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!

cook islands on a budget beach

Post Updated May 2022

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 relaxation.

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 groundwork for you. 

Let’s go! All the details you need for visiting the Cook Islands on a budget

Essential information

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 the 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 them 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. We can’t control this factor for our Cook Islands on a budget post. 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 any time 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?

RELATED ARTICLE – Why you should use Airbnb when you travel

Cook islands on a budget beaches with hammock

The Cook Islands on a budget is possible!

How to Find Cheap Flights to the Cook Islands on a budget

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.

We believe that the cheapest flights can always be found online.  I recommend using a flight search engine such as Skyscanner, this is how we book all of our air travel around the world.

We even wrote a post about how to find and book the cheapest flights. This applies for this post about the Cook Islands on a budget and other exotic destinations too.

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 it’s 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 to visit this island paradise.

Visiting the Cook Islands on a budget is totally achievable.

How to get around Rarotonga

Local Transport:  A local bus runs two routes regularly around the island every hour until about 11 pm each night. One runs clockwise, the other anti-clockwise. The cost is NZD $5 one-way or an $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 issuing desk opens until 3 pm on weekdays and is only open till 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 sightseeing 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 a few of them smiling, they look so happy with all that space to roam free.

Bicycle Hire:

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 them. 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 10 pm or some at even 03:00 am.

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. If you book your accommodation with Booking.com or Airbnb, they will often include airport transfers.

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 the 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 in the Cook Islands on a budget

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 visit 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 a resort in the Cook Islands, CLICK HERE to see prices and availability on Booking.com.

Cook islands on a budget map

We stayed in Muri Beach-some of the best snorkelling and beaches on the island. Cook Islands on a budget.

If you’re like us, and you need something nice but have to keep costs down a little, then Airbnb 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 homestay accommodation and you get to also meet some really great locals.

Check out the accommodation provider that we booked using Booking.com – Ariki Bungalows. We paid approx AUD $110 per night. It was perfect. They’ve got exceptional reviews, and they got 5 out of 5 from us too!

You can book Ariki Bungalows on Booking.com. The Cook Islands on a budget has never been easier!

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. This was such a good location for visiting the Cook Islands on a budget.

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.

RELATED ARTICLE – 7 Tips: How to find the best food when travelling

cook islands on a budget best accommodation

Our self contained bungalow- really was super comfortable for our visit to the Cook islands on a budget.

cook islands on a budget accommodation muri beach cook islands

Our own patio sundeck to chill out, drink coffee, beers and read books. Cook Islands on a budget is nice!

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 when visiting the Cook Islands on a budget

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 5.00 pm, 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 homemade lemon or pineapple meringues, carrot cakes, and 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.

mooring fish cafe rarotonga

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! The Cook Islands on a budget isn’t so hard when you have places like this!

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 the Cook Islands on a budget!

Punanga Nui Market- Avarua: This is a great place for eating when visiting the Cook Islands on a budget. 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 were lots of foods to try, beautiful bread, 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 the Cook Islands

Self-catering is a good idea to keep the costs down when you’re trying to visit the Cook Islands on a budget. 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

A loaf of Fresh Turkish bread is $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

A packet of chocolate biscuits $3.50

beach cook islands

Things to do in the 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 are 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 saw 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, so it’s easy to 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).

best resort pool cook islands

  • Go for a hike- on 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 experienced 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!
  • You can find a range of amazing day tours and activities in the Cook Islands on a budget on Viator

Visiting the Cook Islands on a budget still allows you to do some great activities while you’re here.

singing in church cook islands

So there you have it, we explored 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 Travel Insurance

I hope you enjoyed reading about how to visit the Cook Islands on a budget. I told you, it’s really possible if you just apply these few tricks. We’ve got some other posts about luxury destinations that we’ve visited on a budget too.

Check out how to visit Seychelles on a budget and our very popular blog about how to visit the beautiful Maldives on a budget. We enjoy sharing our travel advice on how to save money to travel the world and our expert tips after 15 years of travelling the world.

Our 6 NEW Travel Hacks for Travel in 2022 is a great way to make your cash stretch further, to travel more! And then there’s our informative post about 20 Jobs that PAY YOU to Travel the World.

Travel has changed over the past few years, but you can bet that technology is improving – that’s why we recommend you consider buying eSIM Data Plans for travel to anywhere in the world. Unsure what an eSIM is? I explain it all in this post.

If you would like to turn travel into your lifestyle, our detailed Travel Resources Page is a great tool to get you started on living your travel dreams.

TRAVEL PLANNING RESOURCES  

✈️ Flights: Skyscanner and Expedia are the best sites to search for the cheapest flights and great deals from your home country.

🏨 Accommodation: Booking.comAgoda, and HotelsCombined are the top platforms to search for fantastic hotels and accommodation options at the best price.

🛌 Homestays: Airbnb is an ideal platform to book a local experience. We use Airbnb to reserve entire apartments for long-term stays. 

🏥 Travel Insurance: Don’t forget travel insurance! We recommend World Nomads or SafetyWing.

🚌 Transportation: To book trains, Trainline is the best and cheapest website. To book transport in Europe, USA & Canada, we use Omio & FlixbusUS. For travel in Asia, we use 12Go. For all other countries, we use BookaWay to compare and book Bus, Ferry, or train tickets to get around.

🚘 Car Rental: Rentalcars.com, & Europcar are reliable platforms to book rental cars.

👫 Group ToursG Adventures or Expat Explore offers the best group adventures around the world. Use our promo code VERYHUNGRYNOMADS at checkout to receive 5% off your Expat Explore Trip!

📸 Day Tours & Trips: Get Your Guide & Viator are the only platforms you will need. They offer everything at unbeatable prices.

🎒 LuggageOsprey Farpoint 40L Backpack or any suitcase from Nomatic Travel Gear.

🛄 What to Pack: To help you get started on packing, here is our ULTIMATE Packing List for all Travellers.

🐶 Become a House Sitter: Join Trusted Housesitters and enjoy FREE accommodation around the world. Use our personal invite to receive 25% off your new membership.

💰 Send Money Anywhere: WISE is the best online account that lets you send money, get paid, and spend money internationally. It’s so easy to use and way cheaper than any bank transfer.

📶 Stay Connected: Airalo eSIM allows you to get connected the moment you land at your destination and you can avoid those expensive data roaming charges. We LOVE this product!

✅ Check out our Travel Resources Page for more Useful Tips to Save you Money!