The Cook Islands consist of 15 islands scattered over an area of about 2 million square kilometers in the Pacific Ocean. The islands are a paradise.
A lot of people think the Pacific is filled with expensive islands and resorts. But that’s not true and a visit to the Cook Islands will prove that. Visiting these islands are pretty affordable compared to neighboring countries.
Rarotonga is the largest and most visited island. However, I would definitely advise you to visit a few islands while you are here since once you leave the main island, you have miles of beaches virtually to yourself!
This travel guide to the Cook Islands will give you suggested activities, costs, and everything else you need to plan your trip!
Note: The Cook Islands use the New Zealand dollar as their currency.
Table of Contents
Top 5 Things to See and Do in Cook Islands
1. Visit Aitutaki Island
2. Hike around Rarotonga
3. Watch a traditional dance show
4. Go diving
5. Hang out on Atiu
Other Things to See and Do in the Cook Islands
1. Take a fishing trip
The Cook Islands offer exceptional opportunities for deep-sea fishing. The currents, reefs, and submarine topography foster ideal conditions for wahoo, barracuda, dolphin fish, yellowfin and skipjack tuna, sailfish, marlin, and mahi-mahi. Expect to pay at least 200 NZD ($128 USD) per person, with lunch included.
2. Go kayaking
Kayaking is an easy and relaxed way to explore the sheltered lagoon around Rarotonga. The best place for kayaking on Rarotonga is around Muri Beach as the water is crystal clear and perfect for snorkeling. Kayak rentals cost 36 NZD ($23 USD) per day for a single and 47 NZD ($30 USD) for a double.
3. Visit the Aitutaki Marine Research Center
This small research center works on marine restoration projects, including rehabilitating marine life like green sea turtles and giant clams. You can learn more about the center’s research work and see some of the marine life up close during a tour of the facility. Admission is free, though they run on donations.
4. Shop at Punanga Nui Market
This market in Rarotonga is the place to be on a Saturday morning. It’s filled with shops selling locally made handicrafts, jewelry, artwork, and even handmade ukeleles (they are popular here). Sample fresh fruit, baked goods, smoothies, and coffee as you shop. There’s usually live music here too.
5. Visit the Arai-Te-Tonga Marae
Not far from Raratgona are the ruins of an ancient royal court, dating to about 1250 AD, where tribal feasts were held. There is a 10-foot platform and large stone pillars, though most of the area is overgrown, but it’s a nice spot to soak up the historical atmosphere of the Cook Islands. It’s free to visit.
6. Go swimming at Papua (Wigmore’s) Waterfall
Papua Waterfall is the most popular waterfall in the Cook Islands. To get there, you have to take a quick hike from the trail starting on the eastern side of the abandoned Sheraton resort. Your reward is a stunning cascading waterfall with a refreshing swimming pool at its base (but note that this waterfall dries up in the dry season).
7. Take a food tour
Cook Islands Tours has a dinner tour, where you get to enjoy three courses in three different homes. You’ll get to meet the locals, listen to music, and eat lots of food. The 4.5-tour is about 99 NZD ($63 USD). You can also enjoy a homecooked meal or a cooking class with >EatWith, which pairs you with locals living in the Cook Islands.
8. See the sunset at Black Rock
Black Rock on the northwestern side of Raratonga is the most popular place to watch the sunset. The famed Black Rock forms a sharp contrast against the sunset sky, and if you manage to scramble to the top, you’ll get a sweeping view over the ocean.
8. Visit the island of Mauke
Mauke is one of the smallest islands in the Cook Islands, and its name translates to “The Place Where My Heart Rested.” This island covered in exotic flowers and greenery, and the locals here take pride in their elaborate gardens. Visit the colorful Ziona church to admire its carved coral, and go swimming in the freshwater pools of Vai Tango cave.
Cook Islands Travel Costs
Hostel prices – There are only two hostels in the Cook Islands and both are located on Rarotonga. At Backpackers International, the price for a bed in a 3-7 bed dorm is 20 NZD ($13 USD) year-round, but you have to book at least three nights. At Rarotonga Backpackers, a bed in a dorm with 4 or more people is 25 NZD ($16 USD) per night, or 23 NZD ($15 USD) per night if you book for three nights or more.
A basic twin private room with shared facilities at the same hostel costs between 35-40 NZD ($22-25 USD) for one person, year-round. A standard double private room with shared facilities is about 45-50 NZD ($29-32 USD) for two people, year-round. You have to book a three-night minimum, however.
Camping is not allowed in the Cook Islands.
Budget hotel prices – A room with a private ensuite bathroom in a two-star or three-star hotel will start at about 150 NZD ($96 USD) in peak season. In the off-season, you’ll find rooms for about 118 NZD ($75 USD) per night.
Airbnb is available in the Cook Islands, but not with shared accommodations. For a private room, the average is about 78 NZD ($50 USD) per night, while a full apartment averages about 224 NZD ($143 USD) per night.
Food – If you’re on a budget, you can eat pretty cheaply at food carts and markets. While you can find food like sausages for 2 NZD ($1.30 USD) or a smoothie for 6 NZD ($4 USD), most dishes at the Muri Night Market (including vegetarian food) costs 16 NZD ($10 USD). But you’ll get a really filling meal for that amount, including things like poke, pizza, pork belly, and garlic prawns. You can get a traditional umu plate (smoked chicken and pork with spinach, potato salad, and taro) for 18 NZD ($11.50 USD). A coconut lamb curry is about 16 NZD ($10 USD).
A large platter of seafood will cost between 11-16 NZD ($7-10 USD), while fish and chips will cost about ($10 USD). You can get a giant fish sandwich from the popular Mooring Cafe for 17 NZD ($11 USD), but it’s enough for two meals. A burger combo is about 9 NZD ($6 USD), and beer is another 8 NZD ($5 USD). A coffee at the Cook Islands Coffee Company starts from 3 NZD ($2 USD).
At higher-end restaurants, expect to pay about 37 NZD ($24 USD) for a seafood platter or seared tuna. Pasta dishes will cost from 22 NZD ($14 USD), while a glass of wine will cost from 8 NZD ($5 USD). At the iconic Trader Jack’s on the beach in Avarua, you’ll get local favorites like smoked marlin for 23 NZD ($15 USD) or a ribeye steak for 34 NZD ($22 USD).
If you cook for yourself, you can spend about 118 NZD ($75 USD) on groceries per week. Since food is imported here, prices are high and you’ll have a hard time finding fresh fruits and veggies.
Backpacking the Cook Islands Suggested Budgets
If you’re backpacking the Cook Islands, expect to spend about 100 NZD ($63 USD) per day. This budget will cover a hostel dorm, daily unlimited bus travel, street food and cooking some of your own meals, and a minimal number of attractions (like a visit to Muri Beach).
A mid-range budget of about 215 NZD ($137 USD) will cover staying in a private room, eating out all your meals, tours, drinks, and a scooter rental.
On a luxury budget of about 628 NZD ($400 USD) or more per day, you can get a nice four-star hotel, any meal you want, drinks, tours, and taxi rides. You can also do an Aitutaki sailing trip on this budget if you tighten your budget for a few days.
If you visit the Cook Islands during the rainy season, you can save about 25% on hotel rates.
You can use the chart below to get some idea of how much you need to budget daily, depending on your travel style. Keep in mind these are daily averages – some days you’ll spend more, some days you’ll spend less (you might spend less every day). We just want to give you a general idea of how to make your budget. Prices are in USD.
Cook Islands Travel Guide: Money Saving Tips
- Bike the islands – Skip the taxis and get a bicycle rental! You’ll find bike rentals for as low as 16 NZD ($10 USD) per day.
- Eat the local food – A full plate of local food will only cost around 6 NZD ($10 USD) if you stick to the small, traditional eateries instead of eating at the resorts and main tourist areas.
- Shop duty-free – If you plan on drinking wine or hard alcohol, pick it up at the duty-free ahead of time. This will be cheaper than buying it on the island. Beer might be cheap enough, but most other alcohol is on the expensive side.
- Couchsurf – If you plan ahead, you can usually find really nice Couchsurfing hosts (although there are not many hosts in the Cook Islands). This way, you not only have a place to stay, but you’ll have a local host that can tell you the best places to go and things to see.
- Save on inter-island flights – Domestic flights between the islands are crazy expensive, but if you show up at the Air Rarotonga office to book a last-minute flight, you might get a big discount.
- Pack a water bottle – A water bottle with a purifier will help you save money and thousands of plastic bottles by purifying the tap water for you. My preferred bottle is LifeStraw ($49.99).
Where To Stay in the Cook Islands
There are not many hostel accommodations in Rarotonga, and unfortunately, you’re often required to book a minimum of three nights. But if you’ve come all the way to the Cook Islands, why not stay awhile? Here are some of my favorite and affordable places to stay in the Cook Islands:
How to Get Around the Cook Islands
Bus – Bus travel is the most common way to get around Rarotonga. Buses leave from the Circle Island Bus Stop and take a circular route around the island, departing about every hour. It’s 4 NZD ($2.55 USD) for one way, 8 NZD ($5.10 USD) round-trip, or you can get a 10-ride pass for 30 NZD ($19.10 USD). There are also day passes for 16 NZD ($10.20 USD). You can purchase tickets and passes on the bus.
