How to Plan the Best Trip to Tonga
Tonga: the only Kingdom of the South Pacific, a land rich in culture and history and waters richer still in marine life and dramatic seascapes. From gazing upon an ancient megalithic structure to hiking deep into the tropical forest to feeling your toes in the sand of an island’s idyllic beach, the islands are as diverse as they are beautiful. But anyone that knows anything about Tonga might have heard that it’s one of the very few places to have the life-changing and humbling experience of swimming with humpback whales. In a way, that steals the thunder of the incredible scuba diving and game fishing the waters provide too. But that’s Tonga.
How do you start planning a trip to these off-the-beaten-track South Pacific Islands? This complete travel guide to Tonga will go over the five island groups of the Kingdom and how you can start planning in your own unique travel style.
About Tonga in Six Quick Facts
Location: Tonga is in the South Pacific in the continent of Oceania. Tonga is directly south of Samoa and two-thirds of the way between Hawaii and New Zealand.
Size: 750 km² (290 mi²) of land scattered over 700,000 km² (270,000 mi²) of ocean.
Climate: Daily average temperature – 26°C/79°F, yearly average rainfall – 1,600mm/63″.
Find out more in What is the Weather Like in Tonga?
Time zone: TST / GMT+13.
Find out more in What is the Tonga Time Zone?
Find out more in Who are the People of Tonga?
Languages: Tongan and English.
Find out more in The Guide to the Tongan Language.
Frequently Asked Questions About Tonga
What are the questions most travellers have about visiting Tonga?
Can I Go to Tonga Right Now?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions are in place at the borders of Tonga. Visit the Government of the Kingdom of Tonga‘s website for the latest travel information.
Is Tonga a Safe Place to Visit?
Tonga is a country with low levels of crime. Nevertheless, sensible measures should be taken to ensure personal safety, whether you’re in public or swimming at the beach. Learn more in Is Tonga Safe for Tourists? and How to Keep Safe in Tonga.
Is Tonga Expensive to Visit?
Tonga is more expensive than Southeast Asian countries but cheaper than many other South Pacific Islands, as well as New Zealand and Australia. Compare prices in our guide, Tonga Travel Budget: How Much Does a Trip to Tonga Cost?
Which is Better, Tonga or Samoa?
Often compared when it comes to South Pacific holidays, Tonga and Samoa both have their charms. Samoa receives more tourists, therefore, has a better-established selection of accommodations and resorts. Tonga, on the other hand, offers more adventure experiences, particularly famous for its whale swimming.
Why Should I Visit Tonga?
There are several reasons why you should visit Tonga, including that it’s world-renowned for its whale swimming, the culture is unique and immersive, Tonga has incredible scuba diving and snorkelling, and the list continues in the 10 Amazing Reasons to Visit Tonga.
How to Get to Tonga
First things first, you’ll need to see if you are actually able to travel to Tonga due to restrictions put in place at the borders after the COVID-19 outbreak. Visit the Government of the Kingdom of Tonga‘s website for the latest travel information.
Next, what is the best way to get to Tonga? Tonga can be accessed by flight, cruise ship or private sailing yachts. The most popular way to get to Tonga is by international flight, so let’s start with that.
Flying to Tonga
Direct international flights to Tonga come from New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, Samoa and American Samoa. If you’re coming from further afield, connecting flights can be made in New Zealand, Australia and Fiji. See our guide, Which Airlines Fly to Tonga? for more advice on flying to Tonga.
Most international arrivals land at Fua’amotu International Airport on the island of Tongatapu, 21km (13 miles) from the nation’s capital, Nuku’alofa. A limited number of flights also arrive at Lupepau’u International Airport in Vava’u, about 10km (6 miles) from Neiafu. Find out more about these airports and the best one to fly to in What Are the Airports in Tonga?
Cruises to Tonga
Tonga is on the itinerary of several South Pacific cruises from New Zealand, Australia and the US, as well as round-the-world cruises from the US and the UK. There are two ports of call in Tonga, one in Nuku’alofa on Tongatapu and the other in Neiafu in Vava’u. Find out about which cruiseliners have Tonga on their itinerary, as well as what to do at each port of call in The Guide to Taking a Cruise to Tonga.
