Last updated on August 18th, 2022
If you’re reading this guide, it means you’re about to fulfill a wonderful dream. Island hopping in the remote South Pacific islands is not a trip undertaken by many, but this is all part of the allure. With risk comes reward and in this part of the planet it means encounters with exotic cultures and spending every minute of every day in a state of complete amazement. Mother nature and the islands’ pioneers have created some of the most unique places one can ever visit (at least until tours to Mars begin). If you’re wondering how to island hop in the South Pacific islands – you’ve come to the right place!
In 2015, I left a comfortable job at Google and embarked on a six-month voyage across the South Pacific. I visited 21 islands in 5 countries, coming up just 4,253 km short of circling the Earth twice! That was my first prolonged experience with a region where I found my personal paradise.
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I used this opportunity to write and publish in-depth travel guides for independent travelers so that everyone could have the chance to experience the same magic that took over my life. Since then, I have made four additional trips to the South Pacific, back to my favorite islands in French Polynesia, and on two occasions, led group expeditions on a cruise from Tahiti to Easter Island.
This island hopping guide to backpacking in the South Pacific Islands covers the basic things one needs to know before planning a trip to this remote region. Inside, you’ll find links to valuable resources to help you get started.
Weather is the most crucial factor when planning a trip to the South Pacific islands. The islands experience a dry and wet season, each having its pros and cons for travelers. I started my journey at the end of the dry season in Vanuatu and finished during the heart of the wet season in French Polynesia. Unfortunately, climate change and the occasional El Nino season have made weather more unpredictable in the South Pacific. But to get a sense of what you’re up against, here’s an overview.
Bottom line: each season has its pros and cons. For backpackers on long journeys in the South Pacific, fear not the wet season but plan to swiftly move in an eastbound direction and out of the cyclone hot zone by December (New Caledonia to Samoa). For travelers on short holidays, it’s really a hit or miss. I met folks who came a long way for a week of holidays and had four days of rain… Here’s a tip: the shoulder seasons (September-October + April-May) are also excellent times to visit.
Though paradise does come with a price tag, island-hopping in the South Pacific islands is totally within reach. While the biggest hurdle is the cost of getting there, you’ll discover that travel on every budget is possible – especially if you’re a couple. While some islands better cater to budget travelers than others, those annoying ‘bucket-list’ photos of ultra-luxurious resorts aren’t the only game in town. The South Pacific is definitely not just for the rich and famous or honeymooners.
Now, it is crucial to set expectations with yourself: this is not Southeast Asia! The islands’ remoteness and other factors significantly add to the usual costs. But if you’ve always dreamed of visiting this magical part of the world – the way you think about this trip will be different.
To make things easier for you, I created a spreadsheet that details how much it costs to island hop in the South Pacific. The data was meticulously gathered during my 6-month backpacking trip (2015-2016 prices). Note that in my case, I made a point of experiencing a wide range of activities and accommodations for the sake of being able to write about them objectively.
In this spreadsheet, you’ll see:
Knowledge is power, so use this South Pacific cost breakdown to know what you’re up against!
Let me start by clearly saying that no two islands are ever the same! The exotic cultures that developed in relative isolation on islands so uniquely sculpted by nature – meaning that every island has its personality. Think of the Pacific islands as one large family: no two siblings are entirely alike. Here’s my personal list of the best South Pacific islands, and though I have met a few travel “junkies” out on a quest to visit every country on the planet, I wouldn’t recommend trying to squeeze as many stops as possible in one short visit. Here’s what I do recommend:
Listed below are South Pacific destinations that do go well together as far as direct flights. Keep in mind, however, that South Pacific air routes frequently change, for better and for worse:
Newly formed Talofa Airways now offers flights from Samoa to American Samoa and Tonga. Newly formed Fly Coral Way now connects the French Colonies in the South Pacific with a few other popular destinations. According to their route map, you can fly from Tahiti to Wallis via Samoa, from Wallis to Fiji, from Fiji to Tahiti, and from New Caledonia to Wallis. Keep in mind that a lot of these newcomers rarely stay in business for more than a few years and things can change fast when it comes to South Pacific aviation links. So double-check.
Here’s an overview of a few popular destinations starting from east to west:
New Caledonia: a very expensive-to-visit French Overseas Territory. Its main island is home to a proper city, excellent water sports, and plenty of space for road trips and hikes. A short trip from the main island brings you to Ile de Pins – an absolute beauty. New Caledonia is not the most popular South Pacific destination, frequented mainly by French visitors.
