Well worth the wait: Air Tahiti Nui to French Polynesia in premium economy
Sandy beaches; overwater bungalows; craggy, jungle-covered mountains; and a thousand shades of blue waters. There's a lot to love about French Polynesia.
I first learned about it while studying Paul Gauguin in college. His paintings of the Polynesian people and landscapes were visceral and ignited my curiosity about the destination.
When I joined The Points Guy in November of 2019, it was one of the first destinations I hoped to visit since it seems like a rite of passage for travel writers. In fact, I've been trying to get to Tahiti for more than a year and a half now.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 dashed those plans multiple times. My first trip was canceled a few days before my departure, during the week in March 2020 that many countries around the world closed their borders. The second and third backup trips I planned also had to be scrapped due to the coronavirus and its variants. The longer my trip was delayed, though, the brighter my passion to go burned in me.
Thankfully, my fourth attempt finally met with success. Even better, I would get to try out Air Tahiti Nui's premium economy cabin on my journey.
Air Tahiti Nui first introduced premium economy when it started taking delivery of its Boeing Dreamliners in 2018. It was a major step forward for the airline, which also introduced a new business class on the jet. And after flying Air Tahiti Nui premium economy myself, I would say it's fantastic for folks who might not be able to afford business class, especially on a daytime flight.
I flew from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Faaa International Airport (PPT) in Tahiti on Oct. 23, and despite the fact that it was nearly a year and a half after I'd initially intended to go, my flight was well worth the wait.
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You can book Air Tahiti Nui flights between LAX and PPT for as few as 80,000 AAdvantage miles in business class, 65,000 in premium economy and 40,000 in economy. Based on my searches, business-class inventory is scarce and availability is rare for premium economy as well.
Related: My ill-fated trip to French Polynesia
Air Tahiti Nui does have its own mileage program, but unless you are a frequent flyer on the carrier, you are probably better off focusing your mileage strategy on American Airlines AAdvantage.
As I mentioned, I'd had to put off my trip to French Polynesia several times due to ongoing border restrictions. Once they were eased in September, however, I was able to book the trip for the fourth time. Thankfully, I was still able to find some award availability on Air Tahiti Nui flights that fit my schedule. Though business-class inventory is nearly nonexistent via AA.com, there are a few dates where coach or premium economy are bookable right now.
For my dates, I was able to secure a seat in premium economy using 65,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles one-way plus $5.60 in taxes.
Related: What it's like traveling to Tahiti right now
The same fare was available for a one-way flight for $1,955 directly on Air Tahiti Nui or via AA.com.
I'd consider 65,000 AAdvantage miles a decent redemption at that price. The Points Guy values American Airlines AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents each, so 65,000 miles is worth about $910. I saved more than a thousand dollars by using miles.
Round-trip economy tickets were available for $1,273 — or 80,000 AAdvantage miles, a value of about 1.59 cents apiece.
Aside from AAdvantage miles, you can use Flying Blue miles to book Air Tahiti Nui. Don't have any? Luckily, the program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Capital One Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards, so depending on the credit cards you carry, you might have a stash of points that would come in handy.
Related: Best ways to get to Tahiti on points and miles
Checking in at LAX
I realized the morning of my flight that I had forgotten to pick a seat. Because I booked via American Airlines, I couldn't pick a seat online. I vaguely remembered that it was probably too late as flights within 24 hours are "under airport control," and seat assignments can't be picked except at the airport. So I decided to head over to the airport really early as I didn't want to get stuck in a middle seat.
I was also very nervous about both the entry requirements and the long lines I had seen when I tried to check in the night before (I was staying at the nearby Hyatt Regency LAX so I had easy access to the airport).
I got to the international terminal at 11:11 a.m. Fortunately, because I was flying premium economy I was allowed to use the business-class priority line. There were four couples already ahead of me in line. There were seven workers at the nine ticket counter windows, including a baggage handler. I stepped up to the counter in just a few minutes. The gate agent wasn't very friendly, but he checked me in quickly.
