on a Budget
What We've Learned
After 3 Visits
I realize that you may be thinking the title "French Polynesia on a Budget" is an oxymoron, like a contradictory statement that can't be true. I will agree, French Polynesia is one of the more expensive places to travel to in the world. But after three visits to these beautiful islands in the South Pacific, I've got some money-saving tips I'd like to share. If visiting this area has been on your wish list, but the cost has kept you away, you might be surprised at a few ways I've discovered you can save money.
Our French Polynesia Experience
Our first trip to FP was in 2013, and we only visited Bora Bora, splitting our time between two resorts. Our second trip to FP was in 2016, and we spent a week on Moorea at an Airbnb beach house and a week in Bora Bora. (After that trip, I wrote Moorea and Bora Bora with Kids). Our third trip to FP was this year (2018), and we divided our time between Moorea and Tetiaroa.
Kayaking in front of where we stayed on MooreaGetting There
Airfare is the biggest obstacle to visiting French Polynesia. There are just a few airline carriers that fly to Papeete, Tahiti (the gateway to all of FP), and they almost never have sales. We live near Los Angles and have flown Air Tahiti Nui from LAX on all three trips, but Air France and Air New Zealand also have regularly scheduled flights.
Here are three tips for getting the best deal on airfare.
1) Subscribe to Air Tahiti Nui's email list so that you will receive alerts for sales. We have used their “kids fly free” sale on two of our trips, and they seem to run this offer regularly.
2) Using Airfarewatchdog, make an alert notice for the Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO) route to Papette (PPT). I realize you may not live near these airports, but this is where most flights connect from the USA to French Polynesia (even flights originating in Paris). You will receive an email alert when there is a price drop. You won’t be required to purchase from Airfarewatchdog, and they will list which airlines are providing that deal along with dates and restrictions. If you find flights from LAX or SFO for less than $1000, you are getting a “deal,” and if you find an $800 fare (like we recently did), then you are getting an excellent deal.
3) Watch for new carriers. We heard from our hotel manager that United Airlines and a few other US carriers will be running a six-month trial to "test" the market beginning fall of 2018. More airlines flying this route will mean more competition and better prices. Update: My husband told me last night that he's already seeing flights in October and November from SFO to PPT for $700. WOW!
Don't forget that traveling in the off-season is always best for deals. Our spring is considered their dry and mild season and our fall is considered their wet and humid season. I think May or June are the best months to travel to FP. It will be nearly impossible to get a lower-priced airfare to FP in July or August.
The next decision to make for your French Polynesia vacation is where to stay. Everyone dreams of Bora Bora. True enough, Bora Bora is magical. But it’s quite expensive for several reasons. It will cost an additional $400-$500 (per person) in airfare to get there. It's about a 45 minute flight from Papeete, Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui has a corner on the market. Once you’re there, you won't find budget-friendly options for accommodations. Third, you won't have access to budget-friendly places to eat. Resorts in Bora Bora are isolated (this is part of the draw for many people). That means that when it's time for dinner, you are limited to the restaurants located at your hotel. It's possible to request a water taxi to the small town of Vaitape, but there are not many options there as most people visiting Bora Bora choose to stay at their resort. By the way, I'm not trying to talk you out of Bora Bora. We've been twice and LOVE the place. But this post is about vacationing in French Polynesia on a budget.
There are about 12 islands that tourists tend to choose when visiting French Polynesia, but because they all require flights from Papeete, Tahiti, they all end up adding great expense to the travel budget. All except one... Moorea!
Moorea is an island located just off the coast of Tahiti and accessible by ferry. Yes, ferry! No flight required! Moorea has a lush jungle, steep craggy mountain peaks, gorgeous bays, and pristine water with abundant coral reefs and wildlife. It’s primitive, but you’ll find plenty of options for places to stay, restaurants to eat in, and things to do. The island of Moorea has one two-lane road that goes all the way around (with no stop signs or traffic signals). It's 37 miles long and would take about 1 hour and 15 minutes if you were to drive without any stops. There are just 16,000 people who live on Moorea, and they are some of the friendliest people you'll ever meet. Captain Cook was the first European explorer to arrive in the late 1700's, and not a lot has changed since then. 'The Bounty' with Mel Gibson was filmed here in 1984.
Ferry & Rental Car
Moorea is one of those places where you will want a car to be able to move around. Both times we have visited Moorea, we rented our vehicle on Moorea, near the ferry dock. We made a cost-saving discovery on this last trip that we were too late to benefit from, but I’m happy to pass it on to you. Instead of renting a car on Moorea, rent in Tahiti where costs are considerably less. Our rental car on Moorea was about $100 a day, but when I checked on rental prices in Tahiti, I saw prices as low as $20-30 per day. There is a rental office located at the Papeete airport. Once you clear customs on your international flight, turn right and you will see where Europcar, Avis, and Hertz have their counters.
Inside the Papeete, Tahiti airportMake your reservation ahead of time. Check several websites, such as their own, Expedia and Travelocity for the best price. Not only will you be saving money on the actual rental car, but you’ll also save in taxi fare because you’ll be able to drive yourself to the ferry station (approximately $30 one way in a taxi). The cost to take the ferry over to Moorea is about $15 per person (less for children), and about $40 for a small car. These fees are for each direction, and the duration of the ferry ride is about 30 minutes. The employees at the ticket window speak English and take credit card. For families, this plan ends up being a double bonus, as you can leave your luggage in the car when you board the ferry.