Vanuatu: a charming and diverse destination that’s easily accessed from Australia. Vanuatu is little developed, and its people are among the friendliest you’ll ever meet. While getting around the islands is costly, each is a world of its own. Vanuatu is great for families, wreck diving and WWII relics, cultural discovery (the tribes of Tanna or the Land Divers of Pentecost), beaches, and active volcanoes. Here are the top 10 things to do in Vanuatu.
Fiji: well geared for tourism, Fiji’s 100+ inhabited islands cater to backpackers, luxury travelers, and everything in between. Locals are friendly, prices are reasonable, and there’s anything and everything to be found on the islands. Fiji is to the South Pacific what Thailand is for Southeast Asia: with accessibility and variety come the masses. This doesn’t mean you can’t ‘get lost’ in Fiji, but it’s not the lucrative badge it used to be. So if you’re backpacking in Australia or New Zealand and seeking a tropical escape – look no further.
Samoa: beautiful Samoa is authentically Polynesian. In fact, Samoans still adhere to centuries-old social codes known as Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan Way). Together with Fiji (or perhaps even more so), Samoa is the most affordable South Pacific destination – perfect for backpackers though lacking a backpacking scene like in Fiji. Its two islands are connected by a ferry, and getting around is easy in traditional buses or hired cars. Samoa is the stereotypical South Pacific destination. On the menu? Tropical beaches, simple villages, waterfalls galore, and cultural experiences. Here’s a closer look at the top 10 things to do in Samoa.
American Samoa: challenging to get to and not that frequented by non-American tourists, American Samoa is an extraordinary blend of US influence with traditional Samoan culture. Thanks to the National Park of American Samoa, the territory’s pristine nature can be independently explored on memorable hikes. If you do make it out here, put in a little extra effort and be one of the lucky few to visit Ofu Island – home to one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Here’s a 10-day sample itinerary for American Samoa.
Tonga: the only Pacific island nation never to be colonized, Tonga is not as developed as some of its neighbors (partially because there’s no ex-colonial power to fund it). It’s an off-the-beaten-track destination that’s great for swimming with Humpback whales (June-October), tropical beaches, and getting lost. I had to choose between Tonga and the Cook Islands and chose the latter since it is connected to French Polynesia and I was traveling outside the whale season.
Cook Islands: somewhat independent from New Zealand but partly not – visiting ‘the Cooks’ is limited to its more accessible southern group of islands, mainly: Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and Atiu. Rarotonga is a compact island with a wide range of accommodations catering to any budget, hiking, water sports, diving, beaches, markets, and Polynesian ‘island nights’ that are not to be missed. Aitutaki is perhaps home to the most beautiful lagoon in the Pacific and where life slowly meanders in first gear. Atiu is gradually developing for tourism, home to a maze of caves and traditional villages. Have a look at the top 10 things to do in the Cook Islands.
French Polynesia: the best of the best, without a doubt! By far the most diverse, impressive, and easiest destination to get around. Though it is not a budget destination, the islands cater to more than just luxury travelers. Its three most visited archipelagos are the Society Islands (great for beaches, lagoons, hikes, snorkeling, and island vibe), the Tuamotu Atolls (world-class scuba diving), and the Marquesas Islands (a dream destination for nature and history lovers). Have a look at the top 10 islands in French Polynesia and decide for yourself.
Easter Island: famous for the strange Moai statues scattered across this distant island, Easter Island is reached via direct flights from Chile and French Polynesia.
Here are a few logistics to take care of before getting on the plane:
After you’ve answered the question of which island to visit, deciding what to pack for an island-hopping trip to the South Pacific becomes the next million-dollar question. Due to weight restrictions on interisland flights, the warm weather and the lack of a pretentious fashion scene – here are 3 rules of thumb when it comes to packing.
If you’re planning to island-hop in a large number of Pacific Island nations (and perhaps coupling this trip with a visit to Australia/NZ or some other region), I highly recommend buying a copy of the newly-published Lonely Planet South Pacific guidebook. Together with the resources found on this website, this will be your best friend while on the ground. If you’re planning to deeply explore specific Pacific Island nations, I recommend purchasing dedicated guidebooks to those countries which you can find in the next paragraph’s link.
Having the right gear for this kind of trip can make or break your experience. Everything I personally packed for my backpacking trip in the South Pacific appears in the X Days In Y Packing List section. Use the filters or browse through the catalog and click on the item to buy on Amazon – hassle-free and at a great price!
Batteries & Chargers:
Challenging, scenic, and definitely part of the fun – island-hopping in the South Pacific is an experience you’ll never forget. Here are most of the common ways of getting from one island to another:
By plane: by far the easiest way to island-hop in the South Pacific. It is expensive and often the only (reasonable) option, but you’ll undoubtedly get your money’s worth with priceless aerial views of paradise (grab a window seat!!!). Surprisingly, many islands have a small airstrip – at times with an extension built over the calm lagoon. Many were built during WWII by the US Army and still serve islanders today. If you’re visiting multiple islands in one country, inquire about air passes. For example, in French Polynesia, Air Tahiti offers various air passes that allow you to island-hop at a reasonable cost with only minor restrictions, while in Vanuatu, Air Vanuatu offers an air pass that is not quite cheap but cheaper than buying separate segments.
