Visiting The South Pacific and Bora Bora on the Cheap

Panoramic view outside our over-water bungalow

Endless torquoise blue water in Bora Bora

Up until now, the closest we had been to seeing the The South Pacific was a revival of the 1940’s musical. That changed recently when we spent a blissful week among beautiful beaches, picture perfect palm trees, and unbelievably blue water. We were visiting the French Polynesian Islands for some luxurious rest and relaxation, arriving in Tahiti and quickly making our way to the islands of Moorea and then Bora Bora. These islands have at least two reputations: being ridiculously close to paradise, and being ridiculously expensive to visit. The cheap budget conscious traveler can get away with an incredible vacation for a “reasonable” out of pocket cost if you are careful, plan ahead, and aren’t above some shameless clever travel hacking.

Our total out of pocket cost for the entire nine day trip was ~$1,700 for two adults and one toddler; this included airfare, local transportation, and staying at luxury resorts. This is extravagant by our standards, and seems ridiculously expensive compared to our previous almost free tropical getaway. We must be getting soft and spendy in our old age. For the less reckless traveler, the cost could have been cut in half by skipping the expensive inter-island airfare (which couldn’t be booked on points) and you could still have an incredible trip by staying on islands that are accessible by ferry from Tahiti.  Further, assuming you don’t need to tote around a toddler, you could reduce the costs by almost another quarter. That reduces the theoretical cost of a South Pacific getaway to less than $600 for two people… now we are starting to talk, and I’m sure there is further optimization that we missed.

Read on for a recap of the trip, how we attempted to minimize out of pockets costs (and where you could further), and our general thoughts.

*The US Dollar prices quoted are based on the French Pacific Franc (XPF) exchange rate at the time of writing (1 USD  = 105XPF), YMMV.

Cost Breakdown

Points and Rewards Used Out of Pocket Cost Explanation
Airfare 150,000 American Airlines Miles

12,487 Rapid Rewards & Southwest Companion Pass

$1,372 Flights to Tahiti: “free” + $100 in taxes and fees out of pocket
The Little Man’s airfare: $350 (10% of full fare on the international flight)
Inter-island flight to Bora Bora: ~$900 (at time of booking, I didn’t know a way of using miles)
Roundtrip from home to LAX: $22
Accommodation 2 Hilton free weekend night certificates

140,000 Hilton Honors Points

1 Free IHG night

100,000 IHG points

$11 Hilton Moorea
2 free weekend night certificates from Citi Hilton Reserve credit card
70,000 points/night earned from Citi HHonors credit card sign up bonus

Intercontinental Thalasso Bora Bora
1 Free IHG night received from Chase IHG Mastercard
50,000 points/night earned from Chase IHG Mastercard signup bonus
Local Transportation N/A $230 Taxi and bus fares: $134
Rental car in Moorea for 1 day (including gas): $66
Ferry to Moorea: $30
Food and Drink N/A $90 Food and drinks
Entertainment N/A $0  The beach, the lagoon, natural setting, kayaking/paddle boarding

The total out of pocket cost for the 9 day trip was $1,703 or ~$190/day for two adults and one child. The majority of the cost, $900, came from the inter-island airfare on Air Tahiti to Bora Bora which unfortunately could not be booked on points.  The biggest cost savings came from using hotel free night certificates (provided by credit card sign up bonuses) to stay at the two hotels on Moorea and Bora Bora. The cash price for the rooms we stayed can apparently range from $500 – $1,200 / night; this is one of those times where the quoted price isn’t that much of an exaggeration, people pay that.

Detailed Breakdown

In order to make our trip to the South Pacific on the cheap, it took a lot of planning, almost one year in advance. Below is a breakdown on how I was able to piece together our trip with miles and points.

