Samoa - all you need to know before you go
Updated: Apr 24
Samoa.. huh, I can imagine some of you are just wondering where the h... on Earth this place can be. Well, Ozzies and Kiwis would tell you miss a lot if you don`t know :) So go to google maps and scroll to the South Pacific north-east of Brisbane, Australia, east of Fiji and there you go, mark this place to your bucket list !
How we even come to the idea to go that far ? Exactly that was the reason, we were planning trip around the world and we knew we wanted to visit places as far as we can go, opposite side of our planet from European perspective and we wanted to visit some off the beaten path place to show you something new.
"Samoa you won and we are so happy and grateful that we chose you because we felt very welcomed and were amazed by your people`s hospitality, generosity, culture, and otherworldly nature."
West Samoa (how it is sometimes named) is independent country of 2 major islands Upolu and Savai`i and should not be coupled with American Samoa which is a territory of USA. We hope you will get a chance to visit these beautiful islands and see their beauty with your own eyes. But before you do there are a few things to know before you go to make your trip truly a laid-back.
Best time to visit
Local currency / ATMs
Transportation from the airport
Transportation around the island
Transportation between islands Upolu and Savai`i
Other things to expect
Tips for accommodation
time to visit
Samoa is a tropical island near to the Equator, which obviously means, that the temperature is constant but the weather is dependent on the monsoon season. If you want a guarantee of a small chance of rain and a little less humidity then visit the islands between June and September. Months between November and April fall to the wet season and risk of cyclones. The average temperature all year round is between 28-30 °C.
Although, I have to say that we`ve been in Samoa beginning of July when it should be the middle of the dry season and it was raining almost every day with the combination of small tropical storm :D. So you never know and must just hope for the best weather possible. We enjoyed our stay anyway.
Pro Tip: For the best experience in Samoa check the school holiday in Australia and New Zealand and try to avoid those days. Samoa is a popular destination for them.
Currency / ATM
Samoan local currency is Tala, currency code WST but they usually use sign $ in price tags. It is veeeery confusing but even more confusing is when verbally they tell you the price, for example 10 dollars, but in reality they mean 10 Tala, local currency...Tala in Samoan language means dollar. So always double check with them which 'dollar' do they mean :) I guess it would be possible to pay in Australian, New Zealand or US dollars if you don`t have other option but they definitely prefer their local currency.
There is not much options to pay by card in Samoa, not even for accommodation (except luxury hotels) so we definitely recommend to have enough cash with you. You can exchange or withdraw money on the airport upon arrival but be prepared that it will be pricey. We payed ATM fee of 15 $ (US dollars), even with Transferwise card. So rather withdraw larger amount at once. It is quite difficult to purchase Tala outside Samoa, maybe you can in some selected banks in New Zealand or Australia, but most probably you will need to order specific amount of Tala in the bank prior your departure. There are few ATMs in Apia and very few in rest of the islands. We did not see any difference in fees between withdrawal at the airport or in the city.
If you are wondering how much cash you might need, I can tell you from our expense tracker that we spent around 1000 Eur ~ 3000 WST - this includes accommodation for 9 nights (including food), car rental, gas, ferry ticket, snacks, entrance fees to all attractions, internet and some small souvenirs.
From the airport
Flying to Samoa you will arrive to Faleolo Internation airport in Upolu, the only airport for both islands Upolu and Savai`i. It is a very small airport running just a few flights in and out a day, located around 40km from the capital Apia.
Getting to the city might be a hassle if you want it 'local way'. We read on some websites that there should be a local bus for 6 WST/pp taking tourist to the city and a shuttle bus provided to major hotels for 25 WST/pp. The bus should go from the main road outside the airport and shuttle should be waiting at the main gate of the airport at the scheduled time of the flights. There are not set timetables for bus nor shuttle and actually there were none standing outside when we arrived (but its true we were trying to get some money and sim card first in the arrival hall). Rumors says that some staff at the airport even deny the local bus existence. I went back to the hall to ask a person at information desk about the shuttle and she told me to look for a van with sign "Samoa tourism authority". No luck again, but then I saw a van and few locals getting on so I asked if it is a shuttle to the city, they said no but if we want they will take us to Apia for 40 WST (2 person) because they had some space. It turned out that all of them were from Samoa tourist information center and gave us many tips what to do on the island and told us about Samoan culture so in the end it was really nice drive with lots of information and they even get us off directly in front of our accommodation :)
Of course, if you want to absolutely avoid all the hassle you can just grab a taxi which should cost around 80 WST to the center. There are a lot of taxi drivers waiting outside the airport hall. Taxis are not usually metered so it is always recommended to agree on the price before you get into the car.
