MENU
BUDGET TRAVEL / DESTINATION GUIDES & ITINERARIES / OCEANIA

The Beginner’s Guide to Traveling New Zealand on a Budget

auckland, new zealand

Ahh, New Zealand. Land of the long white cloud. From glistening beaches, to snow-capped mountains, to active volcanoes, to lush greenery, this small nation of islands truly packs a punch. It’s got something for every type of traveler, and contrary to stereotype, that thankfully includes those of us on a budget. So after having recently completed my own two-month trip backpacking suitcasing the country, I’ve put together this beginner’s guide to traveling New Zealand on a budget.

Lake Pukaki on the road to Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand South Island
Hiking trail in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand South Island
Abel Tasman National Park Hike, New Zealand South Island

NEW ZEALAND BUDGET TRAVEL GUIDE: TABLE OF CONTENTS

THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT NEW ZEALAND

Because New Zealand sits in the Southern Hemisphere, its seasons are opposite those in North America and Europe. This means summer is December – February, and winter is June – August. So when should you visit? Well, that depends on what you want to do.

New Zealand has two (main) islands, logically called the North Island and the South Island. The North Island stays balmy from spring through fall, and even in winter is by no means unbearable. The South Island, on the other hand, receives a proper winter – complete with ski season and all – and rains almost everyday in certain parts. The other thing to consider is that, like most destinations, summer months are crowded with both foreign tourists and locals whose kids are off from school. In the ski destinations, winter is also the high season, in addition to summer.

For my own trip, I decided to visit during the shoulder season. I started in the North Island in early February and left the South Island by early April, just when things were starting to become too chilly for my liking. This turned out great, as I got great weather throughout my trip, but avoided the summer crowds.

NEW ZEALAND VISA REQUIREMENTS

Unless you’re a New Zealand or Australian citizen, you cannot just book a flight and show up to the country. Depending on your nationality and trip duration, you will need either an NZeTA and/or a visa before you depart for New Zealand. And unless you are on a longer visa like the working holiday visa, you likely also need to have your exit flight purchased, and depending on your next destination, your flight home after that, too. Yep. At the airport check in desk, I literally had to provide my flight details into New Zealand, explain that I was traveling by land to a different departure airport, provide my flight details out of New Zealand into Australia, and my flight details from Australia back to the US. Why do they care that I am leaving Australia?! Isn’t that Australia’s problem?! So be prepared! 

Milford Sound waterfalls
Hike Trail in Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand South Island
Beach on Abel Tasman hiking trail

GETTING AROUND NEW ZEALAND

Transportation around New Zealand is a topic for an entirely separate blog post in and of itself! There are several options on how best to get around New Zealand, and none of them are the wrong option. It simply depends on your budget, prefered travel style, and duration of your trip.

Camper Van

To me, at least, this is the quintessential way to travel New Zealand. The obvious benefit is that you can travel at your own pace, pulling over whenever you would like for photos, rest stops, and finding hidden gems. In addition to that, you also save the price of accommodation and don’t have to worry about booking it ahead of time. Thus, traveling by camper van is the ultimate way to explore New Zealand freely, not being stuck to an itinerary in any way.

You can rent a camper van if you are visiting for a short period of time, but this gets quite expensive if your trip is longer. If you are staying longer, definitely consider buying a camper van and selling it off at the end of your trip. This is a popular option for many visitors, as many come on a working holiday visa, which allows visitors to stay for up to one year. The downside to this, though, is that it’s all on you if the car ever breaks down or needs repair.

If renting a camper van, keep in mind that there’s a large fee to take your vehicle on the ferry between the two islands and normally a large fee to drop your rental off in a different city than where you picked it up. If you’re interested in buying or selling a camper van (or any vehicle), or looking for travel buddies to travel and split the cost with, two great resources are the Facebook pages New Zealand Backpackers and Backpackers New Zealand.

Car

Traveling New Zealand with a car has a lot of the same benefits and costs of doing so with a camper van. You still have a lot of freedom, but you’re a bit more limited in that you need to overnight where there is accommodation (unless tent camping), and you need to plan ahead to make sure you have accommodation secured. This might be a positive, though, since you can stay in hostels and meet other travelers who’ll immediately be your new best friend since you have a car! This could also be a little more comfortable, as you can cook in a hostel kitchen versus in or outside your camper.

Like with camper vans, you can decide to either rent or buy and then sell a car. Also like with camper vans, don’t forget to budget for transporting your car between the two islands and extra fees for dropping it off in a different city than you picked it up.

