With some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met, gorgeous beaches and hidden caves, the Kingdom of Tonga is simply one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Here’s everything you need to plan your own trip to Tonga.
The Kingdom of Tonga deserves a spot on your “must-visit” list.
For me, it’s the place where my dream of swimming with humpback whales became a reality.
Palm-fringed beaches, cliffs plunging into the ocean, sparkling blue seas heaving with life and beaming smiles. Those are the memories etched in my mind.
There’s a rich history here, and a future that’s being mapped with an eye to sustainability. Whether you’re visiting to swim with whales or simply want to discover more of what this beautiful Pacific Nation has to offer, this post will help.
From how to get to Tonga, to what the weather’s like, what to see and where to stay, here’s everything you need to know before you travel to Tonga.
NOTE | The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano caused a tsunami and significant damage to Tonga’s infrastructure in January 2022. This had major impacts on a country already struggling after the pandemic. Many businesses may no longer be operating as normal so check before you travel.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU TRAVEL TO TONGA
TONGA TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
A kingdom of islands in the South Pacific
Easily accessible from NZ, Australia and Fiji
Visit from July-Sept to swim with migrating humpback whales
The only Pacific Nation to never be colonised
Where is Tonga?
Tonga is more properly known as the Kingdom of Tonga. If you were to draw a line from New Zealand to Hawai‘i, then you’d find Tonga sitting about one-third of the way along it as you travelled from NZ.
An archipelago, made up of about 170 islands, it’s spread over a vast area of the Pacific Ocean. Extending about 800km north to south, it’s comparable in size to Texas. Only 0.1% of that vast area is land though!
36 of the islands are actually inhabited.
Tonga’s closest neighbours are the other Pacific Nations of Fiji and Samoa. It’s about a 3-hour flight from Auckland and 4.5 hours from the east coast of Australia.
The capital city is Nuku’alofa, in the Tongatapu island chain, and this is where the majority of their 105,000 strong population live. Tonga was first inhabited around three thousand years ago, but the island of ‘Eua is around forty million years old!
Why visit Tonga?
Relaxed and friendly, life in Tonga happens at a slower pace. It’s the last remaining Polynesian Kingdom and remains the only Pacific Nation to have never been colonised.
People here respect the land and ocean that sustains them, and family comes first. With so many islands and such a small population, there are enough beaches that you’re sure to find one just for you. If you’re so inclined, you could even stay on your own private island!
The whale migration tends to be the biggest draw for visitors to the islands, and it’s an incredible experience. Tonga remains one of the few places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales, and there are several tour agencies throughout the island groups which offer this.
Islands of Tonga
There are four island groups in the Kingdom, each with its own unique characteristics.
The Tongatapu Group
The most southerly group in the country, this is where you’ll find the main island of Tongatapu. Tonga’s capital, Nukuʻalofa, is here. This is where you’ll find the main airport connecting the country with New Zealand and Australia.
Tongatapu is the economic centre of the country, and home to the government, royal family, and the majority of the population. More money is spent here than elsewhere in the country, so tourist facilities tend to be a little better.
Many people simply use Tongatapu as a jumping-off point for the rest of the country, but it has easily accessible historical areas and a whole lot of charm.
A quick boat ride from here you’ll find ‘Eua. This is a smaller island with some fantastic hiking that’s also well worth a visit. Much more laid back, this is the place that you go to get away from it all without travelling to the more distant islands. It’s one of the oldest islands in the Pacific at 40 million years old. There’s an endemic red parrot (the koki), unique plants, ancient jungle and hidden caves to explore.
The Ha’apai Group
Just north of Tongatapu, this area is less visited. The waters are incredibly clear here and it’s a wonderful place to dive. I recommend checking out Matafonua Lodge and Sandy Beach Resort.
The whale watching here is wonderful during the winter months. Ha’apai is precisely the sort of place that people expect when you tell them you’re going to the South Pacific. With endless white sand beaches and the bluest of oceans, it’s the perfect place just to kick back and relax.
The Vava’u Group
This is the most popular group for photographer-led whale swimming tours. With direct flights from Fiji, it’s the most accessible group for those coming from North America.
Most people will be based on ‘Uta Vava’u which is the main island. The main town of Neiafu is here and it’s where most of the whale swim boats depart from. This is where I stayed on my first visit.
The Niuas Group
The most northerly chain of islands, these are the hardest to access. At the time of writing, they’re basically cut off from international travel.
When to visit Tonga
Tonga has a tropical climate, so it’s a great place to visit year-round.
TIP | Tongan summer (Nov-April) is low season with storms common in the islands. Plan your trip for Tongan winter for more settled weather and to see the whales.
Summer in Tonga is from November to April and is warmer (up to 33°C/91°F), wetter and more humid than the winter months (17-22°C/63-72°F). Summer is also cyclone season, and these tropical weather events can be severe.
Northern Tonga is tropical and subject to more extreme weather events than the subtropical south during the summer months. Storms can wreak havoc on the northern islands during the summer.
If you want to see and swim with the humpback whales as they migrate, then you’ll need to time your visit accordingly.
READ THIS | Swimming with whales in Vava’u
The humpbacks start arriving in the islands in late June and stay until October when they leave for their feeding grounds further south. August and September are usually considered the best months to see the whales.
Every year, the Heilala festival is held during the week of the king’s birthday (currently the first week of July) and is a great chance to experience the traditions and unique culture of Tonga.
How to get to Tonga
There are three main international flight routes to Tonga.
Direct flights depart from Auckland (NZ), Nadi (Fiji) and Sydney (Australia). Flights may be restricted to specific days of the week on some routes.
Flying to Tonga from New Zealand
You can take a direct flight with Air New Zealand from Auckland into Tonga’s capital, Nukuʻalofa. The trip is only about 3 hours.
Flying to Tonga from the US and Europe
The most convenient way to do this for most will be to take a flight to Tonga from LAX. Fiji Airways operates an LAX-Nadi flight which you can then take onwards to Vava’u. This is your best option for swimming with whales during the winter.
Travel within Tonga
Domestic flights in Tonga are currently non-existent. Real Tonga was the domestic airline for many years and, quite frankly, terrible. It went bust in 2020 and was replaced by a government-funded airline, Lulutai. This also appears to no longer be operational.
Currently, there are rumours that Air Vanuatu will purchase Lulutai and restart Tonga’s domestic flights. It remains to be seen if that will happen.
For travel between the islands at the moment, your only option is to take the ferry. Check with the Friendly Island Shipping Agency for current timetables and tickets.
Driving in Tonga
The roads on Tonga are fairly good between main centres, but some of the hiking routes and more isolated villages are more likely to be on dirt roads.
Public transport is basically non-existent, but you’ll find plenty of taxis and people willing to help you get from a to b. You can easily hire a car on Tongatapu or Vava’u, and you should be fine in a standard 2WD for most places.
Tongans drive on the left, like the UK. The speed limit is 40km/h in town and 70km/h on open roads.
Technically you require a Tongan Overseas Drivers Licence which needs to be purchased within 48h of arrival. You can obtain this at the Ministry of Infrastructure on Bypass Road, Vaololoa for T$40. Information is hard to get, but it seems that most people don’t bother, and car hire companies will accept your home licence.
Visas for Tonga
Visitors from NZ, Australia, the UK, USA and many other countries can stay in Tonga for 31 days without a visa. Other countries may require a visa, and you can check if you need to get one here.
6 Special Things to do and see in Tonga
Go to church on Sunday
This is one of the few times that you’ll find me insisting on religious participation!
The entire service is likely to be conducted in Tongan, and you won’t understand a word, but the celebration and singing is out of this world.
Our host in Tonga told us that unless you’re in danger of losing your voice, you haven’t sung your hymns properly.
It’s a beautiful community occasion and something that’s truly unmissable. Ask at your accommodation if you can go to church with them on Sunday, or simply head for the nearest church on Sunday morning. Most services start at 10.
Swim with Humpback Whales
I cannot stress enough how incredible it is to share the water with these gentle giants. If you have the chance to get to Tonga for the annual migration between June and October, then you absolutely should make it happen.
You can swim with whales from all of the major island groups – there are fewer operators in the southern islands and more in Vava’u. The Tongan government has been tightening up the laws that are in place to protect both the whales and the Tongan people in recent years.
Snorkelling and SCUBA Diving
An extensive reef surrounds the islands and there are loads of caves to explore. Tonga is also a snorkelling paradise.
Tongatapu has five marine reserves and two island parks that are protected by law. Ha’apai has plenty for the more adventurous, with caves, canyons and tunnels with vertical walls to explore.
Vava’u has a bit of everything, with an added wreck just off the coast for even more fun!
Get out on the water
An island nation really presents the perfect opportunity to get out on a yacht!
You can charter boats for the day or even have an entire liveaboard holiday if that’s what takes your fancy!
