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Planning Your Ultimate New Zealand Road Trip

Three weeks. 21 days. 504 hours of just me, a car, and an island in the South Pacific. Like a addict looking back on his first high, I can always count on the memories of that road trip to deliver an ephemeral dose of joy.

New Zealand’s South Island is designed solely for delivering the slow smirk that grows into a smile when you know you’re looking at something beautiful. Seriously. The place is nature’s equivalent of watching your best plans come together.

But here’s the fun part – as a 26 year old kid with a job paying slightly more than minimum wage, I was also lucky enough to see such a place with quite limited resources. Here’s how.


Stick to the South Island

New Zealand’s North Island is like the third installment in the Godfather trilogy. Yes, technically, the family is the same with many returning characters performing a continuation of an ongoing saga. But really…it’s just not the same. And not in a good way. It’s best to save The Godfather III for a rainy afternoon in between sports seasons. So goes the story with New Zealand’s North Island.

The South Island is less crowded, and more dramatic – an open playground of jaw-dropping scenery lifted straight out of Middle Earth. Three weeks? But it’s so much time? No, no it’s not. Not even close. “I just got bored of all the cool stuff to do” said no one ever. Just trust me, the South Island is where it’s at.

Everyone I met wished they had reserved more time for the South. The usual MO is to fly into Auckland and use that as the city as their starting point, and working their way South. Unfortunately, it’s all to common to spend too much time exploring the North Island (because it’s new, unexplored, and unaware of all the wonders on the South Island.) When they do finally board the ferry for journey to Isla numero dos they realize how quickly their time is running out. It is not a fun place to be coming to realize how much there is to explore with so little time.

A better option is to catch a cheap flight from Auckland to Christchurch, using the latter city as your start/end point. Jetstar.co.nz is a great place you book the short hop for a budget price.

Ditch the van, man

Renting (or hiring for the Kiwi colloquialism) a camper van goes hand in hand with the thought of a road trip through New Zealand; it’s a fundamental requirement. The freedom of cooking your meals out of the back of your van, crashing in the backseat after some famous Marlborough Sounds Sauvignon Blanc, or the convenience of driving off towards whatever looks interesting are all priceless experiences.

But that wanderlust trip of a lifetime is not inexorably linked to an expensive camper van rental. Economy cars are 1/2 the price of camper vans, get waaaaay better gas mileage and drive along the exact same roads. With the exception of sleeping in one, it’s no different than a van. Setting up a tent isn’t nearly as difficult as you think and c’mon, you’ll be closer to those amazing Southern Hemisphere stars.

After 15 minutes of poking around online, here are the general prices I was quoted for a 21 day rental of both a camper van and economy car. IMHO, the few extra minutes it takes to put up/take down a tent are well worth the $500 in savings.

Traveling via car does require that you bring along a bit more camping gear but the difference is negligible. A lot of the “extras” that come along with a camper van rental can be found cheap or even better, for free.

West Coast Best CoastIt’s difficult to pack tents, sleeping bags and camp stoves into your luggage, but here are two quick solutions that easily worked for me. Big box stores like Kmart (it’s still a thing in New Zealand and Australia!) and The Warehouse (it’s just like Wal-Mart) always carry cheap equipment. Less than $150 should get you the made in China basics that won’t break in the short time you need them.

But an even better option is to ask around hostels. There are enough backpackers and tourists floating around hostels trying to ditch camping equipment that just about anything you need is easy to find and absolutely cheap. In fact, the three friendly Czech guys I bought my car from in Auckland gave me their camping gear for free. They were flying back to Europe and simply couldn’t take it with them.

Your best scenery is free

New Zealand takes pride in their landscapes. Thankfully, they’re willing to let you see most of it for free. There are no entrance fees for major National Parks – just pull up take some pictures and go from there. Quite hefty fees do pop up for some of the most popular hikes, aka the Milford Sound track and Abel Tazman, but these are only for multi-day hikes and popular lodges. Your entrance in and the majority of the park itself is free!


New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, or DOC for short, is your best friend. Shower them with affection like you would your significant other the day after you forgot their birthday. Besides having offices in most tourist hotspots staffed by friendly and informative officers, they have great (and usually free) literature. I remember building a small library of my own with pamphlets, maps, and just good to know information they are happy to share.

