Last updated on November 25th, 2022
Ia ora na (hello in Tahitian). Welcome to paradise! French Polynesia is the stuff dreams are made of. If you’ve made the decision to visit this remote part of the world – congratulations. With tropical islands sculpted by nature’s finest artists, friendly locals wearing exotic flowers in their hair and shades of blue like nowhere else – you’ll be pinching yourself throughout the day to check if you’re really awake. In fact, visiting French Polynesia really is a dream, and you’ll be living it! With the help of this French Polynesia Travel Guide, seeing the paradise at the end of the world will be easier than you imagined.
I spent three months in French Polynesia as part of a six-month backpacking trip across the South Pacific Islands. I split my trip into two parts: before French Polynesia and after – that’s how special this place is. In fact, I even returned here for a second visit a year later for another month in paradise, and I now consult other paradise-seeking travelers headed to Tahiti and her islands, as well as leading large groups. In October of 2018, I returned for a third visit, this time cruising from Tahiti to Easter Island, and have since returned on two additional occasions.
This French Polynesia Travel Guide was written based on my experiences and is meant to help you make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime destination. The travel guide is geared towards independent travelers, but any visitor will find it helpful. In addition, I’ll try to break the myth of French Polynesia belonging only to luxury travelers.
This guide is the one of the many resources that collectively make up the Independent Traveler’s Guide to French Polynesia. In this post, I’ll share with you everything you need to know in order to plan your visit. Click on the below image to access in-depth travel guide to all 5 archipelagos. You can also get in touch if you want to get some specific advice for your trip and, if French Polynesia is just one stop on a longer trip to the South Seas, plan with this guide on how to island hop in the South Pacific.
You can also explore the various travel guides organized by archipelagos
Here’s a relatively lengthy but (I guarantee) enjoyable video that takes you across all five archipelagos in French Polynesia. You might need to disable your ad blocker for the video to load.
French Polynesia, commonly referred to as the islands of Tahiti, is a French Overseas Territory, spanning an area of the South Pacific Ocean roughly equalling Western Europe. Across this endless blue are 118 islands and atolls, some with names you’ll likely steal for future newborns. These floating gems are concentrated in 5 archipelagos: the Society Islands, Tuamotus, and the remote Gambier, Austral & Marquesas Islands. About 280,000 lucky islanders live on 67 inhabited islands and atolls, with over 70% of the population concentrated on the big island of Tahiti.
The islands of French Polynesia were among the last to be settled by humans. Debate and mystery still shroud the colonization of the islands. Still, it is widely believed that Polynesians originating from Southeast Asia (likely Taiwan) arrived in the Marquesas Islands after already discovering much of the South Pacific. Later, these masters of the sea spread across the rest of what is referred to today as French Polynesia until finally discovering the Society Islands at around AD 300.
Europeans first arrived in the 16th century, beginning with the Spanish. However, it wasn’t until the British landed in Tahiti in 1767 that stories of paradise and friendly exotic locals spread like wildfire. Among the notable captains that paid a visit are James Cook and William Bligh (the one from the mutiny on the Bounty). Europeans brought with them missionaries (and diseases that significantly reduced the local population in most islands). First, it were the English Protestants and then the French Catholics. When the latter experienced problems, France came in full force, eventually claiming the territory for herself.
This process was not without ‘classic’ colonial behavior. Tahitians were forced to abandon their traditional way of life: language, religion, tattoos, dance, and cannibalism (thank God). In the 1970’s France even tested nuclear weapons in the remote atolls of the Tuamotus, a controversy still in debate these days. Presently, there is minimal conflict between the parties. Tahitians are French citizens, enjoying a standard of living that can only be envied by some other South Pacific island nations.
The Islands of Tahiti are among the last places to be colonized by mankind, 118 islands, each with their unique personality.
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Adjust your watches and get used to ‘island time.’ Despite the modernities imported from France, Tahitians still enjoy life in the slow lane. This unique mix offers visitors the best of both worlds: a taste of the exotic Polynesian past with the comforts of Western standards (more or less).
