French Polynesia captures imagination of most travelers. Yes, it’s hard to get to, not to mention, super duper expensive. But how can you beat this view?
Growing up in Belarus, I never thought I would see Tahiti with my own eyes. Heck, we didn’t even have indoor plumbing in my house till I turned 9, so visiting Bora Bora was definitely not in the family budget. But it looks like I may get my chance after all (hopefully, without going bankrupt). So, my goal with this post is to highlight affordable points/cash strategies, so you can turn this dream into reality as well.
Is French Polynesia too expensive for a middle-class family?
It really depends on the island you plan on visiting. Bora Bora doesn’t have a lot of lodging options, so prices will be higher. Not to mention, it costs an additional $400-$500 roundtrip to get there, on top of your tickets from LAX to Papeete. And you can’t cover those with miles.
However, budget hotels and rentals do exist, it’s just that most won’t have A/C or any other “resort” type amenities. You should search AirBnB or Booking.com (both are referral links) to get an idea on what type of options are available. You can sometimes get away with paying $200 (or even less) per night, just don’t expect a whole lot in terms of facilities.
Bora Bora island is where using hotel points pays off big time, and I will address it later in the post. But if you are not picky, you may want to look into Bungalows Manuka rental. That’s the one we originally reserved. It has A/C and is located across the street from a beautiful beach. The cost is a reasonable $172 per night.
Staying on Moorea island is far more affordable. For one, you can get there by ferry from Papeete, and it costs only $15 one-way. There are many lodging options here, and some are quite decent. Hotel points can come in handy, but using them is not absolutely necessary.
Paying $250 per night can get you a decent (but not luxurious) room at a beachfront resort, so it’s comparable to Hawaii in this respect. Something to note is that most points options in Tahiti have double or triple occupancy limit, so booking a rental with cash may be preferable if you are a family of four or more.
Overall, I think French Polynesia is a perfect candidate for a special wedding anniversary celebration, and that’s the reason for our trip. I’m not going to lie, I would love for kids to come as well, but it just didn’t work out this time. If we enjoy the trip, our plan is to visit as a family one day. We may even take a Paul Gaugin cruise ( a gal can dream!).
For an idea on how to use miles for flights, see this post. Just because you are a middle-class family, don’t automatically assume that visiting Tahiti is out of the question. With the right strategy and savings plan, it can be done.
Strategy for using hotel points
First things first. I recommend you reserve the rooms one night at a time, as they become available. You can always ask the hotel to connect your reservations later on. This strategy is especially important in Bora Bora.
1) Bora Bora
The most popular destination in French Polynesia and where using points will yield the best return. There are three options that are a good deal (I’m ignoring SPG):
The most coveted redemption in IHG program, period. The cost is 60k points, and award books straight into overwater bungalow (fits 2 adults+2 kids). Paid rate is $1,200 per night. A too-good-to-be-true deal, right? Thousands of miles and points enthusiasts agree.
The secret is out and competition is fierce. It is hard, hard, hard to snag a bungalow here on points. That said, it is NOT impossible. After all, I was able to secure one night and recently found availability for the second one. Yipee!
Let me share what I know. Apparently, there is a cottage industry on Flyertalk.com thread where folks book speculatively and then trade with each other via private message. You see, as soon as you cancel, the free night goes back into inventory (usually), so if you know precisely when someone does it, you have an excellent shot at securing it yourself.
What about booking it as soon as it’s released? It’s an option, but like I said, you will have lots of competition. I stayed up till midnight, and it wasn’t available at that point. Perhaps the award room is loaded during the night or maybe someone beat me to the punch. Also, on weekends, it’s relased at random times of the day, for some reason.
I do recommend you try if your dates are firm, just don’t get your hopes up too much. Be aware, IHG releases availability about two weeks before you are able to book your flight on Air Tahiti Nui via AAdvantage. So your award reservation will be speculative at that point.
