Maldives 2019 Tour: Arrival

Tour 2019 Bunyamin

We’re on our way! Whew. It’s a shame that Turkish Airways which excels in so many ways as an airline to take to the Maldives, especially with its sparkling new Istanbul hub, is so Byzantinely archaic with its website and ticket purchasing.

Seriously, Turkish Airlines online system is a disaster. It took me 2 hours to purchase the ticket. And then, because of a fault in their system, the booking required a repair that took (no exaggeration) over 4 hours of my patient time on the telephone to fix. Here are some of the most glaring problems that hit me…

  • English Illiteracy – The biggest problem of all that triggered so many problems is that Turkish Airlines considers ALL of your forenames (ie. your first name and any middle names) to be your “First Name”. When it asks for your “First Name”, it wants you to enter them in one big string. So for me, my “First Name” is “BRUCECHARLES”. Maybe this is some sort of Turkish language convention, but it is not English. And if they want to follow this esoteric grammatical convention, then they need to be much more explicit about it on their website. Instead, it just shows the following…Turkish Airlines - webformMy “Name” as shown in my Passport is “Bruce”. But when I entered that, all hell broke loose. It did not match mile Miles & Smiles record (which had me as a “Bruce”). As a result, half of the functions didn’t work in the online booking (eg. seat selection, passenger passport information).
  • Poor Data Integration – So I call the Miles & Smiles programme on the phone. When you call, they ask you to enter your membership number and then they laboriously repeat it and ask you to confirm it. When you get through, what’s the first question they ask you?…”What’s your membership number?” (which you have to laboriously repeat to someone for whom English is not their first language).
  • Poor Customer Service Training – I called their Customer Service center before I had completed my ticket booking due to the problems of putting “Bruce” as my “Name” for some guidance on how to resolve the problems it was presenting. The useless Customer Service rep then told me to do something which was the exact opposite of what someone should do and something which ended up costing me 4 hours of further aggravation. She told me that if I just went ahead and paid for the ticket, all the issues would resolve themselves. Simples right? So I followed her instructions. The issues did not go away.
    So I called the service centre again. This rep informed me of the huge problem that I now had on my hands. He explained that for Turkish Airlines, “Name” meant this conglomeration of all your non-surnames (ie. “BruceCharles” in my case). He said that I would have to change the name on the ticket or else at the airport I would be refused getting on the plane (because the “Name”…well, Turkish Airline perverse notion of what a “Name” is).
    • Ok, got it…let’s fix the name.”
    • “Sorry sir, I can’t do that. You will have to go onto our website and fill out an online complaint form and then in 7-10 days we will get back to you as to whether we determine that your request to change you name is approved and then you can call back with your reference number and the name might be able to be changed.”
    • “What if someone determines that it can’t be changed?”
    • “Then you lose the entire ticket and the £2000+ you paid
      #facepalm (I did not go into an apoplectic fit of rage because I still had confidence that sanity would previl at some point
  • Antiquated Computer Systems – After 10 days I got an email saying that my application to change the name on my ticket from “Bruce” to “BruceCharles” had been approved. All I had to do now is call their customer support center and sort everything out. They explained that their (medieval) computer systems would not allow them to change the name on the ticket so we would have to cancel the old tickets, arrange for full refunds and then book new ones from scratch. Good grief.
  • Using American Express Confuses Them – As I had faced when I booked, they seem to have no idea how American Express works. When I booked my tickets, the website asked for the “3 digit security code the back of the card”. Well, lacking all confidence in their competence at this point, I went ahead and put in the FOUR digit security code which is the convention for Amex cards (even though they do have their own 3 digit on the back of the card) which worked. Also, American Express cards can be used for booking flights, but not for booking seats. Which I discovered through trial and error. The customer service rep didn’t have a clue. He knew that Amex was accepted for some things and not other…but he didn’t know which things.
  • Even More Antiquated Transaction Systems – It turns out that for some reason they could not process the new credit card charge in one transaction. Instead, I had to enter my credit card details once for my new ticket and one for Lori’s new ticket. Each time, the service rep switched me to an over-the-phone system to tediously enter (and confirm) my credit card details. If that wasn’t bad enough, I had purchased extra-leg room seat and those purchases all needed to be paid for individually. That’s 2 legs (Istanbul flight change), 2 directions (going and returning) for 2 people. I had to go through the torturous phone credit card entry EIGHT times (hence the 4 hours on the phone).

