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Spend less, do more on your Maui vacation

SmarterTravel

Ah, Maui—it’s a tropical paradise of sandy beaches, pineapple fields, and sunset luaus. But with tourism as its number one industry, Maui is also among the most expensive islands in the world. For every activity, there are dozens of so-called discount activity merchants who promise to get you the best price, guaranteed.

Don’t believe them. You’ll get the best price from doing the legwork before you arrive—and from applying some very simple strategies to your vacation planning, both in getting there and on the island itself. First and foremost, don’t overspend on the big-ticket items like airfare, hotel, and car rental. The less you spend getting to the island, the more options you’ll have once you’re there.

When I began planning my April trip, I chose to avoid the typically high weekend fares and instead travel midweek. Prices for spring travel to Hawaii had climbed to about $1,040 from the east coast, but after just a few weeks published prices dropped nearly $400, and consolidator fares from sites like Hotwire and Cheap Tickets fell even further. The reason? Prices to hot destinations like Hawaii typically go in cycles, and experience suggested that in a tough year for air travel, prices would come back to earth as spring approached. I bought my tickets from Hotwire for a one-connection American Airlines flight departing in early April. Total cost: $536 per person round-trip from Boston.

The major disadvantage to consolidator fares, of course, is that you can’t earn frequent flyer miles on your flight. I’d weighed the idea of taking a slightly higher-priced flight—or even flying to the west coast on a major airline and switching to a low-cost Hawaiian carrier from there—but actual dollar savings won out. Instead, I opted to earn back some of the miles by using my Delta SkyMiles credit card to buy the tickets, and later my hotel and car reservations as well.

Hawaii may be famous for its sprawling resorts, but I found a better bargain at the Old Lahaina House Bed & Breakfast, just a minute’s walk from the beach and five minutes from the trendy shops and restaurants of Lahaina’s famous Front Street. The inn’s friendly owner Sherry also suggested restaurants and off-the-beaten path activities that we would have otherwise missed, and we were able to chat with the guests over fresh pastries and coffee each morning. For about half the cost of a typical resort, I got the one thing that is truly priceless on any vacation: a relaxing place to spend my downtime. Total cost for eight night’s accommodations: $443 per person based on double occupancy.

By saving on the flight and hotel, I was able to spend a little extra on one aspect of the trip that—in my mind, anyway—wasn’t negotiable: a convertible for driving along Maui’s famous Hana highway. A quick search of the major car rental websites revealed weekly prices in the mid $300 range. But a search at Orbitz netted a weekly rate of just $237 with Alamo, well below the rates available using discount coupons or even a name-your-own-price service like priceline.com. And by booking with American Express, my credit card agreement covered rental insurance, saving more than $100 over the course of eight days. As a Delta SkyMiles partner, I also earned an additional 50 miles per day. Total cost per day: $34.

On the Island

A stroll down historic Front Street in Lahaina is a perfect example of the challenge that most of Maui’s first-time visitors face. “Helicopter rides, $79!” reads the sign on one activity booth. “Bike down a volcano, $49!” claims another. “Any luau, FREE!” says a third. And on and on. But most of these activity booths are just this side dishonest. Sure, you can get that helicopter ride for $79 or a bike ride for $49—if you’re willing to lose three-quarters of a day on your vacation listening to a sales pitch at a timeshare resort.

These activity booths would have you believe that there’s only one way to save money on the island, but all it really takes is a little research before you arrive. In my case, I identified a few “big-ticket” activities that I simply couldn’t pass up: biking down the side of Haleakala, Maui’s 10,000-foot volcano; and touring the island by helicopter. By searching the Web beforehand, I was able to compare each provider side by side and evaluate them on both price and reputation.

The Haleakala bike ride lists for $112 per person through Mountain Riders, one of the island’s premier bike companies. Mountain Riders offers an online discount of 15 percent for booking in advance via their website, bringing the price down to $94. But by searching online, I found a site called Adventure Maui, which offers the same tour with Mountain Riders for $79 per person—with no timeshare strings attached. Still not as inexpensive as taking a timeshare deal, but I considered it a fair tradeoff for having my vacation time all to myself.

Like the downhill bike ride, helicopter tours of Maui are also expensive. In addition to the basics, like which company offers the best price, there are other factors to consider. How long is the tour? Where does it take you? Can you actually speak with the pilot? Maui boasts several quality operators, such as Blue Hawaiian and Sunshine Helicopters. But If you’re not interested in spending extra money for what amounts to a little more luxury—and it didn’t seem worth it to me—a company like AlexAir provides industry-standard helicopters, 29 years of experience, and the bonus of two-way radio communication between passengers and the pilot (the only tour provider on the island to do this).

AlexAir’s prices start at $230 per person for a 65-minute full-island tour, which is steep even for an activity known to be pricey. Again I scoured the Web for discounts. Tom Barefoot’s Cashback Tours could bring the price down to $205, for example. But sometimes the best deal that you can find online isn’t the best deal around. A phone call to AlexAir revealed that I could save $120 as a member of AAA. End price: $170 per person, which was less than the lowest discounted price of similar helicopter tours that weren’t as high on my list.

Not everything in Maui costs a fortune, though. The island’s free daytrips are as numerous as its high-priced activities, and I set aside three days to explore Maui on a shoestring budget to offset the more expensive days. First up: two days of hiking on different sides of the island. The results were as amazing as they were inexpensive. Where else could you scramble inside the reddish-brown walls of a volcanic crater larger than Manhattan? Or climb to the peak of a lush green ridge overlooking a rainforest? Only on Maui—and all for the price of a few bagged lunches and a paperback hiking book.

Maui is beautiful by car, too. The 52-mile road to Hana includes 617 hairpin turns, 56 single-lane bridges, and dozens of switchbacks. I drove the 52 miles and then kept going, covering nearly two-thirds of the island’s circumference and taking about 10 hours from start to finish. The only costs were gasoline, a picnic lunch, and a few more ice cream stops than I care to admit. The end result? An inexpensive complement to the more expensive parts of my vacation.

The cost:

Airfare

Paid: $536 p.p.
Initial Price: $1,040 p.p.
Savings: $504 p.p.
Miles Earned: 1,008

Accommodations

Paid: $443 p.p.
Resort Ave.: $800 p.p.
Savings: $357 p.p.
Miles Earned: 887

Car Rental w/Insurance

Paid: $237 per week
Average: $400 per week
Savings: $163 overall
Miles Earned: 671

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