Getting there & away
The Cook Islands is a long, long way from anywhere, and unless you've got unlimited funds, it's probably a good idea to try and include some of the other islands of the South Pacific in your travel plans. The Cook Islands is often included as an optional stopover on flights to and from New Zealand, and this usually represents the best value way of visiting the islands. You can also include a stop in the Cooks at the end of a round-the-world ticket. All visitors arriving in the Cooks need an onward air ticket (or a yacht-owner's guarantee that they will be departing on the same boat they arrived on).
Every international visitor to the Cook Islands (Kiwis included) must be in possession of a passport valid for the duration of their stay.
It's possible to visit the Cook Islands as a single destination, a stopover when you're travelling across the Pacific or as part of a round-the-world ticket. Depending on where you're coming from, a stopover in the Cooks might not cost that much more than a standard single or return fare. Both Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue have online ticket sales, but only Air New Zealand has a branch office at the airport on Rarotonga.
High- and low-season fares apply for flights to the Cooks. The low season is from mid-April to late August, and the high season is from December to February. There is a heavy demand for flights from New Zealand to the Cooks around Christmas, and in the opposite direction in January. Check your dates and options carefully when you book your ticket; going just a day or two earlier or later can make a big difference in cost.
There are currently no scheduled cruise liners that travel to the Cook Islands, although very occasionally cruise ships crossing the South Pacific will stop at Rarotonga for a few hours to let their passengers look around. If you're coming by sea, it usually means you'll be coming on a private yacht.
The Cook Islands is not a major Pacific yachting destination like French Polynesia, Tonga or Fiji, but it's still a fairly popular spot except during the cyclone season from November to March. Official entry points are Rarotonga and Aitutaki in the Southern Group islands and Penrhyn and Pukapuka in the Northern Group islands. Many yachties only visit the practically uninhabited atoll of Suwarrow, which is OK with the authorities even though it's not a port of entry. Palmerston is also becoming a regular Cook Islands stop for many private yachts. Yachties are under the same entry and exit regulations, including paying departure tax, as those who arrive and depart by air.
The harbour master (28814; fax 21191; email@example.com; Avatiu Harbour, Avarua) on Rarotonga should be the first person you talk to once you arrive; you can deal with customs and immigrations formalities in his office. Leave your Q flag up until you've been cleared by Port Health. The harbour master can sell you marine charts for the Cook Islands, Northern Group islands, Southern Group islands and Rarotonga. The new Harbour Master/Ports Authority building is between Avatiu Harbour and the road, conveniently across from the Coconut Bar.
It doesn't happen often, but there's a remote chance that you can catch a yacht sailing from the Cooks to other nearby destinations such as Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, French Polynesia or New Zealand. Check with the Ports Authority, and on its bulletin board downstairs, as yachties sometimes use this as a message board.
Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue (part of the Virgin Group) are the only international carriers that fly regularly to the Cook Islands.
Air New Zealand operates at least one daily direct flight from Rarotonga to Auckland (New Zealand), sometimes stopping in Fiji en route, as well as three weekly flights to Los Angeles via Tahiti (in French Polynesia). From Auckland you can catch regular Air New Zealand flights to other cities in Australia, New Zealand and Asia, and from Los Angeles there are frequent flights to London, continental Europe and the rest of the US.
Air New Zealand (NZ; www.airnewzealand.com);Australia (13 24 76); Cook Islands (682-26300; firstname.lastname@example.org; Rarotonga international airport); Fiji (679-331 3100); French Polynesia (689-540 740); New Zealand (0800-737 000, 09-336 2480); UK (0800 028 4149); USA (1-800 262 1234)
Since Rarotonga is the only island in the Cooks with an international airport, that's where you'll land. The Rarotonga international airport is a small and extremely welcoming airport by international standards. Queues can move pretty slowly once you're inside the building, but the ubiquitous Jake Nanumanga (a virtuoso on ukelele and Casiotone) or a Cook Islands string band will keep you entertained while you're waiting.
