New Zealand on a shoestring: A ‘How to’ guide

New Zealand has a reputation for being an expensive destination. Sure, it’s not the cheapest place in the world, but even on my low-budget round-the-world odyssey I managed 2 weeks without massive financial pain. In this post I’ll go through some of the factors and tips I relied on, which might help you do the same. NZ is my most recent example, but some of the pointers below are universal and will save you a packet in the future, wherever your wheels touch down.

  •  Flights

NZ is never going to be a particularly cheap place to fly from, well, anywhere, because it’s at the end of the world from the UK, and a bloody long way from virtually everywhere else. 

One top tip however is to be savvy about where your airline’s hub is. Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are big players in Asia, and you can generally fit in a FREE stopover in either Singapore or Hong Kong on your way to/from Aus and NZ, both to break up the flight and as fantastic short-stop destinations in their own rights. Seriously, trust me on this. Book 4 nights in either and you’ll have a blast. See my post on Hong Kong for a taste of what you can get up to in a few days.

I’m a time-served international traveller and I always assemble my trips using screenscraper apps. The only way to find the best deal is to devote time to trying different combinations and playing with the departure/arrival airports- You’d be surprised at the amount of variables which can drastically alter the cost. For example, when booking open-jaw flights into Vietnam there can be a difference of several hundred pounds depending on whether you fly into/out of Hanoi or Saigon.

In my experience, places like Flight Centre are of sod all use, I tried twice going into their branches with specific needs however their skills do not extend beyond punching in an origin and a destination to the computer, and then spamming you with emails full of useless offers. There’s a definite gap in the market for an operator who knows the sweet routings and stopover combinations.

By far my favourite app is Skyscanner, which now has a really user-friendly interface whereby you can bring up a month of departures to find the best price, colour-coded between red yellow and green to determine how cheap it is, relative to the rolling average fare. If you’re flexible on dates, you’re quids-in.

Skyscanner has other powerful functions which really help to plan the perfect (and most cost-effective) trip. My golden rule of travel planning is to keep it simple and open minded. Don’t tie yourself to exact dates or places. See what’s around. With Skyscanner, you can also leave the date range entirely open, or to within a month range. Flexibility is absolutely key to getting good deals and working out a fantastic itinerary.

There is a further additional caveat. If you think you’re likely to be flying on domestic flights within your destination country, try plugging in the domestic place as your departure/arrival airport. If I’d have done this with my flight the Christchurch-Auckland leg would only have been another £30. This has the added advantage that, if your domestic flight is delayed, if you’re on the same airline you will be covered for missing the international leg. If you’ve booked with, say, Jetstar and failed to turn up at your international additional leg then you’d be at the mercy of goodwill from your international carrier.

Lastly, in my esteemed opinion- And TRUST ME on this, because I’m Rain Man when it comes to booking things, trying every option, deleting cookies then trying again, checking the prices- I do it all- Don’t bother with Quidco or reward schemes.

I say this, because I’ve tried various bookings with and without Quidco links, and there definitely are subtle price differences which make it not worthwhile to get the ‘reward’ element. Sometimes with particularly pernicious cookies, it works out much pricier. 

  • Transport
When it comes to New Zealand:
 
Hire a car.
Hire a car.
 
Oh, and “hire a car”. Seriously, for UK readers, they drive on the left and the standard of driving is the most orderly that I’ve experienced in over 20,000 miles of travel from the UK. Some of this is due to the relative strength of the UK£ over the NZ$, however hiring a car is still CHEAP AS CHIPS in New Zealand. £15 a day, or less than NZ$40, gets you into a reasonable family saloon. Fuel is significantly cheaper than in the UK, and the distances you’re generally travelling are small. DO IT!
 
I will concede that there are a few scenic rail journeys worth doing, notably the TranzAlpine Christchurch-Greymouth line, however on balance having your own car is the best thing you can do. The level of personal freedom and potential spontaneity that this brings cannot be underestimated.
 
