It’s true. They’re known as an expensive luxury destination, but is it possible to visit the Cook Islands on a budget?
It sure is, and here’s how!
The Cook Islands are made up of 15 islands scattered in the South Pacific. Rarotonga is the largest (32km around) and most visited island and this is the one that we chose to visit for a week of soaking up the sun and hard-core relaxing.
All those photos you’ve seen on the front of travel brochures are spot on! Rarotonga is beautiful, a real slice of paradise.
The locals are welcoming and friendly, the scenery is stunning and you can decide to do absolutely nothing or take advantage of loads of activities on the island.
The entire island is surrounded by idyllic white sandy beaches. Turquoise blue waters and lagoons, swaying palm trees and lush tropical gardens are everywhere.
Sounds like this should all cost quite a lot, doesn’t it? Well, it doesn’t have to and it helps to have done a little homework before you arrive. You’re in luck, because we’ve done the ground work for you.
Weather: There is no bad time to visit the Cook Islands. The shoulder months of Apr, May, Sept, and October usually provide the best combo of sunshine and warmth.
Dry season June to Aug is also a good time, however you may encounter a little rain.
Currency: The currency used in Cook Islands is the NZD. There are some local Cook Island coins that you will receive in change. These are really different and they come in many shapes like triangles, squares and some standard round ones also. Just be sure to spend them or exchange for NZD notes before you leave the island as they aren’t much use anywhere else. (however they’d be great for a coin collection).
Wifi is very expensive: Yes, it really is and it’s probably best to plan for a holiday offline. I’d recommend saving any helpful information in a word document or printing useful tips that you’ve researched before arriving. That way, you can access it at anytime and not miss out on any of the best food and insider recommendations whilst you’re here.
I really embraced my week offline and without all that information that you’re constantly trying to store and process, my head actually feels lighter and clearer. I took the opportunity to read a book and play card games with Marty, without the constant distraction of texts and notifications on my phone.
Wifi is actually still available in some hot-spots around the islands and you can buy credit and top up your phone. I heard that $10 spent on wifi would get you access to check a few emails and that’s about all.
Our Airbnb hosts explained that they pay NZD $300 p/month for 30 MB. Expensive stuff right?
How to Find Cheap Flights to the Cook Islands:
We’re pretty lucky I guess, as getting to the Cook Islands didn’t break the bank. We flew from Australia, transferring via Auckland in New Zealand. We paid AUD $750 return per person for flights with Virgin Airlines, these were with good connections each way.
You can view a whole week or month of flights to compare prices, it’s a great tool if you can be flexible with dates.
You’ll meet lots of New Zealanders on the island as the islands are quite close-by, so its a natural choice of vacation for them. We also met some Americans who travelled from Las Vegas, they told us that return flights to the Cook Islands were cheaper than return flights to New York. Crazy right? So of course they took the chance to come visit this island paradise.
How to get Around Rarotonga:
Local Transport: A local bus runs two routes regularly around the island every hour until about 11pm each night. One runs clockwise, the other anti-clockwise. The cost is NZD $5 one-way or $8 return trip. You can purchase a 10 trip pass for $36.
Hire a Scooter, Car or Bicycle: If you’d like to hire a scooter during your time here, there is a process you must follow.
If you don’t have a scooter/motorbike licence in your home country (and have your licence with you to prove it), then you must complete a 10 minute riding test at the police headquarters in the main town of Avarua. The test doesn’t take long, however be prepared for a long queue on busy days. It can take up to 3-4 hours, so be prepared. The licence issueing desk opens until 3pm weekdays and is only open til midday on Saturday. Sunday is closed, like many other businesses on this day.
The problem is that many flights and most visitors arrive on late night flights on Friday evening which means they all head straight to the office on Saturday morning to get the licence to start sight-seeing straight away.
With so many people trying to get the licence, this means you have to be patient. Remember you’re in island time now, slow down!
You’ll pay NZD $20 for the actual licence, as well as $5 each for the theory test and the practical test. Once you have the licence, this allows you to hire scooters and ride around the island. You must have this to present to the rental businesses when trying to hire a scooter.
