Essential Tonga Travel Tips for First-Timers to Tonga
Looking for an adventure in South Pacific? Perhaps to experience a unique culture, see a variety of gorgeous island landscapes, discover an intriguing history, or do a once-in-a-lifetime experience like swimming with whales? Well, you might just be picturing the Kingdom of Tonga. And you’re in the right place to get the most essential tips for travelling in Tonga!
It’s likely that you’ve only heard utterances of this island nation. Yes, Tonga is definitely considered one of the hidden gems of the South Pacific. But we’ll show you just how easy and wonderful it is to visit with the help of these whopping 31 Tonga travel tips! That way, you’ll be prepared for the island adventure ahead.
1. Be Up to Date with the Latest Travel Restrictions
Let’s start with our most important travel tip for Tonga right now; can you actually travel to Tonga? Unless you’ve been living in a hole for the past few years, you know that COVID-19 has introduced a plethora of restrictions for travelling that is constantly changing. For the latest travel restrictions for Tonga, the best source is the Tourism website of the Government of the Kingdom of Tonga’s website.
2. Most People Don’t Need a Visa for Tonga
Citizens from more than 70 countries can enter Tonga with ease, needing no more than a valid passport to enter the Kingdom of Tonga. Those not from a visa-exempt county will need to apply for an entry permit for Tonga, but even then, it’s as simple as getting your passport stamped. Visitors can stay in Tonga for up to one month or, you never know, you might want to extend your Visitor’s Visa for up to six months? Find out more about entry in Tonga in our guide, Do You Need a Visa to Visit Tonga?
3. There’s More to Tonga Than Nuku’alofa
Most travellers arrive in Tongatapu and head straight for the capital, Nuku’alofa. While Nuku’alofa is pretty awesome and provides pretty much all of the activities most visitors want to do, it’s far from the “real” Tonga. Tonga is made up of 170 islands split into five different island groups with their own unique charms. Be sure to do some island-hopping! Get some inspiration on where to go with our island guides:
- The Complete Guide to Tongatapu
- The Complete Guide to ‘Eua
- The Complete Guide to Ha’apai
- The Complete Guide to Vava’u
- The Complete Guide to The Niuas
4. The Whale Season is June to October
Let’s be honest, many of you are dreaming of swimming with humpback whales. Sure, Tonga is one of the only countries in the world where you can legally swim with these gentle giants. But know that this activity is only available when the whales migrate to Tonga from the Antarctic. This is typically June to October, but can be as short as July to October in Vava’u and as long as June to November in ‘Eua, for instance. If you’re thinking of treating yourself to this unique experience, be sure to wise up with The Guide to Whale Swimming in Tonga.
5. You Can Swim with Whales in Almost All of the Island Groups in Tonga
Island groups like Vava’u are renowned for their array of whale swimming operators, but this is not the only place you can swim with whales in Tonga. Whale swimming tours are available with multiple operators in Tongatapu, Ha’apai, ‘Eua and Vava’u. Where’s the best place to swim with whales? Well, there are arguments for each island group, which you can dive deeper into in The Best Place to Swim with Whales in Tonga.
6. But There’s More to Do Than Just Whale Swimming
Don’t get us wrong, swimming with whales is just a tiny portion of what the islands of Tonga have to offer. There’s more opportunity for adventure, with scuba diving in giant sea caves, snorkelling above vibrant coral, fishing for big game, kitesurfing sheltered lagoons, surfing epic reef breaks, and more. There’s also the opportunity for sightseeing with amazing coastlines of blowholes, majestic limestone caves, ancient stone trilithons, colonies of flying foxes and more and more. Of course, you can always just relax with an island massage, a yoga retreat or just finding yourself a hammock by the beach.
Simply browse our 101 Best Things to Do in Tonga: The Ultimate List for hours of inspiration!
7. Tonga Shuts Down on a Sunday
Now to the nitty-gritty. What are some of the customs you’re likely to encounter in Tonga? First up, it’s Sundays. Tonga is a religious Christian country, which is reflected in the laws, such as business transactions are void on a Sunday. It is also prohibited to play sports and exercise. Even doing some chores is frowned upon! Nevertheless, resorts are exempt from the rules, which still have their restaurants open and watersports equipment available to hire on a Sunday. Check out more ways to experience a Tongan Sunday in 5 Things to Do in Tonga on a Sunday.
