The Cook Islands aren’t the first country that comes to mind when choosing a backpacking destination, however, once you get there, backpacking in Rarotonga is in fact possible.
Thanks to Rarotonga’s iridescent blue waters, endless white sand beaches and lush green forests, it’s an incredible destination that is popular for honeymoons, romance and family getaways. However, it’s these very things that make it such a beautiful place to visit, and for those on a budget, it’s time to get creative.
From the cheapest accommodation (spoiler, it’s a backpackers) to the best value burgers in the world, we’ll let you know exactly how to fully experience Rarotonga, without going broke in the process.
Things to Know When Backpacking Rarotonga
Currency: New Zealand Dollar, ATMs are available around the island.
Visa: Automatically obtained on arrival for 31 days.
Safety: The Cook Islands are an extremely safe country, but always use common sense.
Language: English is widely spoken, but technically the official language is Cook Islands Maori.
Sim Cards: Obtained from Bluesky, the only telco on the island.
Water: We recommend purchasing bottled water for consumption, or boiling tap water.
How Long to Stay in Raro
We reckon the longer you stay when backpacking in Rarotonga the better. It’s a very small island so if you’re just keen to tick all the attractions off your list and move on, then a few days will be enough.
But that’s not really the spirit of Rarotonga. It’s a laid back country and the entire point is to give yourself time to relax and unwind. The country runs on island time, sure you can get in and out in a few days, but part of the allure is being able to do nothing.
Ultimately, it depends whether you prefer to lie on a beach for an hour or for a week. We reckon if you’re heading to Rarotonga, then you’ll fall into the latter, so give yourself a week and take things slow.
Cost to Travel in Rarotonga
Flight prices can be pretty variable, but we’ve managed to get some amazing deals on flights to Rarotonga from New Zealand. Jetstar tends to be the cheapest but sometimes arrives at strange times. Usually flights hover around $500 NZD return.
Once you’ve made it to Rarotonga, your next largest expense is likely to be accommodation. For most travellers, a room in a nice resort is around $200 NZD per night, but can be found as low as $100 or as high as you can imagine.
Dorm beds at Rarotonga Backpackers are $28 per night, which is super affordable for New Zealand standards, or private rooms from $40-$100 per night.
Restaurants tend to be expensive and it’s not uncommon to pay $20-30 NZD for a meal, but you can also make your way to the Muri Night Markets, cheaper restaurants or cook your own food. $10-15 for a cheaper meal is normal, and groceries are a little more expensive than other countries so consider bringing your own.
Transport is super affordable thanks to Rarotonga being such a small island. A 10-ride bus concession is $30 NZD and car rentals are from $60 a day. The cheapest option for backpackers is a combination of walking and busing. As the island is so small, you could technically get everywhere you want by foot, but a few dollars is worth it if you’re wanting to head to Avarua.
Things to do in Rarotonga can range from free (lounging on the beach), to $100 boat tours. We’d recommend investing in a few activities that interest you, but spend the majority of your time snorkelling and exploring the beaches. The free activities in Rarotonga tend to be the best.
Overall, excluding the flights, $100 – $120 a day is a decent backpackers budget in Rarotonga. This would allow you to properly experience the country, but it could be done for half that at a stretch.
Affordable Accommodation in Rarotonga
As one of your biggest expenses, finding affordable Rarotonga accommodation (this is our awesome accommodation guide, it includes cheap, mid-range and luxury options) is key to cutting costs.
Most resorts and hotels in Rarotonga are expensive no matter how you look at it. An average room in a fairly standard resort, such as Castaway, is likely to cost upwards of $200 NZD. If you have higher standards, you’ll be looking at $500-600 per night for a nice resort such as Te Manava. These are pretty outrageous prices for a backpacker.
Typically, Booking.com is the go to for all accommodation pretty much anywhere in the world, yet hostels in Rarotonga don’t seem to be on there, so it could be easy to assume they don’t exist.
Interestingly, there are two hostels in Rarotonga, one with terrible reviews and one with great reviews – this makes the decision pretty easy. Rarotonga Backpackers is located on the nice, west side of the island where the sunsets are beautiful. It’s also not too far from the good beaches and plenty of beachfront bars (at other, nicer resorts such as Castaway Resort).
The rooms here are basic but nice and clean, and some are even beachfront. Prices start at $28 for a dorm bed, with single rooms for $40, ensuite rooms for $70 and beachfront rooms for $135. This might not sound cheap if you just visited Bali, but this is incredible value for the Cook Islands or even New Zealand.
We stayed a short walk up from Rarotonga Backpackers, once, at a resort called Castaway which was great value. After a short walk along the beach we came to Rarotonga Backpackers and couldn’t believe how great it looked, and for about a third of the price.
I’d 100% recommend this place (even though I’ve never stayed here, AND we don’t get paid to say this) to anyone on a budget. Save the cash, then walk up to Castaway’s beachfront bar and spend it on nice cocktails by the beach.
Another option is to look at deals for resorts on the northern (or not so nice) side of the island. This can help you get all the amenities of a more expensive resort, whilst being just a short bus ride or drive away from the nice parts of the island.
Aitutaki is one of the nicest places to stay in the Cook Islands, however it can be pretty expensive so backpackers should probably look to avoid it. However, if you’re still keen to go, make sure to check out our guide to the best accommodation in Aitutaki as we did include a few of the cheaper options – including our top budget pick, (this is the actual name) Aitutaki Budget Accommodation.
New Zealand’s Grabone sometimes has special offers on some of the cheaper resorts in the Cook Islands which is also usually worth a look.
When to Visit Rarotonga
Backpacking Rarotonga is great all year round. It has a tropical climate that has consistently high temperatures all year.
These months are a bit warmer than the winter ones, without being overly hot. They also land in the dry season and avoid any major holidays in New Zealand and Australia. This means you can avoid some of the crowds.
Travelling during July, August, December or January will likely be busier.
Perhaps most importantly, October and November fall within the dry season which means you won’t have to sit in the rain while you sip cocktails on the beach.
Things to Do in Rarotonga on a Budget
Rarotonga’s all about slowing down and relaxing, and luckily for you, relaxing is usually free! There are a few activities in Rarotonga which are in fact worth paying for, it really depends on what you like to do!
Relax on a Beach
Just pick a nice beach and lie on it. Or find a great beachfront resort with a nice bar (we love Wilson’s Bar at Castaway Resort) and enjoy a cocktail. A’roa and Muri are both awesome spots for this, with beautiful views and great bars.
In our opinion, snorkelling is the best thing to do in Rarotonga. Tikioki and Titikaveka beaches are the best spot on the island for some epic snorkelling. Right between the two beaches is a spot marked out on Google Maps as ‘Fruits of Rarotonga’. Here the water is stunningly clear and the sea life is abundant.
A’roa Marine Reserve is another great spot, right outside The Rarotongan resort. Being a marine reserve means you won’t need to swim far to see an array of fish and other sea creatures. A perfect spot for children of adults who are less confident in the water.
We wrote a guide to the 5 best places to snorkel in Rarotonga, but the most important part to check out is the map as there are a few spots that are incredibly dangerous. If you avoid these ‘passages’, the rest of the island is incredibly safe for swimming and snorkelling.
Cruise With Captain Tama
This isn’t the cheapest thing to do in Rarotonga, but we think it was well worth it. Departing from Muri Beach, Captain Tama’s crew will take you out to some of the best snorkelling spots only accessible by boat. These are out by the reef and will give you access to huge fish as well as abundant tropical, marine life.
The trip costs $89 and includes lunch and a show on an island.
Punanga Nui Markets (and Avarua)
Avarua is the capital of the Cook Islands and is a great place to explore for some shopping. You’ll find a range of great shops here, but the best attraction to visit is the Punanga Nui Markets.
