French Polynesia is an expensive place. In some ways, it is inescapable. If you spend any amount of time in the groceries, driving around, or down by the port it is easy to see why. Most goods are shipped in over vast distances, from computers to the milk for your coffee.
For us, the natural comparison is Hawaii, but there is a big difference. Hawaii has enough land to produce much more of its own products and otherwise receives goods from the mainland US. French Polynesia mainly receives goods from France, New Zealand, or the US. Products either travel from the other side of the world or have to deal with import costs. Anyway, stuff is expensive.
There are plenty of blogs that cover money saving tips in the islands, so this isn’t an original topic. I read a lot of them before we took a vacation to Bora Bora years ago and found quite a few of them true enough but tiresome. After months of saving for my bucket list trip, I wasn’t about to sit in the hotel room and eat granola bars for a week, this is a vacation!
Now that we have the luxury of longer visits, tips like eating those granola bars don’t sound so bad and can really add up to large savings. That helps us stay even longer! But this is geared more toward a more conventional vacation. These tips may be applied to whatever degree you see fit. We have learned each of them through experience. And don’t worry granola bars aren’t mentioned again!
Food, Drinks, and Alcohol
- Normally, I wouldn’t bring my own alcohol on vacation, but French Polynesia is an exception. You can bring two liters of alcohol into French Polynesia without declaring. If checking a bag, pack a couple bottles of wine or your drink of choice. Bottles that go for 7-8 USD can be 18-22 USD in the Tahitian supermarket, and even more in the resorts. If you aren’t checking a bag, pick up a bottle at the airport duty-free. Normally, these prices are more than US liquor stores, but it will still save over the French Polynesian prices. There is only one winery on French Polynesia (good, but not widely available) so you aren’t going to be missing out on local stuff. Of course, keep in mind your airline’s checked bag policies. Any additional bag fees may cancel out the savings on your alcohol. This may be another reason to choose the duty-free store instead.
- Perhaps the most iconic drink in the islands is the chilled coconut with a straw in it. The prices vary widely. Roadside, they range from 1-5 USD depending on the island. In the resorts, they can be 6-11 USD, twice as much! Quite a few locals we spoke with laugh at this, crazy tourists paying so much for a coconut! I get it, it is part of the experience and a great picture. Pick one up while out on a tour or a bicycle ride to save. Better yet, open them yourselves from the trees all around your resort!
- Many hotels offer free cocktail vouchers to loyalty program members. If you receive one, check the menu before ordering to make sure you are getting the most bang for your voucher. Those coconuts can be more than a glass of wine or beer, so perhaps use it for that instead. Note: although many say they are valid for only virgin cocktails every bartender we had allowed us to use them for any.
- It is a good idea to bring some snacks with you if you won’t be able to hit the supermarket there. While I don’t suggest surviving off granola bars, having something to hold you over to another meal is nice when you aren’t hungry enough to spend more. Also, many tours are quite long. Although some offer lunch, it may be hours of activity into the tour and you may have a lengthy transfer on each end. Bringing a snack is a good idea. I recommend heading to your specialty grocery and picking up some packable treats with your wine. It is a vacation, after all. 😊
- Make use of happy hour specials! Two for one at most resorts and discounts at many bars and yacht clubs. Nuff said. Get there early, as they are usually packed. This is a great way to enjoy the sunset and if you are going to buy the 20 USD cocktail, now is the time to do it!
- Eat like the locals do. Pick up a freshly baked baguette from the grocery for about 50 cents. Add a local jam or imported cheese spread for a lovely lunch or for breakfast with some local fruit from the fruit stands.
- Eat outside of the resorts for a meal or two. In Tahiti, Les Roulottes, the food truck park, is right by the marina. Walk along the boats and eat under their twinkle lights. Go super local and get a crepe for your main or dessert! On the other islands check out the Snack restaurants which are open for lunch and dinner serving casual dishes. This food is often just as good as what the resorts offer (and in some unfortunate cases, much better).
- If breakfast is included with your rate, eat it as late as possible and skip lunch (you will probably need to anyway the spreads are so large).