It is a shame that the process of buying a ticket on Turkish Airlines is so painful, because the process of actually travelling with them is really quite a treat. Speaking of treats, the food served is actually quite tasty. Nothing Cordon Bleu, but I found everything from the Mediterranean salad to the mousse dessert to be very palatable (I usually find something in an airline’s food service that I just can’t stomach).

But it is the transfer in Istanbul that really distinguishes Turkish Airlines. With the rise of Asia, the Middle East is indeed in the middle of everything. The junction of these two continents (not to mention emerging Africa to the south). Hence, the race by Emirates (Dubai), Qatar Airlines (Doha) and Turkish Airlines (Istanbul) to establish themselves as the hub of the eastern hemisphere. Despite, the former two airlines extravagant airports and extensive service, Turkish Airlines is now really winning this race by clear blue water.

Turkish has long been able to exceed all other in service options. This means that you have the most choice of flights to suit your schedule and the shortest lay-over times (I can always find Turkish Airlines flights with a total travel time of about 13 hours, while the shortest I can find with the competition is about 15). It has flights leaving every couple of minutes in and out of Istanbul 24 HOURS A DAY.

In most other airports, things are shuttered up late at night and the floor polishers are out by the janitorial staff. When we did our transfer at 2:00 am, Istanbul airport was like Grand Central Station buzzing with passengers filling its cavernous terminal packed with more extensive stores than Westfield shopping centre. Istanbul has always had a busy terminal, the epitome of late-night shopping and round the clock bustle. But recently it just opened it state-of-the-art monstrosity Istanbul Airport which took their hub game to a whole new level. More space, more amenities, more stores, more restaurants, more inviting architecture and décor (see photo below).

Ever since BA stopped its non-stop service to the Maldives in the summer months, we have been using Turkish Airlines more or less satisfactorily (we especially appreciate its in-flight entertainment system which shows a live video of the plane landing), but after the ticketing fiasco this year and the plans for BA to resume direct service next year, I suspect that our Constantinople stop-over will come to an end.

The best part of our journey was being greeted at Arrivals by Maldives’ own digital ambassador, Bunyamin Ahmed (see photo below). Maldives and Bunyamin…#WeMeetAgain!

Istanbul Airport

Turkish Airlines Update – Istanbul Airport

Tour - Turkish Airlines update

Turkish Airlines has been our go-to carrier when travelling to the Maldives from the UK in the warm months (when British Airways does not offer its direct service). I already posted a pretty comprehensive overview of the flight experience, but I didn’t mention much about the Istanbul hub (just that it had a few food outlets and relaxation areas). The Istanbul airport has come on massively in just the three years since.

From the UK from April through October, there is no direct service to the Maldives. So visitors have to choose from an array of stop-over options among the hub titans. Unless you want a bit of a detour for one of the Far East hubs (eg. Singapore, Cathay Pacific, or even Sri Lankan), the most prominent choices are the three battling for dominance as the crossroads between Europe and Asia – Turkish (Istanbul), Emirates (Dubai) and Qatar (Doha). Turkey has held the title for much of history as Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople has been the nexus where East meets West). And they are not going to yield that strategic position easily no matter who much oil money the upstarts on the Arabian peninsula have to throw at the battle.

Istanbul airport has long been a bit of a “Third World” facility with more brute force (sheer numbers of flights) behind it than elegance (compared to the flashy new constructions at Dubai and Doha). But Istanbul is slowly but steadily making improvements to turn itself into a world class airport. A profusion of cosmopolitan shops and trendy eateries have cropped up with Sbarro and Burger King edging aside the tired beef stew in the generic airport café, and Hugo Boss encroaching on the Turkish Delight stands. They have fixed most of the bottlenecks with security in the International Transfer section which used to mean long queues as x-ray machine in the middle of the night and the middle of your long journey.

The one aspect are that remains decidedly Third World are the restrooms. Packed with queues and horrid smells. Your best option is the ones at the lower level underneath the food court (somewhat cleaner and very few people).

