10-Day Budget Trip to the Cook Islands: Including Rarotonga and Aitutaki!
Travelling with a limited budget is often when you have the richest experiences, which is certainly true for this itinerary for the Cook Islands. Forget lounging at the same resort for your whole trip; this Cook Islands budget and backpacking itinerary for 10 days has you exploring not one but two breathtaking islands. Staying in affordable accommodation, doing the best free or cheap activities yet not missing a thing off your bucket list is what this trip is all about. So pack your backpack and get ready to venture from the volcanic Polynesian paradise of Rarotonga to the picture-perfect lagoon of Aitutaki as we guide you with this 10-day budget itinerary.
While you’re here, don’t forget to explore The Complete Backpacking Guide to the Cook Islands on a Budget; your bible to affordable travel in the Cooks!
Overview: Cook Islands Budget and Backpacking 10-Day Itinerary
How to Get Around the Cook Islands in 10 Days
This Cook Islands budget and backpacking itinerary for 10 days includes travel on two islands, as well as between these islands. Here’s a quick rundown on how to get around Rarotonga and the Cook Islands in 10 days.
Road Transport in the Cook Islands
The first road transport you’ll encounter on each of the islands you visit is your airport transfer. On Rarotonga, book this in advance with one of the airport shuttles, your chosen accommodation or you could even take the bus. On Aitutaki, airport transfers are usually provided by your accommodation free of charge. Learn more about transfers in The Cheapest Airport Transfers in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
For travelling on each of the islands, car hire offers the most flexibility and convenience, while scooter hire tends to be more cost-effective if hiring for at least three days. See The Cost of Renting a Car in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for more on the subject. Bicycle hire can also be cheap. Alternatively, there is a very frequent and affordable bus service around Rarotonga.
Interisland Transport in the Cook Islands
This itinerary has you travelling between Rarotonga and Aitutaki via domestic flight. Flights are approximately 50 minutes, while approximate airfares can be found in our guide, Domestic Flights in the Cook Islands.
For all of your transport options across the islands, not limited to the cheapest options, check out the Cook Islands Transport Guide: 15 Best Ways to Get Around the Cook Islands.
Day 1 – Arrive on Rarotonga
Welcome to Rarotonga and the start of your 10-day backpacking trip around the Cook Islands! After the arrivals process of going through customs and biosecurity, you’ll step outside of the arrivals hall to either a “Kia Orana” from your airport shuttle/accommodation representative or you might like to venture across the car park to get the bus – see the section above for links to more details.
If you plan on self-catering, stop by a supermarket on your way to your accommodation (or check in first, if you know there is a supermarket nearby). Then, since it’s your first day in the Cook Islands, take it easy and get settled at your chosen accommodation. After check-in, relax in a hammock by the beach or among tropical gardens, have a paddle with the kayaks provided if applicable, meet fellow travellers and transition to “Raro time”. We’ll go over a few things you can do on Rarotonga tomorrow.
Rarotonga Cheap Accommodations
- Aremango Guesthouse & Cottage
- Ariki Bungalows
- Club Raro Resort
- Paradise Inn
- Central Motel
- Backpackers International Hostel
- Are Tamarini Beachfront Cottage & River Studio
- Rarotonga Backpackers
- Airport Lodge
- Muri Hillside Guesthouses
- Lulu and Shane’s Island Retreat
For more information on each stay, check out the 10 Best Budget Accommodations on Rarotonga.
Self-catering is always an easy way to save some cents on your trip, but if you feel like eating out tonight head down to Vaiana’s Bistro & Bar on the sands of Nikao Beach for their ultra-affordable burgers, wraps and fish and chips. Get more recommendations from The Top Cheap Eats on Rarotonga.
Day 2 – Explore Avarua
Spend your first full day exploring the capital of the Cook Islands, Avarua. Not only will you get to experience the sights, sounds and tastes, but if you were hoping to hire a scooter for your time on Rarotonga, you’ll want to get your scooter license here too. Learn more about it in How to Get a Rarotonga & Cook Islands Scooter License.
