There's an abundance of accommodations in all price categories on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, and most outer islands also have one or two places to stay.
Accommodations accredited by the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation must meet certain standards and those that do can include a distinctive tick mark in their advertising. The accreditation system recognizes three categories: budget, self-catering, and hotels. Essentially you have a "hotel" if you have a restaurant (and a few other minor things). In fact, many of the "self-catering" places are nicer that most of the hotels, so don't go by price alone. The nonaccredited establishments aren't mentioned in the official tourist brochures, though the vast majority of them are also quite okay.
You'll save money and get closer to the people by staying at the smaller, locally owned "self-catering" motels and guesthouses. A "motel" in the Cooks is styled on the New Zealand type of motel, which means a fully equipped kitchen is built into each unit. Some of them are quite attractive, nothing like the dreary roadside motels of North America.
The motels generally offer rooms with private bath and hot water, but some guesthouses and hostels do not, although communal cooking facilities are usually available.
Accommodations priced over NZ$500 do not offer fair value for money and should be avoided.
The policy set by the Cook Islands Immigration Department is to have at least one night's accommodation booked before you arrive. Although some visitors wait to book their rooms upon arrival, they are taking the risk of being refused entry to the country if they happened to come on a day when everything was full. In practice this rarely happens, but to avoid the possibility, simply write the name of one of the places to stay listed on this site on your arrivals card. As you come out of the airport terminal, ask for the representative of that place. If the person is not there or the place happens to be full, ask for something similar.
The backpacker hostels always have empty dorm beds, but accommodation is sometimes tight in the medium-priced range. If you're sure you want to stay at a particular place, you can easily make a booking by emailing the hostel or hotel directly. Most of the backpacker places have a two-night minimum stay and you shouldn't promise to stay longer than that. Then if you end up with something you don't like, you can easily move elsewhere (this advice may not apply at the more upscale places). Hotel rates tend to fluctuate in the Cook Islands and when things are slow some places cut their prices to attract guests, so in some cases you could end up paying less than the quoted rates.
Camping is not allowed in the Cook Islands. There's a shortage of flights into the Cooks and airline seats are often at a premium. The government would rather see those seats being used by regular resort tourists who'll be spending more money and thereby paying more taxes. The main aim of campers is to save money, the exact opposite of what the government wants. And since the government makes the rules, camping has always been banned. The officials would also like to reduce the number of backpacker dormitories on Rarotonga, but the dorms are owned by local people and closing them now would have political repercussions.
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