Locals are amiable and inviting. There is very little chance you’ll pass an islander on the roadside and not be greeted with a warm hello. But, dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover a rich culture that, despite French influence, is nonetheless unique and mysteriously interesting.
What sets the islands of French Polynesia apart from other South Pacific islands is their diversity. Every island is different. Some have massive lagoons that are essentially giant saltwater swimming pools, while others are flat remote atolls or giant cliffs with no protective reef.
French Polynesia’s image as solely a luxury destination has been a double-edged sword, especially after the 2008 financial crisis. Travelers seeking a tropical escape simply switched to more accessible destinations, while independent travelers did not even know that French Polynesia can be authentically enjoyed without spending thousands of dollars on an overwater bungalow. As you visit the islands, you’ll undoubtedly come across several resorts that simply did not survive the tourist crash and stand today as mini ghost towns. The recent COVID pandemic has also hit the French territory hard. Extreme but necessary measures were taken to curb the spread of the virus, leaving the tourism industry in shatters. I was fortunate to visit the islands in September 2020, during a brief moment of reopening.
So fear not the luxury hype! There is much to be discovered. The big question is: how will you feel during your next vacation after seeing the wonders of French Polynesia?
Listed in this section are travel tips to help you start planning your trip to the islands of Tahiti.
Have you ever seen one of those perfect beaches in a magazine or postcard and wondered if such places exist? Well, they do in French Polynesia. Traveling to French Polynesia is to explore the far reaches of the globe, where time ticks at a slower pace, breathtaking scenery awaits you just around the corner, and exotic culture that you thought existed only in film is present every day. This is paradise, and it’s totally within reach. So, if you like tropical destinations, got a thrill for the remote, or are curious about island life and South Pacific cultures – French Polynesia is a top choice!
Unless you’re on a package resort holiday or a cruise – independent travel in French Polynesia is totally different than what you’re used to. It’s not the easiest place to travel to (but more accessible than it was a decade ago), but the rewards for your effort, the return on investment, and the stimulation you feel every minute of every day – are priceless. It can be challenging getting to and around the islands while staying within budget – but have no fear. I managed to see 11 islands in French Polynesia over the course of 3 months, and I was traveling solo (I have since returned multiple times). With a bit of planning, you’ll be fine. Though French Polynesia is not a budget destination, it is certainly not exclusive to luxury travelers. I recommend setting expectations with yourself and understanding that it’ll cost a little more than the usual vacation to see paradise. However, it is certainly not out of reach, and if you go through the travel guides, you’ll be able to see more of French Polynesia for a lot less!
The Independent Traveler’s Guide to French Polynesia: a collection of in-depth guides to islands in all five archipelagos
How to Island Hop in the South Pacific: a guide for those planning multiple stops in the South Seas
The X Days In Y Blog: personal accounts of most of my visits to the island
Lonely Planet: ‘the bible’ for any independent traveler. For such a dreamy yet challenging destination, I recommend grabbing one of these for the road to go along with this travel guide.
Tahiti Tourisme: the official site of the local tourism office. You’ll find relevant information about Tahiti and the outer islands.
Weather will make or break your trip to paradise. Nobody wants to travel this far and be kept indoors with heavy rain. Seasons in French Polynesia vary between wet & dry. Each season has its pros and cons, with the shoulder seasons being good options as well. Also to consider are school holidays, which create peaks in domestic travel and a shortage of pensions, flights, availability in dive centers, etc. The best website for checking the weather in French Polynesia is meteo.pf. It allows you to drill down per region. That said, predicting the weather in this part of the world is mighty hard so take borderline days (i.e., not absolute sun or rain) with a grain of salt. Windguru is also a good option.
Dry season (June – October): moderate temperatures of 25-28 degrees Celsius during the day and 18-25 at night. The easterly trade winds are blowing, keeping the mosquitos and the clouds away and making the nights a bit chilly. Though rain is less frequent, it will still happen. This is the tropics, after all. Lots of yachts make their way across the islands, and visitor numbers peak.