Sailing to Tonga
Tonga is situated at the centre of a Transpacific journey between the US and New Zealand. The yachting season is between May and October. Learn about the sailing formalities and the ports of entry in The Sailing Guide to Tonga.
A Note on Customs Declarations
Tonga has strict biosecurity measures at the border to stop unwanted pests and diseases from entering the country. Therefore, anyone arriving in Tonga has to declare any “risk items” they have packed in their luggage – even common items like food and sports gear. Be sure to read up on Everything You Need to Know About Arriving in Tonga so you are prepared.
Check out our complete guide on How to Get to Tonga for even more tips on making your way to the islands of Tonga.
The Best Time to Visit Tonga
Tonga is a tropical country and experiences warm temperatures throughout the year. It has two distinct seasons, a dry season that is drier and cooler, and a wet season that is hot and humid. Learn much more about the weather and climate by month in What is the Weather Like in Tonga?
Dry Season (May to November)
The dry season is also known as the winter season in Tonga, although many would not describe it as winter with temperatures around 19-29°C (66-84°F). The rainfall per month is an average of 110mm (3.9″). The dry season is also the time for whale swimming and the clearest visibility for scuba diving.
Wet Season (December to April)
The wet season is hotter and more humid, with temperatures around 23-31°C (74-88°F) and an average monthly rainfall of 210mm (8.3″). This is also Tonga’s cyclone season, which means there’s a risk of cyclones (but only a risk).
So when is the best time to travel to Tonga? Check out our complete guide, The Best Time to Visit Tonga, which dives deeper into the subject.
What to Pack for Tonga
The main thing you need to keep in mind when packing for Tonga is having a tropical wardrobe that includes some more modest items of clothing for exploring Tonga’s towns and villages. A packing list for Tonga might look a little something like this:
- Shorts/Skirts/Dresses (some below the knee for leaving the resort)
- Singlets/T-Shirts (some to cover the shoulders for leaving the resort)
- Sarong (lavalava) for a quick cover-up
- Light sleepwear
- Light jacket/Cardigan/Pashmina for cooler evenings
- Light fleece jumper (something to keep warm after swimming from a boat)
- A smarter outfit covering the shoulders and knees if going to church
- Clothes to travel in
- One-piece swimsuit for watersports/village stay
- Rash vest
- Reef shoes
- Walking shoes
- Light cotton shirt to cover arms and protect from the sun and mosquitos
- Light rain jacket/Small umbrella
And that’s just the clothes! For a full packing list of everything to take, including accessories and toiletries, check out The Complete Packing List for Tonga.
With questionable drinking water, high UV levels and the presence of mosquitos, certain health products are essential to take to Tonga. Tonga also has a fragile marine ecosystem so natural sunscreens and repellents are a must, while reusable water purification bottles are preferable to buying bottled water for obvious environmental reasons. See our health essentials packing list in What Medication to Pack in Your First Aid Kit for Tonga.
The currency in Tonga is Tongan Pa’anga. You will need to be prepared to get by on cash for much of your stay as this is often the only payment method accepted. There are ATMs in the four main towns of Tonga. Get more money tips in What is The Best Way to Pay in Tonga?
Do You Need a Visa to Visit Tonga?
For citizens of around 70 different countries, the answer is no. You just need to arrive in Tonga with a valid passport. Citizens not of visa-exempt countries will need an Entry Permit. Find out more in Do You Need a Visa to Visit Tonga?
How Long to Spend in Tonga
Tonga might make for an idyllic boutique resort getaway to simply relax for a few days – and that’s fine; we all need to R&R from time to time. Most travellers, however, are here to explore and experience some of the most dramatic culture and wildlife experiences in the South Pacific. With that in mind, here’s what you can achieve in certain timeframes… (And don’t worry, we’ll get onto the destinations in the next few sections).
