Twelve years ago, I sat on my bed and began researching round-the-world tickets. I was toying with the idea of long-term travel and felt as though the entire world had suddenly opened up to me. I grabbed a pen and notepad, pulled up a map of the world, and began to scribble down a list of the destinations I most wanted to visit.
After weeks of research, the place I had placed right at the top of my wish list was the Cook Islands. From my research, it looked like paradise and I was desperate to visit.
It may have taken me over four years of full-time travel to get there, but man, was it worth the wait! Here’s what it’s like to travel in one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been.
The Arrival Process is Unexpectedly Easy
When I exited the airport in Rarotonga, I noticed a large Cook Islands mama greeting every passenger from my flight and welcoming them individually. I figured it was some kind of thing to do with the resorts — I was travelling on a tight budget — so I skirted past her.
Not so fast.
She ran after me and asked where I was staying. When I gave her the name of my hostel, she directed me to another mama a few metres away. She then walked me out into the car park and led me to a specific spot. Wait here for your transfer, she told me, and moments later, the owner of my hostel arrived.
It was all so easy and unexpected. No matter where you’re going to be staying on the island, the mamas will show you where to go.
It Can be a Budget Destination
I’ve published an enormous guide on how to visit the Cook Islands on a budget so if, like me, you’re keen to save money, that blog post will show you it’s more than possible.
On Rarotonga, dorm rooms in hostels on the beach start from $20 a night, transportation with the local bus comes in at $5 per ride, or $25 for ten journeys, and you can grab a meal from a beach shack for around $10-15.
On Aitutaki, hostels don’t exist, so your best bet is a budget guesthouse. You can get these from $50 a night for a cute bungalow in a peaceful location. Transportation is easy here, with bikes available for free from most accommodation, or $7 a day if not. Lagoon tours will be your major expense, coming in at $50-70 for a full day out on the water, but it’s definitely worth the splurge.
I Didn’t Meet Another Solo Traveler While I Was There
I spent ten days in the Cook Islands, stayed in a dorm room in a hostel, and still didn’t meet another solo traveller.
There’s no doubt about it: this is a destination for families and honeymooners. In fact, the immigration arrival card even had options to tick if you were coming for a wedding or honeymoon! Even at the hostels, there were only backpacking couples on round-the-world trips or people opting for a cheaper honeymoon to hang out with.
Having said that, I didn’t struggle to meet people. The couples I hung out with on Rarotonga and Aitutaki were welcoming and happy for me to tag along with them, even if I felt as though I was totally intruding on their honeymoon. You’ll meet people in the Cook Islands as a solo traveller, but they’ll probably be a part of a couple.
Don’t Skip Rarotonga
When I was researching the Cook Islands, practically every article I came across online urged me to spend as little time on Rarotonga as possible, and as much on Aitutaki. I dutifully booked 48 hours on the island and five full nights on Aitutaki, but left feeling like I should have had more of an even split.
Because here’s the thing: Aitutaki’s lagoon is the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited, hands down. But the island itself wasn’t that amazing for me. The beaches weren’t great, you can cycle around the entire island in half a day, and there just wasn’t all that much to do. I ended up being bored in Aitutaki by the end of my stay, then returning to Rarotonga and wishing I had longer there.
So, don’t overlook Rarotonga. I mean, if you had to choose just one island, I’d say go to Aitutaki to see the lagoon, but if you have a week in the Cook Islands, go for a 4/3 day split.
Air Rarotonga is Crazy-Expensive
The only way to get from Rarotonga to Aitutaki is via Air Rarotonga, and the prices are high.
But there is a way to minimise the cost: book the second you decide you want to visit, because the prices will only increase the closer you get to your dates! I booked my flights less than two weeks before arriving and ended up paying $250 each way. For a thirty. minute. flight. A quick look at Air Rarotonga’s website shows me that prices drop the further out you book, with June and July offering $120 each way. Still crazy expensive, but much more affordable than a $500 round-trip!
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 this way, but you do run the risk of their being no availability on any of the flights.
The Cook Islands Has the Best Coins Ever
Where else in the world will you find a country that has triangle- and wiggly-shaped coins? Nowhere!
You’ll pay for most things in New Zealand dollars in the Cook Islands, but when it comes to smaller purchases, you can use the kickass Cook Islands coins.
The Locals are Incredibly Friendly
I always say that the Taiwanese were the friendliest people I’ve met on my travels, but I think the Cook Islanders may have just knocked them off the top spot. Over and over again, I experienced such warmth from the locals I ran into.
