More than anywhere I’ve visited on my travels, the Cook Islands meets my definition of paradise.
And yes, that’s including the Maldives and Bora Bora! Honestly, guys, I’ve been to over 80 countries by this point and I still don’t know if I’ll ever visit anywhere as breathtakingly beautiful as the Cook Islands.
The entirety of this island nation is gorgeous. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are stunning, ringed by turquoise lagoons and swaying palm trees, encouraging you to do little but relax. Lagoon cruises take you into paradise, 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 space on your camera.
Not only is it beautiful, but it’s easy to travel around, too. The locals are ridiculously friendly and welcoming, and the local dishes tasty. 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 I did it.
How to Find Cheap Flights to the Cook Islands
My biggest and best advice is to start checking Secret Flying religiously. This website is my holy grail when it comes to travel deals and it’s thanks to them that I managed to score return flights from Lisbon to Cape Town for 280 USD, Rome to Japan for 350 USD, and one-way flights from Copenhagen to Los Angeles for 120 USD, along with Singapore to London for 102 USD. They’re totally legit and regularly share deals they’ve spotted for the Cook Islands too.
Over the past couple of months, they’ve spotted the following deals for their readers:
- Los Angeles to the Cook Islands for $523 return
- Auckland to the Cook Islands for $345 NZD return
- Sydney to the Cook Islands for $518 AUD return
- Vancouver to the Cook Islands for $832 CAD return
- London to the Cook Islands for £427 return
These are all pretty fantastic prices when you take into account that you’ll be flying to the other side of the world if you’ll be visiting from North America or Europe, so that’s why I always recommend my readers check Secret Flying before all else.
If Secret Flying isn’t turning up any deals, your next stop should be Skyscanner in order to find the most inexpensive options. Make sure to search from your home country to Rarotonga, as you may find there are cheaper flights to the Cook Islands from a different airport that won’t cost much to get to. I also recommend searching for flights across an entire month, as then you’ll be able to ensure you’re flying on the cheapest possible date.
In general, you’re going to find the cheapest deals from Australia and New Zealand, and I paid $190 for a one-way ticket from Auckland to Rarotonga with Jetstar.
If you’re currently travelling in Southeast Asia, hitting up the Cook Islands won’t break the bank, either. You’ll be looking at around $100 to get to Australia, bringing your total to around $300 for a one-way ticket to paradise. Flexibility is key here; if you don’t mind when you fly, who you fly with, and where you’re leaving from, you’ll find it far easier to pick up a bargain.
Furthermore, if you’re planning on taking a round-the-world trip, you should be able to work the Cook Islands into your itinerary without a problem. Roughly 90% of the backpackers I met in the Cook Islands were there as part of their round-the-world ticket, so it’s a popular stopover.
Now that you’ve scored a great deal on flights, let’s take a look at how you can save money once you’ve arrived.
You Can Save Money By Visiting During Low Season
Tourism in the Cook Islands is very seasonal, so if you’re looking to save money, visiting in the rainy season can help you do so.
I personally visited the Cook Islands in January and experienced zero days of rain, although that doesn’t guarantee you’ll also have a dry vacation, of course. If you’re willing to take the risk, though, 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 2019, so I really do recommend planning to spend the vast majority of your time in the country offline.
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 barely usable. If you can get online with them, prepare for speeds to be excruciatingly slow. 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 2019:
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 really 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! The cheapest ones are found in the Arorangi District, in the southwest, where the beaches are pretty nice, but there isn’t a whole lot else to do.
In comparison, Avarua, in the north, is the capital of the island and has tons to see and do, and Muri Beach, in the southeast, has the best beaches on Rarotonga. You’re far from both areas if you stay in Arorangi, so will have to take a bus or hire a scooter/bicycle to get to either of them. It’s up to you whether you want the convenience of staying in Muri or Avarua at an additional cost, but I didn’t feel as though I missed out by staying in Arorangi, as everywhere was still accessible by a ~$3 bus.
A quick note here: annoyingly, a lot 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’ll struggle to find a guesthouse that’ll allow you to do so.
I stayed at Rarotonga Backpackers, which cost $25/night for a dorm bed and $35 for a private single room. The staff were fun and helpful, it was easy to meet people and make friends, and there was a decent swimming pool, barbecue area, and a gorgeous beach out the back. I thought it was great value for money! They aren’t listed on any of the booking sites, unfortunately, so you’ll have to drop them an email through their website in order to book.
As an alternative, Backpackers International is by far the cheapest hostel on the island, with dorms coming in at $14 a night and private rooms at $32/night for a double. The other advantage is that they’re listed on HostelWorld, so if you’re a fan of booking online and avoiding the whole emailing and waiting for a response dance, this is the hostel to go for.
If you can’t stand the thought of staying in a hostel, there are several guesthouses that’ll give you your own privacy on Rarotonga without pushing your budget too high.
I stayed at Raina Beach Apartments in Muri for my second visit to Rarotonga. It was much pricer at almost $60 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 lovely staff, and plenty of cheap eats nearby: it was great! 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, 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 but it receives great reviews for pretty much everything.
If you have a little more money to spend, I’d recommend going for Aroko Bungalows at a price of $75 a night for a bungalow in an incredibly well-reviewed complex. It looks like exceptional value for money and the great guest reviews make this a no-brainer if it fits in with your budget.
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 possibility. Taxis are expensive and there are only a few 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 is $3.40 or you can buy 10 rides for just over $20. The rides are transferrable so it’s worth getting 10 of them and sharing them around with your friends, travel partners, or hostel guests if you won’t be around for long enough to use them all.
I also recommend taking the bus over the airport transfers offered by the hostels and guesthouses to save $10-25 each way. I didn’t find any accommodation that offered a free airport transfer, so if you’re not in a rush to get to your hostel, it’s worth waiting around for a bus.
The Cook Islands is somewhat famous for their motorbike driving licenses, which make for a kickass souvenir. A 10-minute riding test and $20 is all it takes to get yours, and this then allows you to hire scooters and ride around the islands. 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 these days.
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 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.
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 $50 a night, I had an enormous bungalow with five beds — a bargain if you’re travelling with a group of friends! Gina was lovely, even giving me a huge hug when she sent me off at the airport, and the bungalows were peaceful and surrounded by jungle.
The cheapest option on Aitutaki is Josie’s Beach Lodge, where doubles start at $25 a night, but you’ll have to share a bathroom. I couldn’t find much information about them anywhere online — there’s no website, no reviews, and no photos — so gave them a miss. If you want to give it a go, you can book by emailing: email@example.com.
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.