If you’re looking for paradise, you’ll find it in the Cook Islands.
Yes, after ten years of travel, and 90 countries, I’m calling it: the Cook Islands is the most beautiful place on the planet. And yes, that’s including the Maldives and Bora Bora — Aitutaki blows them both out of the water!
The entirety of this island nation is stunning. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are breathtaking, ringed by turquoise lagoons and swaying palm trees, encouraging you to do little but relax. Lagoon cruises take you out into perfection, where you’ll swim with fish, have lunch on a deserted island, and take so many photos that you’ll be in danger of running out of storage on your phone.
Not only is the Cook Islands beautiful, but it’s easy to travel around, too. The locals are ridiculously friendly and welcoming, and the local dishes are delicious. In short, there’s no reason not to travel to the Cook Islands.
But in case you needed another one: it’s really easy to visit on a budget.
Here’s how to do it.
How to Find Cheap Flights to the Cook Islands
As I write this right now, my post is aimed solely at those of you who are lucky enough to be in New Zealand. And what that means is that your options for cheaper flights are going to be pretty limited — only Air New Zealand are flying to the Cook Islands right now, so prices aren’t all that competitive. After all, there’s no competition!
Still, I recommend heading to Skyscanner and search for all flights over the space of a month, rather than choosing a specific date (if you have that flexibility, of course). Oon average you’ll be looking at around $400 (that’s NZD) for a one-way ticket in August 2021 — $800 return, with the prices dropping to around $350 each way from September onwards.
How Long to Spend in the Cook Islands?
When you’re booking those flights to paradise, you’re probably wondering when you should be looking to return to New Zealand. I recommend spending seven to 10 nights in the Cook Islands.
I spent a week there — three days on Rarotonga; four on Aitutaki — and found it to be the perfect amount of time. In actuality, I would have done my split a little differently and had four days on Rarotonga with three on Aitutaki, simply because the latter is pretty small. Once you’ve seen the lagoon on Aitutaki, there isn’t that much else to do, so you could get bored.
If you had 10 days in the Cook Islands, you’d probably want to go with six days on Rarotonga and four on Aitutaki.
And if you’re planning on spending two weeks in the Cook Islands, I’d recommend taking a look at some of the more isolated islands, like Atiu — I’m going to be checking that one out later this year. It’s expensive to fly to from Rarotonga, as so few people visit, but that’s what draws me to it. I love visiting isolated pockets in the South Pacific that see little tourism.
You Can Save Money By Visiting During Low Season
Tourism in the Cook Islands is unsurprisingly pretty seasonal, so if you’re looking to save money, visiting in the rainy season can help you save money. It’s worth mentioning that you run the risk of flying straight into a cyclone when you do so, but those are quite rare, so you’d have to be seriously unlucky for your trip to coincide with one.
I last visited the Cook Islands in January and lucked out when I experienced zero days of rain. Obviously that doesn’t guarantee you’ll also have a dry vacation, but if you’re willing to take the risk, you may find yourself with accommodation at half the price while the weather is nothing but glorious.
My top tip: Plan to Spend Your Trip as Offline as Possible
Free Wi-Fi is challenging to find in the Cook Islands, even in 2022, so I recommend planning to spend the vast majority of your time in the country offline. In a place this beautiful, it’s not much of a hardship to do so.
If you have to be online, you’ll need to opt for buying Wi-Fi vouchers from the overpriced Zenbu or Bluesky — the latter is cheaper and charges $25 for 1.5GB of data. Most of the hotels, restaurants, and cafes on the island use one of these two providers to connect to the Wi-Fi, and most of the connections are, um, usable. Speeds are improving but this isn’t a destination in which to catch up with your favourite Youtubers.
You can also pick up a local SIM card at the airport for $49, which gives you 3 GB of data for 14 days. I’d definitely recommend doing this.
Keep reading to find out how to visit both Rarotonga and Aitutaki on a budget in 2021:
Visiting Rarotonga on a Budget
I was surprised by how easy it is to visit Rarotonga on a budget. Hostels exist, public buses are cheap, you can find street food, and tours aren’t crazy-expensive. You don’t have to work all that hard to save money.
