Eight years ago, I sat on my bed and began researching round-the-world tickets. 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. It looked like paradise and I was determined 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 road on Aitutaki
Aitutaki is great for cycling! Little traffic, smooth roads, and beautiful views.

The Arrival Process is Unexpectedly Easy

The moment I passed through immigration, I discovered that independent travel in the Cook Islands is rare. A big Cook Islands mama was greeting every passenger from my flight and welcoming them individually. I figured it was some kind of resort deal and sneaked past.

Not so fast.

She ran after me and asked where I was staying. I gave her the name of my hostel and she directed me to another mama a few metres away. She walked me out into the car park and led me to a specific spot. Wait here for your transfer, she told me.

It was all so easy. And strange. I’d never experienced anything like it. Especially when staying at a $20 a night hostel.

Muri Lagoon in Rarotonga, the Cook Islands!
Muri Lagoon, on Rarotonga. This was one of my favourite spots to sunbathe and snorkel.

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 stay in inexpensive spots, that blog post will show you it’s more than possible.

On Rarotonga, dorm rooms in hostels on the beach start from $15 a night, transportation with the local bus comes in at $3 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 bungalow that sleeps four, which will massively lower the cost if you’re traveling with a group of friends. Transport is easy 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.

Beautiful beach on Aitutaki, the Cook Islands!
The beach outside my guesthouse on Aitutaki. Look how shallow the lagoon is!

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.

My favourite viewpoint on Rarotonga!
My favourite viewpoint on Rarotonga

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.

The lagoon in Aitutaki, the Cook Islands. It definitely has to be the prettiest place I've ever visited
The island where I had lunch on my lagoon cruise and probably the prettiest place I’ve ever been.

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.

cook island coins

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! Um, I think.

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.

Cruising Aitutaki's lagoon!
Cruising Aitutaki’s lagoon!

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.

There’s basically no crime on the islands and I felt so safe there, even as a solo woman wandering around at night.

I love Aitutaki!
More lagoon goodness! The water was that shallow for around 100 metres and you could walk to different islands through it!

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 here.

Giant clams in Aitutaki.
Giant clams! They were the size of me and there were hundreds of them where we went snorkelling!
My favourite island in Aitutaki!
Favourite island.
Aitutaki rocks!

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 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.

Also, for example, 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.

Cheap eats in Rarotonga, the Cook Islands
Cheap eats in Rarotonga.

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. That’s 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.

Muri Lagoon, in the Cook Islands
Muri Lagoon views, on Rarotonga

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?

The Cook Islands is my new favourite country! It's easy to visit on a budget (I averaged $50 a day), the locals are incredibly friendly, and the colour of the water is spectacular!

Share this post: