- French Polynesia is expensive, but I found ways to save money and still have a bucket list trip.
- I saved money with travel hacks such as signing up for a hotel membership that earned free nights.
- Here’s how I used upgrades, perks, and freebies to save $7,000 in Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora.
Idyllic and remote, French Polynesia is an expensive place to vacation.
French Polynesia is the stuff of travel bucket list dreams. Picture-perfect overwater bungalows sit perched above crystal clear blue lagoons in one-of-a-kind, romantic locales.
They also cost a pretty penny, starting at $600 a night and up. Way up.
And in such remote settings, everything from food to activities is expensive. It’s not unusual to see a hotel menu charging $30 for a cheeseburger and chips.
Flying to Tahiti, in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean, will cost a lot, too.
From San Francisco, depending on the airline and time of year, nonstop, round-trip airfare might be around $700 in a basic economy seat. That same route in a lie-flat business-class seat could cost closer to $5,000 per person, based on research I saw on Google flights.
All added up, splurging on a once-in-a-lifetime, week-long vacation could easily top $20,000 when you factor in transpacific and inter-island flights and transportation, upscale overwater bungalow accommodations, meals and drinks, and activities.
That said, there are ways to cut costs on a dream vacation to French Polynesia without sacrificing the over-the-top luxury for which the islands are known.
That’s exactly what my husband and I did on our much-anticipated, 12-day trip to Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora in November.
We certainly didn’t have a $20,000 budget, nor did we have any interest in backpacking, staying in low-cost hostels, or traveling on a shoestring budget to such a bucket-list locale.
But we were happy to save money along the way, without feeling like we were depriving ourselves of our dream trip.
We cut costs where possible, namely on accommodations, transportation, and food, which allowed us to splurge guilt-free elsewhere, such as spa treatments ($450) and a private boat rental ($280) that added to the allure of our trip.
Below, I share the key things we did to save more than $7,000 on our trip, as well as how much each expense would have cost if I hadn’t used these money-saving measures.
Prices are rounded to the dollar, based on the exchange rate at the time of our November 2021 vacation: 100 French Pacific Francs (XPF) equals $.96 USD.
Instead of a hotel, we stayed in an Airbnb in Tahiti to kick off our French Polynesia vacation.
All international flights land in Papeete, Tahiti, so that’s the first stop for anyone traveling internationally to French Polynesia.
Accommodations on the island of Tahiti run from $80 for a bedroom with a shared bath in a guesthouse (also called a pension) to $800 for an overwater bungalow.
We considered booking two nights at the Royal Tahitien, a moderately priced hotel on a black-sand beach. That would have cost us about $380 for two nights.
Instead, we rented an apartment on Airbnb, which cost $216 for two nights.
We originally booked this inexpensive apartment but were moved to this one (under the same management) at my request and at the same cost after I learned the pool at our original apartment was closed.
We saved money on transportation by staying close to downtown Papeete.
Had we stayed at the Royal Tahitien on the outskirts of Papeete, we would have spent at least $100 in taxi transfers.
Instead, we walked into town from our conveniently located Airbnb, and only paid for one pre-planned evening transfer from the airport when we arrived, which was $40.
We saved on lodging on Moorea by booking a package deal.
For our Moorea accommodations, we found a fabulous deal on Travelzoo: five nights in a King Overwater Bungalow at the Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort & Spa, plus one dinner, one lunch, and daily breakfasts for $2,699. The value of the package was $6,365 had we booked everything a la carte.
One night on Moorea, we ate off property instead of going to the hotel’s expensive restaurant with entertainment.
Within walking distance of our Hilton hotel on Moorea were a few local restaurants, including Fare Maheata, where we thoroughly enjoyed a plate of chicken curry, a fish sandwich, two glasses of wine, and a beer for about $67.
We opted to support a local business instead of going to a Polynesian-themed buffet dinner and dance show (similar to a Hawaiian luau), which would have cost us about $182.
We opted out of a group snorkel trip on Moorea and brought our own equipment instead.
One popular half-day guided excursion was a short boat trip from the Hilton Moorea to snorkel with sharks and stingrays for $48 per person.
However, we packed our own inexpensive gear and happily spotted stingrays and tropical fish by snorkeling multiple times daily on our own. It was so outstanding, we never felt like we were missing out by not booking an official excursion.
In Bora Bora, we saved money by forgoing the expensive hotel-provided boat transfer.
Transfers from the Bora Bora airport to local hotels are very expensive. That’s because the Bora Bora airport is situated on a motu, or, a tiny islet, and getting to the resorts requires a boat ride.
Instead of paying $70 per person for a hotel-provided boat transfer from the airport to our next accommodations at the InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana, we took a free ferry provided by Air Tahiti to the town of Vaitape, which is on the main island of Bora Bora.
At the Vaitape boat dock, taxis were waiting. We took one to our hotel for just $24.
I signed up for InterContinental’s Ambassador program and saved big with included perks on Bora Bora.
We stayed at two hotels on Bora Bora. First, the aforementioned InterContinental Bora Bora Le Moana for one night, followed by the pricier InterContinental Bora Bora Thalasso Resort & Spa for two nights.
Before booking these reservations, I joined the InterContinental Ambassador program for a $200 annual fee. While the enrollment fee wasn’t cheap, membership comes with complimentary room upgrades, a $20 restaurant/bar credit per stay, and the guarantee of a late check-out at InterContinental Hotels & Resorts properties, so I felt like it was worth it.
Additionally, Ambassador members receive one complimentary weekend night at any InterContinental hotel or resort worldwide to be used in a 12 month period. I thought this was the best perk, as a hotel night could easily cost much more than $200.
