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South Pacific Tropical Island Paradise on the Cheap – Rarotonga

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What do you picture when you hear the phrase South Pacific Island? I imagine white sandy beaches with the surf rolling in AND a huge bill after the vacation. I think of all the famous tropical island destinations like Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Fiji. I just checked Expedia and a weeklong vacation with flight+hotel in Bora Bora starts at $2,700. How about the Cook Islands instead? It’s a bit off the beaten path for the US tourists, but it has great beaches, a beautiful blue lagoon (that surrounds Rarotonga), and mountain hiking trails. So is it possible to have a great time on a tropical island paradise on the cheap? Here is how I did it.

muri beach rarotonga cook islands

Airfare

It’s tough to be cheap when the airplane ticket starts at around $1,000, but I managed to get to Cook Islands for a little less than that. I was on my way to New Zealand (another story) so I thought I would take the chance to fulfill my South Pacific Island dream and booked a stopover on Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands. I don’t remember exactly how much extra I paid for the stopover, but I think it was about $300 extra in 2006.

veras muri beach rarotonga cook island

Hotel

If I was on a honeymoon, I might pick a beachfront room at the Rarotongan Beach Resort with the price of $380 per night, but I was traveling alone at the time and I was being cheap. I found Vera’s online and decided to try this hostel on Muri beach. Muri beach is the best beach on Rarotonga and it’s suitable for swimming and snorkeling. I paid NZ$20 a night for a room next to the beach! It was a hostel so I had 3 roommates, but that’s not a bad thing when you’re traveling by yourself.

veras hostel muri beach rarotonga cook islands

Food

Food was a bit of a problem because there were only resorts and hotels in the Muri Beach area and the meals were quite expensive. Vera’s had a communal kitchen for the backpackers and I made simple sandwiches such as PBJ, marmite, and tomato. I was only there for 4 nights so I didn’t want to buy too many things. One night the backpackers pooled money and made a big pot of pasta for everyone. It’s common knowledge that backpackers prefer to spend money on smokes and beer than in a restaurant. 😀

veras muri beach rarotonga cook islands

Transportation

There is only one road that goes around Rarotonga and you can catch a bus. It was pretty simple. I rented a scooter one day and rode around the island to see other beaches and that was fun. I had to go to the DMV in Avarua, the capital city of the Cook Islands, and get a license so I could rent a scooter. It took half a day, but I used the time to explore Avarua a bit and purchased a lunch from a restaurant so the time wasn’t totally wasted. Local transportation costs were not a big part of the bill.

rarotonga scooter

Entertainment

I spent $50 to go see a cultural show & buy a drink at a resort nearby and I think that was it. I went to a service at the Cook Island Christian Church with fellow backpackers and had a great time listening to hymns sung in Mauri. The church also fed us lunch afterward. :) Other than that, I snorkeled, swam, hung out by the beach and just relaxed. I also had a great time meeting backpackers at Vera’s. There was only one other person from the US and the rest were mostly from Europe. Many of them were either starting or ending yearlong backpacking trips and it was fun seeing different perspectives other than the workaholic US view.

All in all, it was an enjoyable side trip that cost me less than $600 extra and I loved it. One day I will take the family there to spend more time exploring Rarotonga and the other islands in the chain. I would also love to hit Bora Bora someday. Now you know I like tropical beach vacation since my last travel post was Krabi. 8)

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{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Moneycone April 22, 2011, 5:59 am

    Oh man! The pictures make me want to just take off! The spirit is willing…

  • Kevin @ Thousandaire.com April 22, 2011, 6:28 am

    That is an incredible experience for $600. I’m spending over $2300 on my Costa Rica trip, but that’s for 24 days and includes 15 days of Spanish and Surfing lessons. :)

    • retirebyforty April 22, 2011, 8:37 am

      You’ll have a great time in Costa Rica. I haven’t been to South America, but we’ll probably travel there more now that we have a kid. It’s closer to home and a bit cheaper than other international destinations.

    • Financial Samurai April 23, 2011, 4:00 pm

      Dude, how do you get 24 days off??? I’m jealous!