8. Tonga is Always Quiet
Tonga is certainly not a “busy” tourist destination, so you needn’t worry about tourist hoards ruining your holiday. Even in the more popular whale season, it’s truly a place to escape from the modern world and embrace island time.
9. Travel in the Low Season for the Best Deals
So if Tonga is always quiet, then why would you want to travel to Tonga in the low season? First, it often feels like you have whole resorts, no, whole islands to yourself. Second, the low season deals are too good to resist. Accommodations, activity providers and even the domestic airline get in on the low season deal action, making your trip to Tonga a lot more affordable. Plus, we’ve also established that there’s always plenty to do in Tonga outside of the more popular whale season. Note, however, that some (but not all) tourism businesses do close down in the low season, especially in Vava’u.
Check out more reasons why we love the low season in Tonga in 10 Reasons to Travel in the Low Season in Tonga.
10. Know What You Need to Declare
Tonga is a nation with a fragile ecosystem that needs to be protected from external pests and diseases. For this reason, you will be asked to declare certain goods on arrival in Tonga. It starts with declaring possible “risk” items on your Tonga Passenger Arrival Card. Then you will need to declare some items to Customs when you arrive at the airport/port. Find out more about the Customs and Quarantine process in our guide, Everything You Need to Know About Arriving in Tonga.
11. Tonga Can Be Really Cheap
Tonga’s glorious tropical islands might look like a destination for the super-rich, but it’s actually extremely affordable to visit. There are always ways to keep the costs down, from staying in local guesthouses to opting for the ferry for inter-island travel, rather than flights. Sure, some activities like scuba diving, fishing, sailing and whale swimming aren’t exactly cheap, but most of your time in Tonga can be filled with either free or extremely cheap activities.
12. Pay with Cash
Your credit card won’t get you very far in Tonga, where most businesses you’ll be interacting with only accept cash. That includes many accommodations, tourism activities, shops, markets and more. Make sure you always have plenty of Tongan Pa’anga with you and save your credit card for withdrawing more cash every few days. There are ATMs in the main towns of each island group, except in the humble Niuas.
Find out more about money in Tonga in What is The Best Way to Pay in Tonga?
13. Supermarkets are Small
The supermarkets in Tonga are about the size of convenience stores in more developed countries, so don’t expect a wide variety when it comes to grocery shopping. Supermarkets are available in Tonga’s towns, while villages have “fale koloa”, which are Tonga’s version of convenience stores. They have wire grates over a window where you tell the attendant what you would like to buy. Fruit and vegetables can only typically be bought at markets or roadside stalls. Usually, if fruit/vegetables are for sale in supermarkets, it’s for a premium as supermarkets will get the produce from the market.
Learn more about buying food in our guide, Where to Buy Food in Tonga.
14. Try the Local Cuisine
Aside from buying your own groceries, be sure to try the local cuisine. Tonga provides an opportunity to try some of the freshest seafood and an array of tropical fruit and vegetables you might not be familiar with. There is a good selection of Tongan eateries in Nuku’alofa while attending a Tongan feast as part of a cultural show or tour is an absolute must. Tongans are renowned across the South Pacific for their feasts, often complete with a spitroast pig. Learn more about the local food in The Guide to Tonga Food and 6 Unique Foods in Tonga You Have to Try.
15. Pack Right for Tonga
Tonga experiences a warm climate all year round, with temperatures around 31°C/88°F in summer and only as low as 18°C/65°F at night in winter. Needless to say, you’ll want to pack a tropical wardrobe, but also be sure to pack a warmer layer for cooler evenings or for whizzing around on boats. There is particular attire to be worn to church if you plan to experience this cultural activity, while you might want to bring your own reef shoes and snorkelling gear to explore the underwater world.
Find out more in The Complete Packing List for Tonga.
16. Be Patient
You may have heard the concept of “island time”. Well, in Tonga, you’ll experience “Tonga Time” where things happen at a slower pace than what you might be used to. This is experienced from the local speed limit, which is up to 70km/h (40mph) only, to the fact that there are often no schedules and, even when they are, they are more “guidelines”. Learn more about embracing island time in What is “Tonga Time” (& What You Need to Know About It).
