A Backpacker’s Guide to New Zealand

Guess who’s baaaaack!! I spent the last fourteen months living overseas and traveling the world, and the experiences were so overwhelming and time consuming that I failed to prioritize this blog. But, I am excited to recommit and share more travel tips with you all in a regular and consistent fashion! And the good thing is that now I’ve traveled to even more places, meaning I now have even more advice to give. 😉 I know my last post mentioned a guide on traveling to the Amazon Jungle in Peru, which I will get to eventually, but for this post I want to talk about my most recent big trip as it is the most fresh on my mind!

So, you’ve seen the pictures of the staggering mountains, you’ve heard the rumors about the gorgeous weather, and you’ve read the descriptions of the friendly Māoris (the indigenous people of NZ) and Kiwis (name for New Zealanders), and you’ve decided your next trip is going to be New Zealand! Fantastic choice of destination, and I am going to make sure you know all you need to know in order to have the most incredible, once-in-a-lifetime trip to this breathtaking country. Let me just give you a little photo taster before I delve into some detailed tips!

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Roy’s Peak Lookout – Wanaka, South Island

Important Things to Know

Tip #1: Rent a car/campervan or do rideshares

If you want to see more than just a couple major cities (and the most beautiful sights are obviously not in the cities), you need to either rent a car or a campervan or do rideshares. Let me explain the rideshare option further, and also mention that hitchhiking is a somewhat common mode of travel for backpackers in NZ but I personally do not recommend that; it’s a very safe country in general, but I still would personally never do that. Anyway, there are multiple groups on Facebook titled something in the vain of “Rideshare New Zealand”, wherein people with rental cars can post ride offers and fellow travelers can agree to ride with them for the price of splitting gas costs. Here are the pros and cons for each of these aforementioned transportation options:

Car Rental Pros – freedom and flexibility to go wherever you want whenever you want, cheaper than a campervan, and privacy (I really enjoyed jamming my choice of music in my car, singing at the top of my lungs, haha).

Car Rental Cons – fairly expensive (I highly, highly recommend that you purchase the all-coverage car rental insurance, unless you have a really good car insurance plan back home that would cover you overseas. It’s expensive but worth it to get the insurance for the peace of mind as many of the roads in New Zealand are crazy.), added cost of buying gas (which is expensive there in comparison to the US), and having to find parking everywhere.

Campervan Pros – freedom and flexibility to go wherever you want whenever you want, cheaper accommodation costs, and privacy.

Campervan Cons – most expensive option, cramped for space, can be uncomfortable sleeping if it is very cold outside, added cost of buying gas, and having to pay fees at holiday parks to camp overnight (some places in NZ have free camping/overnight parking areas but it’s not common).

Rideshare Pros – cheapest option as you usually only split gas costs, chance to meet other travelers, and good for the environment.

Rideshare Cons – uncertainty (I arranged a rideshare with a fellow backpacker for a five-day trip and after the second day she decided last-minute to ditch me and another traveler in a small town and it ended up costing us each a few hundred dollars as a result, so it can be hard to trust that everyone you make plans with will stay true to their word) and safety (although the drivers are other tourists, they’re still strangers).

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The car my travel buddy Erika and I rented for our backpacking trip; we named him Froggy 🙂

Tip #2: Camp or stay in hostels

There aren’t many places where you can free camp in NZ, but even with having to pay fees it’s still the cheapest accommodation option. Erika (my Swedish friend with whom I traveled around the South Island) and I bought a tent, sleeping mats, sleeping bags, and blankets from the Warehouse (great store for reasonably-priced outdoor gear) for a cheap price; I highly recommend doing that if you travel to NZ during a warm time of year. We did have a few very cold nights on the South Island even though it was nearly summer but, overall, camping was fine and it was definitely a big money-saver for us. We also spent a number of nights in hostels because, after a few nights in a row of camping, sleeping in a bed is just about the best luxury you can get! For a 6 or 8-bed shared dorm in NZ, you can expect to spend between $20 to $38 NZD a night for one person. In major cities, it is closer to $20, but when you reach smaller destinations (where the best views are), the price can crawl all the way up to $30 or, in some places, as much as $40. That’s for a shared room…such is the reality of traveling around New Zealand. You will realize quickly that it is not a cheap country, especially after traveling around Southeast Asia, but believe me – the beauty and the memories you will make there will be well worth the money you are going to spend. But we did cook our own meals every night, which cut costs enormously. Hostels and holiday parks always have a kitchen you can use (but some holiday parks do not have pots, pans, etc., so be sure to call and ask in advance before booking if you don’t have your own) and Pak N’ Save is an awesome, cheap supermarket. We did all of our food shopping there!