- Drink the water! Save money and wasteful plastic and glass bottles. Although the standard warning is for Americans to never drink non-American tap water this is largely ridiculous. We have had no issues in six months of travel. The only place we haven’t had local ice cubes or tap water was Moorea, where it is not drinkable for anyone. There are fill-up stations that you can drink around Moorea if you aren’t staying at a resort. Only bottled water is available on menus, but ask if there is tap available. Often, there is and it is free.
Tours and Activities
- Some hotels will book tours for you but will add on a surcharge for doing so. These surcharges can be up to 30%! Try to book directly with the tour operator if possible.
- Before booking a tour make use of the hotel’s free activities. Some offer sea turtle or dolphin observation or feeding every day. There also may be excellent snorkeling with abundant marine life just off the resort. Swim or paddle around to check it out and don’t be afraid to venture out of the hotel’s main beach area. We saw plenty of coral, fish, and rays just on the hotel’s paddle boards. Make sure you are getting a unique experience on the tour, not just snorkeling!
Payment and Shopping
- Often restaurants and shops will take USD in cash or credit and do the conversion for you. The rate cited is normally 100 XPF to 1 USD. This is approximately correct for rough calculations but isn’t the accurate exchange rate, and will result in you paying more. Ask for all charges to be made in XPF and use a no foreign transaction fee credit card to pay.
- Tipping is not expected in French Polynesia. At the resorts and major tourist areas a tipping area will appear on the receipt, but not at local establishments. Some places will be very clear that gratuity is included. Generally, we tip using European standards if the service was exceptional, but not as a rule.
- If buying pearls or souvenirs shop around! Haggling isn’t common in French Polynesia and can be considered insulting, but some guides suggest politely asking for a discount when shopping for pearls.
- If buying something expensive make sure to ask for a VAT refund form. VAT is a 16% tax that is added into the price you see. By filling out the form and mailing it or taking it to a refund service counter you should be able to have this refunded. Read up on this process ahead of time, Fodor’s has a succinct summary.
- Most international flights to Tahiti arrive very late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. You must spend the night on Tahiti before flying out to another island. There aren’t a ton of options. After having passed through Tahiti a few times now, we recommend getting an Airbnb for this night if you are just passing through. Some even offer free airport transfers each way. Since you are arriving so late and potentially just getting up and leaving the next day, skip the expensive hotel. This will save you hundreds of dollars!
- Prices for everything vary significantly between the islands. Even flights between islands situated a similar distance from Tahiti really fluctuates. Bora Bora, the iconic overwater villa paradise, is the most expensive from coconuts to accommodation to flights. If you are looking for a Polynesian island holiday and you aren’t dead set on overwater bungalows, consider the other islands. If you are set on the overwater bungalows do your research and ensure you are actually getting an overwater bungalow, not an over rock one.
- The ferry to and from Moorea is quick and efficient. Even with a transfer from the Tahiti’s airport, it comes out cheaper than flying.
- Look into booking with transfer companies rather than taking a taxi, especially to and from major hotels. In Moorea, this saved us 20 USD each way.
- If you are staying on the main island of Bora Bora skip the hotel provided shuttle and take the free Air Tahiti shuttle to Vaitape. From there you can grab a taxi to your hotel. Most hotel shuttles are 50-60 USD each. The free shuttle plus a taxi is 10-20 USD each. We even arrived at our hotel before all those who took the hotel shuttle, so you could also get more time at the resort!
One last word
You could have a vacation in French Polynesia, pinch every Franc, and probably get the cost down to something similar to other popular vacation spots. I don’t think you would have very much fun. French Polynesia is expensive and it is expensive for a reason. Much is shipped in across the world’s biggest ocean or across the friendly skies, building beautiful modern bungalows standing in water isn’t a small thing, and it is in high demand because of its beauty. And yes, it is that beautiful. Practice good finances and save up for your trip ahead of time. That way you can enjoy the stunning sunsets and you won’t miss that ray swimming by while you gape at your bill.
Know your priorities, save where you can, and enjoy yourself. You flew a long way to get here, and after all, it’s paradise!
© Cheers Life Partners 2017