Wet season (December – April): hot, humid with frequent rain that can last for a few minutes or a few hours. Hiking can be dangerous, and some inland tracks might be closed (especially in Tahiti). Cyclones are developing not too far away but hardly ever hit French Polynesia. If you’re coming for an extended stay, fear not the wet season. There is plenty of sunshine! Clouds tend to form around the mountainous interior, leaving the lagoon side sunny and gorgeous.
I have personally visited French Polynesia during all seasons (wet, dry, and shoulder). There is no doubt that the dry season is most optimal (especially July for the Heiva festival and August for dry weather) but traveling during the wet season, especially if for an extended period, is OK. Just try to avoid December, a particularly wet month in the Society and Tuamotu archipelagos.
Keep in mind: December and January experience a surge in visitors and locals heading home. With that comes a rise in prices and difficulty finding spots on flights. Book in advance if you plan to visit during this time. Weather is hit or miss, with a mix of sunny and cloudy days. Traveling to the Marquesas? Lucky you! The seasons are pretty much the opposite of those in Tahiti. French Polynesia has a few incredible festivals. Check out the schedule and plan to visit either during the July Heiva Festival (see stone-lifting image below), Hawaiki Nui Race, or Marquesas Arts festival (the ‘big three’).
With 118 islands to choose from, this is the million-dollar question! You will spend some time in Tahiti, whether you like to or not, as it’s the only international gateway to the country (unless you own a yacht). As for the other islands – every island in French Polynesia is different, which gives this destination extra points, in my opinion, over other South Pacific nations. The rule of thumb is not to try and see as many islands as possible in a short time. It’s one thing to see the island with your eyes, but a different thing to feel it with your heart. Take your time, enjoy paradise, and don’t be ‘greedy.’ This guide to French Polynesia covers in-depth travel guides to islands in all five archipelagos. In case you’re wondering, here are my favorite islands.
Video of the Top 10 Islands in French Polynesia
Here’s a video that showcases the top 10 islands in French Polynesia. You might need to disable your ad blocker for the video to load.
French Polynesia spans a vast distance, and If you’ve already come this far, take your time. Who knows when you’ll have the chance to visit again? A week would be the absolute minimum, but I strongly recommend spending at the very least 10 days in French Polynesia. If your time is limited, do not (I repeat, do not) try and see as many islands as possible. Choose a maximum of three and try spending at least three nights on each island. Remember that the first and last nights will probably be spent in Tahiti. I spent three months in French Polynesia, and that wasn’t even enough. If you’re the kind of person who works a busy full-time job and has the time (and money) for one big vacation per year – do your best to spend at least 2-3 weeks in French Polynesia.
This really depends on the type of trip you’ll be doing. Will you be staying in luxury resorts? Family-owned pensions? Hotels? Will you be scuba diving? Traveling in French Polynesia does not have to be an expensive affair, though it will not be cheap either. Aside from the high cost of actually getting there, I found French Polynesia to be similar in cost to traveling in Europe during peak season. The only exception is the absurdly high cost of renting a vehicle. Have a look at the detailed cost breakdown of my three-month visit to French Polynesia (2015-2016). I strongly recommend booking your accommodation in advance (see ‘where to stay’).
You can fly to French Polynesia via direct flights from Auckland (Air New Zealand and Air Tahiti Nui), Tokyo (Air Tahiti Nui), Los Angeles (Air France and Air Tahiti Nui), Easter Island (LATAM), Cook Islands (Air Tahiti), San Francisco (United Airlines and French Bee), and from Fiji (Fly Coral Way). You can also fly from Paris with a quick stopover in either Los Angeles (Air France) or San Francisco (French Bee) and from, Wallis with a stopover in Samoa (Fly Coral Way). All international flights land in Tahiti, from where you’ll begin your island-hopping journey in French Polynesia. Keep in mind that the COVID pandemic may affect the future of some of these international routes.
U.S. carrier Delta Airlines announced in July 2022 the opening of a new international route between Los Angeles in Tahiti. According to reports, the route will begin service in December 2023 and will fly three times a week between L.A. and Papeete.
Most visitors will receive a 3-month tourist visa upon arrival in Tahiti. In some cases, you might even be able to extend that (lucky you). Check out Visa HQ for more detail about your specific nationality. It is essential that your passport is valid for at least six months and that you can show an onward flight ticket when asked.
The official languages are French & Tahitian – one of the most beautifully sounding languages I’ve come across. Marquesan is spoken in the remote Marquesas Islands, and all other archipelagos also have their dialect. English is widely spoken at local pensions, dive centers, hotels, and resorts – though you will have a much easier time traveling in French Polynesia if you speak a bit of French.
Independent travelers will find getting to and around islands in French Polynesia to be: fun, challenging, breathtaking, frustrating, or all of the above. If you are flying, be sure to grab a window seat on Air Tahiti domestic flights and enjoy a scenic flight you’ll never forget (no assigned seats).
How to island-hop in French Polynesia: basically, you have four options – taking a flight, joining a cargo ship, taking a cruise, or chartering a yacht. Assuming yachts and cruises are not your thing, commercial flights and cargo ships are the only options.
Getting around the islands: aside from Tahiti, there is no public transportation to speak of on the islands (Moorea has busses that only serve the ferry schedule). Most islands are too big to be fully explored by bicycle or foot (except for Rangiroa, Fakarava, Bora Bora & Maupiti – from the islands I visited). Renting a car is notoriously expensive in French Polynesia. Prices range from 5000 – 10,000F per day, with discounts for longer rentals. Expect only manual transmission cars available on the outer islands and never drive past 70 km/h. Scooters are a great way to explore the islands, and prices range from 3,500 – 5,000F per day (no need for a particular driver’s license). Bicycles are available for free in some pensions but if not, expect to pay 1000 – 1,800F for 8 hours of rental.
As friendly advice: keep the moving around on Sundays to a minimum. Even though French Polynesia is much less religious than its South Pacific neighbors, Sundays tend to be sleepier and have fewer transportation options. That said, don’t let Sundays keep you still if you really need to switch islands – it’s totally doable. Also, if you have an international flight or a connection to an island that is not frequently flown to – it’s best to spend the night before in Papeete (or leave plenty of hours as a buffer for things to go wrong, and they will). This also includes boat connections to Moorea ( the last boat is usually around 5 pm from Papeete). Lastly, grab a window seat while you can on the plane and enjoy the aerial views!
Unless you’re staying at a resort, I strongly recommend packing something to eat on arrival day to a new island. This is especially true if not staying near a main village or traveling on a Sunday. You never know how far the closest restaurant or shop will be and whether it’s open. If you’re staying at a pension, your hosts will likely not offer meals apart from breakfast and dinner.
French Polynesia is famous for its luxury resorts, especially those with overwater bungalows. But if you’re looking for other accommodation types, there are plenty of options to choose from.
Word of advice: book your accommodation well in advance. Some islands have limited options, especially if you’re on a budget. This is especially true if traveling during the high season (June – October), Christmas, and school holidays. You don’t want to be stuck with booking an expensive resort because nothing is available! In addition, if you’re not planning to rent a vehicle for your entire stay, check if the accommodation is close to food shops, snacks, etc. There is no public transportation on the islands, and while some pension owners might drive you to grab dinner or buy some food – you don’t want to be stuck. Staying at resorts? If you are resort hopping in French Polynesia, you can get good ‘deals’ by booking with the same resort chain (where possible).
Hotels: pretty much every island has at least one. Hotels differ from resorts in their accommodation types, amenities, and, obviously price. Expect to pay 10,000F and up per night.
Pensions: by far my favorite choice of accommodation in French Polynesia. Pensions are family-owned bed and breakfasts, where a small number of rooms are available and may even be inside the family’s house (though usually not). Some pensions are more upmarket than others (cold shower vs. hot, air conditioning vs. fan, etc.), and in the good ones – you’ll meet a real Tahitian family, interact with other guests and get the best travel advice. You’ll almost always have the option to go half board (dinner and/or breakfast), and if you choose wisely, these meals will last in your memory forever. Usually, pensions will charge an extra 1,500-2000F for half board, which is more economical than buying breakfast and dinner outside. Pension owners will usually pick you up for free (or for a small charge), offer excursions, and will have free WiFi. Have a look at each island guide for the places I stayed at. Pension prices start at 4,500F per night and go all the way to over 10,000F in some cases.