To travel to French Polynesia if you're fully vaccinated, you need to complete an online health registration via the Electronic Travel Information System platform within six to 30 days of departing for the islands and submit a negative COVID-19 test -- a PCR test within 72 hours prior, or an antigen test within 48 hours. Travelers must also complete and print an online sworn statement and bring proof of vaccination to the islands. Unvaccinated visitors can go, but you'll need to jump through a lot more hoops.
The gate agent didn't ask for my sworn statement about my health. He only wanted to see my negative COVID-19 test results, my ETIS information and, most importantly, the QR code for the ETIS. He did ask for my return flight information because it was on a separate reservation.
Related: Country-by-country guide to reopening
I asked the agent to put me in a window seat, and he asked which side I wanted. I let him pick, and he assigned me Seat 12A.
Note that there are several check-in kiosks in the terminal. However, Air Tahiti Nui is not an option on them for check-in, so you'll need to visit the counter.
There are no permanent check-in counters for most of the airlines at the Tom Bradley Terminal so you will need to check monitors once you get in the terminal.
I had a little time to kill before my flight, and I love all the planespotting you can do at LAX, so I walked the length of the terminal snapping shots before heading to the lounge.
Star Alliance lounge access
As a premium economy passenger, I was given a lounge access "boarding" pass to use at the sprawling LAX Star Alliance lounge. It is pretty fabulous. In fact, I'd call it one of the best lounges I've ever been in.
The lounge is gorgeous, with a massive terrace area that opens to the terminal ceiling. It never felt crowded there, even when most seats were occupied.
The lounge also has an outdoor terrace and bar -- a rarity, but hopefully a feature more lounges will incorporate now that fresh air when traveling is at a premium. Both were closed when I first arrived at noon, but by 1 p.m., the terrace was open, and was by far my favorite space in the lounge thanks to the natural light and the variety of seating areas.
Back indoors, the lounge has a media room, though it was more like a quiet room during my visit since the large television wasn't playing while I was there.
The lounge also has several shower suites, though I didn't use them during my visit.
There was a full buffet with hot and cold food choices including chipotle quinoa salad, Caesar salad, crunchy Asian chopped salad, chicken in black bean sauce, roasted vegetables and jasmine rice. The chicken in black bean sauce was delicious. There was also a mouthwatering spread of desserts featuring chocolate mousse, an apple tart, fresh fruit and assorted cheeses.
My favorite thing, though, was the make-your-own ramen bar with several types of noodles and toppings available.
There was a beautiful bar, but it was self-service with "help yourself" spirits and wines available. I asked if there was regular bar service, but the friendly man working in the lounge told me there was no bartender due to staff shortages.
They had several types of vodka available as well as Jack Daniel's whiskey, Jose Cuervo tequila, Cruzan and Kahlua rum and Campari. There were several white, rose and red wines available, too.
The lounge was fairly crowded considering all the restrictions there still are on international travel, but I did find plenty of spots to sit. There were no long lines for any of the amenities.
I also tried to visit the LAX Centurion Lounge right after security, but it remains closed due to "building repairs." As we first reported, it's been closed since June 7, 2020, though it is expected to reopen sometime this year "barring any construction delays."
Related: The ultimate guide to American Express Centurion Lounges
Air Tahiti Nui was flying out of Gate 205, one of the "West Gates," which are a bit of a hike from the main concourse of the international terminal, so give yourself 15 minutes to walk over. There are fewer shops and food stands at the West Gates so you may want to grab a bite in the main terminal before your walk.
The gates still have that "new airport smell" with plenty of empty seats and power outlets.
I particularly liked the work desks, with eight seats and eight outlets (and 16 USB ports) on the top of a long communal desk.
The gate used new electronic boarding lanes where you scan your own boarding pass to open e-gates rather than handing over your documents to a human agent. However, there were five gate agents and another two men who appeared to be ramp workers on hand helping with boarding.
Boarding began at 2:20 p.m. with customers who needed extra time to board along with business class from rows 1-5 and passengers traveling with small children. They were followed by economy class, which was boarded from back to front due to COVID-19 protocols. Premium economy was last to board.