One of your most coveted books will be the DOC’s guide to campsites. This detailed book (again, free) is a great resource for knowing the cheap spots to crash for a night or two. And not just cheap, they are usually beautiful as well. This book does a good job of describing each site along with directions and nearby attractions. Some spots are better than others but a few camp grounds a burned into my memory for how amazing they were. And at less than $3 per night, the price couldn’t be beat. All thanks to that little DOC book.

Your best accommodation is really cheap, too

Deciding to go down a slightly more adventurous path, there are hundreds of overnight hikes and back country options to keep you occupied for a lifetime. Again, stop by the nearest DOC office for some the best information on how to explore them.

But the best part is that most of those hikes also include huts. Huts??? Right, huts. Let me explain a bit more.

These fortresses of amazing are dotted throughout the country with varying levels of comfort. Some are quite basic, only four walls, a roof, and a place to lay your sleeping bag. Others are more upscale and include running water, cast iron stoves, mattresses and firewood that the park service helicopters in. Prices vary from $5-$15 per night depending on location. Some of the most popular cabins must be reserved in advance, so be sure to do some homework if you’re headed off to one of the more popular national parks.

NZ South Coast

Packaged tours get expensive. But a little initiative and homework allows you to experience a similar level without the accompanying price. With your own transportation and DOC guides, getting to the trailheads makes creating your own Louis and Clark adventure pretty straightforward.

Of course, it’s only a matter of a few days before your craving a hot shower and a bigger social scene. Then, hostels serve a great purpose and NZ if full of them. You can check out the DOC site here.

Mt Cook National Park

What did it cost me?

Confession time. I took this trip several years ago and I didn’t keep a keen eye on all my expenses like I did for my more recent travel. But all good – I have all the bank statements from that time. After some simple math I have a very good, although not exact, idea of what I spent. Here we go.

Sans the car rental (I had purchased one earlier in the year) I spent $1,200 NZD or about $900 USD. My travel style was a good mix of rough around the edges budget camping mixed with hot showers and a hostel every couple of days.

Accommodation |

My breakdown looked something like this: 60% car camping. 20% hostels. 10% Lost Boys style out in the woods. Most nights was relocating to a new campsite and putting up shop from the back of my car. About five nights were hiking into the mountains to wrestle bears. When I craved a hot shower or rendezvoused with friends hostels took priority. A few days of solid R & R is important, especially to take full advantage of Queenstown, Milford Sound and Otago.

As a side note, DO NOT neglect opportunities for multi-day treks into the mountains. Aside from the fact that they’re free, the best scenery does require a little more work. I spent several nights out in Mount Aspiring National Park hiking through one seriously epic pass.

Food |

Food, right right, I do remember eating. Alcohol always helps to enjoy the outdoors and I spent quite a bit on that. Food was fairly straight forward, lots of camp food, pasta, cheese and vegetables. Once every few days I ate a meal or two out. Especially around Queenstown. Great place, but brace yourself for a hit to the wallet as well. (Life pro tip, the town right next door, Wanaka, is just as pretty, less crowded and cheaper.)

Transportation |

Here it gets a little tricky. Fuel is included in the above $300 number. My trusty 1991 Subaru Legacy got me around everywhere – waaaay way better than any bus/hitchhiking combo could have accomplished. If I had to rent a car, I could simply add $650 to the cost of a three week rental. Remember this number would be substantially less if shared it among two or three people. But traveling solo my total comes to…

Total Price: $1,550

Blenheim Vineyards

Final Thoughts

If your built for the outdoors, New Zealand is a dreamland. If you’re able to split the cost of a car with one or two friends, $50 per day is absolutely doable. $50 per day, for a western industrialized country, is really good.

Of course to get within this range, it takes a certain individual to be comfortable spending a majority of their nights in a tent gorging on baked beans and hotdogs. But embrace it. I found the glorified hobo lifestyle liberating – and when you do start to notice your own odors there’s also a nice hostel close by.

Sure, if you’re looking at something in the price range it takes a certain person to know that they are comfortable spending most of their nights in a tent with baked beans and hotdogs for dinner. But for a short time that glorified hobo lifestyle is liberating. And when you do start to smell just a little too much, there’s always a nice hostel close by.
Nelson Lakes National Park

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