How to Save on Accommodation in Rarotonga
Let’s take a look at a map of Rarotonga.
If you want to visit Rarotonga on as tight a budget as possible, your best option is to stay in a hostel: I was thrilled to discover that there are several on the island!
There are three main areas for accommodation on Rarotonga.
Aroa Beach, in the Arorangi District that I mentioned above. This is where you’ll find the cheap accommodation and hostels. There isn’t a huge amount to do in this specific part of the island, besides lounge on the sand, but it’s still beautiful, there are restaurants around, and you can easily take the bus to the main town of Avarua or spectacular Muri Beach.
There are two hostels in Arorangi:
I stayed at Rarotonga Backpackers, which cost $28/night for a dorm bed and $40 for a private single room ($55 for a private double). It’s not just me that loves it here, either — it gets a rating of 4.4 out of 5 on Google. The staff were so wonderful and friendly, it was easy to meet people and make friends — even as a solo traveller — and there was a lovely swimming pool, barbecue area, and a gorgeous beach beside the adorable huts. I thought it was great value for money! They aren’t listed on any of the booking sites, so you’ll need to fill in a request through their contact form.
As an alternative, Backpackers International is by far the cheapest hostel on the island, with dorms coming in at $20 a night and private rooms at $35/night for a double. I haven’t personally stayed here, and they receive worse reviews than Rarotonga Backpackers, so I’d only consider staying here if you’re on a very tight budget. Otherwise Rarotonga Backpackers is the way to go!
The other area you might want to consider staying in is Avarua, in the north, which is the capital of the island and has tons to see and do. This is the area to opt for if you’re not a fan of lying on the beach and doing nothing. If you love museums and culture and enjoy having a wide variety of restaurants to choose from, this is the spot for you.
You’ve got one main option for affordable accommodation here:
Central Motel: This is the cheapest option in Avarua, coming in at $125 a night. While the sound of staying in a motel might put you off, it’s a motel with a swimming pool and a lovely owner, so it’s got plenty to offer up. The property is in a great location, close to a supermarket, restaurants, and the airport, with air conditioning and hot water showers. This would be a great budget option if you’re flying out the next day and want to stay close to the airport the night before.
And finally, the third region of the island that you should consider staying in is Muri Beach, in the southeast, which is the most popular part of Rarotonga. And for good reason: it has the prettiest beach on the island! It’s a breathtaking part of Rarotonga, so if you’re keen for that pristine beach holiday, this is the area to look at. The only downside? It’s where all of the expensive resorts are! For that reason, it can be a little pricey.
I stayed at Raina Beach Apartments in Muri for my second visit to Rarotonga. It was much pricer at almost $120 a night, but Muri is the most expensive area in Rarotonga. My apartment was spacious, with a large balcony overlooking the lagoon, a fully-equipped kitchen, and plenty of space to work from, so it didn’t feel like I was being ripped off. It was in a great location, had great staff, and plenty of cheap eats nearby: it was perfect! If I’d been travelling with somebody else to split the costs with, I’d have happily stayed here the entire time.
When I next return to Rarotonga, though, I plan on staying in Aremango Guesthouse, which is also in Muri. At $46 a night for a solo traveller and $53 a night for a double room, it’s the cheapest guesthouse in expensive Muri. Not only that, it also receives great reviews for pretty much everything.
Tropical Sands is another great option for Muri Beach. Well, it’s a five minute drive, or 30 minute walk, from beautiful Muri Beach, which is why it’s $150 a night and not double that. But it receives exceptional reviews and is easily one of the best value, nicest properties on the island. If it’s within your budget, I would book here over everywhere else mentioned in the article.
And a final note here: annoyingly, half of the accommodation in Rarotonga requires you to stay for a minimum of three nights. This isn’t awful, as Rarotonga is beautiful and well worth exploring, but if your plan was to fly into Rarotonga, spend a night, and then head to Aitutaki, you won’t have as many options for accommodation. If you’re searching for hotels and struggling to find any, adjust your search to three nights and whole bunch of other places will pop up for you to book.
Let’s move on to transportation.