I had the immense fortune to be gifted a van for the week I was in South Island. However, even if you’re not blessed with generous NZ friends-of-friends, there are ways around it. Campervan rental in NZ is undoubtedly expensive, with prices that I found (Source: Jucy Rentals) starting from NZ$140 a day. Prices range much higher than this for the motorhomes which clog the roads. But…
 
…If you’re staying for more than 3-4 weeks, why not buy a van? I met people who’d paid less than NZ$2000 for an unconverted Toyota Hiace van. You could spend thousands more on a proper campervan, or you could spend thousands converting it. But really, I managed a comfortable week with just a van, a mattress and a sleeping bag. If you plan well and stay at decent sites, you don’t need more. You really don’t. Even if you pitch up in NZ with nothing but a rental car, head to Warehouse, buy yourself a tent, a sleeping bag and a stove and you’re good to go for under 200 bucks. Sell it again at the end. Live a bit.
 
Or failing all that, hire an estate, buy some decent sleeping bags and just sleep in the car.
 
Other than that, and I only touch on them briefly, there are numerous cross-country bus services including hop-on-hop-off affairs. There’s also a wide variation in price… Weigh up which option suits you best, and the likely target demographic, before taking the plunge.
 
  • Food and drink

Both are pricey unfortunately. Drink out at a pub and you’re looking at a fiver a pint. Eat out and you won’t have pub grub for much less than £12. This seems fairly consistent across NZ. So, for cheap eats you’re into the realm of the supermarkets. 

Naturally, you can get Subway and McDonalds’ ‘food’ everywhere for prices similar to the UK, if you’re into that sort of thing. To be fair, McDs does actually have some great promotions such as their current ‘dollar for any frozen Coke’, which is both cheap and also really hits the spot on a hot day.

Food in general is pricier than the UK, including supermarket food, however if you’re camping out and have a stove it all gets a bit more reasonable. I tended to treat myself to at most one meal a day at a restaurant or pub, cooking the other two in the van. This brings costs down a lot and feels more like proper camping out.
 
Beers on their own from the supermarket are about NZ$7, or UK£3, but buy a 6 pack and it’s NZ$18/ UK £8ish. NZ has a great craft brewing scene and you won’t go wrong with a Monteith’s brew.
 

  • Accommodation
The hostel scene in NZ is relatively well developed and for NZ$20-30 a night per person you’ve got a comfortable dorm bed. Expensive when you look at Asia but under the cost of European hostelling. Double rooms come in considerably more, and motel rooms start from around NZ$80. Obviously if you’re travelling as a couple then the double room options start to look a bit more reasonable.
 
Try Booking.com for your mid-range hotel needs… I’ve found that their prices are generally as good as you’d find elsewhere, and excepting their incredibly annoying “Book now! Other people are looking!!!11!” popups their user interface and booking amendment system is really user-friendly. In addition to this, make sure you create an account and sign in. After your fifth booking you unlock ‘Genius’ status which results in 10% discounts on many hotels and also added perks such as late checkout on others. I have checked these ‘discounts’ using sample bookings and they are genuine. This can save you a serious amount of cash on long or expensive bookings.
 
Hostelworld is my default when it comes to budget accommodation, the review system is fairly transparent and it has a good range of options in most places. Be careful when you see high review scores from a low number of people, and look at the most recent feedback to determine what the place is really like at the moment. Be aware that other travellers are often hilariously picky about the places they stay, even in extremely cheap Asian destinations! Take particularly enthusiastic grumbles with a pinch of salt.
 
Personally, I like an older crowd and hate all-out party hostels filled with gap year dickheads. For this reason, and going by the reviews of many people I spoke to, if you’re the same you would do well to avoid Base hostels. The YHA chain seemed to be consistently good, if slightly dull. And if anywhere labels itself a party hostel… It really will be a nightmare!!
 
A lot of the bus tours tend to use Base hostels, therefore you can prepare yourself for regular influxes of gap-yearers!
 
The other interesting option in Auckland is to try the student accommodation. These rooms can be booked through Hostelworld, and are as cheap as chips. I stayed at the “AUT Wellesley Apartments” from Hostelworld (Actually Auckland University of Technology accommodation) in a spotless single room for the same price as a dorm room elsewhere. Slap bang in the centre and also surrounded by dozens of brilliant cheap Asian restaurants, from Vietnam to Malaysia… Well worth a shot.
 
I didn’t have much luck with Couchsurfing. I think the available hosts get so many requests that I wouldn’t look at it as a first resort, rather a nice option if you do get the chance. Couchsurfing seems to work best with parallel cultures where there’s an element of difference to enjoy, rather than just being a free sofa for the night. AirBNB tends to be similar to the price of motels in most places.
 
You pays your money and you takes your choice. My recommended option is definitely a basic camper van if you can secure one cheaply. Camp out when you fancy it, stay at a decent site or hostel when you fancy a night inside, or you need a shower. Win-win.
 

  • Activities
Whatever obscure and potentially dangerous sport you’ve considered trying in the past, odds on you can definitely do it in NZ. And it’ll probably be the biggest, highest or longest version of it.
 
ACTIVITIES are the biggest danger that a cost-conscious traveller faces. In my 5 months thus far travelling around the world, I could have spent days jumping out of stuff, off stuff or just generally being shown things. And undoubtedly my remaining travel fund would be somewhat lower than it currently is.
 
You know what though? There’s always a balance, and the old rule of regretting more the things you didn’t do is very, very true. How many other times in your life are you likely to be here, with time and (presumably) a bit of money to spare? Looking back to past travels in India I still regret not zip-lining over the fort in Jaipur (not quite as much as not making a move on the amazingly beautiful Kiwi I met there, but I digress) for the sake of 30 quid or so. A unique experience, not overly expensive, which I’m unlikely to have the chance to do again.
 
My tip for NZ is to pick a couple of activities in each place that are really unique, or you want to do. Don’t do everything just because it’s there.

To see the countryside, you need do nothing other than packing a daysack, strapping on your boots and following one of the excellent walking trails which are, quite literally, everywhere in New Zealand. The sense of achievement and independence that you get from just striking out on your own cannot be matched by many organised tours. Be careful, pay regard to changing weather conditions and make sure someone knows where you’re off to, but just do it.
 
Having your own transport helps, but you really don’t have to do a TOUR of something. Don’t pay for a half day’s kayaking ‘tour’ around a lake, where you get picked up from your hostel, charged handsomely and bussed to a lake. Just go to the lake and pay to hire your own for a couple of hours. For instance, in Wanaka it’s NZ$20-30 for 2 hours. Believe me, if you’re not a regular kayaker with energy levels similar to mine, that’ll be enough time to tire yourself out!
 
The same with mountain biking. You don’t need to do an organised tour. Just head to a trail centre, such as the Redwoods near Rotorua, and bung them a few bucks to take a bike out. It doesn’t cost the earth, and the bikes are decent Scott hardtails. You don’t need to navigate on obscure trails to experience world-class single track. They’re all laid out for you!
 
I didn’t have hundreds of bucks to spend, but I still managed to see the best of the country, and spent my cash wisely on a couple of headline activities such as the glacier helicopter tour near Franz Josef. If you don’t do the bells-and-whistles top tour, it doesn’t need to cost more than a hundred pounds or so. For an activity which you can’t really replicate anywhere else in the world.
 
With the benefit of hindsight, I would have liked to have done one of the Jet boat tours, whereby you climb aboard an insanely powerful boat and are buzzed up a narrow river gorge. A local strongly recommended the Wilkins river jet, near Makarora, as being one of the best- But again, do it once. You don’t need to replicate the same activity in Makarora, Queenstown, Rotorua…
 
The point I have been meandering towards is that, in New Zealand, you can spend a huge amount of money if you want to. There are outdoor activities everywhere which will happily take your money. But, remember that you don’t need to. See the country on foot for free, and splash out on a couple of activities you really want to do, and which you’ll remember forever. 
 
On the bright side, things such as skydiving are pretty much as cheap, or cheaper, in NZ as you would find anywhere else in the world due to the sheer volume of operators, so now might be the time to try that bonkers activity you’ve always wanted to.
 
