As you probably know we are traveling on a budget. Which means we try to avoid the expensive Western countries as much as possible. But we needed a break from the Asian life (and heat) for a moment which is why we made a little exception to that for New Zealand. So how do you travel New Zealand on a (modest) budget? In this post all about how we did it and maybe some tips on how you could do it even better.
Of course it isn’t possible to live and travel in New Zealand on the same budget as we did in India where we could more or less afford everything we wanted. New Zealand would anyway be more expensive and we had to make choices. Avoid the expensive accommodation, restaurants and hotels. In order to keep the costs low we decided that we would go camping, cook our own food and go for free activities like hiking and cycling. To have complete freedom and be able to go to the more remote places we also rented a campervan for a part of our trip. Also because we already wanted to do that for a long time and hey, what better place to travel around in your own mobile home than New Zealand.
Cycling from Christchurch to Queenstown
But we started with a cycling adventure. We had some of our cycling and camping gear sent over from home, bought a tent and rented bicycles for 9 days at Natural High in Christchurch. The plan was to cycle from Christchurch to Queenstown which is about 500km. This was kind of a misadventure. We love cycling but we underestimated the cycling in New Zealand. The lack of quiet back roads forced us to ride on the main roads where heavy traffic rushes by at a 100 km/h. Not really comfortable. Apart from that the roads are long and dull, even if you have some mountains on the (far) background. After two days of struggling on the road Carina threw her bike on the ground and probably looked so desperate that we were immediately picked up by a friendly Kiwi couple who gave us a lift to the next village. This is more or less where the cycling tour ended. We traveled the greater part of the trip to Queenstown on the bus.
Now cycling in New Zealand doesn’t necessarily have to be bad. Around Queenstown you find the Queenstown Trail, a network of cycling paths away from the main roads. As we got to Queenstown sooner than planned I now had some time to explore these trails and this was a better experience indeed. Although riding the gravel roads on a mountain bike would be preferable. Apparently there a quiet a few of these trails around New Zealand. They are free to use, you just have to rent a bike.
In Queenstown, known as the adventure capital of the world, it can be hard to resist the many tours and adventures that are offered from almost every other shop. Rafting or canyoning adventures, thrilling jet boat rides, wine tours, river kayak trips, zip lines and boat cruises scream at you from all directions. But the prices are insane. Luckily I did most of the adrenaline stuff already on my first trip to New Zealand in 2000. For a lot less as I can recall. Obviously prices have gone up steep. And since Carina has had more action than she could handle on our kayak trip in Nepal we both felt no urge to indulge ourselves into one of the adventures here. Besides that, knowing that you can do most of these activities in countries like Nepal or India for a fraction of the price helps too.
Tramping on the Kepler Track
After we had returned the bikes it was time for our next adventure: a 4-day hike on the Kepler Track, one of the 8 Great Walks in New Zealand. While hiking, or tramping as the Kiwi’s say, is free, the huts at 32 NZD per person per night are pricey. Bringing your tent and go camping is cheaper but we didn’t want to carry the extra kilos so we opted for the huts. Which you have to book well in advance by the way. The huts on the Milford Track, one of the other Great Walks and the most popular of all, gets fully booked more than a year in advance.
Hiking the Kepler Track was a really nice experience. It starts from Te Anau in the forest around the lake and then goes up until you get above the treeline at the top of the fjords where you find the first hut. The next day you walk on the windy mountain ridges high above the fjords for most of the day before you steeply descent into another fairytale forest and get to the second hut. On day three you follow the river down the valley. This day is entirely through the forest where, if you sit down for a moment, you will be eaten alive by sand flies, the nastiest creatures on earth. If you don’t want to walk all the way to Te Anau the last day is only a 2-hour walk to the car park where a shuttle bus can take you back to Te Anau for 10 NZD. So it’s an option to skip the third hut and continue to Te Anau on day three. I think you would even make it in time to catch the bus back to Queenstown.
On the road with Pinky
Back in Queenstown our campervan was waiting for us at Wicked Campers. And with the cool “Pinky and the Brain” graffiti it was love at first sight. The next 3 weeks we drove from Queenstown up the West Coast to Abel Tasman and Nelson. We then crossed the Cook Strait to Wellington where we continued our road trip on the North Island. We took the scenic road along the Whanganui River to Whakapapa from where we started walking the Tongariro Crossing, one of the absolute highlights of our trip (and, unless you take the shuttle bus, completely free too). After a couple of days in and around Taupo and Rotorua we ended our trip with a circumnavigation of the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula.
The freedom to drive wherever you want and enjoy the beautiful nature was exactly how we wanted to experience New Zealand. We stayed mostly on the basic DoC (Department of Conservation) campsites which only cost 6 to 10 NZD per person per night and are sometimes even free of charge. Apart from being cheap these campsites are mostly in the middle of nature, often next to a lake or river. We stayed at stunning locations where we had priceless sunsets and sunrises, right out of our van.
Instead of a shower we took a swim in the lake and only every few days we checked in on a serviced holiday park to take a decent shower, do our laundry and charge the batteries of our electronics. We found the best free camping option in Taupo where we stayed on a nice campsite called Reids Farm. It’s on the riverbanks of the Waikato river and only a few km’s out of town. For a hot shower the next morning we then drove back to the Superloo in the centre of Taupo. Which was conveniently located next to a car park with 2-hour free parking. Just enough to charge the laptop and use the free wifi at the library opposite. Taupo rules 🙂
Campervan: buy or rent?
Now renting a campervan isn’t exactly cheap. We paid about 90 NZD per day and then it costs another 20 NZD per 100 km on gas. Wicked Campers has the cheapest ones but they are basic and old (Pinky had more than 230.000 km). We haven’t had any problem with our Pinky but from other people we have heard other stories too. So another, maybe better, option would be to buy a campervan. We have seen campervans like ours (but not as cool of course) for sale for in between 2000 and 3000 NZD which is about what we paid for renting one for 3 weeks. If you have the time (you need to sell it again too) buy one! It would definitely be my choice the next time.
Free Wifi Hotspots
If you’re planning to buy a prepaid NZ sim card I can highly recommend Telecom NZ. Get the $19 Value Pack which gives you 500 Mb and 100 minutes (within NZ only). Valid for 1 month. Now this isn’t really spectacular but the real bonus is the free wifi hotspots they provide all over the country! The pink Telecom phone boots are wifi hotspots at the same time. You can connect 2 devices and use up to 1 Gb per day. And since they are often conveniently located in the centre of town, you can grab a coffee (or beer!) on a terrace at the same time.
So is New Zealand doable on a budget? I think it is. And I know it can be done cheaper when living on sandwiches with peanut butter and hitchhiking your way around but that’s not how we want to live. We have spent about 110 euro per day for 2 persons. That includes a couple of hostel rooms, the huts on the Kepler Track, the Milford Sound tour, renting bicycles and of course Pinky. But you will have to buy your food and drinks in the supermarket (all hostels and serviced campsites have good kitchens) and, more important, stay away from the tours and think twice whether it is really worth the money. I mean, paying 75 NZD for a 2-hour tour through Hobbiton is ridiculous in my opinion. Rafting and paragliding is much cheaper in Nepal. But the Waitomo Caves are something you won’t easily find anywhere else so that might be worth spending your money on. Also, before you book a tour, check for offers on www.bookme.co.nz. They sometimes offer Waitomo tours with a 50% discount for example. To find free or cheap campsites use the DoC website or Rankers.
(10 NZD = 6 Euro)