Getting Around Rarotonga on a Budget
As you can tell from the Google Maps screenshot above, Rarotonga only has one major road; a loop that traces the coastline for 20 miles, so walking everywhere isn’t a realistic possibility. Taxis are expensive, too, and there are only a couple on the island; I didn’t see a single one while I was there.
The cheapest way to explore Rarotonga, then, is by bus. There are three buses in the entire country[!], and in Rarotonga, one of them runs clockwise and the other anti-clockwise. A single ticket costs $5 or you can buy a full hop-on, hop-off day pass for $16. You can view the 2021 schedule on their website, but in general: the bus runs every hour both clockwise and anticlockwise for much of the day — excluding Sundays, when it doesn’t run at all — so you’ll never have to wait too long for one to swing by.
I also recommend taking the bus over the airport transfers offered by the hostels and guesthouses to save $10-25 each way. Most accommodation providers don’t offer up a free airport transfer, so if you’re not in a rush to get to your room, it’s worth waiting around for the bus instead.
The Cook Islands is famous for their motorbike driving licenses, which make for a particularly fun souvenir. A 10-minute driving test and $20 ($10 for the theory test; $10 for the practical) is all it takes to get yours, and this then allows you to hire scooters and ride around the islands. All you need to do is turn up to the police station in Avarua. There, you’ll show your passport, fill in a short piece of paperwork, pay your fee, then get down to action. Answer a simple quiz full of easy, common-sense questions, then drive up and down a short alleyway, showing you can weave through some cones and indicate when turning. You’ll then have your driving license!
It costs around $15 a day to rent a scooter, or $7 for a bicycle. On an island that’s so quiet, you don’t have to worry about traffic and accidents — this is a place where everyone goes slow.
Car hire is expensive, so if you’re thinking about doing this, I’d instead recommend looking at some of the island tours on offer through Viator. They have lots of options for exploring the island with a guide, whether it’s on bicycles, minivan, or tuk-tuk, and they’re all around $40-50 to do so. I book all of my tours through Viator.
How to Save money on Food in Rarotonga
It’s far easier to eat on a budget in Rarotonga than it is in Aitutaki, thanks to the street food carts and night markets you can find dotted around the island. Look for small shacks selling fish sandwiches by the side of the road for the best bargains, and if there’s a queue of locals outside, it’s a sign it’ll be delicious.
If you spend any time in Avarua, the row of shacks pictured above is the place to be for enormous seafood platters for $7-10. They’re located alongside the lagoon close to the market and have tons of options.
In Muri, The Mooring Cafe is always full of locals and super-popular for lunch. The fish sandwiches ($8.50) are so delicious that I ate there everyday. Muri’s night market is your best option for cheap dinners, offering generous portions of local dishes and live music on most evenings. I highly recommend checking it out for both a cultural experience and to save money.
What to Do While You’re in Rarotonga
If you’re on a strict budget and don’t want to spend much money on activities, there’s plenty to keep you busy on the island for free. Sunbathing on the beach is, of course, what most people come to the Cook Islands for and most guesthouses will have snorkels you can use out in the lagoon, too.
The centre of Rarotonga is all about the mountains, giving you tons of options to hike up to viewpoints all over the island. While you should hire a guide if you want to walk across the centre of the island — you can do this through your accommodation — it’s not necessary if you just want to get up high. Some of the easier (2-3 hour round trip) hikes are the Wigmore Falls track, the Avana Valley track, and the Raemaru track.
One of the best ways to explore the Cook Islands is by water, and a lagoon cruise in Muri is the way to go. Captain Tamas runs tours of the lagoon ($54) and is the highest rated tour company on the island. If you only do one activity while you’re in Rarotonga, this is the one to splurge on.
If you want to see as much of Rarotonga as possible, but feel nervous about navigating yourself, there are tours of the island that you can sign up for, as I mentioned above. The most affordable of these is a 3-hour minivan trip ($44), but there’s also a 4-hour cycling tour ($51) that sounds super-fun, and even the opportunity to explore the island via a tuk-tuk tour ($54)!
How to Get From Rarotonga to Aitutaki and Back
There’s only one way to get from Rarotonga to Aitutaki and that’s to fly with Air Rarotonga. Unfortunately, their prices are ridiculous and there are currently no ferries.
