizzair.com) flies to the Maldives (from Abu Dhabi) seven days a week. Fares from 618 AED (£140) return. Rooms at The Sheraton Maldives Full Moon (marriott.co.uk) start from around £500 a night, but discounts can be found on price comparison websites.