The best time to visit these markets are Saturday mornings when all the vendors will be there, plus you can expect a free cultural performance and plenty of cheap eats.
Watch the Sunset
Rarotonga has epic sunsets all along the west coast of the island. One of our favourite things to do is sit at a beachfront bar on the beach and watch the sun disappear behind the horizon.
Black Rock Beach is also a great spot to watch the sunset, albeit a little more out of the way. Consider bringing your own food and drinks and having a picnic here.
Hike The Needle
Te Rua Manga, or The Needle, is a rocky spire in the centre of Rarotonga. It offers the best, expansive views of the entire island and makes for an incredible way to take a break from all the beaches.
The hike here is part of the cross-island hike, which is a 2-4 hour hike from one side of the island to the other. It costs nothing to do the walk, apart from a good amount of pain and effort. The hike is quite difficult so make sure you’re fit, and don’t attempt it after rain.
Where to Eat
Rarotonga has an amazing selection of places to eat. The most popular tend to be pricier, beachfront restaurants which are usually part of resorts. The quality at a lot of these places make them well worth the money (not to mention the views), but they don’t fit the backpacker budget.
Luckily, there’s absolutely no reason to splurge on food in Rarotonga when there are numerous great places that are much more affordable.
The obvious first choice for backpackers looking for a cheap meal. Punanga Nui market in Avarua is the perfect spot for a Saturday morning brunch, whereas the Muri Night Market runs daily and is conveniently located by Muri Beach. The Muri Night Market is the best spot to grab a cheap dinner whilst also experiencing a bit of the local Cook Islands cuisine.
Vili’s Burger Joint
We stumbled upon Vili’s by accident, and it turns out they are some of the best burgers we’ve ever had. Seriously, we did not expect this from a country the size of the Cook Islands. What surprised us even more was the price – $8-10 for a burger. The fish burger and the bacon cheeseburgers are both must-trys.
A pizza from Trader Jacks whilst looking out over the sea. If you’re going to splurge on one meal, we’d make it this. The pizzas here are hands down the best in the Cook Islands.
Food Trucks and Shacks
Dotted around the island are a variety of food trucks and ‘shacks’ serving up cheap feeds for anyone hungry.
Besides this, the Cook Islands has a supermarket and a few convenience stores which makes preparing your own meals easy. We like to mix in trying out the local restaurants with a few packed lunches and home-cooked dinners to save some money.
How to Get Around
Rarotonga is genuinely tiny. As in you can walk from one side to the other in a few hours. So, getting around isn’t hard and it certainly isn’t expensive either. You have a few options.
Rent a Car
Renting a car is definitely the best and most convenient option for groups of families. This costs around $60 a day for a basic sedan and makes getting around the island quick and easy. A necessity if you have restless children, but unnecessary for everyone else.
This is our preferred way of getting around the island. $30 will get you 10 rides, or it’s $8 for a return ticket. These can be purchased by cash from the driver.
I think there are technically bus stops, but you can usually just wave the bus down from anywhere on the island, then ask the driver to drop you off wherever you’re heading.
You’ll want to remember that there are two buses, one running clockwise and one anti-clockwise. This will, obviously, determine which side of the road you should stand on.
The clockwise bus runs on the hour and the anti-clockwise on the half hour, with the latter not running on Sundays. The schedule can be found here, which will give you an idea of when the bus should arrive. And don’t forget island time, relax and don’t get upset if the bus isn’t on time – it rarely is.
Technically you can walk anywhere around the island but it usually isn’t the most practical option. Sometimes it’s easy enough to walk, such as from Tikioki to Titikaveka beaches, or if you’re making your way from one resort’s beachfront bar to another.
If you’re backpacking Rarotonga, however, then walking more is one way to cut costs. Technically, the entire island is extremely walkable, especially if you stay near Muri.
Taxis in Rarotonga are fairly expensive, usually around $30. The only time we’ve ever used one was to get from the airport to our accommodation in the middle of the night – well worth it.