When I was succumbing to heatstroke and struggling to walk, a Cook Islands mama pulled over on her scooter and offered me a free ride back to my hostel. When I arrived at a new guesthouse, I was welcomed with an enormous embrace. When I mentioned to my lagoon cruise tour guide that I hadn’t been up to the island viewpoint yet, he took an hour out of his day to scooter me to the top of Aitutaki and show me his favourite views. Everyone you pass calls out hello and it’s so wonderful.
There’s basically no crime on the islands and I felt so safe there, even as a solo woman wandering around at night.
You Can’t Skip the Lagoon Cruises in Aitutaki
I almost skipped the lagoon tour in Aitutaki, reasoning that being on a boat all day would make me seasick and snorkelling always gives me a headache and brings me out in a rash.
That would have been the biggest mistake of my travels, because oh my god, you have to see the lagoon. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being in paradise. I wrote about my experience in depth in my article about Aitutaki.
Grocery Shopping Sucks
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, expect to find rows of tinned food and bags of chips and candy, and little 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.
A small tin of baked beans was $5! Prices were high. I actually found it cheaper to eat out for dinner and grab some snacks from the grocery stores for lunch.
Expect to Spend Most of Your Time Offline
Free Wi-Fi does not exist in the Cook Islands.
I couldn’t find a free Internet connection anywhere.
Instead, you’ll have to either opt for the despicable Zenbu, who charges $10 per 100 mb. Or Vodafone Cook Islands — who are much better. It’s still ridiculously expensive — the priciest rates I’ve found anywhere in the world and every restaurant, cafe, and guesthouse uses one of those two providers. Most of the connections are barely usable, and if you can get online, prepare for speeds to be slllloooowwwwww.
In comparison, free Wi-Fi was everywhere I visited in French Polynesia, Tonga, and Fiji.
The best deal I found was at my guesthouse in Aitutaki: I booked it because the Booking listing said it had free Wi-Fi, then arrived to discover they charged $10 per 150 mb.
You can pick up a local SIM card for $25, but data rates still start at $10 per 1GB, valid for 7 days. Much better than using hotel Wi-Fi, but still very expensive.
But really, just plan to spend most of your time offline in the Cook Islands and relish in it! I’d been planning to work in the evenings on my trip, but instead worked my way through half a dozen books. I came away feeling far more relaxed than if I’d been trying to get blog posts written while I was there.
So, after setting such high expectations for the Cook Islands back when I was dreaming of travel, did it manage to meet them?
Hell yes. I loved my time there. The locals were so warm and friendly, travelling on a budget wasn’t horrendous, I doubt I’ll ever go anywhere as spectacular as Aitutaki, and I’m already plotting my return! If you’re looking for paradise, head to the Cook Islands. It’s amazing.
Have you been to the Cook Islands? What did you think? If not, would you want to visit?
Related Articles on the Cook Islands
💰 How to Travel the Cook Islands on a Budget (2023): It’s Possible!
🏝 You Have to Take a Lagoon Cruise in Aitutaki
🏖 How to Plan a Budget Trip to the South Pacific
I’ve been following along through your Facebook posts and every time you posted a photo I’d exclaim WOW! It looks absolutely stunning, can’t wait to read your post on how to travel there on a budget!
And it’s just as stunning as it looks in the photos! I don’t think I really believed a place could look like this until I made it there. It was like walking through a travel brochure :-)
It really is paradise… The color of the water, the palm trees, the friendly people and no Wifi;-). When planning my 5 month trip last year I also strongly considered going to the Cook Islands but eventually didn’t because it would be rainy season. But next time… definitely next time! Looking forward to reading you big budget post!
It was the middle of rainy season when I visited, but I didn’t get a single day of rain! And that was highly unusual — the locals were telling me about how that time last year, the streets were all flooded, so probably for the best you didn’t go then! :-)
Haha I am so happy to hear that;-P Makes me feel slightly better about choosing not to go last year. Next year;-)
Can’t get over those coins! They are so awesome!
I can’t read anymore cos you’re making me jealous…. :P :)
Aren’t they? I have a small bag of triangle coins in my daypack, because I didn’t want to spend any of them!
Wow! I have always wanted to visit the Cook Islands. They look incredible and your post has only made me more determined to go. Really looking forward to reading your travel guide on the islands!
So happy to hear that, Lizzy! It’s a special place :-)
Those colors are unreal!! Thanks for showing us all that the Cook Islands can be done on a budget!
I actually commented to one of my friends on my lagoon cruise that it felt like the islands had been photoshopped! It’s a seriously spectacular place and now has me obsessed with lagoons!