Ferry: some neighboring islands are connected by regular and reliable ferry lines, making island-hopping very easy. These include Tahiti and Moorea in French Polynesia and Upolu and Savaii in Samoa. It is often the case that new lines are added over time, but it can also work the opposite way. Again, it’s worth inquiring with locals and your hosts.
Cargo ships: if you are flexible with your time, getting a ride on the cargo ships which supply the islands will significantly reduce your island hopping costs. Some routes officially serve local residents, so finding information should not be tricky if you speak the local language. Remember that departures may get canceled at the last minute, or you may be bumped in favor of taking more cargo. This mode of transport is reserved for the adventure traveler with plenty of time on their hands.
Sailboat: it is possible to crew on sailboats voyaging across the South Pacific. The sailing season is almost exclusively during the ‘dry season’ when the prevailing trade winds blow from east to west and cyclones aren’t a threat. Search online for opportunities on websites such as Workaway or Crew Seekers but keep in mind that unless you’re super experienced – captains will usually want to meet you in person before making a decision.
Cruise ships: there are plenty of those around, surprisingly also during the wet season. I am personally not a huge fan of cruises, especially when it comes to the South Pacific. Passengers usually disembark in large bulks for a few hours of organized activities on islands. Imagine how painful it is to board the ship after just a few hours in paradise.
Though the islands usually look like specks of land on a world map, they are, in fact quite large. The rare ones, like Maupiti in French Polynesia, can be fully explored on foot. But for the most part – you’ll need to find a way to get around the islands to satisfy your (justified) urge to explore. Here are all the options I encountered on my trip:
Car: the most comfortable and recommended way of getting around (if not just for the air conditioning!). Rates fluctuate from the super cheap in Rarotonga to the absurdly expensive in French Polynesia. Traveling solo? Renting a car for one or a few targeted days of exploring can totally make sense – especially when compared with the costs of equivalent organized tours. Traveling as a couple or a small group? Renting a car for more extended periods might make sense. Here are a few things to consider/enquire about: Are the island’s roads sealed? Are there special rates for rentals of 3 days or more? Do you drive manual/automatic? Is insurance included in the price (fixing a car in the South Pacific is costly)? Always gas up at the first chance you get, and finally – avoid driving at night as roads are poorly lit and animals/villagers cross without warning.
Bus: very few islands have proper public transportation in either buses or shared taxis (vans). The most adequate networks are in Rarotonga, Tahiti, Samoa, Port Vila, Pago Pago, and parts of Viti Levu in Fiji. In the ‘Samoas,’ riding the flamboyant buses with the locals is a memorable experience that should not be missed. Other islands may have some form of public transportation, but it isn’t reliable enough to plan a busy day around.
Scooter: this is the ultimate way of inexpensively getting around. A special license is usually not a prerequisite, and in places like the Cook Islands, you can actually get a permit on the spot. A few things to consider and inquire about: does your travel insurance cover scooter-related accidents? Are the island’s roads safe for driving? Can the scooter handle a driver + passenger on steep inclines? And finally – avoid driving in the dark/rain and always wear a helmet (even if the locals don’t).
Bicycle: cycling is a great and inexpensive way of exploring small sections of an island. The flatter the island and less humid it is – the more it makes sense. Most islands have someone renting bicycles to tourists, and in some cases, your accommodation might be able to arrange one. However, if the island does have a few hills or dirt roads – avoid paying for rusty beach bikes or bicycles without gears.
Taxis: private taxis are costly on the islands (as opposed to shared taxis which function more like buses). If you must take one: try sharing with other tourists, ask locals how much the fare should be before flagging a taxi, and finally – always agree on the price with the driver before closing the door.
Organized tours: this is an expensive way of exploring but unavoidable on some islands due to the poor infrastructure, for example, on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. On the plus side, tour guides are usually very knowledgeable about their island. I recommend always inquiring: how many people will be on the tour, if the tour includes food/drinks, will there be photo stops and time to wander around, and finally – who is the guide?
Hitchhiking: Pacific Islanders are some of the friendliest folks in the world, and in general, you shouldn’t have a problem hitchhiking your way around the islands. As always, be careful who you get in the car with and avoid hitchhiking solo. Also, remember that days are short in the South Pacific, and you should leave plenty of time to return to your accommodation during the daytime.
