Introducing My Next Trip Report, Maldives and Malaysia in First Class, How I Booked It and What it Cost

I’m recently back from a trip to the Maldives and Malaysia. I used American miles for the air, Hyatt points for the hotel in Maldives and to upgrade a paid stay in Kuala Lumpur (one of my favorite world food cities, along with Singapore).

The trip was prompted by an opportunity to meet friends in the Maldives, and celebrate a 40th birthday (fortunately not yet mine!).

As an introduction to the report, I wanted to lay out what I booked, how I booked it, and what each part of the trip cost. I think the most valuable thing I can do in a trip report is explain my thinking and logic, because that can help others – agree or disagree – in thinking about points and making use of them.

Most of the airlines on this trip I’ve flown before (though Malaysia’s international business class was new for me), and most of the hotels I’ve stayed at before. There are some changes and updates in service, so I’m glad to be able to report on those changes and update my experiences so that readers know what to expect. But much of the report won’t be completely new.

Still, I know that when I’m researching hotel properties I want the most recent experiences, and to read as much detail as I can — especially about a special stay on the other side of the world. So hopefully this will serve as a useful contribution for readers who find themselves booking similar trips in the future.

I look forward to answering questions, too, as the report progresses!

Booking the Outbound on Etihad

Etihad first class is one of the most readily available first class awards there is. And the most reasonable way for a US-based traveler to redeem for it is to spend 90,000 American AAdvantage miles.

American’s ‘Middle East and Indian Subcontinent’ awards are not cheap in first class, but they are easy to get and you’re getting a fantastic hard product and a reasonable soft product.

What’s more, as long as you do not stop in Abu Dhabi (where Etihad is based) for more than 24 hours you can include an onward flight to a final destination within the same region. I’ve flown Etihad to the Maldives, though the timing of US flights requires an overnight, and why I flew them over Thanksgiving to India.

Etihad flies from New York JFK, Washington Dulles, and has flights scheduled to begin from Los Angeles and Dallas Fort Worth that offer a first class cabin. Chicago and Toronto flights do not offer first class.

At the Freddie Awards I talked with Dr. Barry Green (who runs the Etihad Guest program)’s wife about their travel plans, and they were taking the Chicago flight. American is their US partner, and Chicago was their only non-stop option from Seattle. I would have guessed they might have flown first class, but that would have taken an extra connection.

There was no problem booking Etihad first class on my first choice of dates, with an overnight in Abu Dhabi.

You can search Etihad space on the Etihad website. With only one exception, an Abu Dhabi – London flight over a year ago, I’ve had a perfect match between the low level saver award space Etihad offers its own members and what American AAdvnatage can see.

American does not let you book Etihad at, you’re going to have to call, and if you aren’t an Executive Platinum (100,000 mile flyer) you’re going to have to pay a telephone booking fee. (My status with American exempts me from that.)

The flight from Abu Dhabi to Male is operated by two-cabin equipment. There’s no first class but I saved my first class boarding pass stub from the night before and had no problem accessing the first class lounge.

Where to Go Next? Kuala Lumpur

I thought about just making a straight roundtrip on Etihad but decide that for roughly the same miles I could book a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, one of my favorite cities largely for food and a place I hadn’t been in 18 months. Malaysia’s Male – Kuala Lumpur flight had business class space, something I wanted on a short redeye. I had only flown them domestically before and wanted to try them (and try their satay!) internationally. For a short redeye I also didn’t want to fly coach, so I booked business.

This would have cost just 20,000 British Airways Avios, as the flight is a hair shy of 2000 miles. Instead I spent 30,000 American miles. It’s reasonable to argue with me over that choice — there’s no fuel surcharge on the route, and the ticket in paid business is under $700. But I’ve got such a big mileage balance between American and US Airways that I decided to overpay in that currency.

Availability on this flight is reasonably good, and I search for it using the British Airways website and then have to call American to make the booking.

Return flight on Cathay Pacific

Cathay’s first class isn’t hard to get. I was up until the spring of 2009 but then things really opened up. Space isn’t as easy to get as it was in 2010 and 2011, but it’s still good when the schedule opens and 6 months out, and unsold seats usually open within a week of departure.

Coming back from Kuala Lumpur I initially booked Malaysia Airlines for the Kuala Lumpur – Hong Kong segment. That meant about a six hour layover in Hong Kong, but would give me a chance to fly Malaysia’s A380 in first class.

Unfortunately a schedule change meant that the flight would be operated by a 2-cabin 777 instead, so I moved myself to Cathay’s 2-cabin equipment which meant that I could leave an hour and a half later in the morning and shorten my travel time.

I liked out as well because the aircraft I got for Kuala Lumpur – Hong Kong turned out to be internationally configured, so I had a great seat for the three and a half hour flight.

I connected to Cathay’s first class service as far as I could go. Starting off in Malaysia meant missing most of the US-bound flights for the day but I grabbed the late afternoon flight to New York which was available, and forced an overnight connection there grabbing an American regional jet back to DC the next day.

Here’s what the flights looked like

Choosing Hotels

For my overnight in Abu Dhabi I booked the new Premier Inn that opened in the fall. I’d be landing around 8pm off a 14 hour flight, and departing around 9am the next morning. I didn’t intend to do anything in the city, which I visited and spent time in a year ago. So I just wanted an airport hotel. It’s basic, it’s clean, and it’s cheap, and I was confident it would be a reasonable choice since it’s attached to the airport and was only about 6 months old.

I’ve stayed at the Park Hyatt Hadahaa in the Maldives before (in fact, in both 2012 and 2013). I rarely return to the same hotel twice outside of major cities. There’s just too much in the world to see and experience. But I’ve come to love this property.

I’ve explained before that the distance and seclusion of being on an island far from the capital of the Maldives is a feature, not a bug for me. The time difference is perfect (I’m asleep during the business day at home, I get up early and answer the day’s emails and am then free for the rest of the day without anyone trying to reach me). And the distance is far enough that I can really unplug and relax. Plus I’ve found the facilities and the staff to be just outstanding.

I cannot compare the Park Hyatt to other Maldives properties, though I certainly have impressions. This strikes me as the best option for using points. It seems like a far better hotel than the Sheraton, and the W is just way too many points requiring double the points of top tier category 7 as an all suite property. The other main option is the Conrad, which many people speak highly of and is closer to the capital where you’ll arrive off of international flights.

In fact the Park Hyatt was chosen because we were meeting friends there, but their choice may even have been influenced by the fact that I enjoy it so much.

I loved loved loved the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur on my last stay, where I had a suite overlooking the Petronas Towers and could wait to go back. It turns out the hotel has gotten better, improving its club offerings since my last stay (which had been my one knock on the property).

Finally, I booked Cathay Pacific back to New York JFK.. getting in too late to connect home to DC. So I booked an award night at the Hilton JFK, a property that I’ve reviewed many times in the past. Bottom-line is it’s the best hotel at JFK, largely because it’s the most recently renovated full service property. Before the Hilton, I’d choose the Sheraton, and before that the Hilton Garden Inn.

Coordinating Plans on the Ground

I made a complimentary car service booking from my house to Washington Dulles airport on the outbound via Etihad’s website. The airline offers this for both business and first class passengers at many airports, and offers it on award tickets even. (It’s offered on both outbound and arrival, but on this trip I wouldn’t be needing it on the back end of the trip.) The offering in Abu Dhabi actually extends as far as taking you anywhere within the UAE, and I’ve had them drive me as far as Dubai before.

It’s important to be in touch with the hotel in the Maldives in advance, as they coordinate your domestic flight transfers and boat rides. You let them know what flight you’re coming in on and they meet you outside of international arrivals, walk you over to the domestic terminal, and take care of check-in for you. They buy your domestic flights and post those to your hotel bill They’re also happy to know any special requests (I have special coffee requests, and requests for extra water in the room, and arranged a confirmed buy-up to water villa in advance).

I also was in touch in advance with the folks at Food Tour Malaysia, who I loved on my visit to Kuala Lumpur a year and a half ago..

Cost of Air and Hotel

I spent 90,000 American miles DC – Maldives (first class award), 30,000 American miles Maldives – Kuala Lumpur (business class award), and 67,500 miles Kuala Lumpur – DC (first class award) for a total of 187,500 miles per person. The taxes were $62.60 per person.

I spent ~ US$80 on an overnight hotel in Abu Dhabi. The upgrade fee in the Maldives is $350++ per night.

I originally booked the Park Hyatt Maldives as a category 6 award for 22,000 points per night prior to Hyatt’s award chart changes. I rebooked the hotel as a cash and points award for 12,500 points + $150 per night. The difference was arguably not worth it but this made my five nights there count towards my Diamond requalification and tipped the scales for me.

Roundtrip flights between Male, capital of the Maldives, and the nearest domestic airport to the Park Hyatt plus the roundtrip speedboat rides totals just shy of US$500 per person.

I booked the Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur for ~ US$180 per night which was the Hyatt Daily Rate at the time. That’s very pricey for the city, but since I made the reservation prior to Hyatt’s award chart changes I was able to confirm an upgrade to a suite for my entire 3-night stay for just 6000 points total. (I could have used a confirmed suite upgrade on a discounted rate but I was short on those; after the award chart changes the price of the upgrade would have been bumped up to 6000 per night or 18,000 total).

This isn’t a ‘cheap’ trip in miles and cash, but it was – to my find – a great value trip. I wouldn’t be spending the kind of money that it would take to book this with cash, even flying coach, but I can fly first class and have an overwater villa in the Maldives at a price I can manage. That means a lot to me.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Sounds great; it’s astonishing how low the airfare taxes are you. I used miles to book LAX-DFW-LHR-DFW (my European destination was London) for about $210 in taxes and fees!

  2. How did you book the Cathay Pacific first class? When I try
    to book on the AA website there never seems to be first class availablity?

  3. @Paul – Cathay Pacific isn’t supported by the website, you have to call American if you want to use AA miles.

  4. Gary: how many award seats (same flight) are you seeing on Etihad’s first class departure cities from US gateways? Especially IAD…possible to get 4 people?

  5. Can you give us a breakdown of points you had to use for this Itinerary? This would give your readers (like me) an idea of how many points it takes to plan a trip like this!

  6. ‘I have special coffee requests’
    If you don’t mind, what exactly are your coffee requests? I’m a bit of a coffee snob and will be staying at the PH in August. Wondering what they’ll accommodate…

  7. Sorry. disregard. I did not look close enough at your write-up where this info is provided11!

  8. Gary- Do you know when Etihad flights will begin from LAX? also, do you think it will be possible to get award seats for three in first?

  9. I don’t see the A380 on the KUL-HKG route on expertflyer…has it been discontinued or does it only operate on certain days of the week?

  10. @John – the flight starts in about a week. 2 first class seats are much easier, though sometimes availability with Etihad does open wide up where a whole cabin can be available.

  11. @Robert Plafker – no but as a Diamond you’d not just get breakfast and internet but an evening cocktails and canapes at sunset on the beach.

  12. @Brian they do coffee and espresso on demand and they use illy coffee. My requests are that my wife prefers soy milk and I prefer half and half (though will take a smaller amount of heavy cream in lieu in a pinch). They’ll make whatever coffee drinks you wish and it’s good quality.

  13. @Robert – While I have seen 7 award seats open on a flight, I usually see 2. And they don’t generally open up seats prior to departure. In order to get 4 people where they’re going I’ve had 2 fly out of New York (DCA-JFK-AUH) and 2 out of DC (IAD-AUH) and meet up within minutes of each other in Abu Dhabi.

  14. Great trip report, Gary! Ordinarily I’d be agape at paying $350++ for an upgrade. But having stayed in over-water villas in the Maldives and French Polynesia, I agree that it’s worth it. (The former Hilton property where we stayed, Beach House Maldives, actually provided the over-water as their basic unit, so no extra charge! Sadly, it’s no longer Hilton-affiliated.)

    Does the Park Hyatt Maldives still offer complimentary breakfasts with all reservations, including awards? And do you recall until how late it serves breakfast?

  15. Wow. I want to do this! One of the most inspirational trips I’ve seen on here. I think it was an amazing value, you did A Lot. That room at the Grand Hyatt is spectacular, all of it is. Amazing.

  16. Do you happen to have a list of the major airlines and what partners you can redeem online versus needing to call in?

  17. Don’t you mean you paid 12,500 Hyatt points + $150 per night for a points+cash redemption, not 15k/$150 per? Unless there is some special treatment for Park Hyatt Maldives that I’m not aware of…

  18. Looking forward to the updated report since I’m thinking about the PH Maldives for a future trip.

    I think the points part of the points & cash (P&C) rate at the PH Maldives is 12.5K/night, not 15K/night, since this is a category 6 property.

    How far in advance of your trip were you able to get P&C? From what I have read other places, P&C at the PH Maldives appears to have more capacity controls than the full points rate.