Before reading this post, the only other times I had heard of the Cook Islands was when reading some UN document or ratification treaty. Seriously! It looks gorgeous and the idea of not having internet makes it all the more interesting to me. Reminds me of Cuba, where I had a total facebook and internet detox for 22 days and my life was so much better! I am looking forward to read your next post on expenses, so I can start planning :)
I was really agitated about the lack of Internet at first, but then I accepted it and had the best time offline. I definitely needed a break :-)
Reading your blog and seeing your gorgeous photos makes me want to return to the Cook Islands! This time with hubby in tow. I went here as a solo backpacker in 1998 (I doubt its changed much) There was quite a few of us solo backpackers in the hostel. I loved the Cook’s but never made it to Aitutaki, it was too expensive and I had not long started my trip so didn’t want to blow the budget that early!
Oh, that’s amazing that you got to visit then — I’d imagine there are far more tourists now!
I was so excited to read this post and your thoughts on the Cook Islands after following along on Facebook and Instagram. What a PERFECT looking place. It makes me happy that the people are so friendly, too. Sucks about the Wi-Fi but nobody could complain too much for a place to switch off :) Looking forward to the budget post (literally think I only ever say/think that when reading your blog haha)!
Haha, thanks, Kirsten! That means a lot :-D
Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos of the Cook Islands. We have many friends in Australia, I think I’m going to suggest the Cook Islands for our next meet-up, Looks breathtaking and relaxing (hard to admit, but sometimes no WiFi can be a blessing).
Oh, you should! Flights are cheap from Australia.
I live in Hawaii but you have me DYING to visit the South Pacific! Thank you so much for these write ups – they are an invaluable source. Off to save all my pennies… :)
I visited Hawaii for three weeks a few years back, and I was surprised by how different the Cook Islands and all of the other South Pacific islands I visited were to each other. There are definitely reasons to head to each one. And man, I want to head back to Hawaii! :-)
I definitely want to go there, it looks absolutely stunning. Someday!!
It’s totally worth it! :-)
Looks so beautiful! I have not been but my sister has (as a solo traveler) and she loved it.
Nice! Glad to hear of another solo traveller checking it out! I’m sure there are plenty that head there, but it’s so weird I didn’t meet any!
Wow, this really looks like the most beautiful place ever. I was actually considering going alone though and having a quick trip. now I think I should probably wait until I have a partner in crime to go with and make sure I can take plenty of time there.
Great tips and beautiful photography!
I didn’t find it too bad as a solo traveller, but now that I’ve been, I definitely want to return with Dave at some point in the future. Either way, I’m sure you’d love it! :-)
Enjoyed reading this…the Cook Islands are one of my favorite places in the world. Traveled there once solo and once as a couple and loved it both times. Since you are plotting a return as well, I recommend a visit to Atiu, if possible. A different vibe than Raro and Aitutaki but definitely worth it.
Definitely on my list! I wish I’d spent my entire three weeks in the South Pacific just in one country so that I could explore it in more depth. Next time! :-) I’ve heard amazing things about Atiu.
Beautiful pics. Looks unreal, like paradise! Sounds like you had a really great trip. I can’t believe people said your travels were dull. How bloody rude for a start! Your blog is by far my favourite, and most real, travel blog I read. As long as you’re enjoying what you do keep doing it! :D
Thank you so much, Emma! That means a lot to me :-D
I LOVE this post, Lauren! So much great info and gorgeous beach photos as always. I miss your pinnable image at the end though so I can save it for later :)
Haha, that was definitely due to laziness! I’ll get one up later on today :-)
Those photos! Each of them would make an awesome postcard! I’ve never even thought of traveling to the Cook Islands, they seemed to be just a tiny spot somewhere on the map in a vast ocean…
Lauren, you are solely responsible for half of my travel bucket list ?
Yay!! That makes me so happy! Definitely put the Cook Islands right at the top of it :-D
Lovely image of the crystal-clear water. The Cook Islands definitely look like a lovely place to visit. While it’s a shame that the Internet is so expensive there, the good thing is that – as you said – it’s become a better setting to relax more.
It showed me that I should definitely take more breaks offline in the future — I managed to explore so much deeper than usual because of the lack of distractions.
Hi Lauren! I was intrigued by the ability to stay in the Cook Islands on a budget! I’m thinking of possibly planning a girls getaway with my best friend and my daughter who would be one or so at the time of travel, were there a lot of families with kids there?
