The cost of living in French Polynesia is high for local residents and visitors alike, which makes it a relatively expensive place to visit. This is especially true for those of us earning the embattled U.S. dollar, whose recent all-time low has added 25% or more to a visit here. You already know this if you prepaid your hotel room, and you will be reminded on your first morning here when you come to breakfast and find that your hotel may charge more than US$35 (£18) per person for its buffet. This is what I call waking up to "breakfast shock."
The flip side of the coin is that French Polynesia is a modern, First World place. You cannot drink the tap water on most islands, but the electricity is reliable, the airplanes and ferries ordinarily depart and arrive on time, the automated teller machines (ATMs) usually have cash to dispense, you can call anywhere in the world from a public phone, and access to the Internet is readily available. In other words, your visit should go as smoothly here as it would in any other developed country.
The local currency is the Comptoirs Français du Pacific, or French Pacific franc (CFP), which comes in coins up to 100CFP and in colorful notes ranging from 500CFP into the millions.
The Pacific franc is abbreviated "XPF" by the banks, but in this guide I use CFP, the French abbreviation.
The same franc is used in the French Pacific territories of New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna islands.
U.S. dollar and European euro notes (but not coins) are widely accepted as cash in the islands, although at less favorable exchange rates than at banks.
You will probably get a more favorable rate if you change your money in French Polynesia rather than before leaving home.
The CFP, the U.S. Dollar & the British Pound -- The value of the CFP is pegged directly to the European euro at a rate of 1€ = 119.332CFP. At this writing, US$1 = approximately 80CFP (or, the other way around, 100CFP = US$1.25), which is the exchange rate I used to calculate the dollar values given in this guide. For British readers: At this writing, £1 = approximately 158CFP (or, 100CFP = 63p). Note: International exchange rates fluctuate depending on economic and political factors. Find the current rates at www.xe.com.
Converting in Your Head -- No decimals are used with Pacific franc units, so prices at first can seem even more staggering than they really are. Although the value of the CFP varies with the European euro, many local residents think of 100CFP as US$1 (the historical benchmark, which explains the unusual 119.332 CFP value against the European euro), and they often express prices that way to visitors. For example, if the price of something is 1,000CFP, they might say it costs US$10. Using their method, you can make a quick conversion without a calculator by thinking of 100CFP as US$1, 500CFP as US$5, 1,000CFP as US$10, and so on. That is, drop the last two zeros, then add or subtract the percentage difference between the actual rate and 100CFP. In the case of US$1 = 80CFP, for example, you would add 20%.
The easiest and best way to get local currency is from an ATM, known as a billetterie in French and sometimes referred to in English as a "cash machine" or "cashpoint." Banque de Polynésie, Banque Socredo, and Banque de Tahiti have offices with ATMs on the main islands, and many post offices have billetteries that dispense cash against MasterCard and Visa cards. See the "Fast Facts" sections in the following island chapters for bank and ATM locations (this is essential since some of the smaller islands do not have ATMs or even banks).
The ATMs operate in both French and English, and they usually are reliable at giving cash or cash advances. Nevertheless, I carry some cash or traveler's checks with me in case the local ATM runs out of cash or is out of service.
Be sure you know your four-digit personal identification number (PIN) for each credit and debit card -- and find out your daily withdrawal limit before you leave home.
I carry two debit (that is, "cash" or "check") cards so there's a backup in case one doesn't work in a bank's ATM. You should use them to get local cash for two reasons: You get a better exchange rate than if you exchange traveler's checks, and you avoid the local banks' fees for changing cash and traveler's checks .
Visa and MasterCard tack a 1% currency conversion fee to every debit card withdrawal, and many banks add up to 5% as their own "foreign transaction fee." In addition, many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5 or more) than for domestic ones.
How much you will pay depends entirely on your bank. Call your bank's customer service department for information on any applicable charges.
Also, ask if your bank levies a fee even if you pay in dollars, or when you charge a U.S. dollar amount to an overseas company or website and the vendor sends the transaction through a foreign bank. You may be able to avoid fees by paying for your airfare and hotel in U.S. dollars before leaving home, such as through a travel agent.
You can withdraw cash advances from your credit cards at banks or ATMs, but high withdrawal fees make credit card cash advances a pricey way to get cash. In addition to the fees, you'll pay interest from the moment of your withdrawal, even if you pay your monthly bills on time.
You can use MasterCard and Visa cards to charge your expenses at most island hotels, car-rental companies, restaurants, and large shops. Many also accept American Express. Only the major hotels and car-rental firms accept Diners Club, however, and none accept Discover cards. Always ask first, and when you're away from the main towns, don't count on putting anything on plastic.
Note that many banks now assess a 1% to 3% "transaction fee" on all charges you incur abroad (whether you're using the local currency or your native currency). Personally, I use my Capital One credit card since it charges no foreign transaction fee, nor does it have an annual fee. Read your own card member agreement -- or better yet, call your bank's customer service department -- for charges.
I seldom use them these days, but I carry a few hundred U.S. dollars in traveler's checks in case the local ATM isn't operating. Only in emergencies do I exchange traveler's checks at banks, since all charge 500CFP (US$6.25/£3.15) or more per transaction, regardless of the amount changed.
You can get traveler's checks in most major currencies at most banks. U.S. dollar checks come in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler's checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233 or tel. 800/221-7282 for cardholders -- this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322) -- AAA members can obtain Visa checks for a $9.95 fee (for checks up to $1,500) at most AAA offices or by calling tel. 866/339-3378; and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
Be sure to keep a record of your traveler's checks' serial numbers separate from the checks in the event that they are stolen or lost. You'll get a refund faster if you know the numbers.
Another option is the new prepaid traveler's check cards, reloadable cards that work much like debit cards but aren't linked to your checking account. The American Express Travelers Cheque Card, for example, requires a minimum deposit, sets a maximum balance, and has a one-time issuance fee of $14.95. You can withdraw money from an ATM (for a fee of $2.50 per transaction, not including bank fees), and the funds can be purchased in dollars, euros, or pounds. If you lose the card, your available funds will be refunded within 24 hours.
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.