Hitchhike

This is another cliche way to travel New Zealand. The country has a reputation of being “a safe place to hitchhike,” partly due to the stereotype of friendly locals, and partly due to the plethora of other travelers road tripping all around the country at any given time. Hitchhiking has the obvious benefit of being an immense budget saver, since you’re not paying for transport at all. It also allows you a degree of flexibility in that you can get to places buses wouldn’t.

The downside, however, is that you are entirely dependent on others in order to get where you want to get, especially if you aren’t traveling solo (and thus need more than one free seat). Maybe you’ll catch a ride after just five minutes of waiting in the sun, or maybe you’ll be standing for twenty minutes in the rain. But hey, it’s all part of the adventure (I assume)!

If you’re looking for a ride ahead of time, the Facebook groups I mentioned above are great places to ask if anyone has an extra seat, or to respond to someone offering a ride. Hostels also provide resources, like bulletin boards where guests can offer or ask for rides, or staff who can point you to the best road to stand with your thumb out.

As a solo female traveler, I personally have little desire to hitchhike. But if there’s anywhere I would have done it, it probably would have been here. And actually, I did meet some solo female travelers who were hitchhiking in New Zealand. I always thought they were the coolest people ever, but I know myself, and I’d definitely not be comfortable unless I had a buddy, at least for my first few times.

Bus

Lastly, there is the option of traveling New Zealand by bus. Personally, I love traveling by public transport. It gives me the security of knowing I’ll get there, but without the effort of researching rentals beforehand, looking for parking or campsites, and paying for gas. That being said, in a country like New Zealand, you simply will be missing out on seeing places that are impossible to get to without your own set of wheels. While I accepted that before my arrival, I found it a tougher pill to swallow once I actually arrived. You do have some wiggle room, though, as there are different ways to see the country via bus, and they all have slightly different routes.

Kiwi Experience

This is a pretty popular hop-on-hop-off tour network for young people traveling around New Zealand. It is pricy, but the point is to have an awesome social experience, rather than to save money. I never used them, so I can’t comment much more than that! You can read more how it works on their site.

Stray

This is another popular hop-on-hop-off tour network, but (from my understanding) it gets you more off the beaten path than Kiwi Experience. Again, I did not use them, so you can read more how it works on their site.

InterCity

As previously mentioned, I decided to travel by using the InterCity. This is the closest option to a “normal” bus, in that it simply gets you from point A to point B, is not a group tour, and that locals use it too. It is still touristy though, as it is a large coach bus, and it’s mostly tourists (though tourists of all ages, whereas Kiwi Experience and Stray are geared towards younger folks). I used the FlexiPass (which I highly recommend over buying individual trips or the TravelPass). There are a lot of pros and cons of traveling New Zealand this way, so many that I actually wrote a separate article about that here. Overall, it worked out fine, but I do wish I had tried a little harder to make a car rental happen, especially for the North Island. I definitely missed a lot there due to being on the bus!

Fly

OK, I know I said “lastly” already. But I had to quickly also mention flying as a means of transport, especially if you are short on time. New Zealand looks small on the map, but it actually isn’t. Driving time adds up. Also, if you’re renting vehicles, it might be cheaper to make two rentals for each island, to avoid paying the ferry vehicle fee or fee for separate pick up and drop off destinations. So definitely check out domestic flights if either of the above situations might apply to you.

THINGS TO DO & SEE IN NEW ZEALAND

Like transportation, this could be a separate discussion of its own! But I’ll do my best to break it down for you. New Zealand has four main cities: Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown, and Christchurch. These will likely be your entry and exit points into the country, as well as where you can pick up and drop off any rentals.

Auckland, New Zealand North Island
Auckland

Wellington, New Zealand North Island
Wellington

Queenstown, New Zealand South Island
Queenstown
Christchurch New Zealand park bridge
Christchurch

However, New Zealand is not known for its cities. It’s known for its nature. So unless you are visiting on a longer visa, I personally recommend you spend as little time as necessary in these cities and use most of your holiday on seeing nature! What you should see definitely depends on how much time you have, but below are the bigger ticket items on the typical backpacker trail (** symbolizes it’s a top tourist attraction).