3 Days / A Long Weekend in Tonga
Over a long weekend, you have enough time to see the highlights of Tongatapu. Check out The Best Tonga Itineraries for a Weekend for a compilation of itineraries.
5 Days in Tonga
Start by exploring Tongatapu, then head to one of the outer islands, such as the nearby ‘Eua, for a couple of days. See The Best Tonga Itineraries for 5 Days for trip ideas.
7 Days / One Week in Tonga
Visit two island groups to experience two sides of Tonga. Flights and ferries connect the main four groups on a regular basis so take your pick! Get some inspiration on what to do and where to go from The Best Tonga Itineraries for 1 Week.
14 Days / Two Weeks in Tonga
Adventurous travellers can visit as many as four major island groups of Tonga. See The Best Tonga Itineraries for 2 Weeks for a whole list of exciting itineraries.
Where to Visit: Tongatapu
Tongatapu, the “Sacred South”, is the southernmost and most populated island group in Tonga. Not only is it home to the Kingdom’s capital, Nuku’alofa, but it is the main arrival island to launch you into exploring the country.
The main island also goes by the name Tongatapu, which is the most developed and home to some of Tonga’s most famous historical and natural sights, such as the ancient Ha’amonga ‘a Maui trilithon and the natural cave swimming pool ‘Anahulu Cave.
Although the most developed of the islands, you can still find idyllic sandy shores backed with resorts on the western side of the island, while some of the outer islands also have resorts to either stay or visit on day trips.
Most of Tongatapu’s big-ticket activities depart from Faua Wharf in Nuku’alofa, including whale swimming, scuba diving and fishing charters. Other attractions are the cultural floor shows at resorts, the Talamahu Market in the city and snorkelling/island-hopping tours.
Take a look at more of what Tongatapu has to offer in The Complete Guide to Tongatapu and in the capital in The Complete Guide to Nuku’alofa.
Plan Your Trip to Tongatapu in Your Travel Style
Like the sound of Tonga’s cultural and historical hub? Start planning your trip your way with one of our guides for each style of travel:
- The Guide to Tongatapu for Families
- The Guide to Tongatapu on a Budget
- The Food Guide to Tongatapu
- The Luxury Guide to Tongatapu
- The Adults-Only Guide to Tongatapu
- The Honeymoon & Romantic Getaway Guide to Tongatapu
Staying in the Capital?
Plan your stay in Nuku’alofa with these guides:
Where to Visit: ‘Eua
Tonga’s third-largest island, ‘Eua (pronounced “ay-wah”) is a nature lover’s paradise, famous for its large tract of tropical forest in the ‘Eua National Park, as well as its array of natural attractions.
‘Eua sits some 40km (23 miles) off the southeast coast of Tongatapu, making it an easy island to get to by ferry and flight. The island is much less developed than Tongatapu, but that’s the beauty of it, with only a handful of accommodations – all of which are budget.
The ‘Eua National Park can be explored through hiking and 4WD tours, while there are more natural wonders to discover on foot, between limestone cliffs dappled in caves to rock gardens inhabited by wild horses.
That’s not to say that the must-dos in Tonga aren’t available in ‘Eua, as it has the longest-running whale season in Tonga for whale swimming and also holds the largest sea cave in the South Pacific for scuba diving.
Learn more about this ancient island in The Complete Guide to ‘Eua.
Plan Your Trip to ‘Eua in Your Travel Style
Want to see the wild side of Tonga? Start planning your trip in your unique style with the following appropriate guide:
Where to Visit: Ha’apai
Looking for the white sands, swaying coconut palms and turquoise lagoons that you see on Instagram or the brochures? Well, they’re here in the islands of Ha’apai.
This central island group is made up of 62 islands, only 17 of which are inhabited. Lifuka is the main island and home to the island groups main town, Pangai. Visitors are also likely to either stay on the causeway-connected Foa Island or at one of the resorts on the nearby uninhabited island of Uoleva.
Aside from relaxing in a hammock on the beach all day, travellers to Ha’apai can hire bikes to check out some of the historical sites, such as an ancient fortress and memorial sites, around the flat islands. Resorts can organise village tours to see how real island villagers live.