Lots of families! It’s really kid friendly :-)
Who would expect a full read on tips when traveling to the Cook Islands! It looks beautiful– the white sandy beaches, blue shallow lagoons, and endless shorelines, this is a place that seems like one of the most scenic/picturesque places in the world. It also seems very isolated (I’ve never heard of it)..maybe that’s why groceries are so expensive!
Only a three hour flight from New Zealand or Australia, so not too isolated :-)
This makes me want to visit ASAP! I went to Bora Bora and Moorea last year and can’t wait to see your French Polynesia posts as well! Can’t wait for your budget post! Looking at flights now…. :)
It’s a beautiful part of the world, and now I’m already looking at flights to get back there! :-)
This has given me some serious wonderlust to get myself to the Cook Islands! I lived in New Zealand most of my life and somehow still have never made it!
Definitely the first place on my list whenever I make my way back over that side of the world!
And flights are so cheap from New Zealand as well! :-)
Thanks, this post and your Instagram are inspiring us to island-hop across the South Pacific on our way home from our career break. I love your photos of the sparkling blue sea!
How did you choose which island countries to visit? We’re considering Vanuatu, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Bora Bora, the Solomon Islands, and anywhere else where a gorgeous photo pops up on Instagram. We have to trim this list, but they all look beautiful!
I actually have a post about this scheduled for a few weeks’ time! After checking that there was budget accommodation available on Agoda, I chose based on flights. I knew I’d be starting from Auckland, so I calculated the cost of a flight to each of the countries I wanted to visit. I then picked the three cheapest places and calculated the cheapest place to fly to from there. And so on…
Did the restaurants offer fresh fish? They must have, right? Befriending locals is always the ideal, but sometimes one simply wants to have a relaxing evening rather than hunt down a new friend to share a fish BBQ.
What were the prices like for that?
Yep, lots of fresh fish dishes in the restaurants! For dinners, you’d be looking at around $20-30 per dish at a nice place, but there are shacks in Rarotonga where you can grab an enormous fish sandwich for $10.
Beautiful Pictures!! Looks like an amazing place to relax in Holiday trip. Thanks for Sharing information about Cook Islands
Wow ..! You looking so pretty! those are all beach photos are awesome.i hope you very Fun of it on traveling.I love your it’s really great.
Really awesome place Lauren!
Your post and pictures are grab my eyes. What a place greenly location, wonderful beach and your budget guides. Really impressing me to make a visit to Cook Island.
Thanks for sharing a nice post with cool and attractive images.
It’s a beautiful country! :-)
I thought that the only island where we can find the giant animals was the galapagos islands, but I can see that there is much more to discover.
The Cook Islands look gorgeous! There are simply too many beautiful islands in the world to check them all out, but I think I’ll make the Cook Islands a must when I ever get around to visiting New Zealand!
Definitely do! Flights are really cheap from Auckland :-)
A couple of friends are there at the moment, and I must admit that seeing their photos and your post has made me a bit jealous. It looks like paradise x
It’s a special place! :-)
Can I afford to travel around for 3 months with a budget of $7000? I d like to quit my job and see the world. Is it possible?
Absolutely! You can easily do so on that budget. Stick to cheaper regions of the world (Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and South Asia, Central America), stay in guesthouses, and travel overland as much as possible :-)
$7,000 for three months!!! You could travel way over a year on that. I’ve spent 20 years on the road, even got paid to travel on private super yachts.
Just show up wherever you want to be– and make it happen. You’ll meet other travelers, find cheap places. It always works. I’ve had little jobs all over the world too, like running hotel cabanas in the amazon, to renting out berther spots on boats in Amsterdam. I get 5 travelers a day to rent cheap rooms, I get free room and board. It’s doable, if you just do it!!!!
I’m a solo female traveler, and picked up 5 languages along the way. Like they say: Not all who wander are lost.
This, too ^
Looks absolutely incredible. I had heard rumours that there are no decent budget accommodation options on the Cook Islands – how did you find the hostels? Any you would recommend?
Yes! I linked out to the places I stayed at here: https://www.neverendingfootsteps.com/how-to-travel-the-cook-islands-on-a-budget-its-possible/
I love your blog! I will be travelling to Cooks Island next year and have been researching by reading blogs. I love your favorite spot in Raro. Where exactly is that?
If you’re coming from the south, it’s just before where the planes come in and jet blast you.
I really love travelling. Especially going to Islands like this. The pictures of Cook Islands are very beautiful. They make me want to go there right now. I just see the pictures but I can image that Cook island is a paradise. Thanks for your post.