Things to Do in Avarua
If it happens to be a Saturday, don’t miss the Punanga Nui Market with its array of local food, crafts and vibrant community vibes. You might like to have a wander around town, browsing the gift shops and tasting sweet treats at Cook’s Fudge Factory. Check out some of the historical buildings, like the Beachcomber Building housing a cool and cosy cafe aptly named “The Cafe“, as well as the Bergman Gallery. Browse the Cook Islands National Museum and the Cook Islands Library & Museum; two different museums but both very affordable. Then relax with a bite to eat at the iconic Trader Jacks and views of the Matai Shipwreck. If you’ve got your snorkelling gear, fins, a buddy and it’s low tide, it’s an awesome mission to swim out to.
Learn more about all of the above and other activities in the 10 Best Things to Do in Avarua.
We’ve already recommended Trader Jacks at the Avarua Harbour but you’ll find a lot of worthy yet affordable alternatives in the town. Try the fresh seafood dishes, including traditional Cook Islander dishes at the Bite Time Cafe or Michele’s Cafe at the boat sheds leading to the Punanga Nui Market. For dessert, The Waffle Shack is within steps of the above recommendations. Again, we detail all of these and more in The Top Cheap Eats on Rarotonga.
Day 3 – Explore Muri
Head to the beach paradise and lagoon hotspot of Muri Beach! If you have the budget, you can hop on a lagoon cruise, try out kitesurfing, go on a SUP snorkel safari and much more. But if you want to keep things nice and cheap, we recommend hiring a kayak or stand-up paddleboard (SUP) to explore the lagoon. If the weather is a bit iffy, make sure you add the Te Ara Museum to your list also.
Kayak the Muri Lagoon
Hire your kayak from Captain Tama’s or KiteSUP and hit the Muri Lagoon’s tranquil waters to explore the four motu (islets) just offshore. Take some snorkelling gear and paddle following the inner reef between the motu of Koromiri and Taakoka with some excellent wee snorkelling spots. You can even land on the beach of Koromiri and relax on the sand.
Learn more about hiring kayaks in the 5 Best Kayak Hires in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands or find out about alternative places to paddle in the Top 5 Places to Kayak.
For lunch, Vili’s Burger Joint just north of Muri offers affordable and tasty burgers, pizzas and shakes. Alternatively, head south of Muri to Titikaveka where you’ll find Charlie’s Cafe which has a very affordable menu along with a very enviable location on the beach.
Stick around Muri for dinner, as you’ll not want to miss the street food spectacle of the Muri Night Market, available on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings from 5pm.
Of course, there are also plenty of restaurants in Muri itself that, although are not the cheapest, are well worth treating yourself to. Check out The Food Guide to Rarotonga: Places to Eat & Food Tours for ideas.
Day 4 – Island Hike
Explore inland today with one of Rarotonga’s spectacular hikes! There’s something for all levels of fitness, so check out our three recommended options below or the 10 Best Walks on Rarotonga.
Option 1: Cross Island Trek
The longest hiking trail on Rarotonga, the Cross Island Trek is a 6km (3.7-mile) trail marked with small orange markers for those who want to experience the hike independently. Aside from trekking through lush jungle forest, a highlight is Te Rua Manga, also known as “The Needle”. The trail ends at Papua Waterfall (Wigmore’s Waterfall) where you can have a refreshing dip.
Option 2: Raemaru Track
Another popular hike on Rarotonga, the Raemaru Track is a mountain hike on the west side of the island. Allow 2h30mins to 3 hours to return on this steady mountain climb that zig-zags through the attractive forest on its ascent up the flat-topped mountain. A highlight is climbing a 15m (50ft) rockface with the aid of steel bars and ropes to the summit.
Option 3: Mairie Nui Gardens
Ok, so this isn’t really a “hike” but if you’re really not into over-exerting yourself, then a pleasant stroll through these gorgeous gardens should suit. Cross the quaint footbridges and into seven acres of botanical paradise with lily ponds, intriguing plants and a backdrop of the dramatic mountain landscape. Entry is by donation.
If you’re doing a half-day hike, like the Cross Island Trek, take some lunch and plenty of water with you. For those hitting the Raemaru Track, reward yourself with a bite to eat from the bright blue and yellow hut of The Pacific Fish & Chip Shop also in Arorangi. Otherwise, those at the Mairie Nui Gardens will find there is the garden’s own cafe or Charlie’s Cafe within walking distance. Compare them with more cafes in the 10 Best Cafes on Rarotonga.