You'll be given a free 31-day visitors permit upon arrival, which can later be extended. You'll be asked to fill in an arrival form, including details of where you'll be staying. This is important information, because the Cook Islands has a 'prior booking requirement' and technically you can be turned away and sent back to the plane if you haven't booked a place to stay, at least for the first night of your visit.
You'll also have to fill in a customs form declaring that you're not bringing any food products, seeds, plants or biological material into the islands (the Cooks are quite rightly very strict on quarantine rules) and you'll have to show an onward or return ticket. There's usually no problem with canned, vacuum-packed and frozen foods, but they must be declared at customs on arrival.
After you've collected your bags and passed through customs, you'll be greeted and asked where you're staying. Most accommodation places will provide transfers from the airport, and you'll be directed to the relevant person, who might greet you with a traditional floral 'ei (garland). If your transfer doesn't turn up (as sometimes happens in the ultra laid-back Cook Islands), just let the airport staff know - you'll most likely be able to get a lift in one of the other transfer buses, or if all else fails you could always hop in a taxi.
The Westpac bank at the airport is open for all arriving and departing flights. If you need to change money, you can do it here (or in town). If you have New Zealand dollars (NZ$) you won't need to change money, as New Zealand and Cook Islands money is used interchangeably in the Cooks. There's a Westpac ATM on your left as you exit. Booking offices for a few inter-island tours are nearby, but these places also have offices in town if you just want to get to your hotel and get some sleep (not a bad idea, since most international flights tend to arrive in the middle of the night).
If warned early enough, airlines can often make special arrangements for travellers, such as wheelchair assistance at airports or vegetarian/vegan/kosher meals on the flight. Children under two years travel for 10% of the standard fare on Air New Zealand, and on Pacific Blue they travel for free. They don't get their own seat or a baggage allowance, but car seats and prams are usually carried free.
Be aware that you won't be able to take bassinets or cots onboard any Pacific Blue flights; if you've booked a separate seat for your child, then you can take cots or car-seats onto Air New Zealand flights, or ask for a bassinet at the time of check-in. Baby food and nappies can be provided by the airline if requested in advance.
Children aged between two and 12 years can usually occupy a seat for 50% to 80% of the full fare, and they do get a baggage allowance.
The disability friendly website, www.everybody.co.uk has an airline directory that provides information on the facilities offered by various airlines.
The easiest option for travellers from Asia to the Cook Islands is to fly into Auckland and connect there with an Air New Zealand flight to Rarotonga. The other less direct options are to travel via Nadi (Fiji) either directly to Rarotonga (one flight per week) or via Auckland.
Most Asian countries offer fairly competitive deals, with Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong the best places to shop around for discount tickets. STA Travel (Hong Kong2390 0421; Tokyo03-5391 2922; Singapore737 7188; Bangkok02-236 0262) is reliable.
There are no direct flights between Australia and Rarotonga, but getting to the Cooks is relatively straightforward with a connecting flight in Auckland. Single fares from Sydney/Brisbane/Melbourne start at around A$510/700/750 with Pacific Blue; single fares from most Australian destinations start from around A$480 with Air New Zealand. Flights are sometimes cheaper or more expensive depending on the time of year you travel and how early in advance you book. Return flights are usually based on the price of two single flights added together.
Like New Zealand, it's almost always cheaper to travel to the Cook Islands from Australia as part of a flight/accommodation package deal. Seven-night packages start at around A$1800/2400 in low/high season. Specialist agents for fares and packages include the following.
Air New Zealand Holidays(1300 365 525; www.airnz.com.au) Air New Zealand often has some good-value packages.
Blue Holidays(13 15 16; www.blueholidays.com.au) Virgin Blue's travel agency.
Hideaway Holidays(02-8799 2500; www.hideawayholidays.com.au)
Pacific Specialist Holidays(02-9080 1600, toll-free 1800 114141; www.pacificholidays.com.au)
Talpacific(1300 137 727; www.talpacific.com)
Travel options from Canada are much the same as those from the USA. From Vancouver, Air New Zealand(800-663-5494; www.airnewzealand.ca) return fares to Rarotonga (via Los Angeles) start from around C$1850/2150 in the low/high season.
