New Zealand, a fabled land of Hobbits and Ring Wraiths, a place where there are more sheep than people and where the scenery is so spectacular it’s almost unreal. Some of the best experiences I’ve had whilst backpacking New Zealand have been when I was completely broke, hitchhiking or meeting locals and other travellers who convinced me to change my plans, be spontaneous and follow my adventurous instinct…
New Zealand may seem to be an expensive country but with a bit of imagination, it’s possible to travel New Zealand on a shoestring budget. These broke adventures have always resulted in great stories, new friends and unforgettable experiences. I landed in January with a year long visa and felt a bit like Bilbo Baggins, I was ‘going on an adventure!’
And what an epic adventure it has been backpacking New Zealand on a budget. I’ve spent over six months exploring this truly incredible land and here is all of my knowledge, prepared for you guys in one handy budget guide to backpacking New Zealand…
Backpacking New Zealand : Travel Costs
I made no solid plans for New Zealand. In fact, my research of the country pretty much consisted of binge watching Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit (which is nowhere near as good) films. New Zealand is beginning to boom as a backpacking destination. With easy entry requirements, generous Visa lengths, some of the best hiking and scenery in the world, combined with adrenaline fuelled activities, backpacking New Zealand is an experience with something for everybody.
Despite the backpacker boom, New Zealand in general is a pretty pricey country to travel in. Kiwi reputation and hospitality however, never fails to disappoint. With some of the nicest people in the world, hitchhiking, home stays, CouchSurfing and WOOFing are a backpacker’s best friend when trying to travel the country on the cheap. As Peter Jackson once described, “New Zealand is not a small country, but a large village.” Kiwis are always ready to help you out wherever possible. Whether it is telling you about the best place to sit and watch the sunset while you devour fish ’n’ chips, or driving you out of their way to get you where you need to go. On my travels in New Zealand, I have been consistently amazed at just how kind, and fun, the Kiwis can be – strangers will open up their homes so you don’t get fined for sleeping in your car or will invite you out for a drink, Kiwis are a huge blessing to anyone backpacking New Zealand.
Visa Requirements for backpacking New Zealand
I told you New Zealand was easy right? Well, a Visitor Visa (for most nationalities) is obtained on arrival. Entering as a visitor, you must have proof of onward travel exiting the country and you may even be asked for proof of funds to support yourself while you are here – the good thing is, credit cards count as proof of sufficient funds! The cost of a Visitor Visa you ask? If you are a UK citizen absolutely nothing! And you can stay for up to 6 months. Want to stay longer? Many nationalities have access to a Working Holiday Visa, for UK Citizens this is around £115 and you can stay for up to a year. Best of all, you can legally find work, very handy if you find yourself needing to replenish your backpacking funds.
Getting Around whilst backpacking New Zealand
Whilst backpacking New Zealand you will basically be using one main highway road on both islands. Along this are all the ‘main points of interests’. The best way to get around New Zealand is definitely by car. There are multiple rental companies within New Zealand but the most affordable and backpacker friendly option is Jucy. A lot of the places you will want to visit are not accessible by bus; national parks, starting points for hiking, small surf towns etc, so having a car makes this much easier. Even better than a car is a campervan but this comes with a higher price tag.
A huge part of the attraction of backpacking New Zealand is exploring the truly gorgeous roads and you will want to make many a photo stop. On a bus you can’t just ask the driver to stop, sadly. So you might miss incredible photo ops and jaw dropping scenery. An alternative to hiring or buying a car is to sign up to TransferCarNZ, here you can get free one way car/camper rentals. How? The companies need the cars transferred back to the busiest hubs and why pay someone when backpackers will do it for free! If you are planning to use buses, Intercity often have the best prices for point-to-point journeys and super friendly bus drivers!
Sleeping in New Zealand
Accommodation is not cheap in New Zealand, yep even the hostels! In the ‘high season’ (summer and in some areas, winter) they will set you back by $35NZD per night on an average – this is for a shared dorm. Only use hostels when absolutely necessary, CouchSurfing is widely used in New Zealand and a great way to meet new people and locals while backpacking New Zealand. If you are one of the lucky ones with a car, it is possible to sleep in your car in registered campsites with facilities.
It is illegal to sleep in a ‘non contained unit’ i.e. no pooper. While many people take the risk of ‘freedom camping’ it comes with a hearty fine if you are caught. Working For Accommodation is another option in New Zealand . If you know you are going to be hanging around an area for a while, check with the local hostel/home stay if they offer Work for Accommodation service. You may have to give up 2-3hrs of your time each day, but you’ll get your accommodation for free. I worked on a farm in New Zealand for 10 weeks as an Au Pair and farm hand, not only was my accommodation free but I also had free food thrown in. Plus, my boss gave me access to a car to use when I wanted, which meant I could explore so much more! You’ll find Kiwi’s are incredible generous when it comes to opening their doors to you. You could also rent a lovely Airbnb property and if you’re a couple without a campervan, this is often the best way to go. Use this AirBnB coupon code for $35 off your first stay! If you are open to exploring New Zealand in a van, check out this article by Beanies and Bikinis for inspiration.
Playing in New Zealand
Adrenaline and adventure capital of the world, New Zealand is definitely not short on things to do. Entry into what New Zealand is famous for, the mountains and scenery, is free of charge. You may be advised to take a guide in winter for some treks, but it is not mandatory and if you are an experienced hiker you will probably be fine. You may come across donation boxes at some sites, this is a goodwill gesture and again is not mandatory. Activities like Skydiving, Bungee Jumping and Glacier Heli-Hiking are among the most popular activities that you should try to have a crack at whilst backpacking New Zealand. Home to one of the world’s highest bungee jumping sites, Queenstown is the best place to test your nerves. Skydiving is found all over New Zealand but on a budget backpacking trip do your jump at Lake Taupo, the cheapest place to jump in New Zealand. You’ll jump over one of New Zealand’s largest lakes (same size as Singapore) and on a clear day you should be able to see the jaw-dropping scenery of the Tongariro Crossing.
Adrenaline activities are great but they will cost you quite a bit, the further south you go the higher the price seems to be. Think about the activities that are an absolute must do and budget for those. Sign up to sites like GrabOne and BookMe while in New Zealand. If you can be flexible or spontaneous these sites are awesome when backpacking New Zealand! They often will be selling adrenaline activities for as low as a dollar if you are lucky!
Staying in touch while backpacking New Zealand
New Zealand allows you to be as connected, or disconnected as you want. In the main towns you’ll find no problem to grab four bars of signal. But wander a little off the beaten track and you’ll find yourself without any signal at all. The cheapest and easiest way to stay connected in New Zealand is with a local Sim Card. Grab a free 2degrees travellers SIM at the airport and top it up with $20NZD and choose the best pre-paid plan for you. WiFi is pretty common throughout New Zealand, most hostels and home stays will offer WiFi however it often comes at a price and is not cheap (or fast). Free WiFi is offered at certain hotspots around cities, on buses and in some cafes/bars however you will often have a limit in time or download usage, so don’t expect to Skype for long! The best signal is found in the North Island of New Zealand around Auckland.
Backpacking New Zealand Travel Guide : Where to Go?
Auckland is the entry into New Zealand for a lot of people backpacking New Zealand. This city holds the majority of New Zealand’s population and it’ll probably be the busiest place you visit in New Zealand. Auckland Central itself is just like any other Western city, perfect for picking up any last minute necessities but spend too long here and you will drain your funds fast. The average price of a hostel in Auckland ranges from $35 – $40NZD per night and there are not many sites worth visiting. If you are willing to get out of the city, there is plenty to do. Two great hotels in Auckland are Sai Motels and Jet Park Airport Hotel.
Climb a Volcano in New Zealand
Climb Mount Eden Domain at sunset for a beautiful view over the city and see the Sky tower lit up at night. Take some snacks and some cold beer and watch the city light up. Did you know this is Auckland’s highest volcano?
Take the Ferry to Waiheke Island
There are a couple of islands off the coast of Auckland, this one in particular transports you to a tropical paradise and you’ll forget you were ever in a big city. Only $35NZD return on the ferry, this island is paradise. White sand beaches, beautiful vineyards, great walking trails and incredibly blue water, this is the perfect place to spend a day. Eating out on the island is expensive, I would recommend bringing a picnic or barbecue food or cooking yourself and eating down by the beach.
