To say Tuvalu is off the beaten tourist track is an understatement. Your friends will probably have to Google “Tuvalu travel” when you tell them you’re going. If they (or you) have heard of it at all, it’s probably because its main claim to fame is that, like other low-lying island nations (come on down, Kiribati and the Maldives), it’s in danger of being one of the first countries submerged by rising sea levels due to climate change. But there’s more to this tiny nation than the fact that its highest point is only three metres above the high tide mark.
Here’s another reason to visit: Tuvalu reminds you what it’s like to be a traveller again. It’s the kind of place where you’re shown around by people you meet, not tour guides. Because there are no tour guides. Nor are there any tour operators, organised activities or tourist information centres. (There is, however, a tourism website for Tuvalu travel: www.timelesstuvalu.com). You’re more likely to meet an expat working for a tuna fishing boat or an NGO than another tourist.
There are sights to see and things to do, however, and plenty of places to stay: a government-owned hotel and about a dozen family-owned guesthouses on the main atoll and homestays on other islands (which are accessible only by passenger ferry, which departs Funafuti every fortnight). In fact, the best way to get your bearings is by talking to your hosts; because Tuvalu was once a Commonwealth territory, everyone speaks English (see below).
In short, Tuvalu travel is a make-it-up-as-you-go, tag-along-with-the-locals deal, which makes for an authentic un-tourist experience.
Start with these Tuvalu Itineraries
Tuvalu in 5 Days … Getting the most out of Funafuti atoll
1. Tuva-who? Tuvalu is a remote island nation in the Pacific Ocean. It’s just south of the Equator, west of the International Date Line, two hours by air north of Fiji and part of the Commonwealth. It consists of nine islands and atolls (three true islands and six coral atolls), of which the main one is Funafuti, an atoll with the country’s only airstrip. Visitors are issued with a free 30-day tourist visa on arrival, and there’s no departure tax.
2. Cash is king. The local currency of Tuvalu is the Australian dollar, with Tuvaluan coins featuring Queen Elizabeth II on one side and local marine creatures such as turtles, octopus and flying fish on the other. There are no ATMs and credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere, so it’s cash-only even at hotels and guesthouses.
3. Speak easy. Most Tuvaluans speak English, even if they’re shy of using it, and all signs are in English. Still, it’s a good idea to learn a few words of Tuvaluan as an icebreaker, such as “talofa” (hello), “fafetai” (thank you) and “fetaui” (see you later).
Tuvalu is just south of the Equator and has a tropical climate year-round. The temperature rarely gets below 30 degrees Celsius, day or night; most accommodation has air-conditioning.
When to go: There is no distinct “high” or “low” season in Tuvalu, but during cyclone season (November to March), expect daily rain showers. It’s also a good idea to avoid visiting in late February, when King Tide events, often coupled with storm surges, can cause flooding in low-lying areas.
How much time to spend: The twice-weekly flights to Tuvalu from Fiji determine the length of most stays. Because flights arrive on Thursdays and Tuesdays, and few visitors will stay for fewer than two days (because it takes at least two days to get there), the usual duration of stay is five or seven days. Given the size and number of attractions, five days is plenty, unless you wish to visit Tuvalu’s outer islands, then you’ll need at least a month because of the unpredictable passenger ferry schedule.
Weather & climate: The weather doesn’t vary much throughout the year: it’s always hot (a little over 30C) and humid. It’s a good idea to do as the locals do and rest in the heat of the day; it’s called “Pacific exercise” in Tuvaluan.
What to pack & wear: In Tuvalu you dress for the sun and the heat. Think long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and sunscreen. Don’t forget your swimming costume. Most hotels supply towels. Try to dress modestly; most Tuvaluans wear short sleeves and long skirts or pants.
Health & Safety: There’s no malaria, no poisonous snakes or spiders, and no rabid dogs, but there are plenty of mosquitoes and flies, particularly on Funafuti’s smaller islands. If you hear an air-raid siren, don’t panic! It’s a way of clearing the unfenced airstrip of pedestrians and motorbikes before one of the twice-weekly Fiji Airways flights lands.
Language: Most Tuvaluans speak English, even if they’re shy of using it, and all signs are in English. Still, it’s a good idea to learn a few words of Tuvaluan as an icebreaker, such as “talofa” (hello), “fafetai” (thank you) and “fetaui” (see you later).
Religion: Christianity is big in Tuvalu, which has several implications for travellers: don’t start eating before someone says grace; be prepared to be invited to a church service if you’re there on a Sunday, followed by a traditional family lunch at someone’s house; shops are generally closed on Sundays; and there’ll be a bible at your bedside wherever you stay. It’s also a good idea to dress modestly, like the Tuvaluans.
Events & holidays: Public holidays include Christmas Day (December 25), Boxing Day (December 26) and Easter (a four-day weekend in March or April, dates vary from year to year).
Time zone: Tuvalu lies west of the International Date Line and just south of the Equator and is 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time in the same zone as Fiji.
The local currency of Tuvalu is the Australian dollar, with locally issued coins featuring Queen Elizabeth II on one side and local marine animals such as turtles, octopus and flying fish on the other.
Cash is king on Tuvalu. There are no ATMs and credit cards aren’t accepted anywhere, not even at hotels and guesthouses.
Motorbikes, the main mode of transport for locals and tourists alike, can be rented for $A10 a day from your hotel or guesthouse.
And if you eat like the locals – fish, chicken, taro, coconuts – you can keep costs down.
Other than this, Tuvalu isn’t a budget destination, because of its remoteness, and the fact that there is no farming or industry on Tuvalu’s islands so everything essential has to be imported. Accommodation on the main island in Funafuti atoll ranges from $A80 or $A120 a night per room.
Tipping isn’t expected.
Hopefully, your trip to Tuvalu goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance is there to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The premium is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveller.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation — About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical —Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption — For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay — Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage — Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Standard medical and travel insurance is advisable for travel to Tuvalu. Scuba divers should also ensure they have the appropriate insurance.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework — check around.
The largest insurers in the US include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions — Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance — If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
Tuvalu’s official currency is the Australian dollar.
The following Australian dollar notes are used in Tuvalu: $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100. These notes are plastic and each a different colour so they are easy to tell apart. Tuvalu also uses Australian coins, including the $1 and $2 gold coins.
In addition, Tuvalu issues its own coins: 10 cents, 20 cents, 50 cents and $1 coins, all silver. Like Australian coins they have a picture of Queen Elizabeth II on one side; Tuvaluan coins feature local marine life such as turtles and manta rays on the other side.
Because Tuvalu is small and remote, there is limited transport to and on its islands.
Getting there: Fiji Airways, the only airline that flies to Tuvalu, flies from Suva to Funafuti (Tuvalu’s main island and its only airport) twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The flight takes about two hours.
Getting around: On Fongafale, the main island on Funafuti, Tuvalu’s main atoll, the best way to get around is by motorbike. These can be rented for $A10 a day from wherever you are staying. If you’re travelling solo, you might be able to hitch a ride on the back of someone else’s. It’s too hot and humid to walk anywhere. You’ll see Tuvaluans riding in small handcarts towed behind motorbikes, but these aren’t generally available for tourists. No one wears a helmet, and there don’t seem to be any available for rent, but people tend to ride slowly and there’s little traffic.
Other islands within Funafuti atoll can be reached by renting an open aluminium boat with an outboard, and a driver.
There are no flights to Tuvalu’s outer islands; they’re accessible by passenger ferry from Funafuti, and it can be a long trip (overnight or multi-day trips aren’t uncommon). Ask at the main wharf for a schedule; these aren’t posted online and can change at short notice.