On the water, the lagoons in front of the resorts offer a spectacular playground for watersports, including kayaking, snorkelling, stand-up paddleboarding and especially kitesurfing. And yes, Ha’apai does have its fair share of whale swimming tours, scuba diving trips and fishing charters.
Learn more about visiting these idyllic islands in The Complete Guide to Ha’apai.
Plan Your Trip to Ha’apai in Your Travel Style
Want a toes-in-the-sand getaway in Tonga? Start planning your trip to Ha’apai your way with the most appropriate travel guide for you:
Where to Visit: Vava’u
Travel approximately 130km (80 miles) north from Ha’apai and you’ll reach the island group of Vava’u, 50 islands compacted together seemingly breaking off the tentacle arms of the large main island, ‘Utu Vava’u.
Vava’u is arguably the island group that put Tonga on the map in terms of the country’s remarkable water activities. It’s the island group with the most whale swimming tours, the most fishing charters, the most scuba diving operators, island-hopping tours and more. Vava’u is also renowned for being one of the best sailing grounds in the South Pacific thanks to its labyrinth of inlets, sheltered bays and compacted islands.
Flights arrive on ‘Utu Vava’u, a short drive from the island group’s main hub, Neiafu, sitting on the shores of the Port of Refuge Harbour. The town’s highlights include the bustling market awash in unique handicrafts and the Mt Talau National Park which begs a short climb to the top of incredible views of the Port of Refuge.
Visits to Vava’u can go one of two ways: an urban stay in Neiafu with easy access to the wharf’s boat tours or staying on one of the idyllic outer islands otherwise uninhabited except for a boutique resort.
Find out more about visiting Vava’u in The Complete Guide to Vava’u.
Plan Your Trip to Vava’u in Your Travel Style
Like the sound of Tonga’s adventure capital? Check out the following guides to start planning in your travel style:
Where to Visit: The Niuas
Finally, the most intrepid of travellers may be intrigued by the islands of The Niuas. Made up of just three islands, The Niuas consist of Niuatoputapu and its volcanic-coned neighbour Tafahi, which is approximately 300km (190 miles) north of Vava’u. There’s also Niuafo’ou which sits 100km (60 miles) west of the other islands.
The Niuas are a snapshot of what the Pacific used to be, with villages made up of traditionally thatched fales (bungalows), fishermen bringing in the food and only receiving the occasional visitors. Flights to Niuatoputapu are once every fortnight, even less to Niuafo’ou, while ferries head to the islands once a month at best.
There is one guesthouse in Niuatoputapu. Otherwise, a stay here is a true local’s experience where you’ll be immersing the community, joining cook-outs, taking trips into the forest to find ‘Ofata (grubs) to eat, hiking to volcanic hilltops, snorkelling among undisturbed coral and more.
Needless to say, The Niuas is a journey you’ll have to pave for yourself. Nevertheless, you can start to learn a bit more about these far-flung islands in The Complete Guide to The Niuas.
How to Get Around Tonga
Tonga might not have an overwhelming number of island groups but the distance between each is quite substantial with around 180km (110 miles) between Tongatapu and Ha’apai and 130km (80 miles) between Ha’apai and Vava’u. Not to mention, Tonga’s larger islands are well worth exploring on land. So how do you get around Tonga?
To get between island groups, flights operate daily except Sundays. They are the fastest and most comfortable way to get between islands, therefore the most expensive option. Learn more about flying between the island groups in The Guide to Flights in Tonga.
Cargo-style boats and fast catamaran passenger ferries travel between Tongatapu, ‘Eua, Ha’apai and Vava’u several times a week. They are cheaper than flying but trips can last several hours. See The Guide to Travelling in Tonga by Ferry to learn much more about this transport method.
Car rental is available in Tongatapu and Vava’u. We have The Guide to Renting a Car in Tonga to give you more rental car advice.
Taxis are available in Tongatapu and Vava’u. Ask for the going rate, as many don’t use meters. See The Guide to Taxis in Tonga for more tips.
