For the past couple of years, my dear friend, N, and I have splurged on a vacation together. One year, it was to a fancy destination spa (price tag: $4,000, including spa treatments and airfare). Last year it was a tour through Southeast Asia (price tag: about $3,600 a person with travel). This year, with the economy in a crumble, N and I decided to stay within a budget without sacrificing luxury. The goal, we decided, was to create a fancy, luxury spa experience at about half the price. Here's how we did it.
We Picked the Right DestinationYou can create a spa vacation out of cold or warm climates. Pick among the beach, the desert or ski resorts. The trick is to find a hotel that offers a spa or is near one. This way you can get treatments in the evening after a day of skiing, hiking or bobbing in the ocean.
After much research, N and I decided to spend our winter vacation in Tulum, Mexico. The exchange rate was phenomenal. After several years stuck at about 9 pesos per U.S. dollar, the rate during our stay was a whopping 15 pesos per dollar. Also, the beach resorts were offering phenomenal deals due to the stagnating economy.
We chose to spend several days at the year-old Ocho Tulum Resort in Tulum, Mexico (see my review of Ocho Tulum). One of the nicest resorts (if not THE nicest) in Tulum, Ocho was serene, clean and hip. Rooms at Ocho ran from $220 for two double beds with a garden view to $280 on up for a beachfront room. If you booked 5 nights in the cheapest room and split the cost, you're spending only $550 each, and this is during prime season -- rates during the off-season are even better.
Many hotels and resorts are currently offering fabulous package deals to lure in guests while the economy stagnates. Many luxury hot spots, such as the 5-star Maroma Resort & Spa near Playa del Carmen, are currently offering a "buy 3 nights, get one free" deal. Rancho La Puerta, one of the top destination spas in the world, also offers on-going deals, including one where a friend can join you at 50 percent off.
Also consider booking your tickets close to your travel dates. Most places prefer to book rooms for deep discounts rather than let them sit empty.
Scoring a cheap flight in a bad economy is easy. For a beach vacation in February, there were scores of cheap flights to Anguilla, Mexico, Hawaii and various Caribbean locations. My roundtrip ticket from NYC to Cancun was under $300.
So how did we fare on accommodations? Price tag per person for 5 nights at Ocho: $750.
Create a Daily ScheduleThe best destination spas offer schedules that mix exercise with healthy food and spas. You can create your own daily schedule that accommodates all three.
At Ocho, I did yoga in the mornings (offered three times a day for $15), I ran along the beach followed by lunges, and I walked in the surf knee-deep along the beach for 45 minutes a day. N dubbed this "surf-striding." It's better than any elliptical and the view is much prettier, too.
Here's an example of a daily schedule:
8 a.m.: Yoga or Pilates
9:30 a.m.: Breakfast
11 a.m.: Surf-striding or meditative beach walk
1 p.m.: Lunch on the beach
3 p.m.: Snorkeling or sea kayaking
5:30 p.m.: Horseback ride at sunset OR a beach run, plus lunges.
7 p.m.: Spa treatment (massage, facial or wrap)
9 p.m.: Dinner
So how did I fare on exercise costs during my stay at Ocho? Price tag: $60 for daily yoga.
Choose Healthy Items off the MenuOne of the best things about a stay at a destination spa is the healthy, organic menu (check out some of Rancho La Puerta's most popular recipes). No meat is served at Rancho, only fresh fruits, vegetables and fish. Even their specialty guacamole is made of a blend of avocado and peas, though you'd never know it.
To stay healthy at Ocho Tulum, I ate a plate of fresh fruit (papaya, melon, mango, pineapple) every morning (continental breakfast is included at Ocho), sometimes mixing in yogurt and granola. For lunch, I stuck to fresh guacamole (good Omega-3's) and ceviche made from fish caught that day. Dinner is usually a salad and another fish (the grouper is amazing) or shrimp.
I shied away from more than one serving of alcohol a day and heavy cream and cheese dishes.
Price tag for meals at Ocho: $200 for lunch and dinners.
Every Day, Take Advantage of a Spa TreatmentWhat is a spa vacation without the spa? I purposely chose a resort with a spa menu.
Belen, the spa manager at Ocho, suggested I try Ocho's signature "Luxury Treatment," a full two hours of bliss. The Luxury Treatment starts with a facial, moves on to a scrub and concludes with a massage. The treatment was glorious and took advantage of natural, organic products including honey, yogurt, several fruits, Mayan clay, which is indigenous to that area, and even the famous sand in Tulum, fine enough for a scrub. At only $120, it was the best deal on the spa menu.
Since the beach can wreak havoc on feet and hair, N. and I went into the town of Tulum for pedis, manis and a hair treatment at Fashion + Look salon on Calle Andromeda. I highly recommend a visit for the basics.
For the perfect spa vacation, I recommend taking advantage of the steam and sauna rooms if your resort has them. They're usually free.
So how did I fare with spa treatments? $300 for four days of spa treatments.
If you add up the cost of this trip, airfare included, it was $1,610. That's a third of the cost of a destination resort. My goal was to do this trip in pure luxury at about half the cost and I beat that by a long shot.
Even if you went all-out in the Yucatan, you could save big bucks. I figured a 5-night stay at Maroma (one of the world's best resorts), plus 3 spa treatments and meals included would cost about $2,500 per person for a cheaper room. With airfare, that's still about $1,200 cheaper than destination spas I've been to. And Maroma, believe me, is creme de la creme.
Would I do a "do-it-yourself" luxury trip again? Absolutely. I'm considering heading back to Ocho for a Yoga Retreat. At $1,500 per person, all meals, accommodation, spa treatments and activities included, it's a screaming deal.