New Zealand North Island

  • Bay of Islands: day trip to Cape Reinga and 90 Mile Beach
  • Auckland: likely starting and/or exit point for your travels
  • Hobbiton**: Lord of the Rings film set
  • Waitomo Glow Worm Caves**
  • Coromandel Peninsula: Hot Water Beach where you dig your own hot tub, plus Narnia film site beach
  • Tauranga: coastal city with hiking
  • Raglan: cute surfer town, perfect baby waves for beginners
  • Rotorua: geothermal activity hotbed, adventure capital of the North Island
  • Taupo: jumping off point for Tongariro Alpine Crossing**
  • Napier: city built in Art Deco, wineries
  • Taranaki: hiking around or on the majestic volcano
  • Wellington: nation’s capital city, departure for InterIslander ferry to South Island

New Zealand South Island

  • Abel Tasman National Park: gorgeous place to hike and/or kayak for one to five days
  • Franz Josef** and Fox Glaciers: can helicopter-hike onto the glaciers, or do free hikes
  • Wanaka: beloved town, popular for lake activities and Roy’s Peak hike
  • Queenstown**: adventure capital of the country and home to commercial bungee jumping, plenty of non-adrenaline things to do as well
  • Fiordland: Milford Sound** and/or Doubtful Sound
  • The Catlins: rather “off the beaten path” southernmost part of South Island
  • Mount Cook National Park: home to the tallest mountain in the country and gorgeous hikes
  • Lake Tekapo: star gazing capital of the country, beautiful Lupins flowers in November
  • Arthur’s Pass: can take the TranzAlpine train through here
  • Kaikura: known for whale and dolphin excursions – including swimming!
  • Christchurch: likely starting and/or exit point for your travels

As you can see, there’s a lot! If you’re just visiting for a short holiday, or even for one month, you simply will not be able to see it all. And that’s ok! Even on my two month trip, I did not see it all, and even skipped many “can’t-miss” attractions because they didn’t feel worth the detour or price to me.

Road to Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand South Island
Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes, New Zealand South Island West Cost Road Trip
Milford Sound, New Zealand South Island

WHERE TO STAY

When it comes to accommodation, New Zealand has it all. From hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels, to camping in a tent or national park cabin, sleeping in your camper van, or working in exchange for housing. All the above are totally common in New Zealand. The choice for you comes down to personal preference and budget. Below are some resources for housing on a budget:

  • Booking:  This is personally my favorite site for booking housing. I really like their interface, and you can book many hostels through them. Also, many properties allow free cancelation. If you’ve never used Booking.com before, you can get 10% back from your first booking when you use this link.
  • HostelWorld: The name says it all. A great resource for finding practically every hostel in a city, all on one site.
  • Airbnb: If you are staying somewhere long enough, AirBnB can be great. If you’ve never used AirBnB before, you can save 15% off your first booking by using this link to sign up.
  • Couch surfing: If you’re really on a budget, or simply love to make local friends, sleeping on someone’s couch is always an option. I’ve never done it, but if you’re interested, learn more here.
  • Workaway: I’m kind of convinced New Zealand is the workaway capital of the world. So many travelers here exchange chores and other work for housing. Learn more about it here, but remember you technically need a working holiday visa to do this legally (though some people ignore this fact).

Personally, I stayed in hostels my entire trip, so I’ll speak a little bit on those in New Zealand. There is a lot of diversity in New Zealand’s hostels. There are certain chains, like YHA or Base, which have a pretty-consistent standard of cleanliness (or lack thereof), noisiness, guest-type, and general vibe that is pretty consistent across their hostels. This can be good or bad. For example, I stayed in mostly YHA hostels, which were generally very clean, not very noisy, and had good kitchens. On the flip side, though, it gave a lot of their hostels a hotel vibe in that guests often came in pairs or trios and were simply there because hotels were too expensive (rather than because they wanted a social environment). Regardless of what hostels you decide on, they are all a great way to save on accommodation and on food, as you can cook breakfast and dinner in their kitchens, as well as pack a meal to take for lunch. (But if you do end up booking at least a few YHA hostels, definitely purchase the YHA membership.)

Mount Doom from Lord of the Rings, Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike, New Zealand North Island
Ben Lomond Hike Trail, Queenstown, New Zealand South Island
Sealy Tarns Hike Trail, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand South Island

COSTS FOR TRAVELING NEW ZEALAND

On the one hand, New Zealand is known as an expensive destination. On the other, it’s also known as a backpacker haven! So which is it? Is New Zealand budget friendly, or not? Well, luckily, the answer is slightly up to you! For a detailed breakdown, you’ll want to check out my post on how I traveled NZ for $59 dollars a day. Otherwise, below is what to expect for the biggest budget variables (besides transportation, which was already covered above).