If sailing is out of your budget, then you can hire a kayak or SUP for the day and enjoy your own little slice of Pacific paradise.
There are several national parks in Tonga, but ‘Eua probably wins the prize for best hiking.
Hikes range from 3-7 hours. Although you can attempt the trails on your own, you should consider hiring a local guide. Not only will they provide invaluable local knowledge, but it’s also a great way to contribute to the local economy.
Island Day Tours
These are offered on many of the islands as a way of learning about the local way of life.
A day tour on Tongatapu is a fantastic introduction to the history and culture of this beautiful nation. You can either hire a car and drive yourself, book through the Friends Tourist Centre or arrange the tour with a taxi driver at the airport.
If choosing the latter, then be sure to negotiate the price before you set off – it should be T$200-300 depending on duration.
Where to Stay in Tonga
Accommodation in Tonga ranges from hostels to luxury private islands and everything in between. Some of the islands are more set up for tourism than others.
Booking ahead is recommended, and many places do have websites. It’s much more reliable to contact your chosen hotel or hostel by telephone!
NOTE | Many properties were destroyed by the tsunami in Jan 2022 so may no longer be operating.
BOOKING YOUR TRIP | If you book your trip via my links I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you, which helps keep me on the road. Thanks for your support – Cat.
Holty’s Hideaway | A small family-run resort with friendly dogs, a pool and an onsite cafe. There’s free use of kayaks and snorkelling gear for guests. They’ll arrange airport pick-up for you as well as book island tours and fishing trips. From T$250 (US$100)
House of Tonga | This property has beautifully presented private rooms with air-con, free wifi and breakfast included. From T$250 (US$100)
Dayspring Lodge | With free breakfast and wifi this is a great location for exploring the island. It’s just 10 minutes from Nuku’alofa and a good budget option. From T$120 (US$50)
Taina’s Place | Tongan owned and operated, this is a truly authentic homestay. From T$20-110 (US$8-46)
The Hideaway | locally owned with a focus on sustainability and immersion in local culture. From | T$75-150 (US$32-63)
The Village Backpackers | Dorms with shared bath and private rooms with a bathroom in a central location. From T$40-70 (US$16-30)
Boathouse Apartments | Cute apartments close to the boat wharf and Mango restaurant, with air-con and reliable wifi. Also has great views over the harbour. From T$235-330 (US100-140)
Mounu Island | This private island resort is featured in the tourism campaigns for the country and is a perfect slice of luxury. From T$420-780 (US 290-325)
Uoleva Island | Family-run, locally owned, and a genuinely traditional Tongan experience | T$30-50 (US$13-21)
Matafonua Lodge | Beachfront accommodation with fabulous snorkelling right outside your front door. With local community support, they’ve just established a no-take marine reserve in the lagoon around this property and their sister resort, Sandy Beach (below). From T$275-525 (US$115-220)
Sandy Beach Resort | There’s solar hot water, greywater for the organic garden, and locally caught fish delivered each day to the private beach. Must be paradise! From T$635 (US$265)
Where to eat in Tonga
For fresh produce, you’re best off purchasing from the markets that are located in the main centres. Larger supermarkets will have a selection of fresh goods, but many of the smaller shops have nothing but fast food and snacks.
Ota Ika is a traditional raw fish dish you should try, similar to ceviche, but with the addition of coconut milk and is delicious! Eating out as a vegetarian is a challenge here, and vegans may find it even more difficult.
Friends Cafe | Great little cafe with a wide selection of food and drink and great coffee. Closed on Sunday
Cafe Escape | A more casual setting with cabinet food available. Closed on Sunday
Frangipani Korean Restaurant | For something a little different! Closed on Sunday.
Waterfront Restaurant | Specialises in seafood with an Italian vibe. Open on Sunday
Liku’aolfa Restaurant | Attached to a resort, they have a fun cultural night and are open on Sunday!
Bella Vista | Beautiful views and a focus on delicious Italian food. Closed on Sunday.
Mango | Waterside with an extensive menu, including vegetarian options. Open on Sunday.
The Basque Tavern | Spanish tapas with a Tongan twist! Closed on Sunday
Cafe Tropicana | There’s something for everyone here, and they’ll provide provisions for your yacht too! Closed on Sunday
The Tongan Beach Resort | A wide selection of food with an incredible beachside location. Open on Sunday.
Mariner’s Cafe | With a Polish chef, homemade sausages and pasta, and homegrown veggies, it’s well worth a visit. Open Sunday evenings.
Matafonua Lodge | Seafood, pizza, burgers and veggie-friendly, there’s something for everyone here. Reservations are required for dinner. Open Sundays.
Sandy Beach Resort | The fresh seafood is the star here! Open Sundays
The Hideaway | The onsite restaurant here will cater to your dietary requirements with enough notice. Guests can also use the kitchen. Open Sunday.
Amenities on ‘Eua are minimal, and you should either expect to prepare your own food or contact your accommodation to find out what is available.
Money matters in Tonga
The local currency in Tonga is the pa’anga, also known as T$ or TOP.
You can check your current exchange rate at xe.com (I use their app when I travel too). There are numerous ATMs across the islands with ANZ, Westpac and Western Union in most larger towns.
You can exchange money here so long as you have a photo ID with you. My preference is to withdraw money from a local ATM using a card that doesn’t charge me for overseas transactions. Having said that, ATMs are limited in Tonga, especially on the outer islands.
Visa and Mastercard are accepted at most major hotels, restaurants and activities, but much of Tonga still runs on a cash economy. You’ll be better off assuming that you won’t be able to use your card and carry sufficient cash for your excursions.
Is Tonga Expensive?
Not as expensive as Australia and New Zealand, but more so than larger Pacific countries. Here’s an idea of some average prices.
- Hostel or shared room in guesthouse T$25-30
- Private room in guesthouse T$50-80
- Mid-range hotel T$150-250
- Top-end hotel T$300-400
- Local meal T$10-20
- Western-style meal with drink T$40-60
- Food shop for one for a week T$100-200
- Soft drink T$3
- Beer and cider T$7
- Bottle wine T$20
Tipping is not expected but is appreciated for excellent service.
Staying Connected in Tonga – mobile wifi and data
Tonga has a lot of things, but reliable wifi is not one of them.
Most homes don’t have wifi, and even accommodation that promises free wifi can struggle to provide it. If you depend on data while you’re overseas, then you’ll need to have a back-up plan.
You can organise a package with your telco provider at home, but that’s not what I would recommend. I’ve found that it’s almost always cheaper and more reliable to get a local SIM.
If you arrive at the international airport in either Tongatapu or Vava’u, then you can purchase a SIM at the airport. There are also Digicel stores in the major towns of Nuku’alofa and Neiafu. I paid T$50 for 15GB of data which lasted 30 days, and T$5 for the SIM.
You can see Digicel’s data plans here. Purchase some local minutes too – you’ll want to call taxis, make restaurant bookings and contact your accommodation in case of emergency.
When I visited Tonga, I was with a group of Americans, all of whom had paid for data before travel. Not a single one of them was able to access it, whereas I had no issues at all with my local SIM except when we were in isolated locations. Just something to bear in mind!
What to Pack for Tonga
The activities you’ll be participating in will obviously dictate what you take with you. Here are some items that I consider essential for a trip to Tonga:
- Sunscreen. High SPF and reef-safe.
- Hat. If you’re planning on getting on a boat, make sure there’s some way of securing it to your person! I nearly lost mine overboard.
- Reef shoes. Tonga is volcanic, and there’s a lot of reef surrounding the islands. Your feet will thank you for keeping them safe.
- Insect repellant, especially if you’re visiting in summer!
- Snorkel, mask and flippers.
- Dive certification card and regulator if you’re planning on diving.
- Universal plug adaptor suitable for Aus/NZ. Note that Tonga runs on 240V power. Don’t fry your gear if you’re coming from the US – check that it runs on dual voltage before you bring it.
- Any prescription medication you might need, along with a basic first aid kit (include sinus spray and swimmers ears if you’ll be freediving or diving).
This will be dependent on why you’re visiting Tonga. If you want to swim with the whales and get video but aren’t expecting to use it for a major tourism campaign, then a GoPro strapped to your wrist will be fine.
For those taking a DSLR and underwater housing, I’d suggest a combination of fish-eye and zoom lens for in water shooting. For prime lenses then 20mm is a good choice. A 16-35mm zoom gives you more options for beautiful close-up imagery.
When taking shots top-side or from shore, you’ll need something with a much better zoom range, such as a 70-200mm or even 100-400mm lens. I’d recommend taking a second body (if you have one) on the boat with this lens attached. You won’t want to be swapping out lenses with wet hands in the middle of the ocean!
Responsible Travel in Tonga
Learn some language basics
Tongan is the official language of the Kingdom of Tonga, but most people also speak fluent English on the main islands. It’s a good idea to learn a couple of basic phrases – hello, please and thank you get you a long way.
If you’re going to the outer islands, then you could try using Tradukka to help with translation. You’ll need to be connected to the internet, though!
Hello – Mālō e lelei
Please – Kātaki
Thank you – Mālō
Ethical whale watching
Whale tourism is obviously the big draw here. Be aware of the local rules and regulations, and always listen to your guide and captain.
No single use plastic
Illegal dumping, plastic waste and general littering are a big problem in Tonga, and most of it ends up getting blown into the ocean. Make sure that you don’t add to the problem.
Ask for drinks without straws, take your own tote bags and purchase items that aren’t wrapped in plastic at local stores. None of us needs to be the one to fix the problem, but we can definitely not contribute to it!
The Tongan people are relatively conservative in dress and attitude – a hangover from the days of the missionaries. Sunday is set aside for worship and rest, and everything basically closes at lunchtime on Saturday and doesn’t open again until Monday morning.
Unless you’re on the beach, you should be dressing reasonably modestly, and always cover your shoulders if you’re going to church.
Tourists are given a bit of leeway when it comes to what we wear, but it’s still nice to be considerate. You’ll be able to work out what’s acceptable by seeing what the locals are wearing. It’s illegal to go topless in Tonga as a man unless you’re at the beach! Women shouldn’t go topless even at resorts here.
Other than opting for locally run accommodation and activities, you can donate to VEPA an NGO working to protect Tonga’s environment through engagement with local communities. The Tonga Leitis Association is a locally run group campaigning for sexual health and human rights in Tonga that you can donate to. You could also support an individual in Tonga through Kiva’s microfinancing platform.
Is Tonga safe?
Crime levels in Tonga are low, but you should exercise the same safety and security measures that you would at home. If you’re not sure whether somewhere is safe then ask a local you trust for advice.
Always listen to your gut instincts – if a place feels dodgy, then you’re probably best off avoiding it.
As always, make sure that you have comprehensive travel insurance, including coverage for medical evacuation. Tonga is a long way away from a large and well-equipped hospital, and you’ll need to be airlifted for most non-basic medical issues.
Recently there have been catastrophic cyclones in the country, as well as the volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami. You’re much more at risk from nature than the locals here.
Health Essentials in Tonga
Tap water in Tonga is safe to drink at hotels and restaurants, but if you’re concerned, then you could bring a Steripen or Lifestraw along with a reusable bottle. Plastic waste is a massive problem on the islands as there’s not really anywhere to put it other than the oceans. Don’t add to the pollution.
Other than a tetanus booster if you’re due, there are no specific vaccinations recommended for Tonga.
There are mosquitoes and ticks present in Tonga, and you should protect yourself against these. My recommendation is to wear long sleeves and trousers and use mosquito repellant, especially at dawn and dusk during the summer months.
There is currently a risk of contracting Zika virus in Tonga. The virus is carried by mosquitoes and poses no issue to the majority of travellers. Zika is of particular concern in pregnancy, and you should generally avoid countries where you might be exposed to Zika if you’re pregnant. You can find out more here.
The sun can be fierce in this part of the world, and you should always wear high SPF, reef-safe sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat. Make sure that you stay well hydrated, as heat stroke here could be a disaster.
Further Reading before you visit Tonga
For planning, I recommend the Lonely Planet guidebook covering Tonga, Rarotonga and Samoa. You can find it here.
Vice has a fascinating look at the way missionary work has influenced the development of Tonga, and some of the challenges faced there today.
Leitis, indigenous transgender women, play a hugely important role in Tongan society. PBS aired a documentary featuring Tonga’s most famous, Joey Jolene Matele, and you can learn more about her work here.
Tonga really is the most beautiful country, and your visit will help get them back on their feet after the catastrophic few years they’ve had recently. Let me know if you find that any of these businesses are no longer operational. Please leave a comment with any advice or recommendations for other travellers!
MEET THE WHALES | Ultimate Guide to Swimming with Whales in Vava’u
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t go anywhere without it! I use and recommend Safety Wing.
THOUGHTFUL TRAVEL | No matter where you go, try to always be aware of the fact that travel impacts the place and people that live there. Being a thoughtful traveller is more important than ever. Here are my top tips to make your trip a mindful one.
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love my photos and want to know how to take better shots on your own trips? Then my photography guide is for you. Here’s all the photography gear I use too. Want to buy one of my images? Head to the Print Store.
ESSENTIAL GEAR | You’ll find my travel essentials here, and a complete guide to all my hiking gear here.
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