Check out Cook’s Island Bus website for schedules and other information.
Aitutaki Island does not have a bus system, but most people just walk everywhere.
Scooter Rentals – Scooters are a convenient and fun way to get around the Cook Islands, and there are tons of rental places. You can find rates for about 27 NZD ($17 USD) per day, or 100 NZD ($64 USD) per week. BT Rentals and Adventure Cook Islands are two good rental places.
On Aitutaki Island, check out Aquila Rentals or inquire at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa.
Bicycle Rentals – Bicycles are another cheap way to get around the Cook Islands. At Adventure Cook Islands, you’ll find bike rentals for 16 NZD ($10 USD) per day, or 13 NZD ($8.30 USD) if you book two days or more.
If you’re staying on Aitutaki Island, most hotels and resorts offer bicycle rental services.
Taxis – Taxis are readily available everywhere in the Cook Islands. Just look for the bright green cars. It costs about 3 NZD ($1.90 USD) per kilometer, while an airport transfer will cost up to 40 NZD ($25.50 USD).
When to Go to the Cook Islands
There’s really no bad time to visit the Cook Islands. Even in the summer months (January and February), temperatures are still a balmy but comfortable 84°F (29°C). Winter (June to August) is also very pleasant, with the average high being about 77°F (25°C).
Keep in mind that the rainy season is from December to April, and there is some risk for hurricanes. On the other hand, the rain doesn’t tend to last very long, and the days are mostly sunny regardless. The driest season is from June to August.
If you want a relaxing trip, avoid June to August. This is when New Zealanders and Australians take their winter vacations, and things get super busy. If you do decide to come during this time, make sure you book your accommodations way in advance.
How to Stay Safe in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands are very safe. Even the risk of petty crime like pick pocketing is very low here. That being said, leave your valuables at home — especially if you’re headed to the beach.
Hurricanes (cyclones) are a real risk between November and March. Keep this in mind while you’re planning your trip.
Dengue Fever has been on the rise in recent years, so keep yourself well covered and always have the insect repellant handy.
If you’re worried about getting scammed, you can read about the 14 travel scams to avoid right here.
Remember: always trust your gut instinct. Avoid isolated areas at night, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Make copies of your personal documents, including your passport and ID.
If you don’t do it at home, don’t do it in the Cook Islands!
The most important piece of advice I can offer is to purchase good travel insurance. Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. You can use the widget below to find the policy right for you:
Cook Islands Travel Guide: The Best Booking Resources
These are my favorite companies to use when I travel to the Cook Islands. They are included here because they consistently find deals, offer world-class customer service and great value, and overall, are better than their competitors. They are the ones I use the most and are always the starting points in my search for travel deals.
- Momondo – This is my favorite booking site. I never book a flight without checking here first.
- Skyscanner – Skyscanner is another great flight search engline which searches a lot of different airlines, including many of the budget carriers that larger sites miss. While I always start with Momondo, I use this site too as a way to compare prices.
- Airbnb – Airbnb is a great accommodation alternative for connecting with homeowners who rent out their homes or apartments.
- Hostelworld – This is the best hostel accommodation site out there, with the largest inventory, best search interface, and widest availability.
- Couchsurfing – This website allows you to stay on people’s couches or spare rooms for free. It’s a great way to save money while meeting locals who can tell you the ins and outs of their city. The site also lists events you can attend to meet people (even if you’re not staying with someone).
- Booking.com – The best all around booking site that constantly provides the cheapest and lowest rates. They have a no money down policy, great interface, and the widest selection of budget accommodation. In all my tests, they’ve always had the cheapest rates out of all the booking websites.
- Rome 2 Rio – This website allows you to see how to get from point A to point B the best and cheapest way possible. It will give you all the bus, train, plane, or boat routes that can get you there as well as how much they cost.
- World Nomads – I buy all my travel insurance from World Nomads. They have great customer service, competitive prices, and in-depth coverage. I’ve been using them since I started traveling in 2003. Don’t leave home without it!
- EatWith – This website allows you to eat home cooked meal with locals. Locals post listings for dinner parties and specialty meals that you can sign up for. There is a fee (everyone sets their own price) but this is a great way to do something different, pick a local’s brain, and make a new friend.
Cook Islands Gear and Packing Guide
If you’re heading on the road and need some gear suggestions, here are my tips for the best travel backpack and for what to pack!