Long-term rentals: staying for a week or more on an island? Check websites that offer long-term rentals (like VRBO). You’ll usually get a reasonable rate and might even find a few gems right on the beach or at the top of a mountain facing the ocean. For example, I rented a bungalow in Moorea for a month and paid less than €500 (in late 2015).
Airbnb: Airbnb has fully made it to French Polynesia. There are limited options on some islands, and it’s best to book in advance. I found such places in Bora Bora and Huahine and managed to save a lot.
Camping: camping sites exist on some islands, but not on all. Have a look at specific island guides on this website for detailed information.
Couchsurfing: there are plenty of hosts in French Polynesia. If you’re traveling alone, flexible, and don’t mind sleeping on someone’s couch – this could be a good option for a night or two. Keep in mind that hosts sometimes cancel at the last minute.
Here’s a list of all available French Polynesia accommodations that can be booked online via Booking.com.
French Polynesia is a tropical destination, and as such – I recommend packing clothes that dry quickly and keep moisture (a.k.a sweat) out. Check out the X Days In Y Packing List for recommendations on what to pack for French Polynesia based on my experience of island hopping for three months.
If you are island hopping, take note of Air Tahiti’s baggage allowance (can be as low as 10 kg for checked luggage, with an extra 5 kilograms if you dive or 23 kg if you booked a Y-class ticket). Pack something warm for the night if you’re visiting French Polynesia in the dry season (June – October). Temperatures can go down to 18-20 degrees Celsius with a fresh breeze.
Aside from the usual travel tips of eating local and using public transportation (where available), there is another tip specific to Tahiti. The tourism office organizes the ‘Salon de Tourisme’ twice a year, an event aimed at stimulating domestic travel from Tahiti to the outer islands. It’s geared for locals, but if you’re lucky enough to be there and flexible with your travel plans – you might be able to save as much as 50% on airfare, accommodation, diving & excursions.
You can also look for volunteering opportunities in French Polynesia. Some pensions, resorts, pearl farms, and even yacht owners – might be looking for people like you. Here’s one helpful website for volunteering opportunities in the South Pacific Islands. I’ve also read that it’s now possible to WWOOF in French Polynesia (volunteer on organic farms).
Here are a few basic tips on how to reduce the cost of a trip to Tahiti:
French Polynesia uses the South Pacific Franc (abbreviated as XPF, CFP, or simply F). The currency is fixed against the Euro (currently €1 = 119F). Unlike other South Pacific destinations, credit cards are widely used in French Polynesia and do not incur an additional surcharge. ATMs are readily available but note that some may have daily/weekly withdrawal limits, so the best advice is to check with your accommodation if they accept credit cards ahead of time (this should not be an issue with hotels/resorts). Also, note that some islands do not have an ATM and are cash only.
It’s always a good idea to carry some Euros or US Dollars for an emergency. Local businesses usually exchange USD at 10F per $1 (better exchange rate at banks).
Before visiting, inquire with your bank/credit card company how much fees you will pay on cash withdrawals and point-of-sale use. Since the local currency is not in global demand, these fees can be high and can add up.
The easiest way is to withdraw cash when you land at the airport (check with your local bank what the withdrawal fees will be). However, if you need to exchange money, you have a few options (without mentioning currency exchange agents):
Tipping in French Polynesia is not customary unless you’re staying at a luxury resort. Of course, you can tip your tour guide for a memorable day of hiking or cruising the lagoon, but it’s not something that is expected.
Food in French Polynesia is the best in the South Pacific! Though imports are expensive (chicken, beef, wine, cheese, certain fruits & vegetables), there’s plenty of local food to enjoy. With white or red tuna as common as the local baguette and plenty of tropical fruit in season to choose from – eating local is the best way to experience French Polynesia! Here are a few tips:
Note that the food you’ll find at some snacks, roulottes, and pensions – is better than the food you’ll find at the restaurants of fancy resorts. Just ask around and follow your nose.