17. Don’t Drink the Tap Water
While locals will probably tell you that the water is safe to drink, this is not usually the case for visitors. However, instead of killing the planet (and your time and budget) by buying bottled water everywhere you go, consider other ways to make the water safer to drink, such as a water purification bottle or purification tablets. Check out our easy-to-follow advice in Can You Drink the Water in Tonga?
18. Don’t Expect 5-Star Service
Forget your InterContinentals, your Hiltons or your Sheratons. Tonga is not a destination of five-star resorts. Resorts aim for a more authentic experience, with fales (beach huts) often made with local materials. As for getting to island resorts, seas might be rough, you might get wet, but that’s all part of the adventure. So don’t expect canapés delivered to your room and don’t expect helicopter flights to your resort; just expect a raw island experience. If you’re too precious, perhaps Tonga is not for you.
Get a sense of what resorts are like in Tonga in The Top 30 Resorts in Tonga.
19. Accommodations Might Not Always Have What They Say They Have
Tonga is an ever-evolving country, which is reflected in the services provided by the accommodations. It’s common for visitors to read about particular services at a resort or a guesthouse to find that, in fact, there is no WiFi, you have to pay for breakfast, and your accommodation is on a random off-shore island – not in Neiafu! (All real stories we’ve heard from travellers during our research in Tonga).
Yes, some Tongan accommodation providers perhaps don’t realise the importance of updating their listings online (and print is always out-of-date), so if you really need a particular service, be sure to get in contact with the accommodation to ask. We also try to keep our accommodations listings on TongaPocketGuide.com as up-to-date as possible:
- The Top 30 Resorts in Tonga
- 10 Best Guesthouses in Tonga
- 10 Best Holiday Homes in Tonga
- 10 Best Budget Accommodations in Tonga
- 10 Best Family Accommodations in Tonga
- 10 Best Honeymoon Accommodations in Tonga
20. Sometimes, Your Accommodation Provider is the Only Way to Get Around
When you’re in a remote part of Tonga, such as ‘Eua, Ha’apai or any obscure off-shore island, you can often rely on your accommodation provider to get around. Public transport is limited to the main islands of Tongatapu and Vava’u, so getting a ride on your accommodation’s boat or a lift into town is usually the way to get around. The accommodations in ‘Eua, for instance, are well-known to transport guests to hiking trails around the island. Alternatively on these islands, bicycle hire is often available.
Learn more about getting around in the Tonga Transport Guide: 10 Ways to Get Around Tonga.
21. You May Need a Visitor’s Driving Licence to Drive in Tonga
On Tongatapu and the main island of Vava’u, ‘Utu Vava’u, you have the opportunity to hire a car and explore the islands at your own pace. However, be aware that you need a full valid driving licence from one of the visitor visa-exempt countries or else you will need to purchase a Visitor’s Driving Licence to legally be able to drive in Tonga. Driving licences can be picked up at the Ministry of Infrastructure building in Nuku’alofa or the Police Station in Neiafu.
Find out whether you need to purchase a licence in the article, Can You Drive in Tonga with an Overseas Licence?
22. Flights in Tonga Get Cancelled… A Lot!
Flights are the fastest and most comfortable way to get between the island groups of Tonga. However, they are not always reliable. Flights are often cancelled, whether it’s due to bad weather, the king chartering your particular plane, or a pig digging holes on the runway. If your flight is cancelled, you’ll just get rescheduled to the next available flight. But whatever you do, don’t book a domestic flight to connect with your international flight out of Tonga! Give yourself at least an extra day to get back to Tongatapu before departing the country.
For more information on flights, see The Guide to Flights in Tonga.
23. Ferries Don’t Stick to Schedules
While we’re on the subject of inter-island travel, ferries also have a few quirks you need to know about. First of all, there are different types of ferries, fast catamarans and sluggishly slow cargo boats. Make sure you know the differences between the ferries by wising up with our The Guide to Travelling in Tonga by Ferry.
Second, schedules for ferries change frequently, so look up the latest ferry times at the ferry terminals or the local Visitor Information Centres.
Third, even scheduled ferries turn up and depart whenever they’re ready to, so be sure to be ready for your ferry early – we’re talking super early! Ferry companies can be contacted by phone for the ETA and/or you can follow them on Facebook where they post ETAs.
24. The Quality of Car Rentals is Inconsistent
What are the car rentals in Tonga like? Well, we can’t give you a straight answer. There are relatively modern car rentals that follow all of the usual procedures and paperwork, while some cars are falling apart and are simply a case of “borrowing the keys”. Make sure you do a bit of research on car rentals before you commit. Check out The Guide to Renting a Car in Tonga for more tips.
