How to Travel Around the Cook Islands
An archipelago of 15 islands scattered across 2,200,000 km² (850,000 sq mi) of the Pacific Ocean, the Cook Islands is certainly not one of the easiest island nations to travel around. But once you’ve made it to the remote atolls, each stunning, beautiful and unique in their own way, they have car rentals and – a national favourite – scooters to help you get around their islands. As for the main island, Rarotonga, it spoils for transport choice with public buses, car rentals, taxis, airport shuttles and more.
Wise up on all of the ways to get around the Cook Islands, right here, in this complete Cook Islands transport guide!
1. International Flights – The Main Way to Get to the Cook Islands
Let’s start with how you get to the Cook Islands. Most travellers get here by international flight. All international flights arrive at Rarotonga International Airport (RAR), located next to the capital, Avarua. The majority of international flights depart from Auckland taking around four hours. Flights are also available from Sydney and Papeete. Find out more about which airlines fly to the Cook Islands, as well as how to get a good deal in Which Airlines Fly to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands?
Note that on arrival, you will be asked questions concerning biosecurity and, the one that trips many travellers, “Where are you staying?” Find out more about the arrival formalities in our guide, Arriving in Rarotonga: Airport Customs, Biosecurity & the Arrival Process.
2. Scooter Rentals – The “Local” Way to Get Around the Cook Islands
An iconic way to navigate the roads of the Cook Islands is by hiring a scooter. There are plenty of scooter rentals on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Note, however, that a local scooter license is required to legally drive one in the Cook Islands (only if your current license doesn’t cover motorcycles). Scooter licenses can be obtained from the Avarua Police Station (Rarotonga) and there are costs and a practical test involved. Alternatively, get your license from Arutanga Police Station (Aitutaki) for a cheaper more streamlined process.
Find out more about getting your license in How to Get Cook Islands Scooter License. Plus, learn more about hiring a scooter and where to hire from in the 10 Tips for Riding a Scooter in the Cook Islands.
3. Car Rentals – The Most Popular Way to Get Around the Cook Islands
Although less “Cook Islander” than a scooter, car rental on the islands is still a viable way to get around and comes with the added benefit of not requiring a local driving license or getting soaked when there’s a tropical downpour. You have a decent selection of car rental companies on Rarotonga – see The Best Car Rentals in Rarotonga, and Aitutaki – see The Best Car Rentals in Aitutaki. On the outer islands, car rentals are often provided through accommodation hosts.
We recommend that you become familiar with the local road rules, which we outline in How to Drive in the Cook Islands + 10 Road Rules.
4. Rarotonga Buses – The Cheapest Way to Get Around Rarotonga
The cheapest way to get around Rarotonga is by taking the bus. Rarotonga has a regular bus service with buses travelling both clockwise and anticlockwise, picking up passengers anywhere along the main road (Ara Tapu) – you just need to wave the bus down. Buses operate every hour from 7am to 10pm, Monday to Saturday. Have cash available. All of this is detailed further in our guide, Taking the Bus in Rarotonga: Bus Fares, Timetable & More.
4. E-Bike and Bicycle Rentals – The Most Eco-Friendly Way to Get Around the Cook Islands
Another cheap way to get around the islands of the Cooks (other than using your own two feet) is by hiring a bicycle or an e-bike. Cycling around the entire islands is a viable option for the fittest, considering the largest of the islands, Rarotonga’s outer road is approximately 32 km (20 miles). For the rest of us, bicycles can be a good way to cycle to nearby towns or attractions from your accommodation (as well as for fun by following the 5 Best Bike Trails in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands).
Some accommodations provide bicycles for free, while bicycles and e-bikes are also hired out from adventure sports and vehicle rental companies. Find out more about where to rent a bike in Cycle the Cook Islands: Where to Rent Bikes & E-Bikes.
5. Interisland Flights – The Best Way to Get Between the Cook Islands
The only real manageable way to get to the outer islands of the Cook Islands is via domestic flight. Most domestic flights depart from Rarotonga Airport with several return flights available per day, seven days a week. Flights to the Southern Group islands last approximately 45-50 minutes one-way, while the less frequent Northern Group flights take around 3h20mins.
The cost of flights, schedules and more are updated in Domestic Flights in the Cook Islands: Your Guide to Interisland Flights.
6. Charter Flights
An alternative way to fly between the islands of the Cook Islands is to charter a plane. Charter planes range from twin-jet to 34-seater aircraft, all of which depart from Rarotonga Airport. Private plane charters are a way to fly between the islands according to your schedule. Charter flights are also the only way to reach some of the Northern Group islands, such as Penrhyn and Pukapuka.
Discover more about chartering flights around the Cook Islands in How to Hire a Plane in the Cook Islands: A Guide to Plane Charters.
7. Plane Tour Packages
For those on limited time (but not a limited budget), private jet packages are also available from Rarotonga Airport. For instance, fly from Rarotonga to Aitutaki on a private jet day tour, including a private island tour and lagoon cruise, or stay overnight which also includes a room at the five-star Pacific Resort. There are also private jet packages to Mitiaro, as well as multi-day island-hopping packages for the lesser-visited Southern and Northern Group islands, which take place on scheduled days around five times per year.
8. Guided Tours – The Most Informative Way to Get Around an Island
Another way of getting around the islands to see the sights is with a guided tour that includes transport. On Rarotonga, tours with Raro Tours, Cook Islands Tours, Tik-ebikes & Tours and Raro Safari Tours offer sightseeing tours transporting you in minibuses, safari jeeps or an electric tuk-tuk. Island tours are also offered by accommodation hosts on the islands of Atiu when you arrive, as well as on Mangaia and Mauke.
9. Airport and Accommodation Transfers – The Easiest Airport Pick-Up Transport
On the outer islands, airport transfers are provided by your chosen accommodation usually for no additional cost. On Rarotonga, however, airport transfers come at an additional charge, if your accommodation provides this service. Otherwise, it’s recommended to book one of the airport shuttles or take a taxi to your accommodation on arrival in Rarotonga.
Compare all of your options in the 9 Best Airport Transfers in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands and find the cheapest in The Cheapest Airport Transfers in the Cook Islands.
10. Taxis – The Cook Islands Uber
There are a few taxi services in Rarotonga and Aitutaki. They don’t work like your typical city taxi, i.e. they can’t usually be hailed down nor are there any taxi stands. You need to book them prior to travel by either calling them or getting your accommodation’s concierge service to call them on your behalf. Fares are typically at a flat rate, otherwise paying per kilometre is very costly, so it’s a good idea to ask for fares before you agree to a ride.
Learn more about getting a taxi on Rarotonga in our guide, Taxis in the Cook Islands: Taxi Fares, How to Use & More.
11. Water Taxis – The Best Way to Get to the “Motu”
For those wishing to spend the day on an uninhabited island or perhaps want to catch a ride to Honeymoon Island during the kitesurfing season, water taxis are available in Aitutaki. Most depart from Ootu Beach, but some offer land transfers too if needed. Considering it only takes around 15 minutes to travel to most motu (islets) on the lagoon, prices are pretty reasonable even for a private water taxi.
Check out our complete guide to catching a water taxi in How to Catch a Water Taxi in the Cook Islands.
Hitchhiking is legal in the Cook Islands. However, it is one of the least reliable forms of transport because you’re likely to be waiting a while for a ride, especially on the outer islands where there’s very little traffic. Nevertheless, it’s quite the adventure if you can make it work!
Learn more about hitchhiking in the Cook Islands, as well as safety tips, in A Travellers’ Guide to Hitchhiking in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
13. Cruise Ships – The Most Leisurely Way to Get to the Cook Islands
For a quick visit to Rarotonga, Aitutaki and even the atoll of Palmerston, these islands are on the itinerary of several South Pacific cruises. Cruise passengers enter through the lagoon passages on zodiac boats. From there, spend the day on lagoon cruises, island tours, hiring a car to explore and more – we list recommendations in The Complete Guide to the Ports of Call in the Cook Islands.
Find out which cruises visit the Cook Islands in the 7 Best Cruises That Go to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
14. Private Yachts – The Most Exclusive Way to Get to the Cook Islands
With the exception of the cyclone season (November to March), the Cook Islands have seven ports of entry for yachties. Private yachts are how some of the more remote islands of the Cook Islands are explored, making for a privileged experience for sailors on the Transpacific journey.
Find out more about visiting the Cook Islands via yacht and the protocols involved in our Sailing Guide to the Cook Islands: Tips for Yachting in the Cook Islands.
15. Cargo Boats – The Cheapest Way to Get Between the Cook Islands
We leave the mention of catching a cargo boat around the Cook Islands until last because it’s not a recommended way to get between the islands but we still like to give you all of your options. Cargo boats in the Cook Islands are notoriously unpredictable, only leaving Rarotonga for the Southern Group and Northern Group islands once or twice a month. Nevertheless, cargo boats are about your only way to visit islands such as Rakahanga.
If your heart is set on the adventure and you have a couple of months to spare, take a look at our Cook Islands Cargo Ship Guide: How to Use the Ferry for Interisland Travel in the Cook Islands.
More About Transport and Getting Around the Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete Cook Islands transport guide! Now that you know the ways to get around the Cook Islands, see how to get to each island using the following guides:
- Rarotonga Transport Guide: 10 Ways to Get to (& Around) Rarotonga
- Aitutaki Transport Guide: 10 Ways to Get to (& Around) Aitutaki
- Atiu Transport Guide: 7 Ways to Get to (& Around) Atiu
- Mangaia Transport Guide: 6 Ways to Get to (& Around) Mangaia
- Mauke Transport Guide: 7 Ways to Get to (& Around) Mauke
- Mitiaro Transport Guide: 6 Ways to Get to (& Around) Mitiaro
- Northern Cook Islands Transport: 9 Ways to Get There & Around
Finally, if there’s anything else you need to plan for your tropical adventure, you’re likely to find the right information in The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide.