Money & costs
Your daily expenses will be affected markedly by how you travel, the type of accommodation you seek out, the sorts of eateries you frequent and how often you end up clutching a cold beer/wine/cocktail. Your choice of activities will also dramatically alter your budget - sitting on a beach costs nothing (except perhaps a small day access fee), but going on a diving trip or a surf safari obviously requires significant expenditure.
In Samoa, if you stay in midrange hotels interspersed with the occasional night in a standard beachside fale, buy all your meals from restaurants and hire a car to get around, you'll probably pay a minimum of ST160 per day (per person travelling as a couple). If, however, you stay almost exclusively in fale (particularly those that include two or more meals in the overnight rate), do at least some self-catering and bus it around the islands, you'll pay considerably less.
Due to American Samoa's reliance on the greenback, the costs here are higher than in Samoa. Using the same rough formula applied to Samoa - mainly midrange hotel or motel accommodation, restaurant meals and a hire car - you can expect to pay at least US$130 per person per day. In Tonga, for the same array of daily expenses you'll be looking at a minimum of T$125 per person per day.
While travelling anywhere within this region, always carry a supply of small-denomination notes. Bus drivers, kiosk and café proprietors, and villagers accepting payment for beach use can't be expected to change big bills.
Tipping is not part of everyday life in Polynesia and is not expected or encouraged in the Samoas. It is, however, deemed acceptable for exceptional service at finer restaurants.
Tipping and bargaining are not the usual custom in Tonga, though in some tourist facilities they do occur. Dances are an exception; take plenty of T$1 and T$2 notes to stick on the oiled arms of dancers. While tipping is an excellent way to show your appreciation (many Tongans put tips towards paying school fees), a few palangi-run businesses attempt to guilt-trip tourists into tipping staff to supplement measly wages, while the management charges top dollar for services.
Samoa applies a 12.5% VAGST (Value Added Goods & Services Tax) to most commodities and to hotel and restaurant prices. This is almost always included in marked prices, though some top-end accommodation and eateries will add it to your bill.
All such prices in Tonga include a recently introduced 15% GST.
The tala, which is divided into 100 sene, is the unit of currency in use in Samoa. Because of Samoa's proximity to American Samoa, the most acceptable foreign currency is the US dollar, which is normally negotiable in shops, restaurants and hotels. (Indeed, some hotels quote their rates in US dollars so they don't sound so expensive!) Banks will exchange just about any hard currency, but most preferable are US, New Zealand and Australian dollars, and pounds sterling.
The US dollar, divided into 100 cents, is the currency used in American Samoa.
Hardly anyone uses travellers cheques in either Samoa because of the presence of internationally linked ATMs in main towns.
The three main banks in Samoa and those that change travellers cheques and foreign currency are the ANZ Bank, Westpac and the National Bank of Samoa. At Faleolo Airport there are currency-exchange branches that open to coincide with most incoming and outgoing flights. All the banks charge a small commission for changing travellers cheques.
In American Samoa you can exchange money in Pago Pago at the Bank of Hawai'i and the ANZ Amerika Samoa Bank. Both charge around 2% commission on travellers cheques. There is no exchange office or ATM at Tafuna International Airport, so make sure you have some US currency when you arrive.
Tongan banknotes come in denominations of one, two, five, 10, 20 and 50 pa'anga (written T$1, T$2 etc). One hundred seniti make up T$1 and these coins come in denominations of one, five, 10, 20 and 50 seniti.
The banks are open from at least 9am to 3.30pm or 4pm weekdays; in Nuku'alofa and Neiafu some open from 8.30am to noon on Saturday as well. Money can be changed at the Treasury offices on the more remote islands of Niuatoputapu and Niuafo'ou.
A currency exchange window at the airport on Tongatapu is open for all international arrivals and departures.
Both ANZ and Westpac Bank of Tonga have ATMs in Nuku'alofa which accept credit and debit cards from Visa, MasterCard and Cirrus. ANZ's Neiafu branch has an ATM inside the bank, available during business hours. Don't leave it until your last seniti to access money - ATMs can be fickle.
Currency exchange is relatively straightforward. Australian, Fijian, New Zealand and US dollars and pounds sterling are the most easily exchanged currencies (both cash and travellers cheques), but euros and yen are also widely accepted in Tonga. Surprisingly few businesses accept payment in anything but Tongan pa'anga.
Credit cards are accepted at many tourist facilities (attracting a 5% fee), with MasterCard, Visa and American Express the most common; JCB is also accepted. There are ATMs with Visa, MasterCard and Cirrus facilities in Nuku'alofa (Tongatapu) and Neiafu (Vava'u).
Cash advances using MasterCard and Visa can be obtained at the Westpac Bank of Tonga in Nuku'alofa, 'Ohonua ('Eua), Pangai (Ha'apai) and Neiafu. In Neiafu and Nuku'alofa you can also get cash advances at the ANZ bank should you not be able to use the ATM. MBF only gives advances on MasterCard.
EFTPOS (Electronic Funds Transfer at Point Of Sale) credit/debit is less widespread in Tonga.
Given the amount of money sent home by Tongans overseas, it's no surprise that two multinational money-transfer companies are heavily represented in Tonga. Western Union (www.westernunion.com) has dozens of offices, while MoneyGram (www.moneygram.com) is represented by the Bank of Tonga. Check their websites for contact details in your home country. Services are quick (a matter of minutes) and straightforward.
Travellers cheques are the best way to carry your travel funds in Tonga. They fetch 4% to 5% more than cash, with a nominal transaction charge of only 10 seniti per cheque (compared to the 4% to 5% charged for credit card transactions). All brands of travellers cheques are acceptable.