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Our tent – it did the trick, even in hard rain

Tip #3: Look on BookMe.co.nz before you book any activities

BookMe.co.nz is this awesome website that offers special deals on different activities throughout NZ. You need to look on there at least a few days before your desired activity date as the best deals have to be booked in advance before the offers run out. Multiple times Erika and I missed out on a cheaper price for something just because we didn’t think to check BookMe ahead of time. In NZ, every dollar saved counts, so be sure to check this site regularly and get the best deals! They offer discounts on everything from Milford Sound cruises to tours of Māori villages (the latter of which I don’t recommend doing, by the way, as I’ve heard it’s a tourist trap). The quality of the activities are not compromised by the lower price; the companies simply offer cheaper deals to make more sales. It benefits both parties involved!

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One of the beaches we visited along the Abel Tasman Coastal Track after we were dropped off by a cruise that we booked at a discounted rate on BookMe

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Milford Sound – tons of affordable cruises around this beautiful area can be found on BookMe

Tip #4: Use First Table if you go out to eat

First Table is a website in NZ with which you can book a restaurant, even a really nice one, for two or four people and only pay half of the bill. You have to pay a $10 fee to make a booking, but if you go somewhere relatively nice, you will still save money by doing this option. Erika and I wanted to celebrate the end of our South Island backpacking trip together so we booked a fancy restaurant in Wellington and treated ourselves after spending weeks eating cheap pasta every single day. We got entrées that were the same price and only had to pay for one meal – it was awesome!

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Erika and I enjoying a meal out in Wellington after weeks of eating pasta leftovers

Tip #5: Drive carefully

I cannot reiterate this enough. The roads in NZ are unlike any other place I’ve ever driven, and they are especially more difficult if you aren’t used to driving on the left side of the road. Even the lanes on the highway can get super narrow, there can be gravel in the road, and in some places the roads are only dirt. Most of the main roads will require you to pass people or pull over for the car behind you to pass. There is no rush!!!! Allow extra time for every drive you do in NZ, and do not feel obligated to drive faster just because the person behind you is riding closely. There are plenty of places to quickly pull off to the side to let them pass, so do it. It’s not a race, and your life is worth more than reaching your destination a whopping half an hour or so sooner.

Tip #6: Be aware of the weather

Obviously summer (November through February) is the best time to travel to NZ weather wise (although it is also the busiest time so be prepared for crowds and limited parking that time of year); however, the weather is completely unpredictable in NZ, especially on the South Island as it’s closer to the South Pole. One minute it’ll be sunny and clear, the next minute it’ll be pouring down rain. Erika and I checked the forecast the first few days we were on the South Island and it said rain was meant to occur for the next ten days everywhere we were going. I was so disappointed and, despite myself, became a bit negative about it (sorry again for my complaining, Erika!). We decided to continue on with our itinerary, and it ended up only raining for one day. For the majority of our trip, the weather was absolutely perfect. After the first few days, we decided not to even look at the forecast anymore. Whatever it says, don’t believe it. Just be prepared for any kind of weather. Make sure you bring a poncho, umbrella, or rain jacket on every hike. If you camp, be sure to buy a waterproof tent. That way, you’ll be covered for the unexpected, no matter what the forecast says!

Places to Go, Sights to See!

There are SO many places to see and things to do in NZ and there is no way to make a comprehensive list. Unless you have at least a year to spend just traveling around there, you won’t be able to see everything. But I’m super happy with everything I did, so here is a list of my recommendations! I could post a picture along with every place, but I don’t want to spoil eeeeverything for you guys, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite photos. 🙂

North Island:

  • Auckland (likely you’ll fly in and out of here as it is the largest airport in the country – not much to see in the city but it’s fun to check out the popular Queen Street for nightlife and also go see the view from the top of Mount Eden).
  • Waiheke Island (wine tastings galore! Can do this as a day trip from Auckland).
  • Rangitoto Island (can also do as a day trip from Auckland).
  • Abbey Caves (go inside the cave and see glowworms, which can only be seen in NZ and Australia).
  • Whangarei Falls.
  • Bay of Islands (go on a dolphin tour).
  • Russell (take the ferry over and explore this cute town).
  • Cape Reinga (stop along the way at Ninety Mile Beach, the Te Paki Giant Sand Dunes, and the Puketi Kauri Forest to see NZ’s famous Kauri tree).
  • Waitangi Treaty Grounds (I implore you to learn about the lovely Māoris while in NZ; this museum is fascinating and full of historical information).
  • Wellington (my favorite major city in NZ, great vibes here – check out the view from the top of Mount Victoria and spend some time shopping and having drinks on Cuba Street).
  • Tongariro Alpine Crossing (this was my FAVORITE thing I did in NZ! If you’re at all into hiking and in at least decent shape, you absolutely have to do this hike. It’s around 12 miles/19 kilometers long, and the views are some of the best I’ve seen in my entire life. And, if you’re a Lord of the Rings Fan, it’s one of the filming spots. If you can only do one thing on the North Island, DO THIS!).
  • Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland (different colored geothermal lakes and sights. Be sure to get there before 10:15 AM because that’s when the geothermal geyser erupts once daily).
  • Taupo (hike to the summit of Mount Tauhara and take a swim in Lake Taupo).
  • Rotorua (go hiking in the stunning Redwood Tree Forest and then soak your sore muscles at Kerosene Creek – a natural hot spring).
  • Hobbiton (whether you’re a LOTR fan or not, this cute little place is worth a visit).
  • Tauranga (hike to the summit of Mount Maunganui and have a beach day).
  • Coromandel (hike to Cathedral Cove, dig your own hot pool at Hot Water Beach, and hike to the Pinnacles).

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Feelin’ fancy at Tantalus Winery on Waiheke Island

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Traditional Māori greeting, Waitangi Treaty Grounds

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Tongariro Alpine Crossing – unforgettable hike

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Hobbiton

South Island:

  • Abel Tasman National Park (take a cruise and get dropped off somewhere on the Abel Tasman Coastal Track and hike to different beaches, or do the entire multi-day Abel Tasman Coastal Track hike. Head up further north and visit Wharariki Beach and Cape Farewell).
  • Kaiteriteri (part of Abel Tasman, great place for a beach day if it’s hot outside).
  • Christchurch (check out the Botanical Gardens and the Canterbury Museum).
  • Lake Tekapo (also snap a pic at the historic Church of the Good Shepherd while you’re in the area and soak at Tekapo Springs).
  • Mount Cook.
  • Blenheim (only stop here if you’re really into wine tastings).
  • Arthur’s Pass National Park (hike to the summit of Mount Bealey or Avalanche Peak as well as to Devil’s Punchbowl Waterfall).
  • Milford Sound (take a cruise of this incredible natural beauty and also see some seals).
  • Doubtful Sound (arguably as beautiful as Milford, if not more, and less touristy – also good for possible whale sighting).
  • Fiordland National Park (many hikes to choose from, my favorite was Lake Marian – absolutely gorgeous. Easiest to stay in the town of Te Anau while visiting this national park).
  • Fox Glacier and Franz Josef (hike to see views of these beautiful glaciers).
  • Picton (this is where you can take the ferry to the North Island. Don’t take the ferry with a car – it’s way more expensive that way).
  • Nelson (fun nightlife spot for backpackers – go on a weekend).
  • Kaikoura (adorable town with lots of seal watching).
  • Dunedin (visit Sandfly Bay and see NZ sea lions lounging on the beach, Tunnel Beach, Dunedin railway station, and walk up Baldwin Street – the steepest street in the world).
  • Queenstown (notorious for adrenaline activities and debaucherous nightlife – bungy jump, skydive, eat at the famous Fergburger, party any night of the week, ride on the cable car, and hike the Ben Lomond trail for beautiful views).
  • Akaroa (swim in the ocean with wild dolphins).
  • Nugget Point (popular sunrise spot, you can also go to a spot down the street during the sunset and try to spot some yellow-eyed penguins on the beach).
  • Wanaka (hike to the summit of Roy’s Peak and also go for a swim in one of the lakes).
  • Castle Hill (explore the limestone boulders).

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Lake Marian, Fiordland National Park

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The world’s biggest swing – the Nevis Swing

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Franz Josef Glacier

Go – You Won’t Regret It!

New Zealand is becoming one of the top destinations in the world, and once you see it you’ll quickly see there’s no surprise as to why. Out of the 44 countries I’ve visited so far, NZ is in my top five favorites. If you save up a bit and you’re smart with your spending, you can easily afford a trip to this unforgettable paradise. If you have any questions about planning a trip to NZ, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I will happily get back to you!

Happy adventuring!

 

 

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