It’s time to say goodbye to Thailand and head to our next destination, the remote South Pacific island-nation of Palau (population 21,000, the fourth-least populated country in the world). Getting there is both very difficult and very expensive.
There are only six flights to Palau; from Yap (Federated States of Micronesia), Guam, Manila, Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul. Flights are very expensive, usually around $1000 CAD for a short roundtrip from Asia. This makes it the perfect “points destination”. Aeroplan assigns Palau to “Asia 2,” the same zone as Thailand, even though flights from Thailand to Palau can cost more than flights between Canada and Thailand! Since Aeroplan allows two free stopovers in addition to your main destination, we added a stop in Palau (even though it was very out of the way – Aeroplan has very liberal routing rules). We flew Montreal to Bangkok to Palau to Beijing to Montreal, costing 155,000 points each in business class, the same cost as flying a roundtrip between Montreal and Bangkok. So compared to paying for flights from Bangkok to Palau, taking advantage of free stopovers saved us $1000 each.
Even though Palau is only 2,500 miles from Krabi, we had to take four flights to get there. We flew Air Asia from Krabi to Bangkok, and spent a night in Bangkok. For our night in Bangkok we again stayed at the Aloft Sukhumvit for 4000 SPG points per night; after a long time staying in cheap places, we were very grateful to be in a Western hotel with all the amenities! We spent some time walking around “Terminal 21,” the nearby airport-themed mall, where every floor is modelled after a different city. Lots of fun!
We flew Singapore Airlines from Bangkok to Singapore to Manila, and United from Manila to Koror. All flights were in business class, and neither airline has fuel surcharges. We could have flown Thai Airlines direct from Bangkok to Manila, but it would have cost about $200 extra each since Thai does charge fuel surcharges.
Singapore Airlines was amazing; big, comfortable seats (and a lie-flat seat on our 4 hour flight from Singapore to Manila!), great meals, a good lounge, big screens with a huge selection of movies, and the friendliest flight attendants ever. They greet you by name as you enter the plane, escort you to your seat, and talk with you for a few minutes about where you were, where you’re going, where you’re from, etc.
United was much worse. The food wasn’t great, the lounge they used in Manila was only ok (but almost empty), the seatback screens were tiny and they only had five movies, played on repeat instead of on-demand. But I haven’t become too spoiled yet, so it was still pretty good compared to an economy seat.
Unlike in Thailand, hotels in Palau are not a good value. Satisfactory budget motels can cost well over $100 USD/night. Occasionally you can find better deals, but I couldn’t on the dates we were visiting. Finding somewhere for under $100/night was very difficult. I emailed every single hotel listed in the Palau Tourism Board’s directory, and I ended up finding the F&B Palau Hotel. They charged $72/night for their cheapest room, which was by far the lowest rate I found in Palau.
Another problem I had, and that I presume many travellers to Palau have, is that most flights arrive and depart around 3:00 am. So while my stay in Palau was just under 72 hours, it spanned four nights since I arrived and departed in the early morning. Since I wanted to check out at 1:00 am on my last night, a very late checkout, I would be charged an extra night. After sending a few emails, the F&B Palau Hotel was the only one that agreed to charge me only three nights for my 72-hour stay. So my total hotel cost was to be $216 total, instead of over $400 with any other hotel. Big savings, but it took a lot of time, effort, and sacrifice.
There was a catch – although $72 USD is expensive by my standards, this was the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in. The rooms were falling apart, everything was rusty, the bathrooms were 100 years old, and the bed was uncomfortable. It was relatively clean, though we did see a cockroach in our bathroom on our last night there. The toilet in our first room had the weakest flush I’ve ever seen, and the manager didn’t seem concerned about it in the slightest. Luckily we were able to pay $8/night to upgrade to a slightly better but still terrible room with a working toilet (yes, we had to pay to upgrade to a room with a working toilet).
I expected that it was going to be very difficult to find affordable vegetarian-friendly restaurants, but it actually wasn’t so bad. We liked the Rock Island Cafe and Katie’s Healing Garden (you’ll need a car or an expensive taxi ride), which cost around $8 each. Expensive by our standards, but not horrible considering you’re getting good food on an island in the middle of the pacific. There are also some cheaper places that locals go to (ask around) where you can eat for under $5 each, although they don’t have many vegetarian options.
You’ll likely spend one day of your trip on land, especially if your flight arrives at 3:00 am. Most tour companies offer van tours of the big island of Palau for around $100/person, which is a huge rip-off. Instead we rented a car for the day from “IA Rent a Car” for $28 including tax. It was an old car covered in scratches but it worked fine. We drove along small roads for a while, but if you’re interested there are some waterfalls and villages that could be interesting to see.
An interesting fact about Palau is that although they drive on the right, most cars have the steering wheel on the right-hand side. I assume that since Palau is too small to get any shipments direct from the manufacturers, they buy all their cars from relatively-nearby Japan, where they drive on the left.
Otherwise, there’s not much to do in Koror, so your main expenses will be hotel, food, and of course tours of the Rock Islands, the highlight of Palau – I’ll make a separate post. No matter what, Palau will be an expensive destination. You’ll have to pay around $100/night for an overpriced hotel, everyone has to pay a $50 departure tax at the airport, and it costs $100 for a permit to go to the Rock Islands and Jellyfish Lake, and Rock Island full-day tours cost about $100-$150 each. But it’s well worth it for this once-in-a-lifetime destination, especially if you use points to get free flights.
February 5, 2017 at 3:52 am
Thanks Matt for this very useful post!
Can you share more of your day that you’ve had the rented car? Where did you go? Did you rent
How much did you pay for gas, etc?
My flight leaves Palau at 2:30am, and I thought of renting a car on my last day there, and eventually return the car at the airport. Trying to figure out if it’s possible…
September 21, 2017 at 12:22 am
Interesting to hear about another Palau traveler’s experience! I was lucky enough to visit Palau on a company sponsored trip, so I had most of my expenses taken care of. We stayed at Palau Pacific Resort and I was really happy with the rooms. I was also fortunate to do some diving and sight seeing. Absolutely beautiful! As you said, not much in Koror, but man, anything underwater is just something else. I didn’t see enough of the big island however so I can’t say much about that area.
I get where you’re coming from with the prices, it definitely is expensive. But I can also see why the prices are so hefty after talking to one of the tour guides. It’s a small country, and the past few years they’ve seen a massive influx of tourists, particularly from mainland China. Given how small it is, the fragility of the environment, and the fact that every tourist leaves a footprint, everyone on the island is trying hard to get as much money as possible to keep up with taxes and the costs of living on an island sustainably. Recently they’ve implemented a policy trying to cut down on the quantity of tourists by implementing massive price hikes. Sad for me, as someone who travels on a budget, but I understand and am actually sort of glad they’re doing it.
March 18, 2018 at 9:03 pm
Thanks for the comment Cal, sorry I just saw it now! I definitely see why prices are so high. Really they’re pretty reasonable compared to somewhere like Hawaii, which has the advantage of a better infrastructure and much bigger population.