In addition to searching for the lowest airfare, you may want to consider booking your flight as part of a travel package. Buying a package tour is simply a way to get the airfare, accommodations, and other elements of your trip (such as car rentals, airport transfers, and sometimes even meals and activities) at the same time and often at discounted prices -- kind of like one-stop shopping. In fact, package tours usually provide the best bargains available.
Package tours are not the same thing as escorted tours, which are structured tours with a group leader.
The costs are kept down because wholesale tour operators (known as wholesalers in the travel industry) can make volume bookings on the airlines and at the hotels. Packages traditionally were then sold through retail travel agents, but many wholesalers now deal directly with the public, thus passing savings along to you, rather than part of their commissions to retail agents.
Travel packages are listed in the travel section of many Sunday newspapers. Or check ads in magazines such as Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, Travel + Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and Condé Nast Traveler.
Airlines frequently offer air-and-hotel packages, so be sure to check the website of Air Tahiti Nui (www.airtahitinui-usa.com).
Tahiti Tourisme has information about agencies selling packages to French Polynesia and provides links to numerous money-saving packages on its North American website (www.tahiti-tourisme.com).
International Tour Agents
Following in alphabetical order are some reputable American-based companies selling package tours. Some will discount air tickets and hotel rooms separately; that is, not as part of a package. Be sure to shop for the best deal among them.
- Blue Pacific Vacations (tel. 800/798-0590; www.bluepacificvacations.com), a division of France Vacations, is headed by John Biggerstaff and Ken Jordan, two veterans of Tahiti tourism. They will customize tours to most French Polynesian islands.
- Brendan Worldwide Vacations (tel. 800/421-8446 or 818/785-9696; www.brendanvacations.com) provides packages to French Polynesia.
- Costco Travel (tel. 877/849-2730; www.costco.com) sells island packages to Costco members. The agency was a South Pacific specialist before Costco bought it.
- GoGo Worldwide Vacations (tel. 617/734-2350; www.gogovacationdeals.com), headquartered in Massachusetts, specializes in French Polynesia.
- Go-Today (tel. 800/227-3235; www.go-today.com), based in Washington State, offers discount-priced packages to French Polynesia and the nearby Cook Islands.
- Island Escapes (tel. 800/983-0210; www.islandescapes.com) has packages to the Society Islands and to Rangiroa and Fakarava in the Tuamotu Archipelago, and it will arrange cruising and yachting vacations.
- Islands in the Sun (tel. 800/828-6877 or 310/536-0051; www.islandsinthesun.com), the largest and oldest South Pacific specialist, sells packages to all the islands.
- Jetabout Island Vacations (tel. 800/348-8145; www.jetabouttahitivacations.com) of El Segundo, California, offers a wide variety of packages to Tahiti. It's the U.S. representative of Qantas Vacations, an arm of the Australian airline.
- Newmans South Pacific Vacations (tel. 800/421-3326; www.newmansvacations.com) offers packages to the islands. It's a long-established New Zealand company.
- Pacific for Less (tel. 800/915-2776; www.pacific-for-less.com), based in Hawaii, has reasonably priced packages to French Polynesia, although its specialty is high-end honeymoons.
- Pleasant Holidays (tel. 800/742-9244; www.pleasantholidays.com), a huge company best known for its Pleasant Hawaiian and Pleasant Mexico operations, offers packages to French Polynesia.
- South Pacific Direct (www.southpacificdirect.com) is an Internet-only firm offering deals to all the islands.
- South Seas Adventures (tel. 800/576-7327; www.south-seas-adventures.com) has packages to Samoa and Tonga as well as Fiji, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands.
- Swain Tahiti Tours (tel. 800/22-SWAIN; www.swaintours.com) obviously knows a lot about Tahiti and French Polynesia.
- Tahiti Discount Travel (tel. 877/426-7262; www.tahiti-discounttravel.com) is owned by former employees of the defunct Discover Wholesale Travel, once the leader in budget packages. Today they arrange some of the lowest-priced packages to French Polynesia.
- Tahiti Legends (tel. 800/200-1213; www.tahiti-legends.com) is run by former officials of Islands in the Sun. It sells tours to French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and Fiji under the name Pacific Legends (www.pacificlegends.com).
- Tahiti Vacations (tel. 800/553-3477; www.tahitivacation.com), a subsidiary of Air Tahiti, French Polynesia's domestic airline, specializes in French Polynesia but also has packages to Fiji, the Cook Islands, and Tonga. It frequently offers the least expensive packages available to Tahiti and Moorea.
- Travelwizard (tel. 800/330-8820; www.travelwizard.com) specializes in designing luxury travel packages to all the islands but has less expensive offerings as well. It also has adventure, scuba diving, and surfing trips to French Polynesia.
Local Tour Operators
Another tactic is to check with the South Pacific inbound tour operators; that is, companies in the islands which put together the local elements of tour packages such as hotel rooms and airport transfers. They have the advantage of being on the scene and thus familiar with the local airlines and hotels. Some sell directly to inbound visitors as well as other tour companies.
In French Polynesia, they range from Tahiti Nui Travel (www.tahitinuitravel.com), the largest travel agency, to True Tahiti Vacations (tel. 310/464-1490 in the U.S.; www.truetahitivacation.com), operated by American-born Laurel Samuela from her home on Moorea.
Other reputable firms include Easy Tahiti.com (www.easytahiti.com); Islands Adventures/Air Tahiti (www.islandsadventures.com); Marama Tours (www.maramatours.com); Paradise Tours (www.paradistourstahiti.com); and Tekura Tahiti Travel (www.tahiti-tekuratravelcom).
Escorted General-Interest Tours
Escorted tours are structured group tours, with a group leader (I prefer the old-fashioned term "tour guide"). The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation.
Escorted tours are not a big part of the business in these small islands, where it's easy to find your way around and book local tours and activities. Most of the travel agents I mention above, will have someone meet and greet you at the airport upon arrival, take you to your hotel, and make sure you get on any prearranged tours and activities, but you will not have a tour guide.
Some tour companies add a short stopover in Tahiti to their escorted tours of Australia and New Zealand, but these may not include a guide for the island portion. Leaders in this add-on feature include Tauck Tours (tel.; 800/788-7885; www.tauck.com); Qantas Vacations (tel. 800/641-8772; www.qantasvacations.com); Australia Escorted Tours (tel. 888/333-6607; www.australia-escorted-tours.com), and Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/652-7986; www.abercrombiekent.com), which adds Fiji and French Polynesia to its high-end escorted tours. Otherwise, I recommend getting a travel agent to track down an escorted tour.
Despite the fact that escorted tours require big deposits and predetermine hotels, restaurants, and itineraries, many people derive security and peace of mind from the structure they offer. Escorted tours let travelers sit back and enjoy the trip without having to drive or worry about details. They're particularly convenient for people with limited mobility and they can be a great way to make new friends.
On the downside, you'll have little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals. The tours can be jampacked with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they often focus on the heavily touristed sites, so you miss out on many a lesser-known gem.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.