30 minutes later, arriving in MooreaFor two people traveling together, Bora Bora or another island only accessible by flight will cost about $1000 for transportation. For a family of four, double that price. Moorea, on the other hand, costs considerably less with a $15 ferry ticket and a $30 per day car rental.
We have never pre-purchased our ferry tickets, but if you're planning to take a car on the ferry, it might be a good idea to reserve your spot ahead of time. Check here for the Aremiti Ferry website.
If it’s a fancy 4 or 5-star hotel you’re after, you’ll find the Sofitel, Intercontinental and the Hilton on the island of Moorea. But if you’re reading this post, you’re probably looking for something more affordable than that. There are plenty of options on Airbnb and other home renting sites. Do some searching and be sure and look for positive reviews before choosing a place to rent. There are also lots of small pensions and boutique style hotels. Not only are these considerable less expensive, but they also provide an authentic experience with local Tahitian hospitality. Two years ago, we opted for a beach house we found on Airbnb. On our third trip, we stayed at The Taoahere Beach House, a sweet little place we found on Tripadvisor.
Taoahere Beach House
This family owned and operated oceanfront property has three detached bungalows for renting. Each unit has its own kitchen, beautiful bathroom and outside eating area. The bungalow we stayed in had one queen sized bed and three twin beds, making it a perfect place for families of 3, 4 or 5!
They had kayaks, paddle boards and bikes we could use free of charge. They also provided masks and snorkels to use during our stay. Breakfast is not included, but they do have an option to order breakfast for a fee. There is a small market just down the street within walking distance. There is also a restaurant on site that is open for lunch only, and even though we were the only hotel guests there during our stay, we saw lots of visitors during the lunch hours. Some people drove in by car, and some arrived by boat! There is also an activity desk available where special excursions such as jet ski tours can be arranged.
The waterfront from Taoahere Beach House
Looking back at Taoahere Beach House from a kayak
Walking to the market for some groceries
Things to do
When it comes to deciding how to spend your time, this is another area that you’ll want to plan carefully as excursions with tour companies can quickly add up to big bucks! FREE is always a good idea, and there are plenty of ways to enjoy what Moorea has to offer for free.
(A large public beach near the Sofitel)
(A great spot for a view of both bays and a perfect starting point for a hike)
Don't forget your mosquito repellent!
(There is a barrier reef located all the way around the island, and so the water is calm and relatively shallow. Although currents do exist so pay attention to the conditions. The black-tip reef sharks and stingrays are harmless, but do keep an eye out for sea urchins as people sometimes step on them by mistake. Ouch!)
Enjoy a Sunset
Explore on a Kayak or Stand up Paddle Board
(Whether you’re renting a house, or staying in a hotel, chances are that kayaks and paddle boards will be available for your use)
For a Small Fee
Visit a Fruit Stand
From our 2016 trip
Spend half a day at the Lagoonarium
(Details for Lagoonarium are on Tripadvisor or my post from our first trip to Moorea)
For a Splurge
We love jet ski tours when they are done well. Our 3-hour tour with Ohana Jet Ski Tours (located on the property of Taoahere Beach House) was excellent. We visited both Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay, then we rode outside of the barrier reef for a bit, then went over to a motu for some snorkeling (and refreshing fruit juice). Lastly we spent some time on a sandbar where we swam with sharks and rays. The fun thing about jet skiing in French Polynesia is you’ll glide over water that is a million different shades of blue. You’ll go from very shallow sandy areas to beautifully colored reefs, to a dark blue ocean. The cost per jet ski was $220, so we paid $440 in total for two jet skis. It was definitely a splurge, but the only excursion we paid for.
Snorkel tours, glass-bottom boats, sunset dinner cruises, and jungle tours are also among the popular choices on Moorea. Remember, these excursions can add up to big bucks and for a family of 4, you can easily add $600 - $1000 to your trip. We try to choose "one splurge" and enjoy the rest of what the island has to offer on our own.
One last splurge idea... especially if you're celebrating a special occasion like we were, our 25th wedding anniversary! Purchase a black pearl. All of French Polynesia is filled with opportunities to buy these unique cultured pearls. Produced by the giant black-lipped oyster, these pearls require at least four years to form. They are a prizes possession and if it's in your budget, going home with one is a special souvenir that will be treasured for many years to come. We loved our experience with Eva Perles, a French designer who has lived on Moorea for 30 years and makes all her own designs. Stop in and see her work and say hello for us!
Eva's shop near Cook's Bay
My Anniversary Bracelet
Eating on a Budget
When it comes to high prices in French Polynesia, food is no exception. Imagine that almost everything is imported, so commodities like sunscreen, flip flops and peanut butter are unusually high. Here’s how we saved money on food. Since we didn’t have breakfast included at the Taoahere Beach House, we brought granola bars from home and purchased fresh fruit and fruit juices at the market once we arrived. Fresh French baguettes are readily available at all the markets on the island, and at only $1 per baguette, they are a real steal. A baguette, some cheese, and deli meat make a perfect picnic. We ate out once a day and especially enjoyed Allo Pizza, Le Motu Creperie, and Holy Cow Steak House. Note: Even groceries are expensive on Moorea, but we found Super Ute located on Cook’s Bay to have the best prices.
So there are our cost-saving tips based on what we've learned. Let me know if you find them helpful or if you can add anything that I've missed.
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All opinions expressed are our own. No compensation was given for any part of this vacation.