25. Tipping is Welcomed But Not Expected
Speaking of tips, do you need to tip in Tonga? Tipping is not mandatory, but it’s always appreciated as a sign of gratuity. Gifts from your home country is another nice way to say thank you.
26. Enjoy a Connection with the Local Culture and Nature; Not WiFi
Having your face stuck to your phone screen is not an ideal way to experience Tonga, so luckily, the WiFi access in Tonga is pretty limited! Some accommodations offer WiFi; most of the time in a communal area rather than in your room, but most don’t. As for public WiFi, your best shot is going to one of the cafes in Nuku’alofa or Neiafu. But for online addicts, it’s not all doom and gloom as local SIM cards provide the best way to stay connected. Learn more in The Best SIM Card in Tonga For Travellers.
27. Keep Yourself and the Environment Safe
Essentials to pack for Tonga are both sunscreen and insect repellent. But with Tonga’s fragile marine life, not to mention some of the harmful active ingredients in standard sunscreens and repellents on your own skin, using natural and reef-safe products is a priority! Be a responsible traveller by only using natural mineral sunscreens and natural mosquito repellents that are “reef safe”.
28. Dress Respectfully
As mentioned, Tonga is a religious country, so dressing respectfully is important to Tongans. In fact, it’s illegal for men and women to be topless in public, except for if you’re in tourist accommodation. Swimwear should be kept to your resort, as Tongans swim at beaches fully clothed. It’s also more respectful to wear clothes below the knee when you’re outside of your resort. If going to church, wear something smarter like a shirt or a dress and cover the knees and shoulders.
Learn more about the cultural protocol in Tonga Etiquette: Respecting the Local Customs.
29. Tonga Can Be Enjoyed From 3 Days to 2 Weeks!
There’s never too much time to spend in Tonga (except for when your visa runs out). But even if you only have a long weekend to spend in the Kingdom, you’ll be surprised by at amount you can do on the main island. Just browse the following articles for different ways to spend your time in Tonga:
- The Best Tonga Itineraries for 2 Weeks
- The Best Tonga Itineraries for 1 Week
- The Best Tonga Itineraries for 5 Days
- The Best Tonga Itineraries for a Weekend
30. Know What You Can Take Home with You
The handicrafts in Tonga are just amazing, with everything unique and handmade with local materials. However, be aware of the biosecurity restrictions of your next destination, as some local souvenirs might not make it through Customs. For instance, shells and feathers are a typical no-no. However, popular Tongan crafts like tapa paintings, woven items and carved jewellery are usually fine. Learn more about Tongan souvenirs in our guide, Where to Find the Best Souvenirs in Tonga.
31. Make the Most of Tonga Pocket Guide
As Tonga’s largest travel guide, we’re here for you every step of the way! Get inspired by our Destinations guides to every single island group in Tonga to see where your wanderlust will take you.
Our Travel Tips section will give you all the practical advice you will need when planning your trip to Tonga. All your Tonga questions will be answered so you know what to expect when you arrive.
Looking for places to stay? Check out our Accommodation section where you’ll find the best options for all styles of travel: budget accommodation, luxury accommodation, bed & breakfasts, homestays, resorts, hotels, villas, apartments and much more!
Whatever your tastes, you’re bound to find your dream bucket list of activities in our Things to Do section. Our Things to Do page is split up into easy-to-digest sections where you can just browse the activities that you are interested in, including water activities, walking, tours, shopping, nature, food and drink, golf, fishing, Tonga culture, adventure and more added daily!
We make getting around easy with our Transport section, where you can find more information on buses, flights, ferries, vehicle rental, public transport, getting to Tonga and more.
Finally, whatever your taste and whatever your travel style, we’ve made the perfect Tonga itinerary in our Trip Ideas section. All the work has been done for you!
More Tips for Travelling in Tonga
That’s it for our official list of travel tips for Tonga but we’d be lying if we said that was all the tips we had for you. Check out the following guides for more useful advice on planning a trip to Tonga:
- How to Plan a Trip to Tonga
- What is it Like to Visit Tonga?
- 10 Essential Tips For Travelling to Tonga with Children
Finally, don’t leave without getting even more tips in The Complete Travel Guide to Tonga.