Exchange Rate

After suffering for decades of European travels with an unfavorable exchange rate to the USD, this was quite possibly my favorite thing about coming to New Zealand! A favorable exchange rate!! OK, I kid. A little. But jokes aside, Americans, Brits, Eurozone residents, and, yes, even Canadians will all be happy to hear they have favorable exchange rates to the New Zealand dollar. As an American, that meant a NZ$300 excursion was $200, and for Europeans and Brits, that would be even lower in euros and pounds. So while New Zealand is expensive, this definitely helps right off the bat.

Groceries

As an American (and especially a Californian), I did not find groceries here to be much pricier than back home after accounting for the favorable exchange rate. However, I did hear fellow European travelers complaining how expensive groceries were, so it depends what your reference point is.

Eating Out

Again, like with groceries, I found restaurant prices comparable to those back home after accounting for the favorable exchange rate. Prices ranged from NZ$12 for a burger without fries to NZ$16 – NZ$23 for a sit-down meal. Like anywhere, eating out repeatedly will blow your budget if you’re visiting for more than a couple weeks.

Excursions

Excursions in New Zealand are not cheap. Even after favorable exchange rates. But that’s also because the excursions are pretty extreme! People don’t come here for free city walking tours or climbing to the tops of cathedrals. Instead, tourists choose from fiordland cruises, glacier helicopter hikes, bungee jumping, sky diving…you get the idea. As some examples of prices, expect NZ$400-500 for a glacier heli-hike or NZ$200 for a bungee jump. Most people can’t afford to do them all, but the great thing about New Zealand is that there are plenty of free nature attractions to balance out the expensive excursions. And for when you do splurge, be sure to check BookMe in advance for discounts. I’ve booked through them before and can confirm they’re legit.

Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand South Island

WHAT TO PACK FOR NEW ZEALAND

For a detailed breakdown, check out my post on literally everything I packed for my own two month trip to New Zealand. But here are some packing list highlights:

  • Sunscreen, sunglasses, and hat (the sun is strong down there)
  • Refillable water bottle (no need to waste money – New Zealand is expensive enough already)
  • Proper hiking shoes (you can’t go to New Zealand and not hike!)
  • Swimsuit (even in winter for the hot springs)
  • Warm, water-resistant jacket (even in summer if you plan on hiking)
  • Activewear (moisture-wicking fabrics that won’t smell from all the activities)

ANY QUESTIONS?

That was a lot of information! It was only an overview, but hopefully it gave you a place to start for planning your trip to New Zealand. If you have additional questions related to traveling New Zealand by bus, traveling New Zealand solo, or anything else, definitely ask it in the comments below

Save this Article to Return to Later on Pinterest

New Zealand travel soon? This New Zealand budget travel guide has tips on transport, food, New Zealand things to do for both the North Island and South Island, plus beautiful photography.

10 Comments

  • Patti
    November 13, 2020 at 9:30 AM

    Wow, your post is so informative. NZ is on my bucket list. In fact, I would love to move there one day but we need to visit it there first. Such a beautiful place.

    Reply
    • That Travelista
      November 15, 2020 at 5:36 PM

      It seems like a lovely place to move! So much variety in scenery and weather 🙂 I’m sure you’ll love it when you visit.

      Reply
  • Rebecca
    November 12, 2020 at 10:02 AM

    I love all these hiking trails. Need to save these to hopefully make it there!

    Reply
    • That Travelista
      November 15, 2020 at 5:34 PM

      NZ is a GREAT hiking destination! You’ll love it once you go.

      Reply
  • taytrumtravels
    November 11, 2020 at 6:01 PM

    What an awesome page! I have been considering NZ for awhile but getting around seems a bit hard without my own wheels, as you describe. I usually take buses to get between cities when I travel.

    Reply
    • That Travelista
      November 15, 2020 at 5:32 PM

      Aw, thanks! Yeah, it’s definitely a nice place to have a car, but you can see a lot via bus like I did!

      Reply
  • Miss Rover
    November 11, 2020 at 1:42 PM

    New Zealand has been on my list for SO long and the cost of traveling there has definitely been one of the reasons I haven’t gone yet. This guide is great. Saving to use hopefully sooner than later!

    Reply
    • That Travelista
      November 15, 2020 at 5:31 PM

      Thanks so much! It’s definitely not the cheapest place, but it’s doable!

      Reply
  • Denise
    November 11, 2020 at 9:50 AM

    I didn’t know you needed a visa! I am definitely pinning for later! Beautiful photos!

    Reply
    • That Travelista
      November 15, 2020 at 5:31 PM

      Thanks, Denise!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.