Backpacking Vanuatu on a Budget
Vanuatu on a Budget
The island nation of Vanuatu, with its flawless powdery white sand beaches, spectacular electric blue waters, awe-inspiring volcanoes and world-class wreck diving is one of the top travel destinations in the South Pacific.
You’re probably reading this because you have a dream like we did, to travel to one of Earth’s greatest island paradises.
But the million dollar question is: Can you travel Vanuatu on a backpackers’ budget?
Our answer: It depends…
We found that while backpacking through the islands of Efate, Espiritu Santo and Tanna you can live on a small food and accommodations budget but the inter-country transport between the islands will make or break your budget. Air Vanuatu is the only major airline operating between the islands at the time of writing and because of this their prices are “sky-high”! There is a great way to bring down these costs (which we missed out on) that we will share with you under our “Transport” section.
Flights aside, if you are willing to be flexible with where you sleep, exercise some restraint with scuba diving and other activities, take it easy on the booze and follow our tips, you should be able to get good value for your vatu. There is a pitiful lack of information on-line about backpacking this glorious country, so we wanted to share with everyone that it is doable and totally worth it!
The following expense category breakdown provides you with not only “Our Best Tips” on how to stay on budget but we also share our first hand experience on what you should “Expect to Pay”.
We start with accommodation because this one tends to be the highest daily expense, so reducing this figure will by far have the greatest impact on your budget.
Although Vanuatu isn’t setup well for budget travellers there are enough cheap guesthouses in the towns, and budget bungalows on the beach and jungles that you should be able to get by just fine.
Expect to Pay:
- Budget Guesthouses: $16-$30 USD per person for a private room often including breakfast
- Treehouse on Tanna (pictured above): $26 USD per person often including breakfast
Our Best Tips:
- Budget Guesthouses: Many of the budget options are not listed on the internet with only a few in Lonely Planet. The ones that are on Trip Advisor and have the highest reviews tend to book up fast so try to book well in advance for these ones. Otherwise we didn’t have too much trouble booking on a walk-in basis.
- Tree houses on Tanna: Very popular option amongst travellers for obvious reasons. Call ahead to book at least a few days in advance.
- Couchsurfing: Although we couchsurfed in Fiji, Vanuatu’s next door neighbour, we didn’t manage to land a couch here. There are hosts available (locals and expats alike) in the bigger cities so anyone who is part of this global network should give this option a shot well in advance of your stay.
- Air BNB: We love using Airbnb especially in countries where the accommodations are a little more expensive. It allows us to save money not just on accommodations but because we sometimes have our own kitchen, we save money on food as well. Plus, the owners are a wealth of information on the city and country and may even show you around. Let us refer you and you’ll receive $35 USD off your first Airbnb booking!
- Look For Homestay Opportunities: Some of the most memorable experiences we’ve had while travelling the world have come from home stays where locals have invited us to live with their families.We had the fastest invite perhaps in the history of home stays as the first share-bus we jumped after our flight into Port Vila had a very friendly lady who within ten minutes had invited us to stay in her family home.
- Locals are more than willing to have you stay in their home. Not only is this THE best way to experience the real ni-Vanuatu culture, but you will probably leave as an honorary member of the family. Before your stay, make sure that you and your host are on the same page when it comes to expectations for compensation. The hospitality we experienced was legendary and they expected nothing in return, so we cooked a meal and bought groceries for the family and gave them a token of our thanks on the last night
This is the section that destroyed our budget, so beware! Inter-country travel, specifically the flights between the islands are outrageously expensive. Unfortunately, Air Vanuatu is the only option for flights between the islands at the time of writing.
To get around the islands your best bets are share-buses, hitchhiking and hiring trustworthy locals to drive you. Taxis can be cheap if they use the meter but they typically will try to charge you inflated prices after claiming their meter is broken particularly from the airports.
SCAM ALERT: When you arrive into Port Vila Airport you may be told by not only the taxi drivers but the staff working at the information desk that you are “not allowed” to bring luggage onto the buses so you have to take a taxi into town which will cost you $31 USD! This is a lie. If you walk the short distance to the front of the domestic departures building you can catch a local bus to town for only $1.50 USD.
Expect to Pay:
- City Bus:
- Port Vila Airport to town centre: $1.50 USD (one way)
- One way across Port Vila: $1.50 USD
- Tanna Airport to town centre: $3 USD
- Long Distance Bus:
- Tanna: Unless you’ve prearranged a transfer to your guesthouse by Mt. Yasur, you will have to hire a driver to take you there. The prices vary wildly, we were able to get to Mt. Yasur for $13 USD per person but paid $26 USD per person to ride in the back of a pick-up truck on the way back to the airport via our guesthouse.
- Hitchhike: The general rule of thumb is that you pay them whatever you would have paid for the bus for the same distance.
- Taxi: Negotiable.
- Flying: Expect to pay approximately $200 USD per person (one way) between the islands with Air Vanuatu. Also note there is a $2 USD per person airport tax when flying within the country charged at the airpot.
- Rental Car (budget option): $80 USD per day.
Our Best Tips:
- Share-Bus: Cheapest and best way to get around Port Vila, Santo and Tanna. Simply wave down one of these share-buses (vans) and negotiate your rate and destination. Unless you are travelling a very long distance you should pay no more than a $2 or $3 USD per person.
- Hitchhike: Very common and known to be safe, hitchhiking is a great way to get around Vanuatu on the cheap. You should pay your driver whatever the bus fare would have been for the same distance. Be wary of guys stopping and saying they are “private taxis” because they will want to charge taxi rates, not bus rates.
- Taxi: Most taxis in Vanuatu do not have meters so make sure you negotiate your rate before you hire. Ask locals how much you should expect to pay before taking a taxi. As mentioned above, taxis from the airport are running a scam where they tell you that you cannot take luggage on a bus and therefore you have to take a taxi. They will then try and charge you $31 USD to town when the bus is only $1.50 USD.
- Flying: Air Vanuatu is the only game in town unless you hire a private plane. During peak season make sure you book your tickets in advance as the planes can be quite small. There is an “Island Hopping Pass” available from Air Vanuatu that will save you TONS of money. You won’t hear about this anywhere and we’re kicking ourselves for missing it.
- Inter-Island Ferries: We didn’t taking boats between the islands because of our time constraint (11 nights). I heard from the locals that they are cheap but unreliable and take at least a day to get between the islands.
- Rental Car: We highly recommend renting a car on Santo as the roads are in great shape and hiring a driver will cost you the same if not more money.
Reducing expenses in this realm is an easy way to whittle down your budget.
Make sure to eat local! Eating at food stalls, the markets and kava bars will help keep your budget in line. A must-eats in Vanuatu is “laplap” – meat, root starches & coconut milk cooked underground in traditional Ni-Vanuatu style. Kava, made from ground pepper root, is the most popular drink in Vanuatu and one you should try it at least once before you leave. Take it easy your first go around as it’s the strongest, most concentrated kava in the whole South Pacific. Another must-try is Tanna’s famous coffee grown in volcanic soil.
Expect to Pay:
- Kava Bars:
- Kava: Small shell: $0.50 USD Medium shell: $1 USD Large shell: $1.50 USD
- Food: Snack sized local food can be purchased for $0.50 USD – $3 USD
- Meals at Budget Accommodations: We found that most guesthouses will charge approximately $8 USD for lunch and $11 USD for dinner. Breakfast is sometimes included.
- Beer: Expect to pay $3-$5 USD for a bottle of local Tusker
- Water: Expect to pay about $2 USD for a 1.5L bottle
- Tanna (Local) Coffee: Expect to pay about $1 USD – $2 USD for a cup
- Street Food: (meat and cassava) will cost $1-$5 USD
- Food Stalls:
- Santo: Right next to the central market are a line-up of local food stalls open 24 hours. Expect to pay $3.50-$4.50 USD per meal.
Our Best Tips:
- Kava Bars: Kava is the country’s most popular drink. It is made from a ground pepper root, doesn’t taste great, but leaves you with a slight buzz, numb lips and tongue. Snacks at kava bars may just be the cheapest food option out there.
- Use Cooking Facilities – If the guesthouse or bungalow that you are staying at in Port Vila or Luganville has cooking facilities, make good use out of them.
- Water: Thankfully water is safe to drink in Vanuatu however in the more rural areas in may not be.
- Tanna Coffee: Tanna coffee is world-famous, delicious and costs a small fortune in New Zealand and Australia. You can buy bags of Tanna coffee from local markets on the island for dirt cheap. If you would like to see where the Tanna coffee plantation is, head toward White Sandy Beach. You can’t miss it.
- Local Markets: Local markets are the best place to find cheap produce. In our experience, they are very willing to barter with you.
- Efate: Central market in Port Vila is a great place to find cheap fruit, veggies and local food.
- Santo: The biggest market in Luganville is west of the main park (can’t miss it) and is a great place to find cheap produce. Right next to the market are multiple food stalls serving cheap local food and are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. This is your best bet for the cheapest food in town.
- Tanna: Massive market on Fridays in Lenakel. Only select stores open on Saturday, everything closed on Sunday.
Expect to Pay:
- Scuba Diving: S.S. President Coolidge Wreck offLuganville, Santo
- Aqua Marine & Allan Power $73 USD per dive including equipment rental
- Snorkelling: Expect to pay $3-$5 USD for a full day of rental at resorts.
