Essential Travel Tips for Your First Time to Rarotonga, Aitutaki and the Cook Islands
Looking for a getaway with the perfect balance of relaxation and adventure? Perhaps a place where there’s no stress in transitioning to the island life thanks to the blend of Western and Pacific Island cultures? Where you could be on a volcanic mountain peak one day and snorkelling in the turquoise waters lined with white sands the next? Well, you could be picturing the atolls of the Cook Islands.
Although one of the easiest islands to escape to in the South Pacific, there are a few minor quirks that you need to know about, as well as a few handy tips that will make that trip seamless. We go through them all in this list of Cook Islands travel tips and the things you need to know about travelling in Rarotonga, Aitutaki and beyond!
1. “Rarotonga” isn’t the Whole Country
It’s true! Rarotonga is just one of the 15 islands of the Cook Islands. Although it is by far the most popular island to visit, there are, in fact, very different yet equally breathtaking destinations to explore across the archipelago. The easiest to visit from “Raro” is the turquoise lagoon of Aitutaki and any of the uplifted coral atolls in the Southern Group, such as Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro. See which of the islands speak to you using The Best Islands to Visit in the Cook Islands.
Fun fact: The outer islands of the Cook Islands are locally known as the “Pa Enua”.
2. Be Aware of the Latest Travel Restrictions
In a time of pandemics and an ever-changing social and environmental climate, perhaps one of the most important questions is: Can you travel to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands right now? For the latest travel restrictions for the Cook Islands, the best source is the official Cook Islands Tourism Travel Advisory page.
3. You Don’t Need a Visa to Visit the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is a very welcoming country for visitors. Not only is the cultural transition very easy (although the social customs are not as strict as some of the other South Pacific Islands, you should still get acquainted with the Cook Islander Etiquette: Cook Islands Customs & Traditions), but all international passport holders are welcome into the Cook Islands for up to 31 days (90 days for New Zealanders). Learn more about visas and permits in our guide to the Cook Islands Tourist Visa.
4. … But You Need to Know the Name of Your Accommodation (And its Phone Number)
One aspect of the arrivals process that throws many travellers off is having “proof” of accommodation during your stay. This is a requirement of entry to the Cook Islands, which can simply be shown by completing your Passenger Arrival Card and including the name of your accommodation in the appropriate field. Although customs officers at the border will know the names of the largest resorts on Rarotonga, you will need to include the phone number of your booked accommodation especially if you’re staying in a smaller accommodation or on one of the outer islands.
Get fully prepared for the arrival process using Arriving at Rarotonga Airport, Cook Islands: A Step-by-Step Guide.
5. Know What You Need to Declare and What You Can Bring to the Cook Islands
An important part of the arrival formalities is declaring any potential “risk” goods that may be harmful to the Cook Islands’ ecosystem, public or economy. While you can bring certain foods into the Cook Islands, there are others you can’t. There is also an allowance for duty-free goods.
All of what you can and cannot bring to the Cook Islands is detailed in Arriving in Rarotonga: Airport Customs, Biosecurity & the Arrival Process.
6. Check the Age Restrictions of Your Accommodation Before Booking
The Cook Islands has fantastic resorts, villas, holiday homes and more for families and adult groups alike, ensuring the correct tone is set for your getaway to paradise. While the adults-only retreat is incredibly easy to find, families might find that some accommodations don’t make it completely obvious that there are age restrictions. The most common is only allowing guests aged 12 years and over, so make sure to double-check that your chosen accommodation does, indeed, accept children.
Hint: All of the stays listed in the 20 Best Family Resorts & Accommodations in the Cook Islands not only accept children but welcome them with open arms and “Kia Oranas”!