  19. @Julie yes of course 12.5k/night 🙂 I booked cash and points the day that cash and points became an option and they hadn’t tightened up availability at that point. But I wouldn’t have a problem booking a regular award rate and then switching close to arrival.

  20. Gary – as always, great report. Thinking about this for January – is it just too crazy at that time of the year? It’s high season, right? Waiting for the foodie part….LF

  21. Awesome setup — can’t wait for the reports! 🙂 I’ve been to the Maldives twice: the first time was my honeymoon and we stayed at the One & Only Kanuhura (doens’t exist anymore, but was absolutely a dream!) and earlier this year I stayed at the Conrad. The Conrad was almost perfect, but extremely, extremely expensive. I got the room on points before the HHonors massacre and paid for an upgrade to an over-water bungalow in cash, but still the bill came to thousands with all the food, drink, and extras. It really is pricey. But it’s so good that we (my wife and I) came back wanting to go back soon. I recommend it. I do want to try the Hyatt, though.

  22. Stayed at the Four Seasons Kuda Hura property, which was darn near perfect (and has a wild turtle sanctuary and a highly professional scuba diving shop). Its also near enough to the Male airport so its just a boat ride, without an additional flight. I’d recommend it if it works for your plans.

  23. Amazing trip, but man that Hyatt upgrade fee is rough. Were you not opting for Cash & Points it looks like the travel cash outlay would be ~$1,740 for everything but the upgrade…and then another $1,750++ for the upgrade (assuming 5 nights). I know after food costs are factored in the upgrade cost as a percentage isn’t as bad, but I’d have to think long and hard as to whether that upgrade really makes the experience.

  24. re coffee: on-demand means? do you have a nespresso machine in-room with pods replenished every day like at Conrad? or do you have to order coffee?

  25. I’m on my way home from Maldives as I write hanging in the first class Malaysian lounge in a sleeper room for a few hours in KL. I stayed at Iru Fushi, formerly Hilton. It’s our second time there and I couldn’t say enough wonderful things about it. Awesome! I flew on points AA, JFK, NRT on JAL, then NRT to DOHA on Qatar which is my new favorite airlines. Love the pj’s too. To Male on Qatar too. Home, I’m flying Malaysian to KL, NRT onto JFK. Yes, long flights but well worth it!

  26. @Sunrise089 I’ll share thoughts on how worth it the upgrade is when I get to the trip segment on the property… some definite thoughts on seasonality.

  27. I have a very similar trip but im flying out from Dfw on cathay and then home via etihad. I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi – is there anything worth doing during the layover ( mine is same as yours like 8pm-9am)? Are any lounges open in the airport or is the hotel the only decent option?

  28. Fabulous report! Thank you so much. I’m new to this game, and while I’ve used a few points on a short trip (I confess to wasting miles upgrading to F on a 2.5 hr. flight–rookie mistake), I am now gunning for a big trip. I’m trying to focus my cards and spend with a goal and am still working on the big picture. I’d been leaning toward something involving Maldives, and I think your report may have convinced me that’s the way to go.

  29. @Frank, I might do LAX – Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Doha – Male… or I might do Los Angeles – Hong Kong – Male. They’re equidistant.

    2 segment path: 10236 mi
    LAX (33°56’33″N 118°24’29″W) HKG (22°18’32″N 113°54’53″E) 310.8° (NW) 7260 mi
    HKG (22°18’32″N 113°54’53″E) MLE (4°11’30″N 73°31’45″E) 251.3° (W) 2976 mi
    2 segment path: 10265 mi
    LAX (33°56’33″N 118°24’29″W) AUH (24°25’59″N 54°39’04″E) 7.4° (N) 8390 mi
    AUH (24°25’59″N 54°39’04″E) MLE (4°11’30″N 73°31’45″E) 134.9° (SE) 1876 m

  30. I just contacted both Hyatt and the hotel directly, and they both told me Points + Cash reservations aren’t available at the hotel. Did something change?

  31. @Josh – they are not available for your dates, that doesn’t surprise me, recently they have only been making points + cash available close-in (like within a month) so worth booking an award and changing to cash/points later if you want.

  32. @Gary – I didn’t mention dates. The hotel simply said they don’t offer cash + points, and Hyatt said “that hotel doesn’t participate in the cash and points marketplace.”

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