Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks© Kieran Scott - Cook Islands Tourism
Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks

© Kieran Scott – Cook Islands Tourism

14-Day Budget Trip to the Cook Islands: Including Rarotonga and Aitutaki!

Travelling with a limited budget is often when you have the richest experiences. This is certainly true for this itinerary for the Cook Islands. Forget lounging at the same resort for 2 weeks; this Cook Islands budget and backpacking itinerary for 14 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 2-week 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 2-Week (14-Day) Itinerary

  • Day 1 – Arrive on Rarotonga
  • Day 2 – Explore Avarua
  • Day 3 – Explore Muri Beach
  • Day 4 – Island hike
  • Day 5 – Rarotonga tiki tour
  • Days 6-7 – Free days on Rarotonga
  • Day 8 – Rarotonga to Aitutaki
  • Day 9 – Tour the Aitutaki Lagoon
  • Day 10 – Explore the northern end of Aitutaki
  • Day 11 – Explore the southern end of Aitutaki
  • Days 12-13 – Free days on Aitutaki
  • Day 14 – Departure.
Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

How to Get Around the Cook Islands in 2 Weeks

This Cook Islands budget and backpacking itinerary for 14 days (2 weeks) 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 2 weeks.

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 more than a couple of days. See The Cost of Renting a Car in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for more details on the subject. Bicycle hire can also be very 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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

Day 1 – Arrive on Rarotonga

Welcome to Rarotonga and the start of your 14-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

For more information on each stay, check out the 10 Best Budget Accommodations on Rarotonga.

Dining Recommendations

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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

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.

Dining Recommendations

We’ve already recommended Trader Jacks at the Avarua Harbour but you’ll find a lot more worthy yet affordable dining options 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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

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.

Dining Recommendations

For lunch, Vili’s Burget 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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks© DH - Cook Islands Tourism

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

Difficulty: Hard
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

Difficulty: Medium
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

Difficulty: Easy
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 only.

Dining Recommendations

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. 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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

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.

Dining Recommendations

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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks© Craig Owen - Cook Islands Tourism

Days 6-7 – Free Days on Rarotonga

You have two whole days on Rarotonga to do any activity you might have missed so far! You also have the opportunity to do one of your bucket list items that might not necessarily fall under the “budget category” but you still want to do, such as swimming with turtles, scuba diving, off-roading tours or something else from the 50 Best Things to Do on Rarotonga.

Free and Cheap Things to Do on Rarotonga

If you want to stick to affordable activities, however, then other recommendations not mentioned so far on this itinerary include:

… And more as listed in the 20 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Rarotonga!

Dining and Drinking Recommendations

Head to any of The Top Cheap Eats on Rarotonga or The Best Places to Eat on Rarotonga: 10 Best Restaurants that you haven’t managed to get to so far then make one of these nights the night that you experience Rarotonga’s awesome bar scene! 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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

Day 8 – 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

For more information on each stay, check out the 10 Best Budget Accommodations on Aitutaki.

Dining Recommendations

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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

Day 9 – 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.

Dining Recommendations

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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

Day 10 – 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.

Dining Recommendations

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!

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

Day 11 – 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.

Dining Recommendations

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.

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

Days 12-13 – Free Days on Aitutaki

You have two full days to either do anything that you’ve missed so far or even any one of the Aitutaki’s big-ticket items, whether it’s scuba diving with turtles, swimming with humpback whales during the season, kitesurfing at Honeymoon Island or something else. Check out the 20 Best Things to Do on Aitutaki for all of the atoll’s top experiences.

Free and Cheap Things to Do on Aitutaki

If you want to keep things in the budget realm, here are some of the free or affordable activities we haven’t mentioned so far…

… And all of that is explained further in the 15 Free & Cheap Things to Do on Aitutaki.

Dining Recommendations

If you’re not cooking for yourself over these couple of days, try Kai Tari Takeaway in Amuri for fresh fish dishes, as well as some of their cheaper items on the menu, such as burgers and fish/chicken and chips. Generous portions await at Mouarii Cafe in Arutanga with huge salads, steak and chips, lasagnes, etc. in the NZ$15-$20 range. Finally, Mango Takeaway in Amuri might do the usual cheap burgers and fries shebang but where they truly shine is their cakes. We highly recommend popping in for an affordable dessert!

Cook Islands Budget & Backpacking Itinerary: 14 Days / 2 Weeks©

Day 14 – 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 2-Week Itineraries

Is this 14-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:

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.


Laura S.

This article was reviewed and published by Laura, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Cook Islands Pocket Guide. Since arriving solo in the South Pacific over 10 years ago with nothing but a backpack and a background in journalism, her mission has been to show the world how easy (and awesome) it is to explore a paradise such as the Cook Islands. She knows the islands inside out and loves sharing tips on how best to experience Raro’s must-dos and hidden gems. Laura is also the editor of several other South Pacific travel guides.

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