Money in the South Pacific

Cook Islands dollarsMost South Pacific airports have banks changing money at normal rates and the most convenient currencies to carry are Australian, N.Z., and U.S. dollars, although all major currencies are accepted. If you’ll be visiting American Samoa, be sure to have enough U.S. dollars in cash or traveler’s checks to see you through, as whopping commissions are charged on foreign currency. Banks in French Polynesia, Samoa, and New Caledonia also charge exorbitant commissions. Euros in cash are the best currency to carry to the French territories as they’re changed into CFP at a fixed rate without any commission (commission is charged on Euro traveler’s checks).

Most banks in the towns and at many airports have automated teller machines (ATMs) outside their offices and these provide local currency at good rates against debit cards associated with the Cirrus, Maestro, and Plus networks. The charges can be deducted from your checking account automatically so you avoid interest charges. Be aware, however, that both your bank and the one providing the ATM may charge a surprisingly high fee for each transaction. Ask your bank how much they take and find out if you need a special personal identification number (PIN). Occasionally the machines don’t work due to problems with the software and your password’s numbers may not correspond to a foreign ATM’s numerical keys. To avoid emergencies, it’s better not to be completely dependent on ATMs.

If you want to use a credit card, always ask beforehand, even if a business has a sign or brochure that says it’s possible. Visa and MasterCard can be used to obtain cash advances at banks in most countries, but remember that cash advances are considered personal loans and accrue interest from the moment you receive the money. The use of bank cards such as Visa and MasterCard is expensive in Samoa and Solomon Islands because those currencies aren’t recognized internationally. Thus the charge must first be converted into N.Z. or Australian dollars, then into your own currency, and you’ll lose on the exchange several times. Never use a credit card to pay an airport tax, even if it’s allowed, as it will be treated as a cash advance and subject to service fees. Some cards have a daily limit that may be too low to cover large purchases and they’re difficult to replace if lost.

When you rent a car the agency will probably ask you to sign a blank credit card charge slip as security on the vehicle. Room reservations are also commonly guaranteed by credit card. Whenever you provide your credit card number–especially if the company actually uses your card to make an imprint on a charge slip–you should let the charge go through and not switch to paying in cash at the last minute. All too often, such charges are processed “by accident” even though you paid in cash, and it’s always a hassle trying to get things like this straightened out weeks or months later, even if you still have a signed cash receipt.

Upon departure avoid getting stuck with leftover banknotes, as currencies such as the Fiji dollar, Pacific franc, Solomon Islands dollar, Vanuatu vatu, Samoan tala, and Tongan pa’anga are difficult to change and heavily discounted even in neighboring countries. Change whatever you have left over into the currency of the next country on your itinerary, but try to not to have to do it at the airport as they may not have the currency you need.

Cost-wise, you’ll find the Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and Solomon Islands to be the least expensive South Pacific countries, with French Polynesia and New Caledonia consistently dearer. The lack of budget accommodations makes the price of a visit to American Samoa stiff, while in Vanuatu it’s the cost of interisland transportation that breaks your budget.