There’s no denying it, French Polynesia is an expensive destination to visit.
As a famous honeymoon destination, for many, a trip to French Polynesia is a luxurious one, only complete with the extravagance of overwater bungalows, luxurious all-inclusive resorts and a daily dose of waterfront cocktails with an excessive price tag to match. But, by opting for a slightly less lavish but no less wonderful experience, a trip to this trail of island paradise doesn’t have to break the bank.
On a tight travel budget, we still managed to rub shoulders with curious reef sharks and swarms of marine fish, discover secret waterfalls and get lost in thick virgin forests, sample the local cuisine and a cheeky piña colada by the water, and swim through postcard-perfect lagoons and catch some rays on our own private island.
If you’re looking to visit this stunning part of the Pacific without paying a small fortune, these are our best tips for visiting Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia on a budget.
Overwater bungalows may be an iconic part of the French Polynesian experience, but with prices starting at around $400 per night in low season, they’re hardly a wallet-friendly option.
During our month in French Polynesia, we camped for two weeks and rented an Airbnb for the rest. While this may not be the most luxurious option, with one night costing between $15 and $35 per person, this is one of the best ways to keep your costs down in French Polynesia.
Camping Nelson on Moorea was fairly basic and the kitchen area was under construction at the time of our visit, but it was beautifully located right on the water, easy to reach by bus from the ferry terminal and acted as a good base for exploring the Moorea further. Check rates and availability here, as well as their online reviews.
On Raiatea, Sunset Beach Motel is a wonderful camping option located in a coconut grove right on the water. The property offers a well-equipped kitchen, free airport transfers and snorkel and kayaking equipment is available for use. Affordable waterfront bungalows are also available onsite. Check rates and availability here, as well as their online reviews.
Camping is also available on Huahine, Maupiti and Bora Bora as well as some of the further off islands.
If camping isn’t really your thing, you can search for affordable guesthouse options here.
In both Papeete and Teahupo’o, we used Airbnb which has some great budget-friendly options where you can interact with the locals and sink a little deeper into the slow-paced feel of life on the islands.
New to Airbnb? Sign up here and receive $30 off your first stay.
Eating out in French Polynesia, especially for every meal, is going to dig a big hole in your travel budget.
While it would be a crime to leave French Polynesia without sipping on a sunset cocktail with your toes in the sand or sampling the ubiquitous poisson cru, taking a picnic lunch or cooking a simple pasta once in a while will definitely help stretch your budget further.
Stock up on tropical fruit from the market and make a fruit salad for breakfast or carry them around as a snack during the day. Bananas, papayas or passionfruit (best for any outing as they won’t get squashed in your bag) or whatever is in season during your trip. Coconut palms are scattered absolutely everywhere and if you can find one that’s just fallen, it’s generally yours for the taking – filling, refreshing and delicious, if you can get it open.
Baguettes are a key ingredient of island life and at around 50c each, they’re a great item for those eating on the cheap and perfect to take as a packed lunch.
If you’re visiting French Polynesia on a budget and hoping to prepare your own meals, be sure to choose accommodation with access to a kitchen. Many camping grounds, guesthouses and Airbnbs have kitchens available onsite so be sure to ask about their facilities before making a reservation.
With a strongly seasonal tourism industry, visiting French Polynesia outside of the peak season will save you plenty.
In the low season, not only are you more likely to get sale airfares to the islands, domestic flights with Air Tahiti are also sold at a lower off-peak rate. Accommodation prices also tend to drop out of season (search the best deals here!) and you may be able to negotiate better deals for tours or guesthouses, especially if you’re travelling in a group or are visiting for a longer period.
With most visitors pouring in from France, peak seasons are largely based on their holiday periods. Avoid July and August which are the busiest and most expensive months, as well as the Christmas and New Years period when prices are inflated.
Unless you have oodles of time, air travel will likely be your main means of transport between the islands.
Considering the domestic flights are often less than an hour long, they come at a considerable expense, but, with a little research, you can get a lot more bang for your buck. Plus, if the weather is clear, you’ll also be rewarded with spectacular aerial views of the islands and their lagoons – a scenic flight and a new island paradise for the price of one. Just be sure to get a window seat at the front to avoid your view being obstructed by the wings and propellers.
Air Tahiti is the domestic air carrier (not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui which runs on international routes), which offers several options for multi-island passes which can save you hundreds of dollars compared with booking single leg flights.
The Air Tahiti Multi-Island Discovery Pass which stops at Tahiti, Moorea, Huahine and Raiatea is excellent value at €309 in low season. In comparison, the equivalent route booked as single tickets comes to €450, while simple return flights between Tahiti and Raiatea cost €291. At €407, the Bora Bora Pass also allows you to add stops at Bora Bora and Maupiti.
If diving will be the focus of your trip, the underwater paradises of Rangiroa and Fakarava can also be incorporated into your itinerary, as can the far-flung Tuamotos, Marquesas and Austral archipelagos.
Check the terms for each pass carefully as conditions do apply and prices vary based on the season. There are also higher rates for extra baggage so be sure to pack light.
If you have a lot of time and love an adventure, you can save on the costly airfares and travel by cargo ship between the islands.