Day 5 – Rarotonga Tiki Tour
Either hop on the bus or rev up your scooter for a tour around Rarotonga, hitting the free snorkelling spots, historical sites, natural attractions and more!
Self-Guided Tour of Rarotonga
Explore the backroads of Rarotonga, known as Ara Metua which was originally established by the first island settlers. You’ll find all sorts of well-preserved marae (meeting grounds) between the palm-lined roads and plantations. Tick some from the list of the 10 Best Historical Sites on Rarotonga.
You’ll also want to check out the awesome free snorkelling spots and marine reserves too, such as Black Rock, Aroa Beach and Tikioki Beach. All of these are detailed in The Best Snorkelling in Rarotonga: Top 7 Places to Snorkel.
If you haven’t checked it out so far, don’t miss Papua Waterfall (Wigmore’s Waterfall) tucked away inland. It’s one of many Top 10 Sights on Rarotonga.
For a full itinerary you could be following for the day, check out A Self-Guided Day Trip Around Rarotonga.
As you’re tiki touring around Rarotonga, you’re likely to stumble upon the island’s many food trucks lining the shores with their affordable meal deals. One of our favourites is The Kai Guy located at the Nikao-end of Avarua for their freshly made and delicious tacos, gyros and burritos. Should you want to increase your budget for this evening, check out The Best Places to Eat on Rarotonga: 10 Best Restaurants for recommendations.
Since all you have to do tomorrow is fly to Aitutaki, why not make tonight the night you experience Raro’s epic nightlife?! Either jump on one of the party buses, which will return you to your accommodation at the end of the night, or hit the bars and clubs of Avarua independently. Both how-tos can be found in The Ultimate Guide to Rarotonga Nightlife + Happy Hour List.
Day 6 – Rarotonga to Aitutaki
Check out of your accommodation today, take an airport transfer and then check in for your flight at the domestic terminal of Rarotonga Airport. It’s time to fly to your next exciting Cook Islands destination, Aitutaki – see our Aitutaki Transport Guide for more details about getting there.
After a 50-minute flight and a scenic approach over the lagoon, you’ll meet your accommodation representative at Aitutaki Airport who will transfer you to your accommodation for check-in. As there are not many transport options on Aitutaki, you might want to get a rental vehicle delivered to your accommodation. That way, you can hit the grocery stores with ease (unless you’re staying in Amuri or Arutanga; then you’ll be within walking distance).
Aitutaki Cheap Accommodations
- Ranginui’s Retreat
- Aitutaki Budget Accommodation
- Gina’s Garden Lodges
- Matriki Beach Huts
- Popoara Ocean Breeze Villas
- Sunny Beach Lodge
- Amuri Sands
- Vaikoa Beach Units
- Petero’s Place
- Amuri Guesthouse
For more information on each stay, check out the 10 Best Budget Accommodations on Aitutaki.
Again, self-catering is very doable at the budget accommodations on Aitutaki. But if you prefer to eat out, there are plenty of cheap takeaways and cafes to keep hunger at bay! Aquila Takeaway on the main road in Amuri serves up pretty palatable burgers, pizzas, salads, wraps and more at their cheap takeaway with seating under a verandah. See more recommendations in The Top Cheap Eats on Aitutaki.
Day 7 – Tour the Aitutaki Lagoon
You can’t visit Aitutaki and not explore its paradisal lagoon, so make this your top priority even if it’s not technically an “ultra-cheap” activity. But with the number of experiences and food included, we’d argue that lagoon cruises are pretty cost-effective.
Aitutaki Lagoon Cruise
There are several lagoon cruises to choose from, from the small-group adventure-packed cruises of Teking Lagoon Cruise and Kia Orana Cruise to the more relaxing experience of The Vaka Cruise. Whatever you choose, you’ll enjoy a day hopping from one uninhabited islet to the other, snorkelling among tropical fish, giant clams and coral, and feasting on an island lunch. Find out more about what makes each cruise unique in the 10 Best Lagoon Cruises on Aitutaki.
Your lagoon cruise will have kept you well-fed for the afternoon, so you will probably find that you only need a light meal for this evening. With that in mind, head to The Boat Shed Bar & Grill at Ootu Beach, where most lagoon cruises drop you off, for their extremely affordable “snack meals”. Or, you could go all out on a seafood platter and cocktails? We ain’t judging! Learn more about The Boat Shed in The Best Places to Eat on Aitutaki: 10 Best Restaurants on Aitutaki.
Day 8 – Explore the Northern End of Aitutaki
There’s much to explore on the main island of Aitutaki too, so either rent a car or, cheaper, rent a scooter or, even cheaper (or for free), rent a bicycle and hit Aitutaki’s quiet and scenic roads.
Self-Guided Tour of Northern Aitutaki
Once you’re behind the wheel or handlebars, take a tiki tour around the northern end of Aitutaki. Stop by Maunga Pu for a hike to a scenic viewpoint and the Piraki Lookout for more gorgeous views, head to Base One beach for a snorkel, and stop by the Marine Research Centre to see the giant clam nursery (entry by donation)! Just check out A Self-Guided Day Trip Around Aitutaki for a full itinerary.
Pick up a takeaway from any one of the cheap eats on Aitutaki and take it to one of the scenic picnic spots, like Base One or Vaipae Wharf. We have tons of dining inspiration in the 9 Best Cafes & Takeaways on Aitutaki – they’ll work for dinner too!
Day 9 – Explore the Southern End of Aitutaki
Take the time to tour around the less-explored southern end of Aitutaki today. Its southern dirt road through the coastal forest makes for a scenic hike/bike ride/drive but is best avoided after or during heavy rain. In the latter scenarios, check out the 10 Things to Do in Aitutaki on a Rainy Day.
Self-Guided Tour of Southern Aitutaki
If you didn’t quite get the chance to explore Arutanga, have a look around today with its “Visitor’s Rock” at Arutanga Wharf and the oldest church in the Cook Islands, the CICC Church. Check out the views from the Arataki Lookout then head south to the dirt road passing through wetlands and lush coastal forest where you’re bound to see more crabs on the road than traffic.
Check out a cycle route of this road in 5 Best Bike Trails in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands or follow more of our itinerary in A Self-Guided Day Trip Around Aitutaki.
During your tour around southern Aitutaki, stop at the Avatea Cafe for its charming al fresco ambience and contemporary island cuisine in a secluded spot near Tautu. MVA’s Tunu2nu in Arutanga offers a cheaper alternative (but not quite as lavish).
Otherwise, if it happens to be a Sunday morning, don’t miss the famous Mongolian Barbecue next door to Naibaa’s Store north of Vaipae village (unless they have moved to the airport already). It’s the most random breakfast you’ll have on a tropical island!
Get more recommendations from The Top Cheap Eats on Aitutaki and The Food Guide to Aitutaki: Places to Eat & Food Tours.
Day 10 – Departure
Enjoy your final morning on Aitutaki before checking out of your accommodation and getting a transfer to Aitutaki Airport. Then it’s a 50-minute flight to Rarotonga International Airport where you’ll need to check in for your international departure.
Remember to arrive at Rarotonga Airport a couple of hours before your scheduled departure so that you have enough time to check in, go through security and browse the duty-free. Rarotonga International Airport’s duty-free stores are well worth a look for their local crafts, while booze is certainly cheaper than the duty-free stores upon arrival in New Zealand, Australia, etc. Just in case you were interested…
And it’s “ka kite” from the Cook Islands!
Alternative Cook Islands 10-Day Itineraries
Is this 10-day budget and backpacking itinerary for the Cook Islands not quite speaking to you? How about checking out our alternative itineraries for 14 days/2 weeks:
- Cook Islands Island-Hopping Itinerary: 10 Days
- Cook Islands Food Itinerary: 10 Days
- Cook Islands Honeymoon & Romance Itinerary: 10 Days
- Cook Islands Adults-Only Itinerary: 10 Days
- Cook Islands Family Itinerary: 10 Days
- Cook Islands Luxury Itinerary: 10 Days
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed from this Cook Islands budget itinerary, you’re likely to find it in The Complete Backpacking Guide to the Cook Islands on a Budget.