      • retirebyforty April 23, 2011, 11:13 pm

        4 days. :)
        Hope you had fun in Kauai. It was really nice when we were there. Yeah, you should hit Bora Bora. 😀

  • 101 Centavos April 22, 2011, 7:22 am

    Sounds like a great trip. Reminds me of the time we made a side trip from Sri Lanka to go diving in the Maldives. Airfare was dirt cheap (I don’t remember exactly how much, but not much) and so was the accommodation. I think we spent most of our money on booze, just like the backpackers.

    • retirebyforty April 22, 2011, 8:35 am

      Maldives is one of the top destinations I have on my list! I always hear about how expensive it is so thanks for the idea. If we’re in India, I’ll make sure to price out a side trip. :)

      • 101 Centavos April 22, 2011, 9:03 am

        Well, I should clarify that this was sometime in ’83 or ’84…. Costs may have gone up since then..

  • Squirrelers April 22, 2011, 9:02 am

    I’d like to be teleported there right now. Really :)

    Side trips are a great opportunistic way to visit someplace for a lower net cost. It’s like product bundling, just pay a little more and pay less for two items than you would if you bought them individually. Same concept can apply to adding a side trip. I’ve done this in Eurpoe a few times.

  • krantcents April 22, 2011, 2:29 pm

    Looks like a nice relaxing vacation spot! There are so many places on my list, I might as well take one of those around the world cruises. One problem, I don’t think I could travel for than 3-4 weeks at a time.

    • retirebyforty April 22, 2011, 11:28 pm

      Backpacking is a lot easier when you’re young especially when you go on a long trip. I have seen some older backpackers as well so it’s not unheard of. I don’t know if I can travel for a long time anymore either, I like home now.

  • Money Reasons April 22, 2011, 6:28 pm

    What a beautiful shoreline! I love the light aquablue color of the waters!

    I really need to get out more! It seems like I’m the only financial blogger out there that hasn’t been to a nice exotic vacation location yet!

    Thanks for sharing your story and pictures! Like Squirrelers, I wish I could teleport there too!!!

    • retirebyforty April 22, 2011, 11:27 pm

      That’s the advantage of waiting to have kids. :) Now that we have a kid, we’ll stick closer to home and explore national parks and maybe South America.

  • youngandthrifty April 22, 2011, 7:44 pm

    Wow, so pretty! How do you like Marmite? Is that the same as Vegimite?

    Great ideas and tips, thank you! $20 a night NZD- definitely can’t go wrong with that.

    • retirebyforty April 22, 2011, 11:26 pm

      I like both Marmite and Vegimite although I can’t tell them apart. My aunt lives in Australia and used to send us some when I was a kid so I got used to it. 😀

  • Financial Samurai April 23, 2011, 4:00 pm

    Absolutely amazing! Makes my Hawaii trip in May look a little tame. Gotta juice it up!

  • Buck Inspire April 23, 2011, 4:15 pm

    Awesome trip! I’m surprised you like beaches so much, don’t you have tons of beaches in Thailand? Hostel living, brings back memories when I taught English in Taiwan (should write a post one day). Cheap and fun to mingle with other travelers from other countries. Where’s the nearest teleportation device?

    • retirebyforty April 23, 2011, 11:12 pm

      I lived in Northern Thailand, no beaches. I like the warm weather. We have beaches here in Oregon too, but it is almost always freezing at the beach. Nobody is in the water.

  • Jennifer Barry April 25, 2011, 12:59 pm

    How beautiful! I’d heard the Cook Islands were a great stopover on the way to Australia/New Zealand. I’m glad to hear it’s still cheap. How crowded was it?

    • retirebyforty April 25, 2011, 9:45 pm

      It wasn’t crowded at all in 2006. Most tourists were from Europe or New Zealand/Australia. It’s a bit out of the way for us on North America, but I think it’s worth the trip.

  • Lindy Mint April 25, 2011, 1:40 pm

    That’s the good thing about visiting a beach, the biggest commodity is free! I am so dying for something tropical in my life these days.

    I backpacked around Europe for 10 weeks for $5000 in 2001, using several of the money saving methods you described.

    • retirebyforty April 25, 2011, 9:47 pm

      Backpacking is a lot of fun. I wonder if we can do it again. Maybe when we’re older, we’ll take a year off and do a slow backpack trip. 😀

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