Airfare & Transportation

American Airlines opens their booking window for award flights ~330 days in advance. I booked our tickets to and from Tahiti separately so I didn’t have to wait for the return leg to open up. The lap infant fare (~$350) was refundable, so if we decided to leave the Little Man behind, it would have been possible to cancel and get our money back. I couldn’t get an award flight from our home airport all the way to Tahiti. So we used our Southwest Rapid Rewards points and Companion Pass to get ourselves to LAX – did we mention how much we love the Southwest Companion Pass?

If you are booking both your hotel and flights on points, I recommend booking your hotel nights FIRST, then book your airfare. Hotel booking windows on points tend to be wider than that of the airlines. This was especially useful for booking the hotel in Bora Bora where room availability on points was very scarce.

We spent four days in Moorea and then four days in Bora Bora. I thought this split worked out nicely. We were slightly tired and jet lagged after the long flight from LAX to Tahiti so it was nice to start our vacation in Moorea which is easily accessible from Tahiti. After arriving in Tahiti, we took a taxi ($25) to the ferry terminal. There is supposed to be a local bus that also takes you there, but we were warned at the airport that it was slow and it might not get us there on time (anyone try this and have good luck?). At the ferry terminal in Papeete we had perhaps the world’s most expensive freshly squeezed orange juice ($6) and then boarded the boat and were off to Moorea for $15/person.

After 4 nights in Mooorea, we flew from Moorea to Bora Bora on Air Tahiti (~$900 for the two of us and baby). Air Tahiti is the only airline that flies between the islands in French Polynesia and there was no way for me to use miles to get these flights. I read later that you can use Citi Thank You Points for these flights, so this is something to keep in mind if you are planning a similar trip (I assume you can use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to do the same).

Seeing Bora Bora from the air is pretty exciting

Seeing Bora Bora from the air is pretty exciting

An extraneous expense that we should have avoided was a rental car in Moorea. We decided to take the $60/half day rental to check out the rest of the island. It was nice enough but not super interesting and we could have easily done without, spending more time on the beach or exploring on foot. Bike rentals were available which might have been more fun and less lazy, but were strangely more expensive then the car rental. Renting the car did mean we got some good views from the mountain, some mosquito bites, and we had the chance  to practice our French with a pair of tourists hitch hiking from their cruise ship.

Views of both Cook's Bay and Opunohu Bay from Belvedere Point

Views of both Cook’s Bay and Opunohu Bay from Belvedere Point

Hotel Transfers

In Moorea, we took the bus from the ferry terminal to get to the Hilton. The bus fare ($3/person) was much cheaper than a $20-30 taxi ride. The buses don’t seem to run on a set schedule, but they should be waiting at the terminal when the ferries arrive. This means getting from the ferry to the hotel by bus is easy, on the way back it’s more hit or miss with the timing and we opted to take a taxi (~$30) to the small airport on Moorea to catch our flight to Bora Bora.

Upon arrival in Bora Bora, you find yourself on an islet (Motu) that is cut off from the main island and only accessible by boat. The hotel we were staying at, the Intercontinental Thalasso, is on a different Motu that is also only accessible by boat. The hotel will email you a few weeks prior to your arrival and state that the only way to get between the two is to take their shuttle boat; they are happy to include the fee ($60 per person, each way) in your reservation. You can avoid this!

There is a free ferry that takes you from the airport to Vaitape, the largest city on the main island of Bora Bora. You can explore Vaitape and pick up some much needed groceries while there. We then took a taxi ($20) to the Intercontinental Le Moana which is is the sister hotel of the one we were staying at, and which is conveniently accessible by land. Once you get to Le Moana, you are then able to take a (possibly) free shuttle boat that runs between the two hotels. You can read on this option at Travel Is Free, who made a similar trip but decided to stay one night at Le Moana first, as they were worried it would be weird to show up only to take the free shuttle. We don’t have the same scruples, and the experience didn’t turn out weird at all. The staff on both sides were incredibly friendly and accommodating and knew exactly what we wanted to do.  The staff helpfully suggested that we use the the time before our shuttle departed to visit the nearby grocery store as there wouldn’t be any on the Motu; we took the opportunity to pick up some fresh baguettes and roasted chicken from the supermarket near the hotel.