around the island
In order to enjoy the most out of what Samoa offers in terms of natural beauty you should definitely rent a car and explore as much as you can. You will not see many motorbikes nor bikes rentals on the island because you are in tropics, that means it rains often. Locals themselves do not use motorbikes but cars. There are not that many gas stations though, on the other hand islands are quite small so it should not be that much of a problem. There is always a person fueling your car up (your are not allowed to do it yourself) so a small tip is appreciated.
Internet coverage in Samoa is fairly ok. The main telco providers are BlueSky and Digicel. When travelling we always buy a local sim card with data connection only (if possible) which is the best option for travelers. By comparing both providers we decided to purchase data sim card from Digicel which gave us 6 GB for 20 WST ~ 7 Eur/Usd valid for 15 days. You can buy it in Digicel kiosk at the airport. Check latest info about promotion here.
Transportation between islands
Upolu and Savai´i
If you plan to visit both islands Upolu and Savai`i (which we recommend) you need to arrange a ferry from Mulifanua (Upolu) to Salelologa (Savai`i) port. Ferry transportation is run by Samoa Shipping Corporation which provides transport 3 times a day both ways. You can check the most updated schedule on their official website. Price depends if you are going as pedestrian or you want to transport your rented vehicle as well. Pedestrians pay 12 WST per person (24 WST return) and you can buy tickets directly in wharf (Mulifanua or Salelologa). If you are going by car the ticket costs 80 WST including driver`s ticket (160 WST return). We recommend to purchase it in advance because ferry is very often full and there is a high chance you will not get in if you buy it in wharf on the day of departure. However, as you will see on the official website of transportation company, the button for ticket purchase is not working :) Therefore, the best option is to ask your rental company if they can buy a ferry ticket for you and you will pay directly to them (we did not pay any surcharge). Warning ! the second passenger`s ticket (or any other`s) is not included in the price of vehicle transportation so you need to buy these separately in wharf (the day of departure is fine).
In general tipping is not expected or encouraged, but if you are satisfied with an exceptional service then of course you are more then welcome to appreciate it. There was only one case where we encountered tipping to be practiced by locals as well and it was on the gas station to the person who is fueling your car up (you are not allowed to do it yourself).
things to expect
I need to warn you right at the beginning to avoid disappointment that there is not many public beaches on the island that would look like from the postcard. Usually, all the nicest beaches are owned by someone who provides the accommodation there, that means it belongs to the property. The majority of the remaining coastline is protected by rocks and sandbags against flooding so do not expect that you just stop anywhere near coast to lie on the beach under the palm trees and take a swim. On the other hand, those beaches with accommodation are just incredibly beautiful with white sand and crystal blue water.
The real gems of this beautiful land are not (only) its beaches but beauty of tropical nature. Those pristine waterfalls, blooming jungle, natural pools and sea caves are just jaw dropping. I can`t stress this out enough, don`t just lie on the beach, rent a car and explore as much as you can. You can read our complete guide of things to see on both islands in separate blog post.
Samoans live in communities, meaning people are contributing to common wealth in almost every village by taking care of beaches and surroundings, building churches and other common venues or fales. What does it mean for you? Be prepared to pay some small fee for village entrance, entrance to the public beach (the small number of them) or empty fales on the beach (they belong to someone, trust me). But don`t resent, it is really just a symbolic price of 5 WST, which is something around 1.5 Eur/2 USD and it is not just a price for tourist - all locals coming from other villages has to pay as well if they want to use common space with some "service". You do not pay anything to the village where you have your accommodation of course. In some places with attraction like waterfall or natural pools the price is little higher, but still quite bearable 20-25 WST / 7-8 Eur.