That area is where you will also find some quite attractive “rest” options. The first is quite literally a “Rest Area”. It is two rooms (one for men and one for women) with dimmed lighting and thick, padded mats on the floor (like you used to nap on in kindergarten). For those who couldn’t sleep bolt upright in the long-haul first leg and have a long lay-over, it is an oasis of comfort and repose. Free of charge too.

The whole area by the Food Court end of the terminal is also filled with a selection of 5 lounges to provide a range of transfer creature comforts. The first option is to check whether any of your frequent flyer status or bank/credit cards provide you with free access (one of the lounges is the HSBC lounge with free access for its premium card holders).

For the past couple of years, we have opted for the Premiere Lounge. It has sizeable space including two separate areas where one is more quiet than the other. It is the most extensive and with the widest range of amenities including a modest buffet, soft drinks, beer, pretty good coffee machine. It is also one of two lounges to have a shower (which I found refreshing after my 7 hours flight from Male) as well as a gym (!) for those who are really keen. The cost is 69 Euros for a “membership” which provides a day use with a guest (so 35 euros per person)

Note that if you plan to re-charge your electronics devices at Istanbul, the power outlets at European (if you go to Premier Lounge, they have an adaptor they will loan you).

Best of the Maldives: Flight School – MEGA Maldives Airline

Mega Airlines - flight school

One of the highlights of flying to the Maldives is the flight itself. Once the azure tapestry of the archipelago emerges below you feel like you have been transported to another world. Sometimes it’s worth getting a transfer to a distant atoll just to enjoy a bit of the aerial scenery.

The MEGA Maldives Airline gives high-flying tykes more than the view to enjoy with their “Kiddie Flight Attendant Program”. (thanks Paola)…

“Children aged 7-12 years old are invited to experience the fun and excitement of being a MEGA Maldives Airlines Cabin Crew. They are provided with an apron and a name tag and given the chance to join the cabin crew in their on-board services. For example, they may be given the opportunity to make in-flight service announcements and do fun things like delivering ice cream to passengers. They may also get special souvenirs and, after landing, may be allowed to tour the cockpit, and meet and take pictures with the pilots (when the plane is on the ground, subject to operational constraints).”

I wonder if I slouch low enough I could pass for a 12 year-old?

Maldives Tour 2015 Take Off

Turkish Airlines - landing screen

Our 14th trip to the Maldives and my 6th Tour and before I’ve even arrived I have experienced a few “firsts”…

  • 1st Transfer Flight to Maldives –When I first started visiting the Maldives, the tour operator flights on Monarch Airways stopped in Bahrain for refuelling, but you stayed on the same plane. In recent years, I’ve always flown direct usually on the trusty BA2043 (though one year I tried the Sri Lankan Airways direct flight).
  • 1st Time in Turkey – Transfer in Istanbul had me set foot on Turkey for the first time in my life (though I can’t really tick it off my country list since I didn’t officially “enter”).
  • 1st Time on Turkish Airways – I travel quite a bit for both business and pleasure using a range of carriers (I favour BA for the miles and perks of my Silver status, but I readily choose a more convenient or better priced option), I had never used Turkish Airways. Generally quite impressed (see below).
  • 1st Full Atoll Itinerary – I typically focus my Tours on a particular atoll for the mere sake of logistics. It’s easier to speedboat to the next resort across the water than jockeying seaplane transfers through Male. Despite my efforts, I have in the past always missed off a resort or two. But this year’s trip to Haa Alifu and Noonu hits all the active resorts there.

With BA’s recent service reduction to Male for half the year, I was forced to succumb to the dreaded stop-over flight. The transfer was Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. One would think that with Istanbul/Constantinople’s heritage as the gateway between Occident and Orient an airway hub would be a prime opportunity for Turkey to reassert its position at the center of the Eastern Hemisphere.

And it appears that they are certainly thinking along these lines. The airport is quite an extensive place, but what really sets it apart is its crossroads role. We arrived late in the evening around 11:00 pm. In every airport I have ever been to (and I have been to a fair few), this sort of hour is when the airport is pretty much closing up. The stores and restaurants are shuttered, the terminals empties, the lights dimmed, the janitorial staff buffing floors as the final arrivals filter in. At Istanbul airport, midnight might as well as be noon. The place was packed with passengers all in transit to their ultimate destination (so packed that Lori and I struggled to find a free seat to sit down). Destinations all over Europe and Asia listed on the Departures board showed a regular stream of flights taking off throughout the wee hours of the morning. .