In my experience, the best way to snag an award room is to simply check 3-4 times per day and hope that HotelHustle tool malfunctions and doesn’t trigger an alert. That’s what I did for about a month. I know it sounds like a nuisance, but it sure beats paying $1,200 per night. Plus, it doesn’t take that long once you get into a habit.
I set an alert on HotelHustle for both nights, but found availability by simply obsessively checking the website myself. Neither award night triggered an alert, which I believe was instrumental in me getting both of them. Before this happened, I actually found award availability on a different night, but it would cause me to skip New Zealand.
I decided that visiting the latter was more important than staying in an overwater bungalow. So, I canceled it and saw it go back into inventory right away. Out of curiosity, I checked just five minutes later and it was already gone. I’m guessing someone has received HotelHustle alert.
So, my point is, if you find award availability in Thalasso, book it immediately. Short on points? Copay with cash. That’s what I did for one of my nights. If you fail to secure an award, don’t lose hope. Availability sometimes (but not always) opens up within 7-14 days. You will have a better chance during off-season, as in October-May. In the meantime, it could make sense to reserve another place that has a generous cancellation policy.
Joe at Asthejoeflies blog has an excellent series of posts on Thalasso, which I recommend reading if you want to stay there.
Another decent IHG option, though not as good of a deal as Thalasso. For 60k points you are able to book a beachfront hut that goes for $800 per night. You can request an upgrade to an overwater bungalow for around $150-$250 per night, depending on the season.
I suggest you book it if you see availability because you can always take a cheap shuttle to Thalasso and enjoy the facilities there. This hotel releases availability at midnight Eastern time (usually two rooms), sometimes earlier in the day on the weekends. La Moana is an older/less fancy property, but I would have no problem staying there if Thalasso option didn’t work out. See this Travelisfree post with comparison between the two resorts, highlighting pros and cons of each one.
IHG Ambassador status
If you are not able to use points and don’t mind spending cash, you may want to consider getting Ambassador status. It costs $200 per year or 32,000 IHG points. If your stay falls on the weekend, you can get the second night free at either property. You have to reserve your bungalow via flexible rate.
A nice perk is that you also get a free (guaranteed) one category upgrade. So, in La Moana it means that you reserve the beach hut, but end up getting an overwater bungalow. The cost works out to be around $900 for two nights in the summer, less during off season. This may be a better strategy than using points, actually.
Think about it. You can burn 120k points and pay $400 for guaranteed upgrade to overwater bungalow on both nights. Or you can just use 32k points to get status and pay $900, getting a free upgrade and other Ambassador perks in the process. It will depend, of course, on how you value your IHG points.
Securing a bungalow in Thalasso will cost $1,300 for both nights, plus the cost of status. Expensive? You bet. But it’s actually a bargain in Bora Bora (though not for me). When using free night certificate, you have to reserve it via special link and pay for Friday or Saturday stay when you check in. You have to bring your physical certificate with you, which can take a few months to arrive. So, getting Ambassador status at the last minute won’t work.
This is a luxury Hilton resort that costs 80k points per night or $700 via paid rate. Standard award will get you a huge “garden view” room (fits 2 adults+2 kids). Note that the website indicates triple occupancy, but they will make an exception if your kids are young. Email them to inquire about your specific situation.
When I asked about an upgrade to an overwater bungalow, I was quoted a rate of $500 per night. Ouch! This is definitely not as good of a deal as Thalasso, but if you are swimming in Hilton points and don’t care about an overwater bungalow, it’s something to consider. Plus, you can always upgrade on your last night, as a special treat.
Hilton Bora Bora Nui is a very popular redemption and usually disappears the day it is loaded. Heads up! You can not cancel the award online if your plans change. I actually made one-night reservation speculatively and my dates didn’t work out. I had to call Bora Bora and they didn’t redeposit the points like they were supposed to. I had to contact Hilton to straighten it all out. Definitely a hassle.