I finally walked down the jetway at around 2:35 p.m.
Cabin and seat
Air Tahiti Nui has a small fleet of just four Boeing 787 Dreamliners, all delivered since 2018. The planes still feel fresh, and Air Tahiti Nui incorporates several eye-catching elements in their interiors, including murals of famous Tahitian landscapes.
Personally, I love the way I feel after a long flight on a Dreamliner. The planes have better air filters and pressurization and humidity levels that help fight against jet lag.
Something about Air Tahiti Nui's color scheme just makes me happy. It's so bright and colorful inside as you board the premium economy cabin. The pops of color bring back my memories of Gauguin's paintings with touches of coral pink and sunshiney yellow. The blues remind me of postcards of Bora Bora's famous lagoon waters.
Air Tahiti Nui Moana premium economy is located between the business-class section in front and economy in the back.
Premium economy consists of seats laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration with five rows on the sides and four down the middle.
Thanks to Air Tahiti Nui's colorful palette, American Airlines' premium economy product feels a bit bland in comparison. The seats are comfy with lots of padding (I find cloth seats are better than those leather seats you'll find on many carriers). It really helped that I didn't have anyone sitting next to me. In fact, only 17 out of 32 seats were occupied.
As a result, there was plenty of overhead bin space, and lots of little spots to store extras, including pockets between the seatbacks in front of you.
The headrest was 19 inches across. I had 14 inches of legroom between the seat in front of me and my seat and measured 20 inches across the shoulder. According to the airline, the premium economy seats have 38 inches of seat pitch and are 20.4 inches wide, so that seems pretty spot on.
The tray table was a good size (19 by 10 inches) and I was able to work easily on my laptop.
There were USB ports and power outlets to charge devices. The power plug was in the middle support beam between the two seats just above the foot support, and the USB ports were on the center beam at shoulder level.
I wasn't crazy about the remote control for the screen. It was in an awkward spot in this cabin, near your hip on the right side.
The seat had a large footrest, which measured 12 inches across, and between that and the seat recline, I was able to rest comfortably, though the recline did not feel as significant as I'd expected.
Every seat had a water bottle and a pillow and blanket waiting for passengers. The brightly patterned pillow was small, just 15 by 10 inches, and, like the blanket, was scratchy. But they were fine for a little nap during a daytime flight.
Overall, the seats felt comfortable for the whole flight. I did actually get to take a bulkhead seat for a few hours since they remained empty after the boarding doors were closed. I napped with no problem though the degree of recline would perhaps feel insufficient on an overnight flight. I've had a similar premium economy seat on Cathay Pacific and had trouble sleeping on the red-eye from Chicago to Hong Kong.
For this daytime flight, however, the seats were perfectly acceptable.
Related: Review of Air Tahiti Nui business class LAX to PPT
Amenities and service
Shortly after boarding, flight attendants passed out amenity kits containing socks, a mask, a toothbrush and small tube of toothpaste, earplugs and earbuds. Air Tahiti Nui used to include recycled packaging and sustainable bamboo toothbrushes; however, the airline tells me that they've had supply issues, so as you can see from the pictures, it's back to plastic for now.
The crew handed out disinfectant kits to all the passengers as we boarded, too.
There were two shared bathrooms near the galley between business class and premium economy, complete with tropical flower arrangements -- it was like having a mini Tahitian botanical garden in the bathroom!
The lavs were spacious and the one I used was the best-smelling one I've even been in on a plane. Flight attendants diffused a Tahitian flower scent that made it actually pleasant.
There were also three types of amenities in addition to the hand soap -- a face mist, a face cream and a moisturizing lotion -- all by French Polynesian skincare brand Heiva.
The Air Tahiti Nui safety video featured cute scenes of French Polynesians interacting with tourists in iconic Tahitian settings. The audio was in French, but it had English subtitles.
Flight attendants came through the cabin about 15 minutes after takeoff and handed out a tiare flower -- a fragrant Tahitian gardenia -- to each passenger in premium economy. It was a lovely gesture that made me feel like I was already on the island chain.
