Cook Islands Travel Guide 2023: Everything You Need to Know
Our Cook Islands travel guide is packed with tips on which islands to visit, where to stay, what to pack, a sample itinerary, how to get there, the best time to visit and more!
The Cook Islands appeal to honeymooners and travelers looking for a luxurious getaway, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune to travel here. Located in the South Pacific Ocean — situated between French Polynesia and American Samoa — these 15 small islands are often called the Pacific Ocean’s best kept secret.
This destination has been on our tropical island bucket list for years and we were surprised to find that many travelers had no idea where these islands are located. Just a short flight from Los Angeles, it has quickly become one of our new favorite travel destinations. Use these Cook Islands travel tips to plan your next trip!
Cook Islands Travel Tips
Which Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands
The Southern Group of Islands includes Palmerston, Aitutaki, Manuae (uninhabited), Takutea, Mitiaro, Atiu, Mauke, Rarotonga, and Mangaia. Rarotonga and Aitutaki are two of the easiest islands to visit and where you will find the most infrastructure.
You will find regular flight service to all of the islands in the Southern group, except Palmerston and Manuae. Mangaia is the second largest island in the Cooks, but it has a very small population of just 500 people. Atiu is known for its limestone caves and amazing diving locations and, like Mangaia, is still very much undiscovered.
Are the Cook Islands Expensive to Visit?
The Northern group of islands consist of Pukapuka, Penrhyn, Rakahanga, Manihiki, Nassau, and Suwarrow. These islands are not easily accessible and, therefore, very expensive to visit. This guide will focus on Rarotonga and Aitutaki because they are the easiest to access, yet still off the beaten track for most travelers.
While these two islands are not a budget destination, there are ways to save money when visiting, which we will cover below.
Cook Islands Sample Itinerary
- Overnight flight into Rarotonga with Air New Zealand: This gives you a full day to explore the island on arrival, but make sure to confirm check-in time at your hotel. Muri Beachcomber offers lounge access with a shower, plus full access to the property’s facilities until 12pm check-in time. We spent the morning kayaking around the lagoon and our room was ready by 11am!
- 3-4 night stay in Rarotonga: Don’t overlook Rarotonga. We loved it just as much (if not more) than Aitutaki.
- Flight to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga: Make sure you get a window seat for this 30-minute flight!
- Stay 3-6 nights on Aitutaki: For a longer stay on Aitutaki, I suggest switching hotels from one side of the island to the other, so you can get the best of both worlds. See hotel recommendations below.
- Lagoon Tour on Aitutaki: Make sure to take at least one lagoon tour while you are on Aitutaki. Based on our hotel’s recommendation, we booked with Aitutaki Adventures which is one of the few boats that cruises along the west (less windy) side of the island, plus a stop at One Foot Island. Bishop’s Cruises is another popular one with slightly less people than Vaka Cruises. They all run about $99 NZD per person.
How to Get to the Cook Islands
If you are flying from the United States, Air New Zealand offers regular direct flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and Rarotonga (RAR). New Zealanders can easily hop on a direct flight to the islands via Auckland and Australians can fly direct from Sydney. Once you are on Rarotonga, you can fly to the other islands with Air Rarotonga.
As a West Coaster who travels often, a direct 10-hour flight (8 1/2 hours on the way home) with Air New Zealand was a breath of fresh air compared to multiple flights and layovers when traveling to the Caribbean. This was our first experience with Air New Zealand and we were both impressed with the service and friendly staff. They have quickly jumped to the top of list of favorite airlines.
If you do visit in the shoulder season, you can often find deals on flights to this destination. If you sign up for their newsletter, you will receive fare updates via email.
The Best Time to Visit the Cook Islands
What is the best month to visit the Cook Islands? Well, the tropical weather in the Cook Islands makes it a great destination for year-round travel! The rainy season (their summer) begins in November and lasts until mid March or early April. This is when the water will be the warmest, but you might find the temperature outside of the water a little overwhelming at times.
After our research, we decided to visit in the shoulder season of October (their spring) which is typically less windy than the wintertime and when you will find the best deals. December through April is their cyclone season so keep this in mind when planning your trip.
Packing Essentials for the Cook Islands
Photo Equipment – I highly recommend bringing a GoPro for underwater photos (and a selfie stick!) and a nice camera for land activities. (See our complete travel camera buying guide here.)
Clothing – Sandals or flip flops (I love Rainbow sandals), a couple of swimsuits, and a sun hat are must-haves any time of year. I also highly recommend bringing water shoes.
Tunic Cover-Up – Ladies, this is a must have for all of my island trips. I bring 1-2 cute swimsuit cover-ups, like this one.
Bug Spray – Do not forget to bring lots of buy spray. This travel size spray pump is great for day trips, but you’ll want a larger size to keep in your hotel room.
Sunblock – Bring plenty of sunblock. It’s expensive on the islands.
Rash Guard – I always pack my long-sleeve rash guard on island trips. It protects you from the sun when snorkeling and provides a little warmth if the water is chilly.
Snorkel Equipment – You’ll save a ton of money by bringing your own and you won’t be stuck with old equipment. We brought this mask and these travel size fins.
Carry-on Bag Essentials – Visit our Carry-on Packing Guide.
Wifi & Cell Service in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is one of the few places in the world where cell phone companies cannot provide any sort of inexpensive international package. It’s literally in the middle of the ocean, so be prepared to turn off your data roaming and switch your phone to airplane mode just as an extra measure.