The main route for travel to the Cooks from Europe will be via Los Angeles or Auckland, depending on which way round the globe you're flying. It's really up to you how you get to those cities, but your flights to Rarotonga will be with either Pacific Blue or Air New Zealand from Auckland, or just Air New Zealand from Los Angeles.
Recommended agencies for fares in France include OTU Voyages (01 55 82 32 32; www.otu.fr) and Nouvelles Frontières(08 25 00 07 47; www.nouvelles-frontieres.fr). Both Iles Du Monde (01 55 42 74 10; www.ilesdumonde.com) and Ultramarina (08 25 02 98 02; www.ultramarina.com) specialise in travel to the Pacific.
Air New Zealand has daily flights between Auckland and Rarotonga, with extra flights a couple of days a week that arrive at midday rather than sometime after midnight (currently these are on Tuesday and Saturday). Standard one-way fares to Auckland start at NZ$390, double that for return flights.
Pacific Blue operates two weekly flights to Rarotonga from Auckland, with standard single fares starting at NZ$500 (although there are often much cheaper fares, sometimes as low as NZ$200). These low-price airfares cater largely for the many Cook Islanders toing and froing between New Zealand, and flights can get booked up pretty quickly, especially around holiday season.
It's often cheaper to travel to the Cooks on a pre-arranged package from New Zealand. Four night packages start from around NZ$750, and once your four nights are up you can usually move on to explore the rest of the Cooks (up to a maximum one-month stay). Useful travel agents in New Zealand include the following:
Air New Zealand (09-377 7999; www.airnewzealand.co.nz)
Flight Centre (0800 24 35 44; www.flightcentre.co.nz)
Talpacific Holidays (09-914 8728; www.talpacific.com)
Apart from New Zealand, the only Pacific islands with direct flight connections to Rarotonga are Fiji (F$540 return) and Tahiti (48, 000 CFP return). If you want to visit any other islands, you'll have to fly via one of these islands. Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.co.nz) operates connecting flights to Fiji and Tahiti; check their website or contact your travel agency for schedules and routes.
Considering how far Rarotonga is from Europe, a RTW ticket could be the most economical way to get to Rarotonga. For those who are travelling only to Rarotonga, Air New Zealand flights from London via Los Angeles are the most straightforward option. Return fares from London start from around £880/1100 in the low/high season.
Standard packages from the UK start from between £1200 and £1400 for seven nights. Add luxury accommodation and a few nights in Aitutaki and the cost is more likely to be around £1900 and £2100. For flights or flight/accommodation packages from the UK, the following travel agencies are recommended:
All Ways Pacific Travel(014-9443 2747; www.all -ways.co.uk)
Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.co.uk) Reliable long-haul destination specialist.
Travelbag (0870 814 4441; www.travelbag.co.uk)
Turquoise Holiday Company (0870 443 4177; www.turquioseholidays.co.uk) Luxury holiday company specialising in island getaways.
Air New Zealand's flights from the USA to the Pacific depart from Los Angeles. There are three weekly flights (currently on Monday, Thursday and Saturday), all via Papee'te in Tahiti. Return fares start from around US$1150/1660 in the low/high season.
All Air New Zealand flights from the US follow the Los Angeles-Tahiti-Cook Islands-Fiji-Auckland route. One stopover is usually included in the standard single or return fare. Extra stopovers cost US$150 each. Check with Air New Zealand or your travel agent for ticket options and restrictions.
Circle Pacific fares can be good value for travellers from the USA. The new Star Alliance Circle Pacific Fare is a flexible option, based on the Air New Zealand stopovers outlined above, but with slightly more flexibility in travel arrangements.
For online fare bookings there are plenty of good sites:
Flight and accommodation package deals can work out to be remarkably good value for the Cooks. Packages start at US$1388 (five nights) - barely more than the cost of a ticket alone! Contact your travel agent for more information or try one of the following agencies that specialise in Pacific travel:
Pacific-for-Less (808-249 6490; www.pacific-for-less.com)
South Seas Adventures (800-576 7327; www.south-seas-adventures.com)
Sunspots International (800-334 5623; www.sunspotsintl.com)