GETTING TO TAHITI IS NOT HALF THE FUN

June 25, 2002 12:00 am
Book helped prepare for trip. ().
Book helped prepare for trip. ().

By BILL LUNDQUIST

This won't be the most entertaining installment in this series, but it could be the most useful.

We've already established in part one why a trip to Tahiti is necessary to fulfill your life. You can believe that or not, but I've been there, and I'm sticking to that line.

When I say Tahiti, however, I mean any or all of the 188 islands in five archipelagos that make up French Polynesia.

My wife and I spent most of our week in paradise on Moorea, 12 miles across the Sea of Moons from the main island of Tahiti.

We prepared for our trip for six months, searching the Internet for bargains, talking with our travel agent, reading guide books, studying brochures, getting shots that weren't required, getting passports that were, learning Tahitian and French phrases, and packing a list of items that took up 50 lines of notebook paper.

It wasn't nearly enough. Every minute of preparation paid off, but we still faced lots of unanticipated problems.

Credit that to the Byzantine system of travel in Tahiti. Unless you really know your way around these islands, you need to buy a package.

The major international hotel chains in French Polynesia (ours was the French chain Sofitel Coralia) get together with the airlines (ours was Air Tahiti Nui) to sell combined air/lodging/meal packages.

Tahitian tour companies (ours was Marama Tours) fill in the details like transportation, luggage handling and sightseeing tours.

The complete package is then marketed in the United States by a dozen different companies. Ours was the oldest and largest, Islands in the Sun.

The packages have the same number and cost no matter which company you go through.

You buy the packages through your local travel agent, in our case Pelican Bay Travel on Chetco Avenue.

You can also buy the packages directly over the Internet, but you won't save any money, and you won't get the nifty flight bags sent by the companies. You also won't have anyone to help you when things fall apart, and they will.

You see, French Polynesians are the least detail-oriented people in the world. They have a saying, "Aita e pea pea." It's the same as the Australian "no worries mate."

For tourists, it means "no problem," in the sense that first you pay, sign your bill or present your credit card, then what follows is no concern for those who are supposed to provide the services.

We paid for our package in full in February. We bought our connecting flights to Los Angeles (all flights to Tahiti go out of Los Angeles) in March when fares were low.

Our first exposure to Tahitian business practices came about five weeks before our June 2 departure date.

Air Tahiti Nui moved its departure time up by 10 hours. We lost our nonstop connecting flights.

We'd paid a fortune for an extra night in our overwater bungalow on Moorea, but that suddenly became a night in an average motel room in Tahiti, with no refund.

We also now had to pay extra to stay overnight in Los Angeles near the airport, and had to fly to Portland to get to Los Angeles, which meant paying extra tax to fly to where we didn't want to go.

Pity poor Kerie Schaefer, a relatively inexperienced travel agent. She'd tried to talk us into going to Mexico, but we hadn't listened.

Now she was faced with a ballistic customer and immovable Tahitian companies. Sofitel and Islands in the Sun said it wasn't their problem, talk to Air Tahiti Nui.

Schaefer fought for days on our behalf, and secured a promise from Air Tahiti Nui that if there were any empty first-class or business-class seats, we would be put in them.

They wouldn't believe a word of it at the Los Angeles airport, where they even double-sold our economy-class seats.

On the return flight, they saw the notation in the computer, but the few business-class seats on the plane were taken.

On both flights, we were given some of the worst seats on the plane, but they are all bad.

Business-class seats cost about twice as much as economy-class, but take my advice and pay the difference.

All return, and most outgoing, flights fly all night. Unless you are younger than 30, and/or weigh less than 110 pounds, you won't be able to get into or out of economy-class seats.

The legroom is strictly for double amputees. Rude French, and American, tourists will recline their seats all the way into your chest, even before take-off, trapping you in an iron lung for the duration of the flight.

Only one American airline flies to Tahiti, and that is out of Honolulu. The French airlines are all pretty much the same.

Because they are so very French, however, the airline food is excellent, comparable with the finest restaurant meals in Brookings.

The package tours themselves can be just as frustrating as the airlines.

Pelican Bay Travel can supply you with material from several companies outlining their tours, but it also pays to search the Internet for specials that even the travel agents may not know about.

Beware, however, the all-inclusive deals that give you air transportation, lodging, meals, beverages and tours for one price.

These work like HMOs. In theory, you don't have to worry about a thing because you've already paid for everything.

In reality, once the companies have your money, they have no incentive to give you anything.

The only thing you have to prove you've paid for anything is a small booklet of voucher coupons.

Make sure you do what we didn't do and make several photocopies of the vouchers. The coupons tend to get "lost" at the hotels.

Even if the coupon is in plain sight, and written in plain English (which only serves to infuriate the French), every item is open to interpretation. "Included" beverages never seem to be what you want to drink.

The tour companies also don't tell you there is a price limit on meals. You pay extra if you exceed it.

Unfortunately, no one can tell you exactly what that limit is, so you never know when you might exceed it.

In French Polynesia, there is a separate charge for soup, salad, entree and dessert. They can easily add up to $50 per person per meal.

You may find, however, as we did, that the heat and humidity suppress your appetite. Fruit or salad and a drink may well satisfy for lunch. Fruit, yogurt and a croissant may do for breakfast.

These meals can be had for less than $10, but with the all-inclusive package, you've already paid $50 whether you use it or not.

As for the tours themselves, there is a lot to do on the land and sea, and in the air.

You may find that the tours in the all-inclusive packages are not what you want to do when you reach your island.

Take my advice: buy the air/lodging packages and charge the rest to your credit card when you get there. You'll save money in the long run.

I'll give you more travel tips as we tour the islands. In the next installment, board the plane with us and find out why it's all more than worth it in the end.