Buses are ultra-cheap, providing a local experience to get around Tongatapu and a more limited service on Vava’u. We have a guide for that too, in How to Travel Around Tonga By Bus.
There are a lot more ways to travel around Tonga between resort transfers and guided tours, so be sure to browse our Tonga Transport Guide: 10 Ways to Get Around Tonga for more advice.
Accommodation in Tonga
Tonga’s accommodations are intimate with the exception of one large hotel in Nuku’alofa. Choose from beachfront resorts typically consisting of only two to seven fales (beach houses), while guesthouses provide a cheap and homely experience. Holiday homes, villas and even backpacker hostels are also available in Tonga.
Typically lining a beach or private island, Tonga’s resorts are small and tranquil. Most have either an à la carte-menu restaurant or a dining room where shared meals are served. Many resorts will offer their own array of free and paid experiences, such as whale swimming, scuba diving, use of watersports equipment and more. Resorts are by no means five stars but range from basic traditionally built fales to well-appointed bungalows. Learn more about what to expect from Tonga’s resorts in How to Pick the Best Resort in Tonga for You. Plus, don’t miss The Top 30 Resorts in Tonga.
Found in each island group’s main towns, guesthouses are usually owned by locals providing affordable and authentic Tongan hospitality. Guests have a private room, sometimes with an ensuite, and share communal facilities like a kitchen and bathroom. Find out more about their facilities in How to Pick the Best Guesthouse in Tonga for You, as well as our top picks in the 10 Best Guesthouses in Tonga.
For travellers seeking their own space and perhaps conveniences like self-catering facilities, choose one of the holiday homes in Tonga. Holiday homes can be cost-effective for large groups and families. Check out How to Pick the Best Holiday Home in Tonga for You for more details. Plus, be sure to browse the 10 Best Holiday Homes in Tonga.
Hotels offer an alternative accommodation option in Tonga’s two largest towns, Nuku’alofa and Neiafu. They range in quality from one international brand hotel to three-star boutique hotels to budget hotels. Check out How to Pick the Best Hotel in Tonga for You for more of an overview or jump straight to our favourites in the 10 Best Hotels in Tongatapu and 5 Best Hotels in Vava’u.
Things to Do in Tonga
Tonga hooks most travellers with the prospect of swimming with humpback whales but there’s much more to this island nation. You never know, after browsing our 101 Best Things to Do in Tonga: The Ultimate List you might just realise that there are amazing experiences even outside of the whale season.
A quick overview of the things to do in Tonga includes:
- Swimming with whales – take boat tours to snorkel with whales between June and October
- Scuba diving – choose from tens of dives sites, from coral formations to caves
- Snorkelling – snorkel over coral reefs from shore or on snorkelling boat tours
- Game fishing – the South Pacific’s largest pelagics can be caught on fishing charters in Tonga
- Markets – Handicraft and produce markets are the centre of communities in Tonga making for an enriching cultural experience
- Historical sites – Tonga is home to some of the South Pacific’s most ancient sites, from megalithic structures to royal tombs
- Natural attractions – limestone caves, blowholes and more spectacular natural features can be found in Tonga
- Sailing – Tonga and especially Vava’u are some of the most iconic sailing grounds in the South Pacific
- Kayaking & SUP – Join tours or hire these watersports equipment from your resort to explore the coast and reefs
- Kitesurfing – Ha’apai and Vava’u offer flat lagoons and ideal trade winds for kitesurfing
- Surfing – Hit uncrowded reef breaks on Tongatapu and Vava’u or do some beach surfing in Ha’apai.
Again, you’ll find much more inspiration from our 101 Best Things to Do in Tonga: The Ultimate List so get on there!
Food in Tonga
Tonga’s restaurants can be found in Nuku’alofa and Neiafu, as well as some of its resorts. They typically have international influences, such as Italian, American, British, Chinese and more, as well as local Tongan dishes. Check out our top dining picks in The Guide to the Best Eats & Restaurants in Tonga.