Redeeming points here is a lot easier than it is on Bora Bora, but I still recommend you do it as soon as you have a good idea on your dates.
The cost is 40k IHG points per night or $350, so it’s a very good redemption when it comes to value. Standard award books into a garden room in the main building. It looks like a family-friendly resort with several pools and various activities nearby. Moorea, in general, strikes me as a more family-friendly island than Bora Bora. Availability is decent if you book ahead.
The cost is 80k Hilton points or $480 per night. Availability is decent as long as you book far ahead. On surface, it looks like IHG option is a no-brainer when choosing between the two resorts, right? That said, I actually used points on Hilton. Why? Three reasons: better snorkeling, more romantic atmosphere and free breakfast due to Gold Hilton Status ($70 value). I may even pay cash for an upgrade to an overwater bungalow (extra $290) or lagoon bungalow ($120).
We are only staying on Moorea for one night, so I want to get the best of the best. This is a special trip, so I’m forcing myself to let go of points and get what I actually want, not what’s the most amazing value on surface. If you are staying on Moorea longer and want to conserve points, you will probably be better off sticking with IHG.
3) Main island of Tahiti
There is only one game in town when it comes to using points: INTERCONTINENTAL TAHITI RESORT AND SPA
So, that’s the one we reserved. The cost is 40k IHG points per night or $350. It’s close to the airport, which is what I needed for my early morning flight to New Zealand. Be aware, it appears that hotel will be renovating standard rooms starting January 2018, so award availability is blocked off till next summer.
Credit card strategy
If you are looking to visit French Polynesia, I highly recommend you sign up for IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card, Hilton Honors Surpass Credit Card from American Express and possibly Hilton Honors Credit Card from American Express. Find more info on all three offers on this page
If you are fortunate, you may be able to use your free weekend certificate from Surpass card at either Bora Bora or Moorea property. A reminder: the current 100k offer on Hilton Honors Surpass Credit Card from American Express will expire on 10/4/2017. If you wish, you can apply via my personal referral link Thanks in advance! Nancy has a personal referral link as well, so feel free to email her at email@example.com and request it. You can generate your own referral link here As always, depending on your plans, you may choose to prioritize other offers
If both spouses each apply for IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card and Hilton Honors Surpass Credit Card from American Express, it should give them enough points for a vacation in French Polynesia, assuming there is award availability. I can’t think of a better value that paying 60k IHG points for an overwater bungalow. Can you?
Bringing ramen noodles and beef jerky with us
Dining in French Polynesia is expensive. That’s why many people try to save money by bringing snacks in their suitcase. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of eating ramen noodles while on vacation or at home, and my husband will simply refuse to do it. I will probably pack a few snacks and maybe some alcohol (since it costs a fortune in Bora Bora), but I don’t plan to go overboard. This whole trip is a splurge, and we are already getting our hotels dirt cheap.
That being said, I absolutely intend to do a post with nothing but photos of my snacks strewn about our overwater bungalow. Hear my out. Flyertalk has a whole section devoted to bashing miles and points bloggers. I’ve even seen my name being mentioned there a few times, which was super exciting. It’s a discussion section where grown men (with busy careers and families) spend hours each day complaining about bloggers they don’t like. The most prominent authors even get their own bashing thread. #Jealous
And nothing triggers Flyertalk brethren more than someone eating ramen noodles and beef jerky in Bora Bora. They seriously go berserk. You would think that who eats what where is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but these guys (yes, they are mostly guys) clearly disagree. So, I figured, it would be an excellent bait to finally get my own bashing thread. Come on, Flyertalkers, I know some of you read my blog!
On a serious note, I still can’t believe that I have a 2-night award reservation in an overwater bungalow in Bora Bora. I don’t even care if I have to eat beef jerky and ramen noodles while I’m there. It’s a dream come true, all thanks to miles and points hobby. And yes, you can do it too.
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Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.