Meanwhile, the inflight entertainment was fine, if not extensive. There were 22 new releases, 12 TV shows, five movies for kids and families, 29 listed as "comedy, drama & romance," and 13 "thriller & Sci-Fi." There were 14 documentaries, but most of those were short videos introducing viewers to destinations like Las Vegas or Arizona.
There was also a moving map that you could play with that was pretty fun. You could pinch in or pinch out on the screen and choose various perspectives like "follow the plane" or "cockpit." The screen was 12 inches by 8 inches.
One of the unfortunate things about the flight was the Wi-Fi.
I spent $29 for a 24-hour pass, and it worked well for about 45 minutes, but then just as I went to do a Wi-Fi speed test, it started giving me security error messages and the internet didn't work again for me for the remainder of the flight.
I don't know what happened, but it was pretty frustrating as I was trying to work. I think I simply ran out of data. I didn't ask the flight attendants what was up, though I should have.
There were other packages available, too, starting at $9 for a (rather useless) 10MB.
On the other hand, service was excellent throughout the flight. The attendants working in premium economy -- Dan, Mareva and Pierrette -- were especially helpful, starting with directions to my seat upon boarding.
I was even invited to move up to the bulkhead row since it was unoccupied, along with about half the cabin.
The crew handed out visitor and immigration cards not long after we crossed 10,000 feet, about 20 minutes into the flight.
Around 40 minutes into the flight, one of the flight attendants working the cabin plied passengers with Laurieri crackers and glasses of red wine. Since I don't drink, he offered me any beverage I wanted instead. I chose a glass of pineapple juice, which was brought out within moments.
A few minutes later, flight attendants came out with the beverage cart for cabin service.
The choice of entree was salmon or chicken. The flight attendant also offered another drink. I asked for Diet Coke.
My meal started with a tasty appetizer of corn and black beans with three small shrimp on top.
My main course of chicken was tender and moist, serviced over a bed of rice and vegetables that tasted and felt like they'd been microwaved from frozen.
There were also a couple of Kellogg's Club crackers and some mild cheddar cheese from Glenview Farms.
Passengers had a choice of white or red wine. The white was a 2018 Macon-Villages from France. The red was a Chateau Fonfroide Bordeaux from 2016. Sparkling wine was also available -- a "Black Edition JP. Chenet France Brut."
They cleared away the meal at 4:15 p.m. and not long after came by with coffee or tea served from the cart. They only had powdered cream for coffee, but I adored the plastic Air Tahiti Nui coffee cups even though they aren't proper glassware.
The flight attendants came by again for refills of coffee or tea a few minutes later, then dimmed the cabin lights at 4:35 p.m. By 4:45 p.m. it was pitch black in the cabin -- an hour and 45 minutes after departure.
I pushed the call button at 4:54, and a flight attendant was at my seat in less than a minute.
Flight attendants came back for a beverage service about an hour before landing, and then served another meal. It included a fresh quinoa salad, President Wee Brie cheese, fruit and tiramisu. I thought the timing was perfect to allow passengers to have a long nap during the middle of the flight, then a meal before landing at night.
This was my first international trip since COVID-19 took over the world. In fact, I've had this trip booked and canceled three times previously due to the pandemic and changing rules.
Fortunately, the fourth time was the charm — and charming is the word for my experience flying Air Tahiti Nui. I loved the premium economy cabin. The seats were comfortable and, because the cabin was only half full, it felt nearly as nice as flying business class. In fact, having an empty seat next to me and the ability to move to the bulkhead row made it even better than sitting next to a stranger in business class would have been. The little extra service touches like the Tahitian flower and the well-kept bathrooms really made the flight.
The crew, the design and the little Tahitian touches throughout the flight really made me feel like I was already in the island paradise from the moment I stepped aboard.
While I might still splurge for business class for the return overnight flight simply to get a lie-flat bed, I thought Air Tahiti Nui premium economy was nearly as nice thanks to the amenities and the on-point service.