Let’s put aside the ultra-luxury resorts because we all know they’re there from all those ‘bucket list’ photos. If it’s your dream to stay in an overwater bungalow – go for it! The South Pacific is all about making your tropical dreams come true. But let’s discuss other more down-to-earth options since this is a guide on how to island-hop in the South Pacific.
During my six-month backpacking trip, I stayed in every possible accommodation: from an airport bench to an Airbnb, from a simple beach hut to a luxury overwater bungalow. My personal favorites were always the family-owned small businesses. Often, you can strike gold: warm hosts, great views, delicious home-cooked meals, and like-minded travelers. I highly recommend reading my specific island guides, where I always list a wide variety of options.
Here are a few rules of thumb:
Here’s what you can expect in some South Pacific destinations, starting with the most inexpensive and working our way up the luxury ladder. I also included a very rough estimate of the starting price for the cheapest option, which should be taken lightly as things can quickly change.
Despite having a cannibalistic history, the South Pacific islanders are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. At the beginning of your trip, you’ll feel strange when every passing local greets you with a warm ‘hello.’ And when you return home, you’ll be the weirdo that greets strangers who stare at you as if you just landed from another planet.
Here are a few tips when it comes to dealing with the locals.
Finally – living on remote islands is a fascinating accomplishment. Use this opportunity to strike conversations with your hosts, waiters, housekeepers, and that ‘Messiah’ who sells ice-cold coconuts on the side of the road when you’re super thirsty. Talk to them about life on the island, their secret to happiness, the traditional code of behavior, and the challenges of living on the island (there are many).
Every day will bring beautiful new discoveries, so keep that long snooze for the plane ride home. Here are a few tips to help you structure your day:
Pacific Islanders are predominantly devout Christians (some islands more than others), so as expected, not much happens on Sundays. Mornings are spent at church, afternoons eating with the extended family, and evenings digesting all that food! Stores and restaurants are closed, buses don’t operate, and tour providers take the day off (dive centers, organized tours). There are exceptions, for example, in proper resorts and famous islands like Bora Bora.
As mentioned earlier, island-hopping in the South Pacific islands isn’t the cheapest trip (though it is probably the most rewarding), but it’s not solely reserved for luxury travelers. If you haven’t already done so, look at a detailed cost breakdown of my 6-month backpacking trip to get a feel for what you’re up against (2015-2016 prices).
Here are a few ways to lower your travel costs in the South Pacific:
Flights & Getting to the Islands:
Tours & diving:
Food and water:
Alcohol and tobacco:
Internet, mobile phones, and even mobile data have made it to all South Pacific islands. While some rely on satellite communications, others are connected to the world via undersea cables. Though the connection might be a bit unreliable and slow, you’ll be amazed that even in the most remote corners of our planet – you can still get your daily dose of Facebook! Keep in mind that in some destinations, such as the Cook Islands and Samoa, the concept of free WiFi does not exist (yet), and you’ll need to connect to paid hotspots.
Here’s what I recommend:
Lastly, have I already mentioned you’re traveling to paradise? Use this time for that much-needed digital detox, forget about life and concentrate on enjoying every minute of every day!
If you are impressed by what’s happening above ground, wait until you see what’s happening beneath the waves. Here’s a shocker: the South Pacific islands are home to some of the most amazing marine life in the world, so don’t leave home without a GoPro (see ‘what to pack’).
Scuba Diving Tips:
The South Pacific islands are a lot more than just tropical beaches. In Fact, one of the most rewarding ways of exploring an island is by hiking it. Whether through the dense rainforest on the hunt for a hidden waterfall or steeply climbing to an island’s highest peak – don’t forget to pack those hiking shoes! The only problem? The islands’ beautiful nature is often inaccessible, with hiking trails either non-existing, unmarked, or overgrown with vegetation. However, there are a few exceptions, and you should always be able to find at least 1-2 hikes that you can safely do on your own.
A few things to consider:
Despite the weight restrictions, leave plenty of room in your luggage! The things you can buy on the islands are as exotic as the islands themselves. On those cold winter days when your visit seems like a distant memory – here are a few things that will prove that you indeed made it to paradise:
* Everything mentioned above will make it through customs (at least the ones in New Zealand, Australia, and Canada).
Though the South Pacific islands are a VERY safe destination, there are a few things to watch out for. Some dangers are caused by nature and cannot be avoided, while others are totally within your control. Here’s a general list that is not intended to scare you in any way (honestly).
Don’t forget to visit the ‘what to pack’ section for essential safety gear you must take with you:
So now you have a pretty good understanding of how to island-hop in the South Pacific islands! Lots of information awaits you on X days In Y, and I would love to hear your plans for visiting paradise.
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