We had planned to use the cargo ship Hawaiki Nui to get around the Society Islands, but on arriving in Papeete found it was booked solid for months. With prices hovering around $18 for deck class and $46 for a cabin, if you can reserve a spot, this is one of the best ways to travel French Polynesia on a budget.
The Hawaiki Nui leaves from Papeete on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4 pm. The Tuesday departure travels to Huahine, Raiatea and Bora Bora, returning via Tahaa and Raiatea, while the Thursday trip calls in at Raiatea and Bora Bora, returning via Tahaa, Raiatea and Huahine. Boat schedules are notoriously unreliable though so some flexibility is essential.
Cargo ships also ply the routes between the outer archipelagos if you’re looking to get a little further off the beaten track. Be sure to book well in advance as places are often limited and can book up fast, particularly in the high season. Calling is best as emails tend to go unanswered.
A more comfortable option for a sea crossing is the 45-minute passenger and vehicle ferry that runs between Moorea and Tahiti. Setting off from Papeete’s main harbour, this approach offers stunning views of the hulking green mass with its vertical peaks shrouded in cloud. If you arrive during summer, you may be lucky enough to see a whale breaching beside the boat.
Local buses meet all incoming ferries and travel north and south along the island’s single road. At just $10.50 for the ferry and around $2.75 for the bus, this is by far your the cheapest option for visiting Moorea.
Planning a trip to the island? Don’t miss our 3-day itinerary for Moorea.
Tours are offered for absolutely everything in French Polynesia, from boat excursions across the lagoon to sightseeing in the interior.
While the tours are often great experiences, at upward of $100 per person, they can be a huge money suck.
With a bit of extra effort and planning, exploring the islands independently is perfectly manageable and will cost a small fraction of a tour.
With that being said, some experiences in French Polynesia are too unique to miss and absolutely worth splurging on, even if they do cost the equivalent of three days of your travel budget.
We’d recommend considering this thoughtfully before your trip, rather than just throwing money at every experience that sounds a tiny bit special once you arrive.
Whether you are an avid diver, voracious foodie or intent on a sunset cruise, choose an experience that will be meaningful to your trip and worth the added expense.
Balance this out in your budget with a few simple days of bumming at the beach, hiking or cooking your own meals.
On any trip to French Polynesia, exploring the underwater world is an absolute highlight.
Save on costs by bringing your own snorkelling equipment with you. On many islands, you can snorkel right off the beach or within swimming or kayaking distance. Having your own gear gives you complete freedom to snorkel when and wherever you want, without spending an extra cent.
For those determined to visit the more spectacular outer reefs, dive boats often give discounted rates for snorkelers. Ask around and you may be able to jump on board.
As beautiful as it is, French Polynesia isn’t only about exploring below the surface.
Blanketed in dense jungle and a tangle of vines, the rugged interior is an excellent place to go hiking, chase waterfalls and uncover some truly magnificent views. Plus, it’s free.
Admittedly, we struggled a little on our hiking expeditions as trails were often not signposted and we inevitably ended up taking the wrong ones, but from what we’ve heard, trail maintenance is improving all the time.
In some instances, guides can be hired at an extra cost if you don’t want to chance getting lost.
Each island has a unique terrain and by choosing the right mode of transport for each, you’ll be able to experience the islands at a different pace and save a lot of money in the process.
Though many recommend renting a car on Moorea, we found island’s ring road to be relatively flat making it a great place to explore by bike. At a service station on Hauru Point, we were able to rent bikes for just $15 per day. If you are looking to go a little further afield, the local bus runs at irregular intervals, while the steady stream of traffic makes hitchhiking is an easy alternative. We found the people to be extremely friendly and happy to share their local tips.
On other larger, hillier islands, hiring a car or scooter makes much more sense, even for just a day, and will allow you to reach those stunning belvederes and explore the more remote corners of the island.
While this is not always the cheapest option, by choosing a small local operator instead of the large international agencies, you can sometimes get a car for around half the price. If shared between a few people this can be a very economical way to explore.
We used Moana Rent a Car on Raiatea with rates starting at $50 per day, and they will pick you up from your accommodation and drop you off afterwards if you are staying nearby. On Tahiti, EcoCar which is just across the road from the airport is even more affordable starting from $42 a day. Always check the insurance policy as some local agencies do not cover the vehicles for damages.
Many islands have public buses which run on a loop around the island. These are also a good option if you are wanting to go a long distance but, as with many things in French Polynesia, they run in their own good time. As we were told when asking about the bus schedule, it will come when it comes.
In a place where few things come cheap, you may as well embrace the things that come completely free.
It may seem obvious, but there are a number of great experiences in French Polynesia that don’t cost a cent and can keep you entertained for days.
When we were staying at the Sunset Beach Motel on Raiatea, they had a huge range of free equipment available. Instead of forking out for an expensive lagoon tour, we borrowed a kayak, packed a picnic lunch and our snorkel gear and paddled over the reef to a nearby motu, a tiny mound of silver sand dotted with palms. From there we wiled away the afternoon snorkelling in the clear waters, lazing on the beach and munching on fresh coconuts without another soul in sight.
Many islands also offer free, albeit simple tours that anyone can join. Whether it be sampling fruit juices or liquor at Jus de Fruits on Moorea or soaking up the aromas of the world’s best vanilla and marvelling at giant black pearls on Taha’a, these little pit stops give a great insight into the local customs on the islands, without the hefty price tag attached.