If you come to French Polynesia just to go lazy on one of its picture-postcard beaches – I can’t blame you! However, there are lots more you can do to fully experience this slice of heaven on earth. Here’s a general breakdown of activities in every archipelago I visited. I would recommend doing at least one excursion per island. An excursion means joining a lagoon tour, hiring a hiking guide, etc. Most full-day excursions include lunch and have you back between 2-4 pm. Famous are the lagoon tours, which almost always include an amazing Tahitian picnic lunch on a motu (small islet) on the fringes of the lagoon. Expect to pay 6,000 – 12,000F for full-day excursions (discounts for children).
French Polynesia is one of the best destinations in the world for scuba diving. You’ll find here everything from easy lagoon dives to challenging drift dives and even open ocean diving in the Marquesas Islands. The best diving in French Polynesia is in the Tuamotu Archipelago (Rangiroa, Fakarava, and Tikehau). In the Society Islands, you can expect to see sharks and the usual reef fish – but not exceptional coral, which will mostly be hard and uniform in color. Costs will range from 5,000 – 10,000F per dive. The more you dive, the more you save. Note that Air Tahiti offers divers an extra 5 kg of checked luggage. You must show your dive card and, in some cases, have to prove you packed more than just a snorkel.
How to save on Diving? There are basically two ‘dive passes’ which you can purchase. Depending on where and how many dives you wish to do – purchasing a dive pass may or may not be worth it.
Keep in mind that many families head to the outer islands from Tahiti during the local school holidays. As a result, some dive centers get fully booked very fast. Book your dives in advance.
French Polynesia is one of the safest destinations you can travel to on our planet. That said, there are always things to look out for.
There are no general mandatory travel vaccinations for French Polynesia. However, the government of French Polynesia has recently instituted a mandatory yellow fever vaccination for travelers coming from South America or those who have traveled to Africa in recent months. Check the CDC website for up-to-date information.
Especially on a visit like this, make sure you have sufficient travel insurance. World Nomads offer excellent coverage and value for money. Aside from the usual lost luggage and medical coverage, I would recommend the following areas to consider:
Unlike other South Pacific destinations, French Polynesia has adequate internet coverage considering just how remote some islands are. Free WiFi is almost always available in hotels, resorts, and even family-owned pensions – though speed varies from the surprisingly decent to the excruciatingly slow. Some hotels and high-end resorts require payment if you want to access the Internet directly from your room (common areas are free). If no WiFi access is provided where you’re staying, you can purchase a Vini Spot card (also called Mana Spot). This credit may be used in hotspots at cafes, resorts, and local post offices (which will almost always offer paid internet access).
If your mobile carrier does not offer roaming services in French Polynesia, you’ll need to purchase a local SIM card if you absolutely need to stay connected. There are currently two mobile phone operators in French Polynesia: the veteran Vini Telecom and up-and-comer Vodafone. So which SIM card should you buy in French Polynesia? There are pros and cons to each provider when it comes to prepaid SIM cards.
This is a bit tricky. First, you need to know if you’re calling a landline, a Vini, or a Vodafone subscriber. For landlines – add (40) before the number for Vini (87) and Vodafone (89). The country code is +689, but there is no need to enter that if calling locally.
Make sure there’s enough room in your luggage because there will be many exotic things you want to bring back home from Tahiti and her islands. Women are easy to shop for (as always), but options for men and children are more limited. Note that bargaining is not customary in any South Pacific island nation. Prices are always marked on every item. You may ‘ask for a special price’ if buying large quantities.
Did you know that the word tattoo originates from the Tahitian word tatau, which means to tap? Polynesians did not invent tattooing, but they have certainly mastered the art. Tattoos are a part of everyday life. Getting a tattoo in French Polynesia is a great idea, but you’ll need to plan ahead. Here are a few tips:
French Polynesia’s islands are a drone pilot’s fantasy. At the time of writing this guide, it is generally not a problem to fly drones in French Polynesia. Here are a few essential tips:
I hope you’ve found the introduction to the French Polynesia Travel Guide useful! Tons of other information about French Polynesia await you, including detailed travel guides to the main islands, sample itineraries, and lists of the top things to do.
The Islands of Tahiti are among the last places to be colonized by mankind, 118 islands, each with their unique personality.
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