There's no way around one basic fact: French Polynesia is an expensive destination. Take it from us, though, that with the right amount of budget smarts it can be conquered.
Begin with the understanding that some costs are unavoidable. The remote location of many of the islands means that most goods—even fish in some cases—have to be flown in from Papeete.
There are several good ways to keep your costs down. Consider all-inclusive packages (airfares, accommodation and transfers from a big travel agency with good buying power), or buying island air passes and choosing pension or self-catering options.
High prices do have an upside: French Polynesia is not a mass tourism destination like Hawaii and will never be. You will not encounter crowded beaches and take-away chain eateries. Beyond the big smoke of Papeete you'll be blessed with beautiful vistas and traditional villages, and—in the off-season—near deserted roads and beaches.
Cruising around French Polynesia is a more economical alternative to a land-based holiday, as you'll visit four islands in seven days, some of which would be extremely expensive to stay at on your own. There no planes or buses to catch, which means more time enjoying the holiday—a saving in itself.
You can see a few islands (albeit quickly) in comfort and security. Extra costs are incurred with shore excursions, so the best way to keep costs down is to book only a couple of excursions (and a different one per island—i.e. shark-feeding and motu picnic on one; 4WD mountain trip on another). Do your own thing on other days, such as cycle around or share a rental car with other passengers.
Villa rentals are a good deal especially if there's one price for the whole house and several friends or two families are sharing the costs. Some very glamorous villas on Moorea are around $485 a night for four to six people, while another is just $1600 a week ($228 a night). They have fully-equipped kitchens and a caretaker to look after the place.
It's wise to rent a car (about $120 per day) even for just a day to go wine and grocery shopping. There is a growing trend on Huahine to provide a car and six-person motorboat with rental villas. This is as excellent deal and works out at around $265 per night for the lot (for two people; and a little extra for each extra person). Some villa operators throw in the seventh night for free.
Villas provide real savings in Bora Bora as well. A clutch of villas in Faanui (some sleeping two, others four) range from $1899 to $2560 a week. Most villas are on or near the lagoon, or on a hill with a lagoon view.
Less Expensive Islands
Moorea has the greatest range of budget accommodation from camping, self-catering, pensions, and small hotels. There are many restaurants in Maharepa and Hauru Point, some very close together, so you can pick and choose depending on price. Most provide free transfers. Huahine has great villa-car-boat rental deals and also excellent safari-tent-style accommodation. There are reasonably priced restaurants and roulottes in Fare. Maupiti is cheaper as there are no resorts and almost all pensions include breakfast and dinner as part of the tariff. Most of Maupiti's accommodation includes half-board (breakfast and dinner). There are very few excursions and these may be cheaper than other islands.
Image Credits: Top, Tahiti image courtesy of SouthbankSteve on Flickr