It costs around $15 a day to rent a scooter, not bad at all! The maximum speed on the island is 40km which is great, especially when riding at night, because it gets pretty dark when the sun goes down. Be sure to look out for all the random chickens and roosters crossing the roads. Seriously, they’re everywhere.
I think I caught few of them smiling, they look so happy with all that space to roam free.
Bicycle hire is about $12-14 per day. It’s a good idea to also get in early to hire bikes first thing in the morning at the start of your stay to avoid missing out. Hire the bikes for however many days you need it. The whole island seemed to be in short supply when we were there.
Getting To/From the Airport: Most flights land quite late in the evening, after 10pm or some at even 03:00am. For this reason it is recommended that you ask your accommodation provider to pre-book you a private transfer to meet your flight and deliver you to your accommodation.
There are not too many other options if you’re arrival flight is this late. This service is NZD $20 per person and you can find the many transfer service companies once you clear the very small customs point at Rarotonga airport. You can’t miss them! I’m sure you could also just rock up without a pre-booked transfer and organise a ride with one of these services without pre-booking also.
If you’re arriving at the airport during the day or early evening and would like to save some cash on this pricey transfer, I’d recommend asking for directions out to the main road and waiting for the bus to pass by. A much cheaper option if you have it.
We caught the local bus back to the airport at the end of our stay for $6 one-way. (The driver charges you a fee of $1 per large bag). Allow up to an hour from time of pick-up to reaching the airport.
Bag Storage: If you need to check out of your accommodation and store large bags for the day (as you’ll probably have a late evening departure flight), you can rent lockers at the airport.
Cost is $7 half day or $15 full day for a small locker. Cost is $12 half day or $25 full day for a large locker.
Alternatively, your hotel/host may be happy to store them for you upon check out and you can spend your last day chilling at the beach. We were able to do this and it was super handy!
Where to Stay:
As we’ve established, the Cook Islands isn’t your standard budget destination and there are a tonne of beautiful resorts which you can stay at, if you’re happy to part with the cash. We’d love to do that, and we could, however it’s not really the way forward for us if we’re constantly on the road and looking to explore more countries to sustain our travelling lifestyle. We wanted to see if we could travel the Cook Islands on a budget too.
We’re all about doing the legwork to find clean, comfortable accommodation in good locations, because then we can spend our hard earned cash on more important things; like eating the best food on offer!
If you’d like to book a hotel or resort in the Cook Islands, I’d recommend you check out Agoda for the best prices.
If you’re like us, and you need something nice but have to keep costs down a little, then AirBnb.com is for you.
This is how we found this amazing self-contained bungalow for our stay here.
AirBnb is always a great option if you’re looking for a real local experience, as they specialise in home stay accommodation and you get to also meet some really great locals.
Check out our accommodation below- Ariki Bungalows. We paid approx AUD $110 per night. If was perfect.
Here’s a $50 discount on your accommodation with Airbnb. You can use it towards booking this place or any others on Cook Islands. In fact, you can utilise this discount for any destination around the world. You’re welcome.
Anyway, we highly recommend Ariki Bungalows and believe me, we’ve stayed in many places. It’s nice when you arrive somewhere and feel so welcome and comfortable.
Our hosts were absolutely wonderful, the place was modern, super clean, had a beautiful new bathroom and we were located close to one of the best beaches on the island, Muri Beach. Lucky for us, some of the best food on the island was located in Muri Beach, however that was all part of the homework and arrangements before we arrived.
If you’re travelling alone and would prefer to meet up with other travellers or backpackers, there are a couple of hostels on the island- Rarotonga Backpackers will have a few options for you. A bed in a dorm with set you back about NZD $25-30 per night. They will generally have a three night minimum, like most accommodation around the island.
Where to Eat:
Muri Night Markets: We chose to stay on Muri Beach as this was where a ‘Food Market’ was on for four nights per week and we love food markets! Starting at 5.00pm, you could go chow down here on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. This place was great! Lots of little food tents cooking everything from fresh seafood curries on rice, kebabs, BBQ sandwiches, roast meats with vegetables or slow cooked lamb curries too. Most dishes would set you back around NZD $10-$20.