7. It Sometimes Rains in the Cook Islands, But That’s Ok!
We all have visions of an idyllic sunny holiday when jetting off to a tropical country but, well, “tropical” climates also mean that there is rain involved – sometimes a substantial amount! Simply taking it on the chin and moving on with your day is the best way to handle when the heavens open, as it’s likely that the shower will pass quickly anyway. If it doesn’t, well, at least you have 20 Things to Do in the Cook Islands on a Rainy Day. If you want to decrease your chances of getting rained on while in the Cook Islands, you should consider visiting during the “drier season”.
See Rarotonga & the Cook Islands Weather, Seasons & Climate + Weather by Month to learn more about the weather patterns.
8. Snorkelling is Awesome But Be Careful of the Passages
The Cook Islands is a fantastic destination for sheltered snorkelling within its lagoons, especially on Rarotonga and Aitutaki. One thing you especially need to be mindful of, however, is the strong currents in the lagoon passages. Passages are where there is an opening in the reef and the water rushes out to sea. Never go snorkelling in these lagoon passages unless you’re part of a guided snorkelling tour.
See The Best Snorkelling in the Cook Islands: Top 10 Places to Snorkel for all the best snorkelling hotspots, as well as quick tips for safe snorkelling.
9. … And Be Careful of Mosquito Bites
Mosquitos aren’t just a minor annoyance that can leave an itchy bite, but day-biting mosquitos have been known to spread dengue fever in the Cook Islands – a major blow to your holiday if you contract the virus! With that in mind, don’t cheap out on your mosquito protection method, whether it’s an effective but safe mosquito repellent or a favourite in the Cook Islands, mosquito coils. Check out the 12 Ways to Avoid Mosquito Bites in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for all of our tips on managing bites.
10. Be Prepared to Disconnect (Or Pay a Premium for WiFi)
The Cook Islands is home to one and only one network/internet provider. With that, prices for WiFi are at a premium and you’ll rarely come across free WiFi. We recommend waiting until you get back home to post your holiday snaps, but if you absolutely need to have WiFi while you’re in the Cooks, be sure to check out How to Get Internet & WiFi in the Cook Islands.
On a similar note, if you want to be able to use your phone instead of roaming, then take a look at The Best SIM Card in the Cook Islands for Travellers for advice on connecting to the local phone network.
11. Whale Season is July to October, Kitesurfing is May to October, etc…
If you’re coming to the Cook Islands for a particular activity, whether it is swimming with whales, kitesurfing at the famous Honeymoon Island, fishing for yellowfin tuna, surfing the reef breaks, watching the Te Maeva Nui Festival or something else seasonal, make sure you time your trip right! See The Best Time to Visit Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: A Month by Month Guide.
12. The Cook Islands Can Be Enjoyed in 5 Days to 2 Weeks+
How long should you spend in the Cook Islands? Well, this depends on a number of factors, from budget to how many islands you want to visit. However, a comfortable amount of time in the Cook Islands is from 5 days, if just visiting Rarotonga, to 2 weeks if you want to enjoy both Rarotonga and Aitutaki. With most visitor visas allowing you to stay for a month, we’d recommend going the full stretch if you have the time! Otherwise, check out our itineraries for the most popular durations to stay in the Cook Islands:
- The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 5 Days
- The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 7 Days
- The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 10 Days
- The Best Rarotonga & Cook Islands Itineraries for 14 Days
We also have itineraries for 3 days, should things be really desperate, but we strongly recommend that you spend more time in the Cook Islands. You won’t regret it!
13. You Need a Scooter License for Rarotonga (And Getting it is a Mission)
Scooters are an iconic way to get around Rarotonga and the Cook Islands – all the locals use them! Unless you have a driver’s license that allows you to ride a motorcycle in your own country, you will need to obtain a Visitor’s Scooter License in order to rent one, which involves a theory and practical test on Rarotonga. On the other hand, the scooter license process isn’t nearly as involved nor as expensive on Aitutaki and the other outer islands…
For more tips on using this popular way to get around the Cooks, check out the 10 Tips for Riding a Scooter in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
14. There is Limited Transport on the Outer Islands (But Getting Around is Still Made Easy)
Need to get around on Rarotonga? You have a bus service, taxis, vehicle rentals, airport shuttles and more! On the outer islands, well, not so much… The extent of public transport on Aitutaki is a couple of taxi and water taxi companies, while no public transport exists on the other outer islands. Nevertheless, getting around is still made as easy as possible on these outer islands. For example, airport transfers are almost always included in your accommodation rate and vehicle rentals are either being delivered to your accommodation for free or your accommodation itself will provide a rental vehicle. Easy!
See the Cook Islands Transport Guide: 15 Ways to Get Around the Cook Islands for all of the ways to get to, around and between islands.
15. Drive on the Correct Side of Avarua’s Main Street
Speaking of renting vehicles, a road rule that trips many tourists up is the divide in the middle of the four-lane road in the centre of Avarua (Rarotonga’s main town). There are two lanes on one side of the divide where traffic flows in one direction and two lanes on the other where traffic flows in the opposite direction. Remember that traffic flows on the lefthand side in the Cook Islands!
For more road rules to know, check out How to Drive in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands + 10 Road Rules.
16. Pick-Ups on Rarotonga are Usually on the Main Road
On Rarotonga, most resorts, restaurants, shops and services are on the main road that circles the island called Ara Tapu. That’s why, for instance, the bus services only picks-up and drops-off passengers along the main road and why many tour companies only offer pick-ups at accommodations on the main road. If you’re staying inland, be sure to double-check with tour providers whether they offer pick-up from your accommodation or whether you need to stand on the side of the main road instead.
17. No, There is No Ferry to Aitutaki
Rarotonga and Aitutaki are so often linked as islands you can visit in one holiday that many assume there is a ferry between them. This is not the case. In fact, all interisland travel in the Cook Islands is reliant on domestic flights – see Domestic Flights in the Cook Islands: Your Guide to Interisland Flights. Although there are cargo ships between the islands, the schedule is so unreliable that no one recommends them as a means of travelling between the islands – not even the locals!
18. Be Aware of Taxi Fares on Rarotonga (And Lack of Taxis on Aitutaki)
We’ve already touched on the abundance of transportation on Rarotonga, including its taxi services that are available 24/7. However, we should warn you that their pricing structure is a little different than what you’re probably used to; instead charging per person! This makes for a pretty hefty fee once you arrive a mere few kilometres down the road. On Aitutaki, although cheaper, taxis aren’t nearly as abundant with only two taxi companies and limited availability. Wise up on the taxis in Taxis in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Taxi Fares, How to Use & More.
You might also be interested in taking water taxis to uninhabited “motu” (islets) in Aitutaki, as outlined in Water Taxis in Aitutaki: How to Use, Cost & More.
19. Self-Catering is a Breeze on Rarotonga But You Might Have to “Keep Looking” on Aitutaki
Accommodations with cooking facilities are never too hard to find in the “Cook” Islands. Speaking of which, check out the 10 Best Self-Catering Accommodations in the Cook Islands for our top recommendations. Combine these accommodations with the fact that there are large supermarkets to the north and south of Rarotonga with many convenience stores in between and a self-catering holiday couldn’t be easier. On Aitutaki, things are a little trickier. Although convenience stores stock a variety of goods, there are not necessarily all goods. So, if you’re looking for a certain item, you often find that you have to go to the next store, then go to the next store and so on. On the other outer islands, well, there’s a reason why food is usually provided at your accommodation…
For a complete guide to a self-catering holiday in the Cook Islands, check out A Guide to Supermarkets & Food Shopping in the Cook Islands.
20. Rarotonga is Well Equipped for Special Diets; Just Don’t Expect the Same Treatment on the Outer Islands…
Rarotonga‘s dining scene is diverse and getting better and better for those with special dietary requirements. Check out our guide for The Cook Islands for Vegans & Vegetarians and The Gluten-Free Guide to the Cook Islands. On the outer islands, including Aitutaki, what restaurants do exist tend to offer a very limited selection in terms of special diet meals. Wherever you’re staying in the Cook Islands, if your chosen accommodation provides food or has a restaurant, we recommend getting in touch with them to see how they can cater to your diet – many of them are happy to with prior notice! Otherwise, it’s best to self-cater so you know exactly what is going into your meals.
21. Food Portions Might Be Smaller Than What You are Used to + Don’t Overfill Your Plate at the Buffet!
A common complaint we hear in the Cook Islands is that the food portions are small. Indeed, some restaurant portions are more to European standards than to the standards of New Zealand, Australia, the US and other South Pacific countries. But it’s all a matter of perspective and you’ll by no means go hungry!
When it comes to Cook Islander cultural affairs that involve food, such as the “Island Nights” or being hosted on the outer islands, you will be given much more food than you are reasonably expected to eat! In fact, some buffets will charge you a small fee for leaving food on your plate after a buffet! Although you’re allowed to refill your plate as much as you want, this extra charge incentivises you not to overfill your plate resulting in unnecessary food waste.
And for more ways to sustain yourself, your wallet and the beautiful country of the Cook Islands, see the 31 Ways to Travel More Sustainably in the Cook Islands.
22. Sundays are a Little Quieter
As a primarily Christian country, Cook Islanders see Sunday as a day of rest and worship. That’s why you’ll find that most shops close by Saturday afternoon, some restaurants close on a Sunday, bars close by midnight on a Saturday/Sunday, and some tours don’t operate at all on Sunday. While Sunday customs are strong (and you’re expected to wear respectful clothing when you go to church, just in case you decide to check out the experience), it doesn’t mean that the entire country closes for the day. There is still the occasional tour operating and shop open, usually because the owners are Seventh-Day Adventist worshippers whose holy day is on a Saturday instead.
Learn more about what’s open on a Sunday in the 10 Things to Do in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands on a Sunday.
23. Don’t Bring Cook Islands Money Home (Unless You Want a Souvenir)
When you receive change in the Cook Islands, you’ll notice that you’re likely to get triangular and hexagonal coins. These are the Cook Islands’ very own coins! Although the national currency is the New Zealand Dollar, these Cook Islands coins (and the elusive $3 note) can only be used in the Cook Islands; not in New Zealand. They also can’t be used in vending machines in the Cook Islands. So, try to spend all the coins you get in the Cook Islands by the end of your trip if you don’t want to end up with a wallet full of useless metal when you get home.
Tips on what to do with Cook Islands coins can be found in Leaving Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Departure Tips.
24. It’s a Good Idea to Have Some Cash Available
Speaking of coins, it’s always a good idea to have at least a little bit of cash on you. You’ll find easy access to money with ATMs, currency exchange bureaus and most vendors accepting Visa and MasterCard cards on Rarotonga. Some ATMs even accept New Zealand bank cards without charging a withdrawal fee, so check out Can You Use Your Credit Card in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? for more details on the matter. Aitutaki has a few but limited ATMs, while you should take all the cash you’ll need for your whole stay on the other outer islands.
Take a look at What is the Best Way to Pay in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? for ways to save money while withdrawing money in the Cook Islands.
25. The Cook Islands Can Be Expensive, But Can Also Be Pretty Cheap!
The Cook Islands might look like a priceless paradise on your Instagram feed, but the reality is that a trip can range from a backpacking budget to five-star luxury. That’s why we have both backpacker guides and luxury guides to the Cook Islands! Bearing in mind that we all travel very differently, we’ve compiled a complete Rarotonga & Cook Islands Travel Budget listing all of the typical costs of groceries, restaurant meals, popular tours and activities and transport so you can work out your own budget with ease.
And if you want to shave the cents off your holiday, be sure to follow the advice in the 20 Tips to Save Money in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
26. It Helps to Be an Animal Lover
On Rarotonga, especially, it is common for locals to let their dogs wander the streets and beaches. With that, you’ll likely have dogs visiting your beach accommodation unless you’re staying at one of the few resorts that do their best to stop dogs from entering the complex. Inland on any of the Cook Islands, you’ll likely encounter pigs and chickens also. It makes for some wonderful wake-up calls if you happen to have a rooster outside of your room at 5am! All in all, there are a lot of animals around, so it helps to be Ok with animals if you’re visiting the Cook Islands, especially Rarotonga. If you want to avoid dogs, go to Aitutaki; dogs are banned from the island by law.
27. Don’t Leave Your Valuables On Display Unattended
Like anywhere in the world, there are a few commonsense safety precautions to keep in mind even while on vacation in the Cook Islands. Unfortunately, there have been a few cases on Rarotonga where opportunists have targeted tourist vehicles for petty theft. Be sure to lock your vehicle, hide your valuables (or take them with you) and give yourself no reason to be targeted!
More safety advice can be found in our Cook Islands Safety Tips.
28. Pack Right for the Tropical Climate
With temperatures of 21°C (70°F) to 27°C (81°F) in the Southern Group all year round, The Cook Islands call for a tropical wardrobe! Light clothing, sun protection, swimwear and sandals/flip-flops are all essentials, while other useful items like snorkelling gear and perhaps an extra layer for those cooler nights in the dry season are optional extras.
Don’t worry, we’ve got every item covered in What to Pack for Rarotonga & the Cook Islands: Cook Islands Packing List.
29. Apply Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Sunscreen is an obvious essential for your trip to the Cook Islands but the marine ecosystem surrounding the islands is badly threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching. The problem is easy to fix, however, by opting for “reef-safe” sunscreen rather than the standard stuff. See The Best Sunscreens for the Cook Islands + Sun Protection Tips for more on the subject!
30. Filtered Tap Water is Easy to Find
A common concern when heading to remote islands is having access to clean drinking water. Luckily, you won’t feel “marooned” in the Cook Islands, as they have made it very possible to survive without having to buy a new bottle of water every couple of hours! Not only do most accommodations have filtered and UV-treated tap water, but public drinking water stations can be found around the islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki.
Check out our tips for making sure you have access to plenty of water while you’re out and about in our guide, Is the Water Safe to Drink in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands?
31. Make the Most of Cook Islands Pocket Guide
As the Cook Islands’ largest travel guide, we’re here for you every step of the way! Get inspired by our Destinations guides to every single island and see where your wanderlust will take you.
Our Travel Tips section gives you all the practical advice you will need when planning your trip to Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. All your Cook Islands questions will be answered so you know what to expect when you arrive.
Looking for places to stay? Check out our Accommodation section where you’ll find the best options for all styles of travel: budget accommodation, luxury accommodation, resorts, villas, holiday homes, apartments and much more!
Whatever your tastes, you’re bound to find your dream bucket list of activities in our Things to Do section. Our Things to Do page is split up into easy-to-digest sections where you can just browse the activities that you are interested in, including water activities, walking, tours, shopping, nature, food and drink, golf, fishing, Cook Islands culture, adventure and more!
We make getting around easy with our Transport section, where you can find more information on buses, flights, vehicle rental, public transport, getting to the outer islands and more.
Finally, whatever your taste and whatever your travel style, we’ve made the perfect Cook Islands itinerary in our Trip Ideas section. All the work has been done for you!
More Cook Islands Travel Tips
That’s it for our list of essential Cook Islands travel tips! Now that you’re wiser about travelling in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands, you might like to start planning some things to do, where to stay and more! Check out these guides to get started:
- 101 Best Things to Do in the Cook Islands: The Ultimate List
- The BEST Cook Islands Accommodations: Where to Stay
- The Food Guide to the Cook Islands: Places to Eat, Food Tours & More
Finally, if there’s anything we’ve missed, you’re likely to find it in The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide, which goes through planning your whole trip from pre-arrival to departure.