Why go to Rarotonga?

For that matter, where is Rarotonga?

Map of Rarotonga in South Pacific (8-31-17)

Rarotonga is one of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific.  It isn’t the largest atoll in the group, but it’s “bigly touristified,” as our president might say, among the Cooks. And its encircling reef boasts terrific snorkeling and diving in warm lagoons: a paradise for those who like palm trees and coral, as we do.  Therefore, the little dot of land, just 34 kms around (21 miles), came to our notice as a possible Christmas vacation destination.

Only a “possible” vacation spot because my wife and I tend to be opportunists when it comes to vacation travel.  We look for the best fares and schedules among several competing alternative places to go.

During cold-weather months we prefer a warm, sunny environment, preferably one with a beach and good snorkeling (we stopped diving years ago—too much trouble).  Tropical places one or both of us have enjoyed include The Philippines, Thailand (both coasts), St. John, Grand Cayman, Barbados, Bali, Costa Rica, Belize, Isla Mujeres, The Bahamas, The Maldives, Fiji, Mauritius, Hawaii, Tahiti, and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia.  And more we can’t remember.  We really like palm trees, sand, and blue water.

That said, we never before even considered Rarotonga, partly because it had barely registered on our senses.  But then we noticed this in Joe Brancatelli’s August 17 weekly newsletter under “Steals & Deals”:

AIR NEW ZEALAND: Okay, Baby, How About $2,500+ Business Class to the South Pacific?
Sometimes it’s just flat-out fun to follow these extraordinary deals as airlines test and figure out how to fill an aircraft. As you surely know by now, Air New Zealand has regularly promoted exceptionally cheap business class fares to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands using its nonstop flight from Los Angeles. The eye-opening initial price was just $1,998 roundtrip. The deal has been regularly revived at prices fluctuating between $1,800 and $2,200. It’s now back at $2,554 roundtrip if you travel on select dates for the next year. The slightly higher price is justified by the fact that Air New Zealand is now operating the route with its latest lie-flat business class beds. But there’s still only one flight a week in each direction, departing late Saturday nights from LAX and late Friday nights from Rarotonga. Still, for a South Pacific trip at such a low price, those aren’t tough conditions. Tickets must be purchased by August 31. You even earn frequent flyer miles. (If you want to do the South Pacific in cheap comfort, Air New Zealand is selling seats in its excellent premium economy cabin for $1,614 roundtrip.) Information: the Air New Zealand FLIGHTS TO COOK ISLANDS page..

That led me to do basic research on Rarotonga, and it made the “possibles” cut for our 2017 Christmas trip, along with such places as The Seychelles, St. John (we love that island), Thailand, and Australia.  At the end of our comparative analysis of the various possibilities, the Air New Zealand flights looked like the best bang for the buck in Premium Economy, our desired booking class.  Trolling their website for the dates we wanted, excellent fares were available, even though it was over the busiest Christmas holiday period: less than $200 over the lowest $1614 fare in Joe’s Steals & Deals item.

However, several challenges made the Air New Zealand deal to Rarotonga (RAR airport) difficult.  Air NZ only flies to Rarotonga from USA once weekly, meaning we’d have to stay there either five and a half days or just over twelve days.  That odd reality is due to the 777 flights originating in Aukland, stopping at RAR late Friday night, and arriving LAX midday on Saturday.  Return flights to RAR and AUK leave LAX late Saturday nights and arrive RAR early Sunday mornings.  Thus, if we chose to return on the next once-weekly NZ flight, our stay in Rarotonga would be just five and a half days (Sunday morning until the following Friday night).

A second problem was that Air NZ doesn’t have through fare from Raleigh on a partner carrier, so we would be on our own to get to and from Los Angeles from RDU to connect to and from the NZ RAR flights.  These would be, of course, separate records and not connected, so the financial risk of a misconnect is ours alone if one or the other airline stubs its toe on the flights we booked.

We decided the risk was worth the savings, and I went back to the Air New Zealand online site and plugged in the dates we wanted.  While there, I also tested Business Class fares in both directions (LAX/RAR and RAR/LAX).  The business class fare was very little more than Premium Economy, and I grabbed it for one leg: the total fare a little over $1900 per person including tax for PE outbound and Biz Class returning.

Feeling pretty good about being able to travel in comfort and style on Air NZ, I dreaded looking again at RDU/LAX fares, which were close to $600 per person for flights on Delta. I booked schedules that gave us plenty of extra time at both ends to mitigate a possible misconnect.  Eastbound (coming home), the Air New Zealand flight isn’t schedule to land until 11:15 AM, so I opted to book on a nonstop LAX/RDU flight early the following morning and snagged a $100 Westin LAX room on Travelocity with a free airport shuttle and early check-in for the overnight stay in Los Angeles.

With the air trip planning done, it was time to get serious about finding a nice place on the beach in Rarotonga. In addition to having a lagoon with good snorkeling and providing nice surroundings, the property would need to let us check in early (since our NZ flight lands at 6:05 AM) and must be willing to let us stay late the following Friday (since our NZ flight doesn’t depart until 11:55 PM). I found plenty of beautiful resort places to choose from, but the half-board prices, including airport transfers, for beachfront accommodation (and not the best) tended be almost $4000 for five nights before tips and alcohol.  Ouch!

Fun map of RAROTONGA (8-31-17)

More research led to the realization that Rarotonga is really tiny and intimate. Maybe staying in a private home and going to restaurants would be fine, I thought. So my wife and I checked Airbnb and discovered a plethora of beachfront places, all at a very reasonable cost compared to the resorts (less than half).  We had rented a great place in Provence via www.Gite.com years before Airbnb existed, but we have never used Airbnb before.

Until now.  We found a place that we liked right on the beach and with a great snorkeling lagoon steps out the front door, and we were able to book it.  Happily, the property owner is allowing us to check in very early morning due to our Air New Zealand flight landing at 0605 and will let us stay late on Friday, too.

Rarotonga Airbnb beach house view (8-31-17)

The view of the lagoon from the Rarotonga beachfront house we have rented via Airbnb

I considered relying entirely on the island bus circulator that travels in both directions all day for transport—plus the bicycles provided by the Airbnb property—but decided we might need a car to get around more conveniently in addition to those modes.  Checking with Hertz and Avis, I struck out, but Kemwell was able to promise a Toyota Corolla for $72 a day all-in (everything on Rarotonga is expensive).  Odd thing is, Kemwell’s supplier is Avis, even though Avis told me, a Presidents’ Club member, that no cars were available over the Christmas period.

So it’s off to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands over Christmas, a new sandy, sunny, coconut palm-infested destination to learn about. All because of Air New Zealand offering such a great deal in Premium Economy and Business, and thanks to Joe Brancatelli for the alert.  I’ll report in January whether the place lives up to its hype, but danged if I can so far find many comments deriding the rock.  So I travel there in hope.

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