For our stay at the InterContinental Le Moana, I paid $586 for a Beach Bungalow but was upgraded to a gorgeous Horizon Overwater Bungalow worth about $350 more per night, according to the front desk clerk.
We also used our $20 food and beverage credit and received two free welcome drinks on arrival ($16), courtesy of the Ambassador membership.
Savings: $186 (taking into consideration the initial $200 Ambassador membership fee)
The ambassador program gave me a free night at what would have been our most expensive hotel.
We arranged our itinerary so that our stay at the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa, would fall over Friday and Saturday nights, and we could use my complimentary weekend night certificate.
I paid $1,334 for one night instead of two in an Emerald Overwater Bungalow, the lowest room category. Had I paid for both nights, my budget would have quickly ballooned.
I was upgraded to an overwater bungalow with a plunge pool that was actually four room categories higher than the one I originally booked.
I was also delighted to be given an upgrade to a Pool Overwater Bungalow, with 1,500 square feet of indoor/outdoor living space that was worth about $450 more, according to a front desk clerk.
“At the sole discretion of the hotel, the hotel may provide room upgrades greater than one category,” reads the InterContinental Ambassador Terms and Conditions.
Perhaps there were no other one-category-higher bungalows available, so we were given the super-luxe, four-category upgrade. Whatever the reason, I didn’t ask any questions and was delighted to enjoy the sprawling accommodations.
Between the free night and the room upgrade, not to mention the $20 food and beverage credit and free welcome drinks ($16), we saved quite a bit at this luxury hotel.
At many resorts, we filled up at breakfast buffets and didn’t need to spend money on lunch.
The resort breakfast buffet is one of the best bargains in French Polynesia.
Costing about $50 per person, it might seem expensive, but these lavish spreads include typical breakfast favorites and then some: made-to-order omelets, waffles, pancakes, crepes, fresh fruit, baked goods, sausage, bacon, hash browns, cereal, and yogurt.
Also available were local dishes, such as raw and cooked fish, and savory items like sauteed vegetables, cold cuts, and miso soup.
We fueled up on so much delicious food at breakfast buffet, we often didn’t need to eat spend money on food again until happy hour or dinner.
At our first three resort stays, we either had breakfast included or paid for the meal. We’d then wait to go to breakfast until about 9:45 a.m. just before the buffet closed. By waiting to eat later, we left our breakfast buffets so full that we ended up skipping lunch most days.
While I’m not encouraging people to skip meals, we didn’t start to think about a full meal again until the late afternoon.
Given that a sandwich, pasta dish, individual pizza, or plate of tacos each cost around $20 at lunchtime, and a bottle of mineral water at a hotel restaurant was $7, plus service fees and tax, a hotel lunch could easily cost us at least $50 daily.
We purchased alcohol and snacks at local markets to forego pricey minibars or hotel happy hours.
We saved money picking up $18 bottles of French wine at local markets versus paying $12 a glass at hotel restaurants. (Tahitian wine is closer to $8 a glass.)
We also shopped locally for beer, though it wasn’t necessarily cheap. A six-pack of the local beer, Hinano on sale cost us about $12 at the market, but that’s still less expensive than $8 per draft at hotel bars.
And on a few nights, instead of spending $10 to $20 for an appetizer at a hotel happy hour, we’d nibble on a baguette (just $.62) and cheese ($4) purchased at a market on our bungalow deck.
For our final two nights in French Polynesia, we returned to the island of Tahiti.
The original plan was to spend our final two nights in French Polynesia at a rustic guesthouse on the quiet island of Maupiti.
But when a violent rainstorm canceled our flight, we had to pivot plans quickly.
We decided to scrap Maupiti, since going for just one night before flying back to the US wasn’t worth the travel (plane, water taxi, land taxi) or cost to get there.
Instead, we purchased an evening flight back to Papeete and booked a last-minute room for $130 at the budget Tahiti Airport Motel. With so many extravagant stays under our belt, we didn’t mind something more modest for just a quick stopover.
For our final night, we moved to the more luxurious InterContinental Resort Tahiti.
Again, with my InterContinental Ambassador membership, we received a room upgrade. We paid $339 for a Standard Garden View Room but were upgraded to a renovated Superior Garden View Room, which would have cost us at least $30 more.
We also used our $20 restaurant/bar credit and had welcome drinks ($16).
Savings: $275 (factoring in the cheaper airport motel the first night)
At the end of our trip, we took our return COVID-19 tests at a local pharmacy instead of the airport.
As of publishing, anyone flying to the United States from a foreign country must take a COVID-19 test within a day of travel.
When we arrived at the airport in Tahiti at the start of our trip, we were handed a flyer detailing that return COVID tests at the airport on our departure day were available for $48 apiece.
Instead, my husband and I went to a local pharmacy the day before our flight, just a 15-minute walk from our hotel.
There, a pharmacist plucked self-tests off the shelf, administered them, and charged us just $17 each for the service. Her signed and stamped pieces of paper noting our negative results worked just fine when we showed them to the gate agent, allowing us to board our first of three flights home.
All of these cost-cutting measures saved us $7,278 on our dream trip to French Polynesia.
Saving money always feels good but we still made our vacation our own. We splurged where it felt great (spa treatments, a private pontoon boat rental, business-class airline tickets) and saved on things that didn’t matter as much (inter- and on-island transportation, alcohol and snacks, group excursions, souvenirs).
Of course, our methods might not work for everyone. Others with different vacation styles might prefer indulgent gourmet meals every day, rental cars, pricey souvenirs, or multiple day-long tours and excursions.
Ultimately, there’s no one “right” way to spend money or time on vacation. That’s the beauty of travel.
Now home from our first trip to French Polynesia, I wouldn’t change a thing.
And, with $7,000 still in the bank, we have enough left over to plan our next big trip, where I certainly plan to save money wherever I can.