Turkish Airways mostly impressed me, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. First the good news…

  • Price – Not a huge differentiator as our tickets were maybe £100 cheaper than the alternatives, but they were the cheapest.
  • Selection – Turkish Airways had by far the most flight options for us. This helped considerably to craft just the right itinerary which accommodated our schedules on departure and arrivals to a tee.
  • Timing – Most east-to-west long haul flights are pleasant day-time affairs as chasing the sun keeps the whole journey confined to a single day. But most west-to-east long hauls entail an overnight. That is where stop-overs (especially with changes) can cause problems. When we first used to fly charters to the Maldives, they would depart London very late and stop in Bahrain at about 5:00 in the morning. You were just getting to peak bleariness when you had to drag your bleary-eyed self off the plane while they refuelled to wander around a duty free and modest café. The Male itinerary left late afternoon (giving us a full morning to ourselves to sort final personal details out at home) and arrived in Istanbul in less than a 3 hours (a hop short enough to not really get uncomfortable). And then you could disembark and stretch your legs a bit before boarding for the red-eye portion of the trip.
  • Hub – As noted above, all the stores and restaurants were open with some decent choices including international standards like Burger King and Sbarro.
  • Courtesy Pack – Choppard badged courtesy kit with little slippers and the obligatory toothbrush kit and eye mask (see picture below)
  • Take-Off/Landing Video – This fun feature brings a bit of spectacle to take-offs and landings to or from any airport, but in the Maldives the vista is all the more spectacular cruising into one of the most beautiful airport approaches in the world.
  • Internet – In flight Internet for a very reasonable 1 hour for $10 USD and 24 hours for $15.
  • Big Bathrooms – Not really sure what benefit this is unless you just find the typical airline water closet a bit claustrophobic, but TA has the biggest bathrooms I have seen.
  • Dinner – Quite a tasty meal. I’m a bit tired of the chicken curry / stewed beef / cheese pasta selection on most long hauls. So the poached salmon and mashed potatoes was a fine little treat with credible accompaniments (including chocolate mousse which I think all airlines should default to for their go-to dessert. It’s hard to screw it up and who doesn’t like chocolate whip?).
  • Entertainment – Substantial high resolution screens (about iPad sized) with a good range of shows, games and other things on demand.
  • Tea – The hottest tea I have had on an airplane (and it tasted lovely). It makes me wonder even more by British Airways, the flagship carrier for the land of the cuppa, has to serve such tepid dishwater.

But Turkish Airlines also had a few disappointments…

  • Orderliness – The boarding queue was just short of a Ryanair scrum for a Malaga flight on mid-term break. The blatant disregard for order and rules came to peak as dozens of passengers stood up from their plane seats while it was still taxing in from the runway. Not a few feet from the terminal, but virtually as soon as the plane touched the ground. Unfortunately, Turkish Airways didn’t do much to manage the chaos and just let the throng rule.
  • Hub – Yes, I know I listed this one as a “positive” also (I’ll give it its due credit for a few assets). Despite its scale, Istanbul airport is just two cartons of live chickens short of a third world airport. The toilets are the worst of any major airport I have been to. It’s cramped, overcrowded, and ill-equipped. Happy to get on the plane to Male.
  • Breakfast – The “Turkish Pastry” was, well, interesting even to my eclectic palate, but the “scrambled eggs” were, hmmm, ridiculous. I had to look on the menu card to see what this yellowy runny foam was. Some exotic middle eastern delicacy? No, probably powdered eggs hardly cooked. Probably the worst item of food I have ever been served on a plane (and that includes my travels on Air Afrique in the 80s!).

Descending on the magical, otherworldly paradise of the Maldives is always a treat (enhanced this trip by the Turkish Airways nose camera). Ibrahim Nassim Airport itself continues to develop and expand. The latest welcome addition is a Wellness spa right at the entrance so you can have one final indulgent treatment before boarding your plane (we had a delay in our domestic transfer and took the opportunity to have some foot massages)

?yi Yolculuklar!