Reconnect with nature on Rangitoto Island
A volcanic island off the coast of Auckland, uninhabited by people and a reserve to some of New Zealand’s native birds and bush, Rangitoto is a great place to reconnect with nature while backpacking New Zealand. There are limited ferries to Rangitoto each day at around $30NZD return per person. No need to book in advance, just pop down to the ferry terminal to buy your ticket. Go late afternoon and explore the island, there are multiple hiking loops and plenty of cool caves. Get to the top for sunset and enjoy panoramic views of Auckland and the sea horizon behind you. Make sure you take that last ferry back or you’ll be stranded.
Dive in to a Marine Paradise
If you are lucky enough to have a car then drive an hour north of Auckland to Goat Island, New Zealand’s first marine reserve. Here you can dive straight in to the water and enjoy an array of tropical fish, plants and coral. On a lucky day you may even see whales and dolphins! Snorkel hire is cheap at around $25NZD for a few hours!
Kite surf in Raglan
Possibly my favourite place on the North island of New Zealand, this cute little hippie/surf town caters well to New Zealand backpackers. Without being massively overrun with tourists this wee town is known for being one of the best surf and kite surf beaches in New Zealand and it has a great chilled out vibe. Most people around here will surf and everyone is keen to teach you how. Board hire is cheap at only around $20NZD and if you stay at a hostel, they will often have discounted lessons available. Definitely CouchSurf here; you will meet some wicked people who will probably have boards, boats and kayaks that you can borrow!
Visit Rotorua Geothermal Springs
Rotorua or the town that smells like farts, as most people will refer to it as, is actually not as smelly as it is made out to be! There is LOADS of geothermal activity here. This town is incredibly tourist orientated and backpacker friendly – the whole working part of town comprises of backpackers. I would recommend CouchSurfing here since the hostels cost quite a bit. If hostels are your only option, Crash Palace is an awesome one in the centre of Rotorua. You will even have access to a free spa pool in the back! While backpacking here, check out the Wai-O-Tapu National park for all things Geothermal. You can hire a mountain bike and take the trail to the national park or pay for the shuttle service to take you there if you are in a less active mood. Entry to the national park is around $33NZD- slightly pricey but totally worth it and a must do while backpacking New Zealand. The Redwoods are incredible and you can easily spend a day wandering through the woods, swinging on vines, pretending to be Tarzan. The Green and Blue Lakes are a must see while here, as are the hot pools. You will need a car to reach many of these places in and around Rotorua. I hitchhiked my way around. It was free, easy and because the place is so tourist friendly, it never took long to get a ride.
Take an East Cape Road Trip
Take a road trip in the spring/summer around the East Peninsula of the North Island. It is beautiful and relatively unexplored by travellers. Rugged coastline, mountainous scenery, beautiful sunrises and plenty of off the beaten track experiences to be had. One of the must do stops around the East Cape is the beautiful Te Kaha- a rural area with some of the most unique and friendly home stays! I stayed at the lovely Airbnb property Maraehako Bay Retreat for two nights. Sign up using this LINK to get $35 credit. They had incredible sunsets and even offered kayaks and paddle boards.
Next on your backpacking itinerary should be the gorgeous Tatapouri. An incredibly small, local seaside town where you can feed Stingrays, tackle some epic swells with your surf board, ride horses up the mountains and along the beach or simply sit back and enjoy the views. Some sights to see around the East Cape include the East Cape Lighthouse, which is also the most easterly point in New Zealand.
Pier jumping at Tolaga Bay Wharf
This is the longest pier in New Zealand and is super fun to jump off of. The activities along the East Cape are incredibly backpacker friendly due to the (surprising) poverty in the area with almost all accommodations offering Work for Accommodation options.
Enjoy Sunrise at Blue Duck Station
This is my favourite place in New Zealand to disconnect and get back in touch with nature. The most gorgeous scenery surrounds you and they make the best Goat Curry! This farm is 5200 acres and is leading the way in environmental conservation. A generous portion of land has been given back to nature, ensuring the protection of New Zealand’s native bush and wildlife such as the Kiwi or Blue Duck. Enjoy bush walks, horse treks and hunting activities. Wake up early and witness the most incredible sunrise, I promise you won’t regret it. At $37NZD per night it’s not the cheapest but it’s worth it. You’ll fall in love with Blue Duck Station and will want to stay longer, good thing is they are often looking for WOOFers! You’ll need a 4×4 car to get here. This is way off the bus route and it would be striking gold if you managed to hitchhike here. But I promise it is worth visiting it while backpacking New Zealand.