No problem! The Cook Islands really are spectacular!
Amazing photos! What time of the year did you visit?
Oh my gosh, i was origanally born there and i spent 10 years on that island, but than i moved to China and it’s been like 4 years and i was on pinterest just scrolling through some picks and i came across Cook Island and when i accidentally pressed the site instead of the pic it led me here, I was going all crazy when i was reading the comments and i was like ‘Hoho, i came from there’ and i’ve always wanted to visit……..still waiting ;P
Oh and did you go to the Sailing club? And the Rrotonga resurant, oh oh oh and the market? Did you stroll through the town too? Haha sorry i’m getting really pumped up, but yea i was a sailer and my older sister too, she was in Gold fleet and i was ALMOST in Gold fleet but yea, i’m so happy you enjoyed your trip there :)
I hate any kind of traveler blogs or posts! But what I’ve just read was so awesome and helpfull! Thank you!
Thank you! Not all travel blogs are bad ;-)
So true! Visited Cook Islands last year and had the chance to meet a couple of solo travelers like myself. Contradicting to myself, they pointed out was lucky that my first visit I met fellow solo backpackers. During the time, seen more couple and families. Yet i would recommend it for solo visitors. Why not? It’s a lovely place.
Exactly! It’s so beautiful that even if you don’t make a ton of friends, it’s still worth visiting.
Thank you very much for visiting my home island Aitutaki. I only visit every 2-4years now since my maternal grandparents passed on. Before then I was there twice a year. It is very expensive to travel there and now that I only visit every 2-4yrs it has allowed me more time and money to travel to other parts of the globe. But will be visiting January 2020 for family reunion. Can’t wait to see my family!
great blog! I’m actually thinking to go there but I’m just a backpacker. So it would be interesting how long I should stay there and what do you think how much money I’ll need.
reall good blog helped me with a report
Happy to have helped!
I am just 2 weeks away from our Rarotonga/Aitutaki visit and your storey telling was fantastic, we were there 10 years ago with tekking and it was just as amazing. Thanks for getting me so excited for what is coming soon.
Great blog! I am going to the Cook Islands in June as a solo traveller after being inspired by your blog. Where did you take the 4th photo (your favorite viewpoint)?
Thanks, and look forward to hearing more about your trips!
I am going to Rarotonga in just under 5 weeks from now, and just came across your helpful blog. I was wondering if you saw any big creepy spiders or snakes or anything else like that on the island? I am deathly afraid of spiders so anything you can tell me would help :-)
Nope! I didn’t see a single spider or snake or anything like that while I was there :-)
I would move to Raro today if i could. My favorite place on earth. Agreed about Aitutaki, nice, but Raro is better.
It’s the definition of paradise! And a pretty spectacular place to live :-)
We spent a week on Roratonga and only a day on Aitutaki… I knew as soon as we arrived we should stay longer! However, we have been blessed to have traveled through many parts of the world and many islands. The Cook Islands will be definately visit for me again. The people, the scenery and environment were so welcoming and relaxing. Time did not matter there – unless you waiting until the late afternoon to stop and most shops and they were closed. But the beach never closed and the snorkeling was top notch. We snorkelers for hours and didnt have to deal with the tide pulling you around and predators looking for you. Since the large reef was about 400 meters off the beach and fully encircled Roratonga,, you were safe from large predators and currents. We found eating out was often cheaper than cooking – but, we often got a coconut for breakfast and it filled us easily until lunch or later. Coconuts were free and fell all over the place. We are already planning our trip and will stay in anAirbnb again to save a few bucks.
Thank you for a detailed, impressive guide! Saved your post for the future for when I make it to the Cook Islands 🙂
Thank you for sharing. I’ve wanted to visit there for many years. In pictures it looks like the most beautiful place on Earth.
You have described the Cook Islands down to a tee, we when we discovered the Cook’s we fell in love with it, so much so that we have been going for the last five years in a row and Covid put a stop to our sixth visit in a row. But we are planning to go when the borders come down. It is truly heaven on earth, we have visited Aitutaki four times now and the colours of the water need to be seen to be believed. The people are very friendly and there are multitude of things that you can do, from dining at divine restaraunts to Island nights, Muri lagoon cruises. You can do as much as you want to do all the way to the other end of the spectrum in not doing anything and just chill out and go for a swim, have a drink to cool down and repeat repeat and repeat again. Anyone who is reading this do not procrastinate as you will never get there, if you think of going Just Do It as the add goes and you will not be disappointed, your only reaction will be “why didn’t I do it earlier”. All the best.