Tongan food can be sampled at Tongan restaurants in Nuku’alofa, at cultural shows and buffets on Tongatapu, on cultural tours in Ha’apai, and at Sunday umu feasts in ‘Eua and Vava’u. Check out which meals to look out for in the 6 Unique Foods in Tonga You Have to Try.
Self-catering is often an option at some accommodations, where travellers can pick up food from small supermarkets, fale koloa (convenience stores), and produce markets. Get advice on self-catering in our guide on Where to Buy Food in Tonga.
Want to know more about dining in Tonga? Head to The Guide to the Food in Tonga.
Typical Costs and Travel Budget: How Much Does Tonga Cost?
We all travel very differently. Therefore, making a precise budget for everyone is, quite frankly, an impossible task. Nevertheless, you can work out your own needs, thus budget, by simply looking at the typical prices listed below or in our article, Tonga Travel Budget: How Much Does a Trip to Tonga Cost?
The Cost of Accommodation
- Dorm bed/night – TOP$19-$30
- Guesthouse single room/night – TOP$50-$70
- Guesthouse double room/night – TOP$60-$90
- Guesthouse double ensuite/night – TOP$100-$120
- Hotel double ensuite/night – TOP$200-$350
- Mid-range resort fale (bungalow)/night – TOP$280-$400
- Family room or villa/night – TOP$180-$550
Get more accommodation prices in What is the Cost of Accommodation in Tonga?
The Cost of Food
- Main breakfast meal – TOP$10-$20
- Main lunch meal – TOP$14-$30
- Main dinner meal – TOP$20-$40
- Pint of beer – TOP$8-$10
- Small coffee – TOP$5
- Cocktail – TOP$13-$19
- Non-alcoholic drink – TOP$5
Grocery prices for self-catering can be found in What is the Cost of Food in Tonga?
The Cost of Tours and Activities
- Guided land sightseeing tour – TOP$75-$100
- Guided hike – TOP$70
- Culture tour/3 hours – TOP$75
- Botanical gardens tour – TOP$35-$50
- Cultural show & buffet – TOP$35-$55
- ‘Anahulu Cave entry – TOP$15
- Massage/60 minutes – TOP$90-$235
- Whale swimming tour – TOP$350-$690
- Scuba diving/two-tank – TOP$300 -$420
- Game fishing/half-day – TOP$455-$600
- Guided boat sightseeing/snorkel tour – TOP$120-$355
- Kayak hire/day – TOP$0-$140
- Snorkel hire/day – TOP$0-$25
- Sailing charter 2 guests/night – TOP$200-$690
Get more examples of activity prices, as well as free activities, in our guide, What is the Cost of Activities in Tonga?
The Cost of Transport
- Bicycle rental/day – TOP$0-$30
- Scooter rental/day – TOP$50
- Car rental/day – TOP$40-$150
- Public bus/trip – TOP$0.70-$3
- Taxi/30 minutes – TOP$30-$50
- Accommodation/airport transfers – TOP$4-$60
- Ferry/Tongatapu to Vava’u – TOP$80-$150
- Island resort airport transfer – TOP$60-$230
- Flight/Tongatapu to Vava’u – TOP$350
Get transport prices for more routes in our guide, What is the Cost of Transport in Tonga? And again, check out our guide, Tonga Travel Budget: How Much Does a Trip to Tonga Cost? for more budget tips and costs.
Plan a Tonga Trip According to Your Travel Style
Finally, this wouldn’t be the best travel guide to Tonga without taking into account that everyone likes to holiday differently. Here at Tonga Pocket Guide, we have travel guides for all styles of travel, including budget travellers, luxury travellers, honeymooners, families, adults-only and foodies. If one of these fits your style, then jump ahead to the appropriate travel guide:
- The Travel Guide to Tonga for Families
- The Travel Guide to Tonga on a Budget
- The Luxury Travel Guide to Tonga
- The Food Guide to Tonga
- The Honeymoon & Romantic Getaway Guide to Tonga
- The Adults-Only Vacation Guide to Tonga
Happy travels and thanks for reading this travel guide to Tonga! You might also like our 31 Tips for Travelling in Tonga.