Returning home, we did the opposite to get back to the airport. We saved $240 in fees in Bora Bora by avoiding the hotel ferry. In the process, we got the opportunity to see a bit more of Bora Bora and meet some very friendly locals along the way!

Accommodation

Moorea

Over-water bungalows at the Hilton

Over-water bungalows at the Hilton

We stayed at the Hilton Moorea for four nights. I didn’t have any trouble finding award availability here 11-12 months in advance. To cover the four nights, I used two free weekend night certificates and 140,000 Hilton Honors points. We booked a standard garden bungalow room and were subsequently upgraded to a garden bungalow with a plunge pool, a nice perk of having HHonors Diamond status (upgrade depends on room availability).

We knew we’d be staying at an over-water bungalow in Bora Bora later on our trip, so we opted to decline the paid upgrade to an over-water bungalow at the Hilton in Moorea. One caveat about this decision: the snorkeling in Moorea at the Hilton turned out to be amazing (better than Bora Bora, in my opinion). If you really wanted to indulge in a lot of snorkelling, and were too lazy to walk a little further, you might decide to make it even easier by splurging for the over-water bungalow, but at this point I think we are talking about making a luxury vacation even more luxurious. To each their own.

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Suppose you could go to the pool if you don’t like the Lagoon

Some notes about the Hilton Moorea stay:

  • 3-4 complimentary bottles of water are provided daily; we also had a reusable water bottle that we filled at the fitness center with filtered water
  • The room came with an electric kettle which was useful for breakfast and making formula for the little man
  • There is a mini-bar fridge in the room that you can request to have emptied so you can stash your own food and drinks
  • There is a basic “grocery story” within walking distance of the hotel, and it is a scenic walk. Pick up some food and drink here as it can be expensive to eat at the hotel

 

Intercontinental Thalasso Bora Bora

I saw amazing pictures of this hotel when booking, and it turns out they don’t do justice to what it is like in person! It was gorgeous. The entire resort was breathtaking & relaxing. In addition, the staff were friendly beyond belief and incredibly hospitable!

I think I figured out why it's call an infinity pool

I think I figured out why it’s called an infinity pool

Admiring the may fish passing under our bungalow

Admire the fish passing under your bungalow

This resort recently closed their garden bungalows and now only offer over-water bungalows. The upshot of this is that you are able to book an over-water bungalow on points (since that is all they have)! This is great news, but it means that award availability at this hotel can be very limited. When planning this trip thirteen-months in advance, I couldn’t find any award availability at the Thalasso and was going to “settle” for the sister property The Moana, which has better award availability. Then, someone posted a note on this forum thread that they were about to cancel their bookings and to take it if you want..and I did (thanks!)!  I was able to get three nights at the Thalasso on points after all, and we enjoyed it!

Further notes about our hotel stay at Bora Bora:

  • One big and three small complimentary bottles of water; once again we were able to get filtered water at the fitness center for our reusable water bottles
  • The room includes an electric kettle and a Nespresso machine, but the coffee pods are charged as part of the minibar. I brought Nespresso pods from home for us to enjoy afternoon espressos on the bungalow patio for free
  • You can request to have the mini-bar fridge emptied for your food and drinks

A tip for upgrades and special requests in general is to contact (via email) the hotel in advance and see what they say. You never know what they will offer you. The service was excellent throughout our stay at both hotels!

Excellent views throughout the day

Food & Drink

Food and drinks in French Polynesia can be expensive, as most things have to be imported quite a distance! Further, we had read that the food, in addition to being expensive, was not always great when dining out. This seemed like a good category to kill costs, so we made sure to bring plenty of snacks and non-perishable food from home and topped off with bread, cheeses, and other items from local grocery stores. It can be a good idea to stock up on drinks at the grocery stores (or at the duty free on your way), see note about liquid lunches below…

Moorea

Excited for free breakfast

I have Hilton Diamond status thanks to a promotional offer; this entitled us to free continental breakfast during our stay. You can upgrade to the “hot breakfast” for an additional $10 per person per day if you want, but the continental breakfast was extensive and scrumptious enough for our purposes.

