If you want to see a few of Vanuatu's islands, chances are you'll fly at some stage. Outside of Efate, Santo and Tanna, 'airports' have grass runways; most don’t have electricity or even chairs. Apart from Vila, Santo’s Pekoa, Pentecost’s Lonorore and Tanna’s Whitegrass airports are some of the better equipped.
Flights from Port Vila to domestic destinations usually depart from the domestic terminal next to the Bauerfield International Airport. Check-in is open until 30 minutes before departure).
The Way to Fly
Flying with Air Vanuatu, much like Vanuatu itself, is one fantastic adventure. The propellers whizz while you skim over volcanoes, crater lakes, coral reefs, rugged coastlines and ocean carpet, before coming to a bumpy landing on a grass airstrip. You may be seated next to nervous men with bush knives on their knees and share the cabin with all manner of cargo.
Strange stories abound. Flights to Futuna were cancelled for a while as the grass on the airstrip was too long for safe landing but the island lawnmover needed a spare part – to be delivered by plane. And when a mate was needed for the crocodile living in Sulfur River on Vanua Lava, a tranquillised croc was loaded into the plane. A bit big for the small plane, its head went through into the cockpit and rested between the two pilots.
Planes are frequently cancelled or delayed and might fly to remote islands once a week, but if you're flexible, flying is a fast, affordable and fun way of getting around the islands.
Vanuatu’s domestic airline Air Vanuatu (www.airvanuatu.com) has offices in Port Vila, Luganville and Lakatoro.
Air Vanuatu’s safety record is not great, though there have been only two fatal accidents since 1991. The domestic fleet ranges from the 70-seater ATRs to 19-seater Twin Otters.
You can download Air Vanuatu’s domestic flight schedule from the website, but it's not always up to date, so check ahead. Some flights (including those to Tanna and Santo) can be booked online. For flights to other islands or to arrange a complex itinerary, email requests to email@example.com. Show your international flight ticket with Air Vanuatu to receive a 20% discount on domestic flights. Children under 12 years and students receive a 50% and 25% discount respectively (take your student card).
If your itinerary is tight, it can pay to book well in advance, but if you're flexible it's often possible to get on a flight with a day's notice.
A number of charter companies offer flights:
Air Safaris Runs tours and is available for charter.
Air Taxi Runs tours and is available for charter.
Belair Airways Vanuatu's newest scheduled airline with a single nine-seater plane.
Unity Airlines Flies tour groups to outer islands and is available for charter.
Domestic-flight departure tax costs 200VT per person, payable in cash at the airport before each departure.
With roads on most of Vanuatu’s islands not even suitable for cars or 4WDs, you’d have to be very keen to take on Vanuatu by bike. Still, mountain bikes can be hired in Port Vila and Luganville and are useful for getting around town on their respective sealed roads.
Canoe & Speedboat
When ni-Vanuatu talk of speedboats, they mean outboard-powered dinghies. These can take on short interisland travel if weather conditions are favourable. Make sure there are life jackets.
Speedboat prices are high (fuel is expensive), so it’s best to wait for a scheduled service or combine with a group of other travellers rather than charter. In many places it’s easier to travel by speedboat along the coast than by road, and in some places, including Ambrym, it’s the only way to go.
Canoes are paddle-powered dugout craft with outriggers and can be used to get to smaller outlying islands.
Big Sista Weekly service between Port Vila and Luganville (9000VT, 25 hours) on a 33m passenger vessel. Departs Port Vila at 1pm on Mondays and stops at Epi (5600VT), Paama (6100VT) and Malekula (7600VT). Children go half-price. You can pay an extra 500VT to upgrade to business class (indoor air-conditioned seat with movies).
Vanuatu Ferry Weekly service between Port Vila and Santo (8000VT), departing Vila at 9pm on Mondays and stopping at Malekula (6500VT).
The Long Trip Home
If you have chartered a boat to travel out to the islands and the date for your international flight home from Port Vila is set in stone, consider returning by air. Seas change too dramatically to guarantee meeting such a deadline.
Minibuses with a red ‘B’ on their number plates operate in Port Vila, Luganville and northeast Malekula. They don’t run along fixed routes but zoom to your destination (if you’re lucky; it can also be first in, first delivered). Flag them down by the roadside (150VT for short trips). In central Port Vila these minibuses can create traffic jams so are often slow for short trips.
There are informal but regular bus services around Efate (including some that depart Port Vila in time to connect with speedboats to Pele and Nguna). A service also departs up the east coast of Santo.
Car & Motorcycle
The only places you can hire self-drive cars, 4WDs and scooters are in Port Vila and Luganville.
The minimum age for renting a car is usually 21 (25 for a dune buggy); for a scooter it’s 18.
Driving Efate's Ring Rd or Santo's East Coast Rd is easy, but off these routes you may be hampered by a lack of road signs, up-to-date road maps or any indication of where the road finishes and a ravine starts.
You don’t need an International Driving Licence; a valid licence from your own country will suffice to drive in Vanuatu.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Petrol costs about 150VT per litre in Port Vila and Luganville. Outside these townships it is not possible to get spare parts and nearly impossible to find a mechanic, so it’s important to check your hire vehicle before heading off and to ensure you have the phone number of the hirer.
Insurance is always added to the car or motorcycle hire – at an additional cost – by law. Take a note of any dings or damage and check your tyres (and the spare) before setting off.
Port Vila and Luganville have a speed limit of 50km/h, which is easy to stick to given the number of super-slow taxis and minibuses you’re sharing the road with. Elsewhere, speed is dictated by road conditions – it's usually not much more than 10km/h. Vehicles drive on the right; steering is on the left.
Since most vehicle owners on the islands derive an income from delivering people and goods, hitching is really just catching ‘public transport’ (ie you’ll have to pay).
Taxis (marked with a red 'T' on their number plates) are mostly sedans in Port Vila and Luganville, but elsewhere they’re 4WD trucks with open trays at the back. Charges depend on distance, but also on the state of the road. Ask your driver for a price. To charter the whole truck will be expensive but local taxi truck fares are cheap.
A short trip in Port Vila might cost 400VT, but a day charter will cost between 8000VT and 12,000VT. On ‘cruise-ship days’ prices can explode; leave your trip until the ship port is empty.
Local taxis (4WD trucks) meet flights at island airstrips, but may not be around on Sundays, public holidays, when there’s no fuel on the island or when there’s a major celebration happening.