“I-Site” tourist information centres are everywhere, extremely helpful, and can save you an absolute packet. Use them as a brilliant free resource, and to pick up maps and tips on everything from accommodation to the best local Zorbing outfits.
 
Strike the balance, enjoy yourself but don’t feel compelled towards “TOURS!!!!11!” all the time.
 
Credit: Artistjamesmaxwell.com
  • Communication
One of my key travel tips is to ALWAYS buy a local SIM card, if you’ve made sure your phone is unlocked before coming on holiday. Seriously, it makes a huge amount of sense and if you’re travelling independently/off the beaten track it expands your horizons immensely, from a quick look on Hostelworld to see what the accommodation options are like in your next port of call, to a quick telephone call to that off-track hotel you quite fancy staying at, to an emergency call if you break down, or get into more serious strife.
 
PAYG mobile use in New Zealand isn’t the cheapest, and can work out very expensive if you’re not savvy about it. I unwisely took one of the free Zerodegrees Visitor SIMs from my car hire place without the accompanying information leaflet, and as a result burned through a tenner of credit in about 10 minutes of ‘Net usage. 
 
So, if you do use the free SIM, make sure you look up the available data bundles which bring the cost down immensely. Or try the cheapest deal I found there, the Warehouse PAYG SIM cards. Data costs really do add up though, so buy a bundle immediately. You can only buy credit on Zerodegrees for a minimum of NZ$20, so inadvertently using 10c through an iPhone background update and then having to buy another NZ$20 credit for a bundle is bloody annoying…
 
Credit: phase.com (Not my kit, obvs…)
  • Kit
New Zealand is a country which works, lives and breathes outdoor activities. As a result there are a vast range of outdoor equipment stores in every town. The marketplace is similar to the UK, the small independent ‘outfitter’ type places tend to be fairly pricey, there are large chains in the middle range, and then you’ve got Kathmandu, which is just as much of an “obscure 2for1 or buy 3 things you don’t need to save 50p” ripoff joint as it is in the UK.
 
Prices of branded goods such as Merrell boots etc are likely to be significantly higher than the UK, but the stores do have a full range of stuff if you forget things.
 
Suncream is very good quality, well-stocked in supermarkets and is cheap. The sun is seriously, seriously strong in NZ and the skin cancer rates are high, so there’s a lot of focus on prevention. Banana Boat is a local, quality brand which does an excellent cheap ‘Everyday’ Factor 30 cream which does the business.
 
  • Cash
New Zealand is very card-friendly. My friend over there rarely used cash for any transactions. So, it makes life very easy, especially with the growing number of contactless (“PayWave”) terminals. However, do make sure you take a couple of different credit/debit cards. For some reason the bank ATMs in particular can be a bit funny about which cards they accept, for the first time in my trip so far my Travelex Supercard was being regularly rejected from ATMS for reasons unknown. However, my Halifax Clarity CC was accepted universally and presented no such issues.
 
Therefore, I’d recommend taking a credit card which doesn’t charge for foreign transactions, such as Halifax Clarity or the Post Office card, and using that for every transaction you can, with a small reserve of NZ dollars for very small payments. Check the current terms and conditions and, whatever you do, DON’T use what Martin Lewis calls the ‘cards from hell’, standard UK bank debit cards which load both a transaction fee AND an exchange rate penalty onto EACH transaction. Pay with one of these and a £10 item quickly becomes £14. Bonkers.
 
See my ‘Travel on a Shoestring’ article soon for more general hints on how to get the most bang for your buck, wherever in the world you are.
 
 
So, there you have it. NZ is never going to be a cheap destination, however if you’re into all things outdoors- Or simply love the countryside- you absolutely have to visit before you die. With the tips above and a bit of forethought you can have three weeks of amazing vistas, stunning sunsets and experiences you’ll remember forever for much less than the price of 2 weeks by the pool in a lobster-infested Cancun all inclusive. DO IT!
 
 
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