Hike at Tongariro National Park
There are many LOTR filming sites around here as well as many alternative walks. There is really not much else here other than hiking (tramping) trails. Tackle the mighty Tongariro Crossing (19.4km ouch!) and witness steam coming off the still-active volcano and if brave enough, follow in Frodo’s footsteps and climb Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe). In summer definitely camp in the designated camp sites and make sure to look up into the clear night sky. You will see countless stars. The stunning sky will take your breath away. Accommodation here is cheap and backpacker friendly, around $25-$30NZD per night.
Do a LOTR tour at Wellington
While backpacking New Zealand, my favourite city was Wellington. This funky place is great to spend a few nights resting your achy legs from the crossing. Set on the bottom tip of the North Island, from here you can take the ferry across or fly to the South Island. Spend your days in Wellington at the Te Papa Museum – free entry and free wifi – one of my favourite museums in the world. Climb Mount Victoria and enjoy walking through pine forest, escaping the city and taking in the beautiful panoramic views from the top. Wellington is also BIG into LOTR and has plenty of day trips, so super fans, you will adore Wellington!
Skydive at Franz Josef/Fox Glacier
These two small townships are set amongst incredible mountains on the West Coast, temperate rainforest and of course, glaciers! The activities here aren’t cheap. Glacier Heli-Hiking attracts people from all over the world and I would say is definitely worth the money (around $400NZD). This is where I plan to do my Skydive; I mean jumping from 19,000ft with a view of NZ’s highest mountains, glaciers and lakes is not bad right? Skydiving here ranges from $250NZD – $550NZD depending on the height- go big or go home right?
Give CouchSurfing a try around here, the hostels are pretty pricey ($30-$35NZD per night) plenty of seasonal staff working here offering couches. Otherwise check out some of the designated campsites, they are a bit out of town but beautiful and cheap! Some good but slightly expensive hotels are Distinction Fox Glacier Hotel and Sunset Motel.
Instagram the Wanaka Tree
Wanaka is home to the most Instagrammed tree in the world – the Wanaka tree. This beautiful lakefront town will make you fall in love with New Zealand (if you aren’t already). Surrounded by unbelievable peaks, beautiful lakes and forest, Wanaka is a favourite spot for those into photography, hiking or anything chill and creative. Check out the stunning pictures taken by Beanies and Bikinis in this kickass article. Make sure to take an Instagram worthy picture. Hike Rob Roys Peak, it is crazy beautiful once at the peak. To get here you will need to hitch hike or drive. Try and do this as early as possible. Hiking in the glaring midday sun is no fun in New Zealand. Hostels here will be around $25-$30NZD per night but CouchSurfing is easy – often you may find yourself CouchSurfing in empty hostel beds! (But shhh that’s a secret…) Drinks here are pretty cheap and the popularity of food trucks here means that food is getting cheaper too! Save your money for the next stop…
Bungee jumping in Queenstown
Oh the home of adrenaline! Queenstown is known around the world as adventure capital and it does not disappoint. The list of things to do is never ending. With so many travel and tour companies operating here, there is always a deal to be found. Bungee jumping was an activity I never thought I would try, but I was roped into (no pun intended) jumping the Nevis. It was terrifying, but so worth it to say I’ve jumped off one of the world’s highest bungee jumping sites.
To save a bit of money try CouchSurfing or stay in Franklin outside of Queenstown and hitchhike in. Hitchhiking in and out of town is incredibly common here; you’ll see heaps of people doing it. Hostels here are expensive ($35-$45NZD per night). Drinking and eating in Queenstown can be as cheap or as expensive as your taste makes it. The famous Ferg Burger is a must do while not breaking the bank! Or you could head to Searle Lane Bar and enjoy cheap drinks and Pizza at happy hour!
Queenstown is not just adrenaline and drunkenness. There are some great walks around here, which will cost nothing but your breath. Ben Lomond is one of highest peaks around Queenstown. It will take you around 7 hours to get up and down, but is so worth it. You could also head up to Queenstown Hill Lake for a beautiful sunset view over The Remarkables.
An absolute must do while backpacking New Zealand is visiting the stunning Milford Sound. Part of the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage Site Milford Sound is the best know and most visited Fiord. Cruises are as cheap as $45NZD and well worth it. Self drive down and take in the incredible views, the drive is just as beautiful as the destination. I wouldn’t stay overnight in Milford Sound unless you have a campervan (or a lot more money). If you are not into cruises, try one of the incredible Kayaking trips. Most will offer pick-ups from Te Anau a small township before Milford Sound. Here you will be spending up to 5hrs (or overnight if your budget stretches) in the beautiful Milford Sound. Check out the guys at GoOrange Kayaks for great trips onto the Fiord. Stay at the small town of Te Anau, there are plenty of campsites, freedom camping spots and camper parks here. The hostels are reasonably priced but again I would CouchSurf or camp to save money.
There are many more extraordinary places in New Zealand but these are definitely hot spots you should hit up, especially on a budget backpacking trip to New Zealand.
Top Tips for Budget Backpackers exploring New Zealand
To keep your spending to an absolute minimum whilst backpacking New Zealand I recommend sticking to these three rules of budget adventuring….
Hitchhike: Hitchhike your way around. Kiwis are known for their amazing hospitality. It would be a shame not to give it a shot. Hitchhiking in New Zealand is the best way to keep your transport costs down so you can spend more on adventure activities.
Camp/ CouchSurf: With plenty of gorgeous natural places to camp at as well as numerous campsites, New Zealand is an excellent place to carry a tent. If you’re craving some company or local experience, jump on CouchSurfing or Airbnb. You could also give organic farming a hand and try WOOFing your way around New Zealand.
Cook your own food: Carry a pocket rocket stove on your backpacking trip. If you’re not too keen on trying the local food, whip up some quick meals and save a fortune!
Travel Resources for backpacking New Zealand
Books to read
Lonely Planet New Zealand – Insider tips to save time and money and get around like a local, avoiding crowds and trouble spots. Get to the heart of New Zealand with the Lonely Planet.
Squashed Possums – Check out this cool little book and explore New Zealand’s off the beaten track backpacking gems.
Field Guide to the Wildlife of New Zealand – This glorious photographic field guide illustrates New Zealand’s glorious wildlife. A must read for a nature lover backpacking New Zealand.
The Penguin History of New Zealand – Did you know that New Zealand was the last country in the world to be discovered by man? Find out about the history of New Zealand.
Explore New Zealand – A great choice for someone who chooses a driving holiday to discover the stunning diversity of New Zealand. The book has 61 routes in total, and each contains a detailed map and full-colour photography that illustrates some of the highlights of that particular trip.
The Bone People – Winner of the Booker Prize in 1985, The Bone People is the story of Kerewin, a despairing part-Maori artist who is convinced that her solitary life is the only way to face the world. This novel speaks about New Zealand’s people, its heritage and landscape with great perceptiveness. A great read to understand the culture from an inside’s perspective.
A Land of two Halves – After ten years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett asks himself what on earth he was doing there and begins to explore the reasons New Zealand is quietly seducing the rest of the world. An intriguing read.
The Changeover – An interesting supernatural romance, it’s great for a light read on a long haul trip.
A gear checklist I swear by! Make sure you check this out before venturing out for a backpacking adventure…
Insurance for your New Zealand backpacking Adventure
Be sure to get travel insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking trip to New Zealand, what with its high adrenaline activities and crazy adventure sports. I highly recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance.
If this budget guide hasn’t convinced you to get off your ass and get backpacking in New Zealand, you gotta be nuts!
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Janey Mae is an avid thrill seeker, mountain lover and adventure addict. She frequently gets lost in concrete jungles but successfully navigates underwater or the ‘real life’ jungle. She is the Master of truth or dare and slightly obsessed with David Attenborough. She’ll never politely decline food; offer it up at your own peril. A spontaneous vagabond, she has temporary homes but permanent friends all over the world. She is ridiculously laid back, makes friends with anyone, has endless energy and a permanent smile. Having posed with more strangers in photos than family, she may excitedly combust over wildlife (in the wild), adrenaline activities, wilderness, off the grid hikes and crazy scary mountains. Follow her adventures on her blog Little Wanderlust Stories. You could also check her out on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
PS. She only owns odd socks.