The locals LOVE their sweets and cakes too. We noticed several local ladies selling home-made lemon or pineapple meringues, carrot cakes, a few flavours of cheesecake, pavlovas and brownies. The servings were huge and a piece would cost approx $6-8. I noticed they’d sell out within 1-2 hours of trading.
Mooring Fish Cafe-Muri Beach: Also located close to Muri Beach is this little gem that was always busy and for good reason, the fish sandwiches here are actually delicious and huge! A sandwich is NZD $13 and you can choose from about 8 different options including the signature sandwich of crumbed mahi mahi fillets. My favourite was the seared fresh tuna with lime mayo.
The fish is served in some super fresh turkish bread, along with salad.
The ladies that run this place have these sandwiches delivered out to your beach table in no time and you just sit and indulge whilst overlooking part of the lagoon. Bliss!
LBV Bakery & Cafe- Muri Beach: If you’re just craving some good home cooked familiar food like quiches, wraps or a fresh baguette with meat and salads, at a decent price, this place has got you covered. Great coffee too!
The Burger Joint in Muri Beach – We didn’t catch the name of this place, however it’s located directly across from the night markets in Muri Beach. They do awesome beef or chicken burgers starting from $6. What a bargain! Now that’s how you keep costs down and do Cook Islands on a budget!
Punanga Nui Market- Avarua: These are the day markets in the main town of Avarua. The best day to go is on Saturday morning. We went along to check it out and there was lots of foods to try, beautiful breads, baked goods, coffee, yummy meals and also local crafts and things you could purchase too. Hot Tip:Don’t eat breakfast on this day, just rock up and graze!
The Average Cost of Groceries in Cook Islands:
Self catering is a good idea to keep the costs down when you’re on a budget in the Cook Islands. Here is a list of typical grocery item costs to give you an idea.
Fresh Milk (regular), (1 litre) $4.20
Long life milk (1 litre) $2.50
Loaf of Fresh Turkish bread $4.50
Rice (white), (1kg) 3.50
Eggs (6) $4.50
Butter -(small stick of NZ butter- the good stuff) $1.80
6 pack- Heineken bottled beers $15
Bottle of NZ wine- from $12.00
Packet of chocolate biscuits $3.50
Things to do in Cook Islands on a budget:
It’s your choice how you’d like to spend your time once you’ve arrived on the island. Relax, read a book and work on your tan or sign up for some adventure activities and go explore. You can even do a combination of both. Here’s a few ideas;
- Get out onto the water with Ariki Adventures- These guys have some awesome water activities to get the adrenaline pumping!
- Hang out on the beach! One of our favourite beaches was called ‘Black Rock’. I went goggling here. I know, you’re wondering what this is, right? Goggling is when your intention is to snorkel, but you don’t have the snorkel and just a pair of swimming goggles you bought from home and you’re happy to hold your breath and dive down and check out some awesome marine life. I seen some really cool fish and coral here, and it was absolutely free!
- Hire a Bike and Cycle the Island– For all cycling enthusiasts, this is for you. Stop wherever you like along the way. The island is 32km around, explore island life at your own pace.
- Hang out at the pool of a nice resort (maybe purchase a drink or cocktail by the pool).
- Go for a hike- Cross Island Track– You’ll pass some beautiful natural scenery, including lush tropical jungle. The 3.5 hour hike from the north to south coasts via the 413m Te Rua Manga(Needle) is Rarotonga’s most popular walk. Wear good hiking shoes, pack lots of drinking water, and use mosquito repellent. It can get slippery up there if the island has experience some rainy days, so be careful.
- Go to a church service and listen to the locals singing to the lord! We did and it was a great experience. Some of those local ladies are super talented!
So there you have it, we travelled the Cook Islands on a Budget, and we had an awesome time. We are always drawn to beach destinations because we love the sun and the surf, so this was definitely our kind of place.
Don’t forget when booking any holiday or vacation, remember to purchase Travel Insurance to cover you in case things don’t go to plan. We’re always covered by World Nomads and would recommend their comprehensive policies to everyone.
If you have any other tips for travelling the Cook Islands on a Budget, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. If you’ve got a friend or partner you’d like to take to this perfect paradise, please share our post!