Our cell phone company charges $15 per megabyte in the Cook Islands!! To give you an idea of how easy it is to burn through a megabyte, we bought a wifi package of 100 MB and it was used up in less than 3 minutes.
If you do buy a wifi package, make sure to turn off all automatic app updates in your settings otherwise those will begin to download once you connect to wifi and it will eat up your $10 package before you even get a chance to check your email. Many hotels sell a package of 100MB for $10.
Where to Stay in the Cook Islands
Where to Stay on Rarotonga
Muri Beach is the place to stay on Rarotonga. This gorgeous long-stretch of beach sits inside a protected lagoon and travelers can easily kayak, swim, or SUP to two tiny, uninhabited islands. We spent hours researching in order to find the perfect hotel in this area. We finally settled on Muri Beachcomber and we could not have been happier with our decision.
Our 1-bedroom villa had ocean views, its own kitchen, and a spacious common area. There were a few slightly less expensive options, but it ended up being the most affordable option when we took into consideration all of the amenities included in the price. They include free use of their bikes, paddleboards, kayaks, and snorkel gear — plus airport shuttle and a basic breakfast each morning.
Everyone warned us not to spend too much time on Rarotonga because they felt Aitutaki was so much more unspoiled, but we were actually sad to leave this place after our short stay.
Where to Stay on Aitutaki
Landing on Aitutaki felt like a bit of culture shock. Rarotonga never felt crowded, but Aitutaki is quieter than any island we had ever experienced.
Casual Luxury Hotels on Aitutaki
If you are looking for casual luxury, we highly recommend Tamanu Beach. It sits on one of the best snorkel beaches on the island and during the windy season this side of the island provides a bit of protection. In October, Tamanu Beach was running at about $250US per night with breakfast included.
We ate most of our meals at Tamanu’s restaurant because the food was delicious and it was nearly impossible to find fresh food at the grocery stores. Fruit, vegetables and eggs are extremely hard to come by on the island and most stores run out of fresh items first thing in the morning. Tamanu Beach also offers free use of their kayaks and a free airport transfer.
Luxury Hotels on Aitutaki
Aitutaki is known for its luxury accommodation. The top resorts include Pacific Resort Aitutaki, Etu Moana Beach Villas (both on the west side of the island), and Aituaki Lagoon Resort & Spa (with gorgeous overwater bungalows!).
Where to Eat in the Cook Islands
Vili’s Takeaway on Rarotonga
We found Vili’s Takeaway on our last evening in Rarotonga, otherwise, we would have gone there every night.
They claim to have the best burgers on Rarotonga, but they might even have the best burgers in the world. It is, hands down, the best burger we’ve ever had. It’s not expensive either, which makes this place worth seeking out. They are located in Muri Beach and they were right across the street from our hotel, Muri Beachcomber.
The Mooring on Rarotonga
The Mooring was a local’s recommendation for fresh fish sandwiches and salads. We went here twice for lunch. The fish was extremely fresh and they add a little twist to each sandwich. The cajun tuna sandwich was our favorite!
Tauonos on Aitutaki
We never managed to make it to Tauonos during open hours (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays 12-2) but I think it’s necessary to mention it here due to the lack of veggie options at other stores on Aitutaki. Their lunch includes fresh fish and vegetarian meals and their tropical market (with slightly longer hours of 10-5 on Mon., Wed., Fri.) offers fruits and vegetables from their organic garden.
How To Book The Absolute Cheapest Flights To Anywhere
15 Budget-Friendly Tropical Destinations
My 25 Best Travel Tips After 10 Years of Traveling the World
The Best Travel Cameras (And How To Choose One)
How to Take Great Travel Photos as a Solo Traveler
10 Affordable Honeymoon Destinations for Every Budget
20 Best Travel Hacks That Will Save You Money
The Best Carry-On Luggage (For Every Type of Traveler)
Love these photos – Cook Islands is definitely on my list!
We’re travelling to the Cook Islands from Australia in August 2018. The plan is to stay in Rarotonga for the first five nights, then another ten on Aitutaki. Our accomm is sorted on both but I’m a bit unsure about the Aitu choice. Can you (anyone) comment on the Inano Beach Bungalows?
Nice blog thanks for sharing wonderful article, these are the best vacation holiday spot for family.
Hi just come across your blog. What was your favourite place in the Cook Islands?
Hi. We loved both Rarotonga and Aitutaki. I’ve heard Raro has been plagued with algae, so you might be better off going to Aitutaki for the best snorkeling.
I’m curious when you visited. I’ve been reading about algae problems at Muir Lagoon
Hi Mary. We visited about a year and a half ago. That’s so sad to hear!
We are about to book tickets and a week at a beautiful beach house at Kaireva, Avana Harbour, with our 2 young boys, your tips are extremely helpful – we are always looking for good local eateries, thank you! Flying Air NZ from LAX direct both way, much easier than getting to Turks and Caicos and Europe!
Awesome! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Enjoy your trip!!
Hi, just wondering where most of your photo’s were taken? especially the ones with the beautiful white sand at the beginning of your guide? Thanks.
Most of those photos were taken in the Aitutaki lagoon.
I am just planning our trip and I’m so looking forward to it after seeing this. We fly back to LA on the overnight flight at 2300. Is it fine to take the connecting flight from Aitutaki on the same day or better to overnight in Rarotonga?
That’s actually exactly what we did. We had about a 3 hour layover in Raro before our overnight flight took off. Have fun! You will love it there!!
Damn. Now I need to go
Such a paradise. Would love to dive there.
I can see myself laying on that hammock! Looks stunning