- Santo Tour: Driver for full day tour of Santo will cost $60-$102 USD
- Champagne Beach: Entrance fee of $20 USD per vehicle
- Blue Hole: Entrance fee of $10 USD per person
- Millennium Cave: $72 USD per person for full day tour
- Mt. Yasur Volcano (pictured above): Entrance fee of $34 USD per person. Guide (not mandatory) $5 USD per person.
- Volcanic Ash Boarding at Mt. Yasur: $15 USD per person plus guide fee of $5 USD per person.
- Kustom Village Tour & Dance: $15 USD per person plus guide fee of $5 USD per person.
Our Best Tips:
- Scuba Diving: Like other parts of the world, better deals can be had if you purchase a package of four dives or more.
- Snorkelling: Bring your own snorkel gear if you can. Gear is typically not great and most resorts do a questionable job washing equipment between uses.
- Santo Tour: Do not hire a driver for full day in Santo. Very expensive and hitchhiking or waving down a share bus is easy and much cheaper.
- Champagne Beach: Although Champagne Beach is painfully beautiful, it does cost $20 USD per vehicle to access it. If you didn’t want to pay this, you could head to Lonnoc Beach which is not quite as stunning but free and right next to Champagne Beach. If you are heading to Champagne Beach on a Friday, make sure to ask ahead to see if the cruise ships are arriving that day as the beach will be packed.
- Mt. Yasur Volcano: One hour walk up from the main entrance. Not necessary to hire guide unless you are the last one to leave at night; the walk down from the crater is unmarked for the first 10 minutes. Bring torch, scarf or surgical mask, and long pants up to the crater as the wind and volcanic ash can be relentless. Only post box on a volcano in the world. Buy postcards IN ADVANCE at the post office/Western Union in Lenakel ($2.50 USD each).
A few important miscellaneous tips for backpacking Vanuatu on a budget.
Expect to Pay:
- Guesthouses/Hotels: Free at most guesthouses in Port Vila and Luganville
- Internet Cafes: $0.15-$1 USD per hour
- Efate: Multiple locations in Port Vila
- Santo: Multiple locations in Luganville
- Tanna: Three in Lenakel, the best value one is behind the TVL shop
- ATM Fees:
- Westpac: $5.50 USD per transaction
- ANZ: $5.50-$7 USD per transaction
Our Best Tips:
- Wi-Fi: Your best bet for decent wifi is in Port Vila as a fibre optic line from Fiji, laid down through the ocean, has reached Vanuatu’s capital city. In other parts of Vanuatu, including Luganville on Espiritu Santo, the wifi is very unreliable. Although I did speak to one expat who said that they expect the line to be extended to Luganville from Port Vila in the next couple of years.
- Banks & ATMs: ATM fees are ridiculously high in Vanuatu so make sure to minimize the amount of withdrawals you need to make while in the country. Also,Westpac has the lowest fees out of the all the banks we used (as per the pricing above).
- Efate: There are multiple ATMs at the airport and in the town centre of Port Vila.
- Santo: There are at least three ATMs in Luganville at the time of writing
- Tanna: There is one ATM in Lenakal which was working only half the time we were on the island and closed Sunday.
- Important Cultural Observations:
- Women dress very conservatively meaning skirts below knees and no sleeveless shirts
- It is a sharing culture, having fruit and peanuts to share with others goes a long way
- If you are a couple travelling, the local men will address the man first. Local women will address the woman.
- July 24-30 are the Independence Day celebrations. We were fortunate enough to be in Santo during Children’s Day which is a full on celebration honouring the children of the Vanuatu.
Our Numbers and Overall Recommendations
We spent 11 nights in Vanuatu and spent on average $103 USD per person per day. As mentioned, the inter-country flights absolutely killed our budget. We missed a HUGE money-saving opportunity with the Air Vanuatu Pass. I think it is important to note that our average per day spending drops all the way down to $53 USD per person when flights are excluded so if you can get yourself an Air Vanuatu Pass, have the time to take inter-island ferries or stay put on one or two islands, your overall spending will be greatly reduced.
We travelled between the islands via Air Vanuatu and took share-buses to travel around the islands of Efate, Tanna and Santo. During our eleven nights in Vanuatu we stayed primarily in private rooms in guesthouses and took part in a homestay for two nights in Port Vila.
We were cautious with our entertainment spending but we still had fun. We dove the SS President Coolidge wreck, trekked up to Mt. Yasur’s crater and enjoyed Champagne Beach.
We hope you’ve found this guide useful and that it assists you in travelling to Vanuatu on a budget.
Ross & Alyse
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