We spent two beautiful weeks on the islands of Tongatapu and Ha’apai. However, we faced some problems with the domestic airline Real Tonga. We hope that our story about the problems we faced with the domestic airline contributes to an improved situation for travelers.
When we planned our trip to Tonga we wanted to take the ferry from Tongatapu to Ha'apai and back again – but we found we had to book a flight back in order to catch our connecting flight back to Auckland.
After arriving in Nuku'alofa we were told that the ferry would not come as planned - but we had already booked our accommodation in Ha‘apai - so again, we were forced to book a flight in order to get there.
The flight departure was supposed to be at 4:30 pm, so we spend the morning walking in Nuku'alofa. We checked our emails around 11:00am and were surprised to find another eTicket sent by Real Tonga. We opened the pdf-file just out of curiosity and noticed that departure time was at 1:00pm! Nothing was mentioned in the email itself! Our host in the guesthouse in Nuku‘alofa rang them for us to confirm this change - so we had to rush to the airport.
While waiting for departure at the airport we met several people who were stuck in Nuku'alofa for four days and who were really upset about it.
At the new guesthouse in Ha'apai we met a Dutch girl, whose flight back to Tongatapu had been cancelled twice because of the weather conditions. She was really desperate and we heard that in the end she had to take the ferry back.
I was getting a bit worried by that time - we had heard so much about delays and cancellations.
We had a great time in Ha‘apai - except for the fact how hard it was to get cash - we learned about that when we were already in Pangai! We had informed ourselves before we got to this remote group of islands and no one knew that the bank shut down and according to all our sources (internet, Jasons tourist brochure) there was supposed to be an ATM in Pangai. We could sort things out in the end but we heard a lot of complaints – not only by tourists.
Our flight back from Ha‘apai to Tongatapu was supposed to be on Wednesday 11 September at 3:20 pm, but after checking on Tuesday night we were told our flight got cancelled due to the weather forecast (apparently that was not the reason because the weather was just fine!). We had to reschedule both our connecting flights to Auckland and Sydney. That stopover in Auckland was necessary as we had some baggage left behind that we could not bring to Tonga (paying an extra bag was expensive).
We heard about another flight to Tongatapu that was supposed to depart at 10:20am Wednesday. We caught a boat to Pangai the next morning and thought we might make it! We were picked up at the wharf in Pangai by our host and taken to Lindsey's Place, the guesthouse with the Real Tonga office nearby.
There we were told that there was no flight that day and that we would have to take another flight the next morning. The lady in the office said she would reschedule the connecting flights for us. She could not tell us at that time when our flight(s) the next day would be but she mentioned that we were likely not to catch an airplane to Auckland before Friday. So we were stranded and spent the night in the same guesthouse. We were given 50 TOP by the office lady to cover the costs for dinner and she said the airline would pay the guesthouse as well, so no costs for us! She also said that she would let us know about the departure time for the Ha'apai- Tongatapu flight. But she did not come and tell us (although she had said so after being asked and asked by us) and I only got information when I went to see her several times and finally, late in the evening, she could tell me that we were on the list for the next day, check-in 10:00 am. However, she still had no information about the international flights.
Five hours wait
The next morning (Thursday, 12/9/13) she took us to the airport around 7:00am. We spent almost 5 hours waiting at the airport in Pangai because (what a surprise!) check-in was NOT at 10:00am, but somewhere around 11:45am. Of course, no one could give us any information on that matter either and we needed to ask several times - no one came to provide us with information. Also about the procedure after our arrival in Nuku'alofa - what would happen? How could we get information on our international flights? After asking question after question, the lady said there would be a transport for us to the Air New Zealand office where we could confirm our flights. She did mention also that we would have to pay for the rescheduled flights. When we asked about the accommodation in Nuku'alofa she said, Real Tonga would cover the costs and that we would spend the night at the Scenic Hotel.
Fly to Vava'u first
When we were finally aboard the aircraft we were told that we had to go to Vava'u first to refuel.
After our arrival on the Tongatapu domestic, we did not know what to do next - and neither did the airport staff! When we told them that we had been promised a transport to the Air New Zealand office, they clearly had no idea what we were talking about. We asked for the person that according to the lady in the Ha’apai office, was the one that would take care of us in Nuku'alofa. But she had no idea what was going on.
We explained our situation to her and finally she arranged a transport with a staff bus - we had to wait for this bus for another hour and it still did not come! So we asked again and again and finally, another staff member called someone to pick us up (instead of the bus). They took us to the Real Tonga office. There again, we had to explain our situation because they didn't know either about it!
They just sent us to the Air New Zealand office - as if we were their problem now! I was really upset about the way we were rejected! When we asked about the accommodation for the night we were told that this was none of their business. According to the Real Tonga policy it was only their job to get us from Ha'apai to Nuku'alofa. Anything else was our problem and we were the ones to take care of it - including the rescheduling of the internationals!
Running with baggage
The lady in the Real Tonga main office could not help us any further, so we rushed to the Air New Zealand office.! It was 4:50 pm and the office closes at 5:00 pm. We had no idea where it was and the lady in the Real Tonga office had not given us the correct directions! So we had to run (with all our baggage) and look for it.
Cost of rescheduling
In the Air New Zealand office we were treated really nicely and the lady was the first really helpful person that day! But we had to pay 2484 TOP for the flights. Real Tonga would not pay a single cent. We returned to the Real Tonga office to claim a letter of confirmation that was proof of the cancellation made by Real Tonga and the resulting flights that we had missed. At least, we got a letter each.
So, we would leave Tonga the next day. We had to pay for dinner and the last night in Nuku'alofa ourselves, which was in total about 140 TOP.
So, that's the story! What upset us the most was the fact that no one seemed to care - it was always up to ourselves to go and ask questions, try to get some information! The lady in the Ha'apai office gave us mainly wrong information – but we are convinced that she did not know better and she did her best to help. But there seems to be no communication at all between Ha‘apai and Nuku‘alofa. We still do not know why the flight had been cancelled (we heard several stories - from weather to no petrol to mechanical problems at the aircraft.). The travel back to Tongatapu took us the whole day consisting mainly of waiting and waiting! Customer service was as good as non-existent, which is a shame thinking of all the friendly Tongan people that we met elsewhere!
We really hope that the situation will improve and that maybe our story contributes to a change. We met many travellers with similar or exactly the same problems with Real Tonga. All of them had to pay considerable amounts of money for something Real Tonga had caused and all of them felt left alone by the airline.
We had two fantastic weeks in Tonga but the last two days have been a nightmare. We would love to come back one day - if there is a better and improved airline system.
[Abridged for length]