The Best Backpack for Travelers
Straps: Thick and cushy with compression technology that pulls the pack’s load up and inwards so it doesn’t feel as heavy.
Features: Removable top lid, large pocket at the front, hydration compatible, contoured hip belt
If you want something different, refer to my article on how to choose the best travel backpack for tips on picking a pack and other backpack suggestions.
What to Pack for Your Trip
- 1 pair of jeans (heavy and not easily dried, but I like them; a good alternative is khaki pants)
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 bathing suit
- 5 T-shirts (Unbound Merino is my preferred company. If you’re a member of NM+, you can get 15% off your purchase)
- 1 long-sleeved T-shirt
- 1 pair of flip-flops
- 1 pair of sneakers
- 6 pairs of socks (I always end up losing half)
- 5 pairs of boxer shorts (I’m not a briefs guy!)
- 1 toothbrush
- 1 tube of toothpaste
- 1 razor
- 1 package of dental floss
- 1 small bottle of shampoo
- 1 small bottle of shower gel
- 1 towel
Small Medical Kit (safety is important!!!)
- Hydrocortisone cream
- Antibacterial cream
- Hand sanitizer (germs = sick = bad holiday)
- A key or combination lock (safety first)
- Zip-lock bags (keeps things from leaking or exploding)
- Plastic bags (great for laundry)
- Universal charger/adaptor (this applies to everyone)
- LifeStraw (A water bottle with a purifier)
Female Travel Packing List
I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what a woman wears, but Kristin Addis, our solo female travel guru, wrote this list as an addition to the basics above:
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair of stretchy jeans (they wash and dry easily)
- 1 pair of leggings (if it’s cold, they can go under your jeans, otherwise with a dress or shirt)
- 2-3 long-sleeve tops
- 2-3 T-shirts
- 3-4 spaghetti tops
- 1 light cardigan
- 1 dry shampoo spray & talc powder (keeps long hair grease-free in between washes)
- 1 hairbrush
- Makeup you use
- Hair bands & hair clips
- Feminine hygiene products (you can opt to buy there too, but I prefer not to count on it, and most people have their preferred products)
For more on packing, check out these posts:
Cook Islands Travel Guide: Suggested Reading
Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson
This is a thrilling story that digs deep to uncover who first settled the Polynesian islands, and why. The Polynesian Islands have been inhabited for over a millennium, stretching from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island. But how did the Polynesians get there? How did they conquer such a large territory without writing or metal tools? Thompson talks to sailors, linguists, archaeologists, folklorists, and more to uncover the truth.
Kon-Tiki Falling, by Thor Heyerdahl
Kon-Tiki is easily one of the most famous Polynesian books out there, having been translated into 65 languages and then turned into a film. It’s about biologist Thor Heyerdahl’s amazing 4,300 nautical mile journey from Peru to Puka Puka across the Pacific Ocean by raft. Heyerdahl’s mission was to recreate the legendary voyage of mythical hero, Kon-Tiki, who is believed to have settled the ancient race. The journey is fraught with raging storms, shark encounters, whales, and more. Oh yeah, and this all took place in 1947!
Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before, by Tony Horwitz
On the theme of epic adventure, Tony Horwitz recounts the voyages of Captain Cook, the “Yorkshire farm boy who drew the map of the modern world.” This is kind of a dramatic re-enactment of Cook’s experiences, including everything from witnessing cannibal feasts, human sacrifices, and taboo rituals. Horwitz signs on as a crewman aboard a replica of Cook’s ship, and experiences first-hand the thrill of sailing a tall ship (and the terror). This book is incredibly funny and engaging.
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, by Herman Melville
Believe it or not, this is Melville’s first and most popular book during his lifetime — not Moby Dick! This book is Melville’s account of his travels through the South Seas in the early 1840s as a young sailor. It’s an autobiographical story of his stay in Polynesia after jumping ship, including some pretty honest exploration of exotic ritual and sensuality. Although the book is based in fact, it’s widely considered fiction because the three week stay in which Melville bases this story is extended to four months.
Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, by Albert Wendt
We can’t have a Polynesian reading list without a Polynesian author. Albert Wendt has been credited for developing writing in New Zealand (and the Pacific), and his collection of short stories vary from political in nature to critical examinations of the Pacific’s struggle to keep its cultural identity. I love how direct his writing is, and compared to the other books in this list he offers a much more modern take on things.
Cook Islands Travel Guide: Related Articles
Want more info? Check out all the articles I’ve written on backpacking/traveling Fiji and continue planning your trip: