I traveled New Zealand for a year in a van while on a working holiday visa. There are lots of things it would have been great to know in advance! Here are my top twelve tips for extended budget travel in New Zealand:
Ha ha. Kidding. Well, kind of. New Zealand is expensive and there are lots of vehement ousting programs and misdirected frustrations toward those trying to live cheaply in the country. You want to see me really get going on this subject?
2. DON’T WORK
Just because you get the working holiday visa doesn’t mean you actually have to work. (I made the mistake for you! Do not repeat!) You’re much better off getting a job in Australia and then spending the loads of cash you made in Oz traveling around New Zealand. If you must work, know that every fruit picker I met hated it, swore it wasn’t worth the measly pay, and wouldn’t recommend it even to their worst enemy. If you’re dead-set on working, know that you have to apply for and receive an Inland Revenue Department (IRD) Number before anyone will hire you. Make arrangements to do this immediately upon arrival, as you have to present the application in person at a post office with your qualifying documents and copies to get the process rolling.
3. SPEND AT LEAST THREE MONTHS
It kills me when people say they have less than a month to spend in this country. If you’re going to spend all the money to get here, please make it worth it. I go deeper into my thoughts on this here .
4. KNOW WHERE TO SHOP
Pak’n’Save, Countdown, and New World are the major supermarkets, listed from cheapest to most expensive. Ironically Pak’n’Save and New World are owned by the same company! Mitre 10 is the most prolific hardware/household store that’s also good for buying campstove fuel and often has deals on motor oil. The Warehouse has a variety of cheap goods. But it’s like a sad version of Wal*Mart/Tesco. Op Shops” (Op is short for ‘Opportunity’) are second-hand stores found in nearly every town. There are heaps in cities.
5. GET CHEAP FERRY TICKETS
Most people traveling New Zealand need to cross from the North to South island.
As a side gig, Backpackers Car Market sells the hands-down cheapest tickets, since they buy them in bulk.( The company permanently closed in 2021, but perhaps they’ve been replaced by another amalgamator?) We saved $40 off the cheapest price we could find elsewhere, and it was $100 cheaper than common companies. It cost us $220 for ourselves and a van. Change the ticket as many times as you want for free. I’m not sure if you have to buy them in person. If so, grab your ticket when you pass through Auckland or Christchurch. If you’re not traveling by vehicle, consider a JetStar flight between islands. Sometimes they go for as cheap as $50 – that’s $20 off the average passenger ticket for the ferry.
6. BE INTERET SAVVY
New Zealand is the backwoods for telecommunications! Free wireless is about as common as polar bears in Mexico. You should know about the government initiative to remedy this: the Aotearoa People’s Network Kaharoa. (APNK or “People’s Network”) The “partner” link on their website lists every library in New Zealand that has unlimited free wireless. No computer? You can get 30 minutes per day on a library computers. If you have a laptop, you can also buy a t-stick with SIM card from Telecom or Vodafone. For ten cents a megabyte, you can access the world wide web (I use about 3MB checking email). This is particularly handy when you just need a few minutes worth of internet or it’s after hours. It’s also cheaper than buying into all the internet gimmicks that are at holiday parks and backpackers. And when you’re in the middle-of-nowhere or driving down the road, if there’s coverage, you have internet!
Update 3/2016: A Skinny Mobile SIM card is currently the cheapest plan for short-term travelers in NZ. If you plan to stay for a working holiday, Spark Mobile might be a better option. They have free Wi-Fi hotspots in most major towns.
7. CAMP FOR FREE (LEGALLY!)
The New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC for short, pronounced just like the eponymous member of the Seven Dwarfs) produces a free publication for the North and South Island listing all DOC managed campsites. A few are free, many are $6 each. If you arrive in the place you want to stay before 5 p.m. it’s worth checking with the local I-Site as some councils set aside land for free or cheap camping often much closer to town than DOC sites.
Update 3/2016: The WikiCamps and CamperMate apps will be lifesavers and show you heaps of free campsites along your way. If you plan to stay for a working holiday, Spark Mobile might be a better option. They have free Wi-Fi hotspots in most major towns.
8. STAY OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
The “Great Walks” are mostly just money sucking tourist traps. An example: the Milford Track will cost you $210 before you even set foot on the trailhead in the off-season. Then you’ll pay up to $135 for the privlege of sleeping three nights on a camp bunk surrounded by 40 other hikers and their wet, sweaty, stinky gear. Yes, the Great Walks are absolutely gorgeous. But, a metaphor, if I may: if you like the Mona Lisa or Starry Night, you’ll agree Davinci and Van Gogh have other equally excellent works. The same goes for all the areas surrounding the Great Walk tracks, and they are far less traveled. If you must say that your feet have touched this holy ground, consider an in-and-back day excursion on either end of the Great Walk you’re lusting after.
9. KEEP CLEAN
Just because you’re sleeping on the cheap doesn’t mean you have to smell like a dumpster. Public swimming pools charge $2 to $5 for entry, and often times they’ll let you pay less for just a shower. Wellington has a free, clean, under-patronized shower downtown a few blocks from the I-Site. Invercargill has a $1 shower: the I-Site can direct you. Nelson has coin-op public showers. All of these are very, very clean.
10. GET FRIENDLY WITH DOC
The Department of Conservation manages most of the places you’ll want to go to experience one of the biggest New Zealand draw cards: the wilderness. (Little known fact: you can download free topo maps here, via Land Information New Zealand.) DOC offices are sometimes hard to come by or in unexpected places, so do your homework. Many New-Zealand-made road atlases will have a listing of locations. Don’t be surprised if representatives treat you like a moron, even if you have extensive outdoor experience. Part of this is Kiwi pride, and part of this is a history of too many overconfident, inexperienced tourists who set out under-prepared – guiding themselves on a self-tour of the famous New Zealand wilderness only to end up lost or dead.
11. BUY SOME WHEELS
Here’s how much it cost us to live in a van in New Zealand in 2011.
If you’re considering renting or buying — buy! An over-winter, bare-bones, three-month rental runs $3,000+. And you get zero of that money back. We bought our campervan in the $4,000 range and sold it back in that range. Overall, it probably cost about $2,000 factoring in repairs, registration, warrant of fitness, oil changes, etc. Insurance is cheap: we paid $250 for a year. Buying in the South and selling in the North is the way to go. We did. Sellers in the South told us they’d spent weeks trying to find a buyer. We sold our Christchurch-purchased van in Auckland in one day using gumtree.co.nz.
Update 2015: I continue to hear horror stories about the Auckland Backpackers Car Market. Buyer beware! Buy private. It’s a bit more of a hassle, but the convenient middle man will cost you in the long run.
If you do rent, please don’t patronize Wicked, Jucy, Escape or any of the other companies with loud, annoying paint jobs. It’s bad karma. And you’ll attract the attention of locals who hate van travelers. If you’re going to sleep for free in a community and risk prosecution, be respectful and get your butt out of bed early. No one wants to see strangers crawling out of a van as they’re taking their kids to school.
Update 2016: New Zealand is finally trying to do something about the horrible Wicked Campervan rentals. They may save you heaps of money, but you’ll draw the wrath of locals!
12. SAVE MONEY ON CAR STUFF — FUEL AND WOF
Petrol is expensive. A non-profit in NZ called the Skegg’s Foundation raises money by buying huge lots of fuel from Mobil and selling it to their members for 4 ¢ to 20 ¢ cheaper per liter. You can get a Mobil card via Skegg’s to avail of this discount. It’s done the old fashioned way, through the mail. If you don’t have the time to hang out at a mailbox for a few weeks, at least get the grocery-affiliated discount. Do your food shopping for a few days at a time. Spending enough (usually $40 or more) at most grocery stores will earn you a fuel voucher — usually 4 ¢ off, sometimes at specific stations, sometimes anywhere.
When your Warrant of Fitness comes due (every six months), don’t go to VTNZ! Vehicle Testing New Zealand does WOFs only, not repairs. Theoretically, it’s better to go to them because they don’t have an incentive to “find” things that “need repaired to pass WOF” the way a sneaky mechanic might. Really, though, these guys are huge sticklers and will nab you for things many mechanics wouldn’t. Check around with locals, especially students if there is a Uni handy. They’ll be able to tell you which mechanics help their dilapidated cars pass WOF without draining their already tiny bank accounts. And for heaven’s sake — keep your WOF current. Otherwise you may return to your parked vehicle to see that an officer of the law has happened by, noticed your out-of-date WOF, and left you a nasty present (ticket) on your windshield.
13. BE RESPECTFUL
If you’re ready to go and try and live on a budget in New Zealand, facing “you’re not welcome” (No Camping) signs everywhere you go, good for you. Please, please, please don’t be one of the tourists alleged to be dumping rubbish anywhere but a trash can, leaving toilet paper or worse anywhere but a toilet, hanging clotheslines up in public parks, or parking up near people’s homes and sleeping in until noon. You’ll earn enough bad karma to be reincarnated as a cockroach for your next 400 lives.
You might also be interested in:
How Much it Costs to Live in a Van (in New Zealand)
Hippie Logistics (Van Life)
Hippie Logistics II (A New Take on Van Life)
Taupo Gets A Blue Ribbon (Info on great free camping and a rant against scapegoating Kiwis)
Goodbye, Aotearoa (Parting Commentary on New Zealand)
If you want to read through the whole trip, start here.