 

[POSTSCRIPT] If you are in the Maldives relaxation/spa frame of mind, Istanbul airport does offer a few options for that prelude or postlude treatment.  Unfortunately, none of them are listed on the airport’s directory of “Services”

  • TAV Airport Hotel has a spa offering massage treatments (opens 8:00 am)
  • Tuina Spa is located by Gate 215 offering chair back/neck/shoulder massage, foot massage and “aqua massage” all for $2 per minute (make sure you get the older women who are more expert)
  • Massage Chairs (4) are located by Gate 300 (coin-op).

 

Turkish Airlines - complementary bag

Best of the Maldives: Sea Plane – Beach House at Manafaru

Beach House at Manafaru Sea Plane interior

Donald Trump personifies the super-premium jet-setting crowd. He’s in the headlines a lot these few weeks with both his potential challenge to President Obama in 2012 and his ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ reality TV show now in full flow. Nearly all of the shots of him show him in him in his private Trump helicopter or Trump private plane.

If you want to travel in Trump-quality style, the Beach House at Manafaru this year launches a customised sea plane that looks like it has been taken straight off the set of an Apprentice victory reward.

One of the real treats to a Maldives visit is the view from above. I always try to get a window seat for my outbound journey so that when we approach the northernmost atolls I get a front row seat to all the dazzling colours and shapes. It really is the closest thing to feeling that you have arrived at another planet. A sea plane transfer is an added treat with a flight altitude even lower so you get an even better view. Charming though it is, the seaplane ‘air taxis’ are not big on the creature comforts. But Beach House has a remedy for that. Here is an excerpt from the Beach House announcement…

“A DeHavilland Twin Otter seaplane will be fitted out for the ultimate in aviation with comfy leather seats; custom-made tables and furnishings; and an utterly desirable amenities bag that includes an iPad and Bose noise cancelling headphones. The exterior of the plane will be painted a stylishly elegant white, gray and black livery.”

“Frederic Lebegue, General Manager of Beach House Maldives, A Waldorf Astoria Resort commented, “With the launch of our customised seaplane into the Maldivian skies, we’re putting the glamour back into travel, ensuring that our guests can begin their Maldivian holiday from the moment they reach the airport. The seaplane flight offers a ‘private jet’ experience making this an inimitable way to travel with picture postcard aerial views of the islands below.”

“All guests travelling to the ultra-elegant resort will be welcomed at Male International Airport, whisked through to a private lounge where spa treatments, refreshments and air conditioned comfort await them before transferring to the resort’s own seaplane for the one hour’s flight to the tropical retreat. To while away the time, guests on board will have a customised iPad, Bose noise cancelling headphones, a pair of binoculars, fan and pampering pack that includes face fresheners and hand wipes. The seaplane can be booked privately by individuals wishing to travel in complete privacy, and will also be used to transfer groups of guests to the resort from Male International Airport.”

“Beach House Maldives, a Waldorf Astoria Resort is the only resort in the atoll to offer seaplane transfers to its guests. Set in the far north of the country, Haa Alifu Atoll is usually reached by a domestic flight followed by a boat trip. The seaplane transfer reduces travelling time by half ensuring that guests can enjoy more time on the beach.”

I definitely wouldn’t miss the tiny hard seats of the conventional ‘air taxi’, but I do hope they keep the tradition of barefoot pilots. No shoes luxury is the Maldives.

Beach House at Manafaru Sea Plane exterior

Maldives Tour 2010 – Day 1: Sri Lankan Airlines UL502

Sri Lankan Airlines arrival

We’re back! We always make a point of going to a new island each visit. It keeps a sense of exotic adventure and discovery alive even though we have now been to 8 resort islands. We’ve just arrived for what promises to be adventure on steroids. 8 islands in 7 days. Now that the kids have grown up, we have more mobility. Most importantly, it provides a huge opportunity to scour new treasures and gems for MaldivesComplete.

The adventure started with our flights today on Sri Lankan Airlines (flight UL 502). As noted in our trip last year, we have always bought ‘package’ with the flight included. But last year’s ‘DIY’ trip planning worked really well. So well that you would wonder why we flew Sri Lankan Airlines instead of BA. BA did a great job last year and I have my frequent flyer miles with them, so why the switch?