The best advice I can give is to book as early as possible, as soon as you buy your flights to the Cook Islands. I booked my flights less than two weeks before arriving and ended up paying $200 each way. For a thirty. minute. flight. A quick look at Air Rarotonga’s website shows the prices drop the further out you book, with flights in a few months’ time coming in at $120 each way. Still pretty expensive, but more affordable than a $400 round-trip that I had to pay for!
The other alternative is to just turn up in Rarotonga, head to the Air Rarotonga office and book through them. There are reports of people getting fares for half the price by booking last-minute, but you do run the risk of there being no availability on any of the flights. Or the flights being really expensive.
And you really do need to head to Aitutaki. If you only visit Rarotonga, you’ll be missing out on what makes the Cook Islands so special.
How to Visit Aitutaki on a Budget
Aitutaki is paradise and paradise doesn’t come cheap. From my initial research, I could immediately tell that this was going to be a splurge destination, but once I arrived, it actually wasn’t too bad at all.
Budget Accommodation Options on Aitutaki
There aren’t any hostels in Aitutaki, but there are a few affordable guesthouses. I stayed in a few different spots around the island and my favourite was Gina’s Garden Lodges. For $60 a night, I had an enormous bungalow with five beds — a bargain if you’re travelling with a group of friends! Gina was the loveliest human with a fascinating life, and she even gave me a huge hug when she drove me back to the airport. The bungalows were peaceful and surrounded by jungle, which made them particularly cool in my mind.
Another affordable option is Ranganui’s Retreat at $100 a night. I also stayed here, but didn’t like it all that much. The lack of air conditioning meant that my room was like a furnace, and the owner was never around whenever I needed to ask a question or buy a new internet voucher.
But overall, I believe the best place to stay on Aitutaki is the exceptional Aitutaki Budget Accommodation at a price of $70 a night — it receives a rating of 9.7/10 on Booking! Staying here will give you a true local experience, staying with a welcoming family and being accepted into their home. Guests write of the owners cooking dinners for them, inviting them on nights out with their friends, and repairing clothes that got torn. How could you not want to stay here?
Getting Around Aitutaki
Aitutaki is much smaller than Rarotonga and you can easily explore the entire island in half a day. Bicycle rentals are either free to use from your guesthouse (although likely to be awful — my hands were sore for days afterwards), or around $5 a day. Scooters are $25/day. There aren’t any buses or taxis on the island.
You’ll need to organise an airport transfer with your accommodation, which will come to around $10-20 each way depending on how far you’re staying from the airport.
What Can You Do in Aitutaki?
The one thing I recommend that everyone do in Aitutaki is take a cruise of the lagoon — it was one of the highlights of my five years of travel! I went with Teking Tours and was thrilled with my experience. They’re one of the more affordable options on the island, with a full day cruise coming in at $70.
Other than that, know that Aitutaki is small and if you plan to spend more than three or four days there, you’re likely to get bored. You can traverse the island within a couple of hours by bicycle, hike up to one of the viewpoints (my favourite was Piraki Lookout, but Maunga Pu was great, too), or sunbathe on the beach (and I actually found the beaches to be better on Rarotonga).
Read more: You Have to Take a Lagoon Cruise of Aitutaki.
How to Save on Food
If you’re planning on saving money by cooking, expect to live off of crap food. In Aitutaki, especially, where cargo arrives only once every three months, it’s hard to find good eats as a tourist. In grocery stores, expect to find rows of tinned food and bags of chips and candy, and no vegetables or fresh meat/fish. If you want fresh food, you’ll either have to befriend a local or find out when the market runs and hit it up in the early hours of the day.
When it comes to eating out, lunches will set you back around $15 a meal and dinners $20. An easy way to cut down on costs is to eat vegetarian, which I did for much of my time there. In most restaurants on Aitutaki, the vegetarian options were only around $10.
Paradise Isn’t as Expensive as You Think
Before I came to the Cook Islands, I was under the impression that somewhere so isolated and beautiful would only be for the rich. But just like in the Maldives, I was thrilled to discover that budget travel is a real possibility. Stay in hostels, eat street food, rent bicycles, and there’s no reason why you can’t average around $50 a day while you’re there.