Remember my last year’s amazing trip to the French Polynesia – Moorea and Bora Bora? We fell in love with the South Pacific ever since and I must warn you once you have your foot set into the South Pacific, you’ll be no longer interested in Caribbean islands! When you see postcard perfect photos of Caribbean Islands, instead of “wow, it’s beautiful I want to go there” reaction, you’ll be more like “it’s nice but it’s not as pretty as French Polynesia or xxxxx”! That’s what happened to me, I called it the After South Pacific Syndrome 🙁 When I was planning our Christmas 2015 – New Year trip, it was so hard to find a tropical place that can match the beauty of French Polynesia! I even googled “world’s most beautiful lagoons” and “most beautiful South Pacific Islands” seriously I did! And I found an island called Aitutaki in the Cook Islands…..Cook Islands? Where in the world is Cook Islands? My research and logistic instinct totally got me started.
Cook Islands’ capital is Rarotonga where its only international airport located and only limited of flights get there: Air New Zealand has nonstop flight out of LAX and Auckland, Jetstar has nonstop out of Auckland, and lastly Air Tahiti (not to confuse with Air Tahiti Nui) once a week flight out of Tahiti. I could use my United miles on Air New Zealand to get there but I wanted to save my United miles for Europe (free stopover and open jaw allowed so perfect for Europe where I combine multiple countries and also no outrageous fuel surcharge like American Airlines does). I have a lot of AA miles from our original plan of using it to get to our first trip to Tahiti but the plan failed when AA suddenly ended its free stopover! I don’t want to hold on to a lot of AA miles because they could get devalue in no time (yes, one coming up this March so I’ll need to use it for another trip soon)! How can I use my AA miles to get to Cook Islands? The answer is Tahiti! I can use AA miles on Air Tahiti Nui that flies out of LAX to Tahiti (PPT). Air Tahiti is not part of oneworld partners so its award inventory does not show up on AA’s website; my only way to check and book is by phone. I called AA back in April and the agent was very helpful and surprisingly there were award seats available for LAX to PPT on Christmas Eve on Air Tahiti Nui! However, there were no saver awards available from Boston to LAX (not surprised since for Christmas Eve travel)! I ended up paying the BOS to LAX segment with cash (using my AA credit card of course to earn double miles on purchase). The LAX to PPT cost 37,500 miles one way per person. I had enough for 3 round trip tickets so I invited my brother to come along!
The flight from Tahiti to Rarotonga one way wasn’t too bad for $277 and then the round trip from Rarotonga to Aitutaki was quite expensive at $320 for a 50 minutes flight. It’s the only way to get to Aitutaki, monopoly like Air Tahiti to its islands! The flight from Rarotonga one way to Auckland was $298, remember we were traveling on the peak holiday season so everything got more expensive than regular time but worth it to spent the holidays in paradise (and the only way I could possibly travel for a long time with limited vacation days is to combine with holiday days).
The flight back home was an adventure, the only available routing at that time was Auckland -> Honolulu -> Los Angeles -> Seattle -> Boston and required a night over in LAX! I grabbed whatever I could at that point and keep searching for better routing since AA lets you rebook without change fee as long as the Origin and Destination remain the same on award tickets (another plus of using miles). We ended up with slightly better with no overnight required Auckland -> Honolulu -> Los Angeles -> Philadelphia -> Boston, we got home on Sunday Jan 17th at 8:30 am so plenty of time to rest before going back to work the next day! This one way back cost the same 37,500 miles per person so round trip to the South Pacific is 75,000 miles (After March, it’ll be 80,000 miles so book soon)!
Tahiti, French Polynesia: Intercontinental Tahiti
It worked out nicely that Christmas Eve was on Thursday and Air Tahiti weekly flight to Rarotonga is Saturdays so we get to spent Christmas in Tahiti! Not to mention my husband and I have the Intercontinental Credit Card that gives 1 free night certificate each on our credit card anniversary with payment of the annual fee of $49 (totally worth it). We redeemed our certificates for a 2 night stay at the Intercontinental Tahiti! Award availability at the Intercontinental Tahiti is generally quite good as it’s not as popular as Bora Bora; people tend to stay in Tahiti 1 or 2 nights as transit point to other islands. Best thing was since we are IHG member, we received a welcome drink upon arrival and a free upgrade to an ocean view room!!!
