Domestic air service has been in a state of flux since the government-owned Royal Tongan Airlines folded in 2004. As I write, Airlines Tonga (tel. 24-506) was flying from Tongatapu to Ha'apai and Vava'u. It's a joint venture between Air Fiji and Nuku'alofa-based Teta Tours. Frankly, no one at the airline would answer the phone when I was in Tonga recently. Consequently, I get a local in-bound tour operator, such as Pacific Travel Marketing (tel. 28-304; firstname.lastname@example.org), to make my arrangements.
The one-way fare from Tongatapu to Vava'u is about T$450 (US$225/£113), and to Ha'apai, about T$300 (US$150/£75).
A more reliable option is Chathams Pacific -- The Friendly Islands Airline (tel. 28-000; www.chathamspacific.com), a New Zealand-based airline that began operating in Tonga in April 2008, using comfortable, 50-seat Convair aircraft. Its unrestricted one-way fares from Tongatapu were T$278 (US$139/£70) to Vava'u and T$173 (US$87/£43) to Ha'apai.
Note: Domestic flights arrive and depart from the old terminal, not the newer international terminal.
Don't Miss Your Flight Home -- Try not to fly back from Vava'u or Ha'apai to Nuku'alofa on the same day your international flight is scheduled to take you home. Give yourself at least a day's cushion, just in case the local airline has an unexpected cancellation. And remember to always reconfirm your return flight as soon as possible.
By Rental Car
Avis (tel. 800/331-1212 or 21-179; www.avis.com) has an office on Taufa'ahau Road. Rates are T$82 (US$41/£21) per day, including unlimited kilometers. A subsidiary of E. M. Jones Travel, KL2 Rental Car (tel. 30-221; email@example.com), Taufa'ahau Road Extended, rents cars starting at T$50 (US$25/£13) per day, including unlimited mileage. Both have a limited supply of cars, so reserve as soon as you can.
You must obtain a local driver's license before you can officially drive in Tonga. The rental firms will do it for you, or you can go through the rather cumbersome application process at the central police station (tel. 21-222), on Wellington Road just off Taufa'ahau Road in Nuku'alofa. Enter on the Railway Road side of the building. You will need your home driver's license and T$18 (US$9/£4.50) in pa'anga.
Driving Rules -- Driving in Tonga is on the left-hand side of the road. Speed limits are 65kmph (40 mph) on the open road and 40kmph (25 mph) in towns and villages. You must wear your seat belt at all times, and driving under the influence of alcohol is a serious offense.
Taxis are plentiful in Nuku'alofa, although most are in poor condition (sometimes I think Tonga is where old cars go to die). They usually gather near Maketi Talamahu at the corner of Salote and Railway roads in Nuku'alofa, but you can flag them down anywhere. They aren't all identified as taxis except for their license plates, which begin with the letter T. Among the many firms are Fiemalie Taxis (tel. 24-270), Wellington Taxis (tel. 24-844), or Holiday Taxis (tel. 25-655 or 25-169).
Fares are T$3 (US$1.50/75p) in town. The taxis have no meters, so make sure you and the driver agree on just how much the fare will be. The fares are doubled on Sundays, when taxis are officially permitted only to take passengers to church and back (some of them will carry tourists from their hotels or guesthouses to the wharf in order for them to get to the offshore islands).
Local buses operate Monday to Saturday during regular business hours (that is, they stop at 5pm). They use the Vuna Road waterfront as their terminal. Town buses stop in front of the Tonga Visitors Bureau; long-distance ones stop in front of the government buildings. They fan out from there to all parts of Tongatapu, but there are no reliable schedules. Simply ask the bus drivers at the market where they are going. About T$2 (US$1/50p) will take you to the end of the island in either direction.
Tongatapu is virtually flat, making it an ideal island for bicycling. "Pushbikes" can be rented from Bicycle Hire (no phone) on the Vuna waterfront near the International Dateline Hotel. One-speed models cost T$1 (US50¢/25p) per hour, T$10 (US$5/£2.50) for a full day. Open Monday to Saturday 8am to 6pm.
It's not for everyone, but the Shipping Corporation of Polynesia (tel. 23-853; www.olovaha.com) operates weekly ferry service from Nuku'alofa to Ha'apai and Vava'u. It leaves Nuku'alofa on Tuesday and takes about 16 hours to make the 262km (163-mile) trip to Vava'u, stopping at Lifuka in the Ha'apai group on the way. The ship then turns around and arrives back in Nuku'alofa on Thursday. The one-way fare between Nuku'alofa and Vava'u is about T$70 (US$35/£18) for deck passage.