A nice routine was to wake up early (not entirely voluntarily thanks to the Little Man), have a light breakfast of oatmeal and tea in our room or on the patio (instant oatmeal brought from home), followed by a paddle, light swim, or walk along the beach to work up an appetite. We’d then partake of the continental breakfast later in the morning (it’s available from 6:30 – 10:30 AM) and treat ourselves to what was essentially a hearty brunch. Since this would generally hold us over until the late afternoon, we were usually able to skip or have a liquid lunch and some snacks followed by a mid day nap in the sun.

Bora Bora

Unlike at the Hilton, we didn’t receive free breakfast at the Thalasso. Since the hotel is on a Motu, there are no stores that you can walk to from the hotel. Groceries have to be obtained on the main island which is another great reason to take the free boat shuttle from the airport in Bora Bora to Vaitape. There is a supermarket in town (Chin Lee Supermarket) which is quite large and easily accessible from the airport ferry terminal. Alternatively, after taking the taxi from the ferry terminal to Le Moana, there’s a small store a short  walk away from the hotel where we were able to get drinks, milk, cheese, cold cuts, and a tasty roasted chicken. Since we loaded up on groceries on our way in, we didn’t need to make any subsequent trips from the motu to the main island during our stay and could maximize beach and water time.

Entertainment & Activities

Hammock or kayaks, decisions decisions...

Hammock or kayaks, decisions decisions…

There are a lot of incredible, fun, and free ways to spend your time while at these beautiful resorts. We had a blast paddle boarding and kayaking in the pristine blue waters, lounging by the pool & beach, snorkeling among many fish, feeding sting rays, and enjoying paradise (did I mention liquid lunches?). Before hand, I knew I wanted a way to take underwater pictures and decided to splurge on a waterproof case for my phone; I was skeptical at first, but it worked great for taking underwater pictures while snorkeling and my phone is still working.

Paddle, swim, paddle some more

Paddle, swim, paddle some more

Gratuitous Pictures

I will let the pictures speak for themselves, but they don’t do justice to how beautiful the surroundings were.

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Thalasso Mt. Otemanu View

 

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7 Responses

  1. Vegan Nomads says:

    Wow, what a nice trip with gorgeous photos!

  2. Vegan Nomads says:

    Wow, what a nice trip with gorgeous photos! A luxury trip for $1700 for 3 is AMAZINGGGGG! And your cutie toddler looks super excited about landing in Bora Bora. 🙂

    • The DJ says:

      Thanks, Jess! Yes, he was quite excited … mostly about getting out of the small confined space! It was a wonderful trip, glad you enjoyed the pictures 🙂

  3. Love all the details! Thanks for a very thorough post that really drew me in. Photos – incredible. We looked into honeymooning there almost a decade ago and couldn’t make it work $$$. With some advance planning, we may just have to use your tips in the future!

  4. The Frugal Vagabond says:

    Great travel hacking! This looks like a spectacular trip, and your photos are stunning!

    The future Mrs. and I recently decided on Australia as our honeymoon destination for early next year. I’d been accumulating miles for a long time in an effort to make this one trip business class or better (we’re actually totally happy with coach, but just this once…). I’d been checking for weeks, but there had been no Saver availability… and then, out of nowhere, there was availability on the TWO days we needed, our departure and our return!! Now I’ll need to focus on getting some SPG and Ultimate Reward points accumulated in the next few months to cover some hotel stays.

    • The DJ says:

      It’s funny how things work out, eh? That sounds like an awesome trip you’re planning. Australia/New Zealand is definitely on our list, something we hope to do when we have time to do slow traveling – maybe it will be on your ‘Retire Abroad’ list one day, which I really enjoy reading BTW.

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