  • Convenience – My wife Lori had fixed dates that she could accompany me that could not move. Sri Lankan had more choices of direct flights and two of those flights fit our needed perfectly. In fact, schedule constraints is the primary reason to book yourself rather than opting for a tour package since the packages typically have very fixed dates.
  • Cost – Sri Lankan Airlines was about £100 cheaper than BA and about £200 cheaper than Emirates (the other direct carrier who also happened to have fewer flight options).
  • Curiosity – I have been flying the UK national carrier for the past two decades since we arrived in the UK and I was curious about the service and approach that the local national carrier performed and approached the route.

The flight was fine. Pretty conventional amenities. The in-seat entertainment system was modest, but at least there was one. The service was especially cheerful and the colourful uniforms of the flight attendants helped set the tone for a trip to paradise.

Halloween Treat – On a 10 hour long haul flight, the first concern is seat comfort. I immediately noticed that touch extra leg room (32” versus BA’s 31”) as well as the surprisingly helpful extra seat width. Then I also quickly noticed the ‘SICMA seats and lumbar-support’ tucking into the small of my back. Along with a neck pillow, this support made it the easiest flight to sleep in the sitting position that I have ever experienced.

 

Halloween Trick – I had bought the ticket on the Internet and like many places was supposed to present the card that I bought the ticket with to the check-in desk. The only thing is that last week we lost one of our Mastcard cards and had to have it replaced (and new number issued). As a result, when I showed up with the replacement card to the check-in, Sir Lankan Airlines made me reissue the ticket on the card at an extra cost of £30. Lesson – If you have to have a new card, still keep the old card if you need to present it in order to check-in to an online purchased flight.

Tip – Get left side of plane window seat (not over wing) going to Maldives and right side departing. This way you are positioned best for one of the most spectacular aerial views as you first hit the archipelago (see below).

airline wiindow shot of Maldives

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Maldives Kurumba Visit – Day 1: Flying BA’s new non-stop service

BA 2043 to Male

Hmmm. For the longest time I swore off booking separate resort bookings and commercial flight bookings. Such an approach gave one much more flexibility, but I could never get a deal that matched the complete package prices and the fine service of the tour operators. They got (a) special pricing from the resorts, and (b) flew cut rate charters like Monarch. Furthermore, my loyalty was secured a few years ago by great customer service from Kuoni. The Iraq War had started messing up air space in the Middle East and wreaking havoc with the flights. It could have been a situation of high stress and inconvenience (waiting interminably at Male airport). Instead, the local Kuoni rep was on top of everything and called us to reassure us and tell us to just relax by the pool until the update plans were sorted. It turned a potentially stressed situation into an extra free day of holiday and earned us loyalty for life.

This time, however, we were finding it difficult to locate a deal that left and returned on days which suited the somewhat less flexible family members this go around. The clincher was BAs new direct service to Male which I am flying on as I write this sentence. Today’s flight is the third one flown as it was just launched this week. BA has a number of attractive deals which made the flight portion reasonably attractive – about £500 per person.

That just meant finding a resort. I thought that this would be the easy part and was stunned at how difficult it was. First the web sites. Amazing how clumsy, awkward and difficult many of the resort’s websites were to book dates. I quickly abandoned this approach and thanks to Skype could make inexpensive phone calls to speak directly to a human being. This is where the language barrier came in. The Maldivian (and other nationality staff who often work at resorts) speak fine English for basic questions on familiar areas (“where is the restaurant?”, “how do I book and excursion?”). For more complicated subjects like discussing booking options, the conversations actually became quite laboured. In the end, I turned to Destinology which was recommended by a TripAdvisor forum member. They provided excellent service in finding a great rate for a resort and sorting out all the paperwork and logistics (eg. transfers to the island).

We are going to the 5-star resort Kurumba which also came to about £500 per person for room and board. So the whole deal comes to about £1000 per person (closer to £1200 when all the taxes, charges, etc. are loaded in) which is about a low a price as I could find for any resort. And those other resorts had a lot more constraints when I was researching the package route.

Now that I am on the BA flight, I’m not sure I will ever do package again. If the prices can stay comparable and the web makes the booking logistics relatively easy, then the commercial flight is soooo much better. More comfy seats, more service (advance online check in – no queues), frequent flyer points, in flight on-demand entertainment, amenities, free snacks and drinks. The whole experience is more relaxed and comfortable.