The majority of the offered accommodation is very basic and cheap. The most popular for backpacker travelers and also the most authentic type of accommodation are beach fales - small wooden house right on the beach, similar to some tree house, where you have just a mattress with pillows, mosquito net and a lamp. It`s open, without windows and the only protection against wind are blinds knitted from palm leaves. However crazy it might sounds it`s so cool to stay there, you feel like in Blue lagoon movie :) Be prepared to cold shower though which is usually just a small booth without a roof....but hey your are in tropics, if we survived it you can as well. There are some normal basic rooms available in some places as well as luxury hotel Sheraton for example, so make a reservation based on your preferences :)
When you do an accommodation reservation you will notice that there is no option to book accommodation without a food. The reason is very simple. There are no restaurants or pubs or bistros of any kind around the islands except Apia where there are a few.And also majority of accommodation providers do not have kitchens for guests to use. So you will have your breakfast and dinner at your accommodation every day and you can buy some snacks during the day in small shops around the island (don`t expect supermarkets) or fruits that many families sell in front of their houses. Fruit is super sweet and tasty and very cheap. Once one lady was trying to sell me a big basket of papaya (7 big pieces) for 5 WST/1.5 Eur :)
Yes, P-I-G-S, you see the word correctly :) They are everywhere! Like really everywhere! Pigs are free to roam around villages and you will see big families foraging from place to place. They look very clean actually and you will love little piggies, they are so adorable.
After piggies description I have to mention food because it is related topic. We were shocked to see what Samoans eat nowadays. You guess it right, pork is the base of their diet and many fatty meat with all kind of potatoes. Coconut stuff or fish is just a side dish. To be honest we were little bit disappointed because we were so looking forward to all the sea food, fish, fruits made in coconut dip or something and instead we just gained weight from all of those fatty stuff :D At least we now understand how is it possible that Polynesians living in tropics can be so big humans :) I guess all that traditional Polynesian seafood is served just in resorts or hotels. Historically, the Samoan traditional way of cooking is called 'umu' - preparation of food in ground oven on lava rocks where all is finally covered with banana leaves to keep heat inside. Typical dishes that they cook this way is taro or breadfruit, fish and palusami - baked coconut cream in banana leaves. It is all delicious but usually this is prepared for tourists as an attraction once per week (it takes time to cook all of it obviously). The other non-cooked traditional delicacy is oka - raw fish marinated in coconut cream, lemon juice, chilli and onion.
Locals are very friendly people, generous, communicative, always smiling and very proud of their nation and culture. Tourism is not that developed yet and therefore people are very happy to see foreigners, they come to you to say hello - Talofa! in local language, and ask you how you like Samoa. They are not asking for money and will not try to sell you anything. They just want to welcome you and show you their hospitality. What a refreshing moment after Bali experience.
We also liked traditional clothes that people wear still nowadays which are very colorful. Women wear beautiful dresses with flower motives and men also flower shirts with skirt - not a real skirt, it`s kind of sarong called lavalava and it is part of the official uniform of policemen for example too.
Sunday is a church day, big thing in Samoa. Majority of population are Christians, very religious who adhere all the traditions. Every village has its own church (if not two) and if you walk by one of them on Sunday you will see all people dressed in white gathering for a mass. Dressing in white should symbolize a purity. After the service families gather together for a lunch. You are very welcome to attend mass if you want to but you need to be dressed properly, that means cover your shoulders and knees, preferably with lavalava (sarong).
For you as a tourist it is important to know that almost everything is closed on Sundays including gas stations, restaurants and shops. So plan accordingly.
The cheapest type of accommodation and the most authentic is 'fale', which we described earlier in this blog post. You are basically sleeping at the beach almost above the water so you can imagine those amazing views on sunrise or sunset right from your 'room'. In Upolu we recommend Faofao Beach Fales and in Savai`i Lauiula Beach Fales where we actually stayed ourselves. Both accommodations are family owned with personal approach.
In Faofao beach Fales they also showed us the Samoan traditional way of cooking called 'umu' where food is prepared in oven above the ground made of lava rocks.
There are of course middle class and few luxury hotels as well so if you prefer this kind of accommodation you can find many tips on booking.com.