Aitutaki, Cook Islands: Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa
Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa is the only hotel in Cook Islands with “overwater bungalows”, which are not quite like the ones in French Polynesia, those are not completely over the water. We thought it didn’t worth to splurge for an overwater bungalow! I choose this hotel because it’s on its own private island with the view of the world’s 2nd most beautiful lagoon instead of facing the ocean. Regular priced room started at $400+ per night, not cheap! I used Orbitz when it was on sale and also with the 15% coupon code and Orbucks afterward got to $300 per night for 3 of us. Wifi was outrageously expensive as like in the rest of the Cook Islands!
Rarotonga, Cook Islands: Muri Beach Club
Another “luxury” hotel set on the famous Muri Beach in Rarotonga, I was checking for hotels daily and in a week, I saw a 24 hour flash sales from Expedia and Muri Beach Club was one of the hotels on sale at 40% off! I snapped it right away after 40% off it was around $270 per night included the extra person fee and free breakfast. Wifi was outrageously expensive in the Cook Islands but they provide a laptop in the lobby for free unlimited web access so it was nice of them to do that! You had no clue how much we missed having internet for the one week in the Cook Islands LOL!
New Zealand hotel booking tips: if you are traveling between Christmas to January (and maybe February depending on when is Chinese New Year), you need to secure your accommodation ASAP! Places can really book out months ahead! You can book refundable room first and then keep looking for better deals, that was what I did!
Auckland, New Zealand: Celestion Waldorf Apartment Hotel
There are a lot of choices in Auckland and relatively affordable! I had a last minute mind change and booked Celestion Waldorf Apartment Hotel with Rocketmiles because it was on a promotion for first time booking for extra 3,000 AA miles plus 1,000 miles per night! It cost $130 per night for a TWO bedrooms apartment right in the heart of Auckland and we stayed for two nights which I earned 5,000 AA miles simple as that! One negative was that wifi was not free!
Rotorua, New Zealand: Holiday Inn Rotorua
We have 3 people traveling and most of the hotels in New Zealand will charge additional for the 3rd person staying, however, when booking with points, no extra points will be charged! At only 10,000 IHG points per night this was a great deal compared to paying almost $200 USD per night (it was peak travel season from Christmas to January in New Zealand plus 3rd person fee). After I booked the room, IHG announced category changes which included this Holiday Inn Rotorua, it is now at 20,000 points per night! Also being a IHG member gets free wifi but “free” was 1 GB per day.
Auckland Airport: Heartland Airport Hotel
Had to catch an early flight to Queenstown so on the way back to Auckland from Rotorua, we stayed at the Heartland Airport Hotel. There was an Orbitz and Mastercard promotion going on $50 off $100+ hotel and with my Orbucks, I got the one night stay at $20. We were so tired that didn’t bother to take photos of the room, it was a basic airport hotel (I would say motel), beds weren’t comfortable at all, but the bathroom was surprisingly spacious!
Lake Tekapo: Lake Tekapo Holiday Homes
When I saw photos of its view, I booked the holiday home right away in Booking.com although it was quite expensive at $407 for 2 nights but we got the whole house with 3 bedrooms! The view of Lake Tekapo from our two night home was amazing! And Wifi was fast, free, and unlimited (a term that we missed so much)!
Dunedin: St Clair Beach Resort
First, I booked a motel for around $150 per night but near the city center but I didn’t stop researching from there. Months later, I saw a sale on Orbitz and with extra 15% coupon code and my Orbucks, I got 2 nights for $168! It’s an upscale property right at the St Clair Beach. Wifi was also fast, free, and unlimited!
Te Anau for day trip to Milford Sound: Lakeside Motel
Te Anau is the closest town to Milford Sound with few choices of accommodation and quickly sell out since Milford Sound is like the most popular destination on the South Island! I booked the Lakeside Motel for $107 for a night and I kept looking…no better luck and places sold out eventually! The motel was okay for an overnight stay and “free” Wifi was 1 GB and slower than the dial-up days sigh!
Lake Wanaka: The Moorings Motel and Apartments
I actually changed my plan quite last minute when I saw photos of the lone tree at Lake Wanaka. It was an hour drive from Queenstown so I decided to cut a day from Te Anau and drive all the way back to Lake Wanaka, totally glad I made the change. I was able to find The Moorings Motel and Apartments at $125 for a night. The motel was much better than the Lakeside Motel in Te Anau and we got lake view too! The “free” wifi was again 1 GB limit but the speed was fast enough to stream videos 🙂
Queenstown: Crowne Plaza Queenstown
I booked 3 nights at the Crowne Plaza Queenstown with IHG points again before it moved up 2 full categories, it was 30,000 points per night and now 40,000 points! Paying in cash would be more than $300 per night with the 3rd person extra fee so it was a better deal to use points! Now you probably are thinking…where did I get those 100,000 points (10,000 points for one night at Rotorua), I bought them! Once a year, there’s a travel sale sponsored by US Travel Association called “Daily Getaways” which release a deal each day of the week for 4-5 weeks which includes hotel packages, hotel points deal, car rental package deal etc. One of the deal was a 100,000 IHG points package for only $565 so I brought them (those packages were limited quantity so first come first served). That means I paid $565 for 3 nights in Queenstown and 1 night in Rotorua which would otherwise cost me more than $1,100, a 50% savings not bad! Wifi is free for IHG member and it was fast and unlimited! We went crazy downloading dramas to prepared for our long flight home! And as IHG member, I got a free upgrade to a high floor partial lake view room too, sweet!
Just like Iceland, traveling around New Zealand especially to those lakes in the South Island will require a car! First, we did a 2 days 1 night trip to Rotorua to see its famous geothermal valley, I booked a car in advanced with Europcar to pick up at Auckland city center and drop off at the airport. The car rental was supposed to be $102 but I forgot to bring my husband’s credit card….urg I wasn’t aware that you can’t rent a car without a credit card under your name? I have been traveling around the world and in the past rentals, I only need to provide a credit card which is under my name and we never had an issue. We even brought his international driver’s license too! It was a panic and I didn’t bring my driver’s license with me, I never drive so why bring it? Also the lady said she doesn’t have one on file…weird we had rented with Europcar before! Luckily my brother carried both his driver’s license and a credit card! But he’s under the age of 25 so they charged extra $25 NZD per day plus $30 NZD for adding a second driver gosh!!! At that moment, we had no choice but let them rob us 🙁 The trip to Rotorua with the extra unexpected charges were worth it, we are on vacation so we didn’t let that to ruin our mood!
I was so afraid to even think about our car rental at the South Island where we’ll be renting for a week from Apex Car Rentals. Guess what, they didn’t require that the driver must present his/her own credit card as long as there’s a credit card! I asked them if it’s okay to use my credit card and the guy said sure! I just need to sign on the separate line: credit card owner, simple as that! The total for one week car rental was only $420 with full insurance! I usually bring my hubby’s United MileagePlus credit card for car rental because it offers primary car rental coverage but I didn’t this time because New Zealand is one of those few countries where it’s excluded. So I didn’t see a need to bring it and also I purchase full insurance with the car rental company since it’s quite cheap for a peace of mind (not sure if I did on that 2 days rental with Europcar but for sure I did with Apex)!
I was surprised that Cook Islands, being an island in the middle of the Pacific, is quite affordable in terms of meal in restaurants, totally not sticker shock like in French Polynesia! We even had dinners in our “5 stars” Aitutaki Lagoon Resort restaurant and on average we spent $160 NZD for a delicious dinner with mocktail drinks (I don’t drink alcohol) for 3 of us, that’s like $100 USD for 3 people dinner! I remembered when we were in Bora Bora, an entree was like at least $40 USD! Meals were even less expensive in New Zealand, we didn’t go to any high end restaurants, just average restaurant but with very good food and the most expensive meal we had was only $107 NZD for 3 of us! Another plus was the price on the menu is the total price, no hidden taxes, cover fee, or the US minimum 15% tips!
I read that many hotels and restaurants in the Cook Islands and some in New Zealand charge extra % when paying with credit card; usually low like 1 or 2% except Aitutaki Lagoon Resort with 4%! We don’t want the hassle to locate a working ATM machine in Cook Islands especial after we landed, we headed right to Aitutaki and arrived at night. I exchanged $1500 NZD at home with Bank of America for $1026.75, that’s at exchange rate of 1.46 USD to NZD compared to the market rate 1.50 that day in other words I am paying 2.6% fee or $26.75 USD more. It wasn’t much compared to hunt for an ATM and I was planning to pay with cash at places where they charge more than 2% credit card fee anyways! It worked out well, I paid the tours in cash (they accept cash only) and the meals at Aitutaki Lagoon Resort. $1500 NZD was definitely enough for our whole trip where we need to pay or make sense to pay in cash. All restaurants we had dined in at the Cook Islands and New Zealand accepts credit card! I paid with my Barclay Aviator credit card with a smart chip embedded with no foreign exchange fee and notified the credit card company of our travel plan, no issue at all and earned AA miles…..closer to another free flight to our next destination!
Okay, I am very serious here, pack strong sunscreen with at least SPF 50 or higher and lots of them! I was aware that there’s an ozone hole in New Zealand so UV ray from the sun can burn you fast but I didn’t know it affects Cook Islands too! We went to French Polynesia last year and no burns with re-applying sunscreen every few hours. Guess what, on our first day in Aitutaki, it was partly cloudy too, we applied sunscreen before going in the water but the amazing sandbar and lagoon totally got us lost track of time. We were taking nonstop photos for like less than 2 hours and boy we got burned so bad! I never got burned so bad in my life that my skin was peeling for the next two weeks, literally every inch of my skin that were exposed to the sun peeled like a monster! Both my brother and I looked so nasty like we have skin disease or something that we tried to cover up with long sleeves…all those shorts, tank tops, and dresses not much chance to wear them 🙁
Clothing….don’t be fooled by it’s summer in New Zealand! New Zealand weather changes more often than New England weather! Funny how I asked my hubby’s old classmate who reside in Auckland and she said no worries, just pack summer clothes LOL! I guess for them it’s quite warm when it gets up to upper 60’s or 70’s! It ended up most of the days were quite chilly in the 60s that I wished I packed more long sleeves and layers! Especially the South Island where it was very windy! And yea stargazing…..I wore everything I could and even took my brother’s hoodie!
Tissue paper…I found it very odd that most of the motels/hotels in New Zealand do not provide tissue paper (facial tissue paper not toilet paper)! The only hotel where it provide was at Crowne Plaza Queenstown, probably because it’s an international chain hotel! I pulled out a stack from the Intercontinental Tahiti hotel when we stayed there, I thought Cook Islands might not have them since they are lesser develop and I usually make a mess when eating snacks so those will come in handy. I was smart to do that haha but quite surprised that I couldn’t find tissue paper in New Zealand hotel rooms!
Electric outlet adapter, Cook Islands uses the same power plug as New Zealand and Australia, very odd looking with three angled pin plugs. Hubby bought a pack of 3 and it was just enough…didn’t realized how many electronic devices we carry these days: 1 phone each, 1 tablet/laptop each, 2 cameras yikes!
Printed confirmation of flights and accommodation! We were asked for the outbound flight confirmation by Air Tahiti Nui in order to get our boarding passes as well as when entering French Polynesia and Cook Islands at immigration/passport control! Be sure to print out your confirmations and have them with you!
Hum….did I miss anything? If so, feel free to comment below and I’ll try to answer your questions as soon as I get to them 🙂 Stay tuned for trip reports and photos!