Aotearoa: land of the long white cloud. Or… New Zealand! Land of Kiwis, fish ‘n’ chips, and hobbits. Oh, and scenery so unreal it may just make you weep.
Some of the best experiences I’ve had whilst backpacking New Zealand have been when I was completely broke, hitchhiking, or meeting people who convinced me to ditch my plans and follow my adventurous instinct. Truly, New Zealand is a country kind to the penniless vagabond.
It may seem like 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: it was to be a hobbit’s journey!
And what an epic adventure it has been backpacking New Zealand on a budget. I’ve spent more than six months exploring this truly incredible land and here is all of my knowledge. I’ve prepared it all for you in this neat little koha – the one-stop travel guide for New Zealand!
We’ll go over what to do, where to stay, and how to travel in New Zealand cheap. By the end of this guide, you’ll everything that you could possibly need for New Zealand. All that’ll be left is buying a plane ticket and that dream campervan you’ve always wanted.
Because New Zealand was made for the vanlife.
Table of Contents
- Where to Go Backpacking in New Zealand
- Best Travel Itineraries for Backpacking New Zealand
- Places to Visit in New Zealand
- Backpacker Accommodation in New Zealand
- Top Things to Do in New Zealand
- New Zealand Travel Tips
- Staying Safe in New Zealand
- New Zealand Travel Guide - Getting In and Around
- New Zealand Backpacking Costs
- Must-Try Experiences in New Zealand
- A Brief History of New Zealand
- Final Thoughts on Backpacking New Zealand
Where to Go Backpacking in New Zealand
Made famous by the dramatic, unearthly scenery in Lord of the Rings, New Zealand is more than just an unbelievable movie set. Travelling in New Zealand is every outdoor enthusiast’s dream. Made up of two islands, your adventures are infinite.
The two islands do stand in noticeable contrast to each other. It’s fair to say that everywhere in New Zealand is mindbogglingly beautiful (except Auckland – curse you Auckland). That said, travelling on New Zealand’s North and South Islands are two different experience.
- North Island is much more populated (by New Zealand standards). There are a lot more developments and urban areas and while there are still many of New Zealand’s beautiful places, it lacks the uncut, untamed, and unabashed glory we’ve come to expect from Aotearoa.
- That’s what South Island is for. Near empty of people by comparison – and it only gets emptier the further south you go – South Island brings New Zealand’s best. Dramatic prehistoric scenery, endless oceans of sheep and cows, and the feeling of being outside of the world’s chaos: South Island is the tits.
It doesn’t stop there. Before I left backpacking for New Zealand, my cousin equated the landscape to biomes in a video game (weird, yes, I know but bear with me). He was right.
Travel 100 km in New Zealand and the whole landscape changes. A rugged coastline turns into glacier country turns into Colorado-esque boulder playgrounds. New Zealand is a playground of wonderment.
I’ve created two backpacking itineraries for New Zealand. One itinerary highlight the North Island, and the other highlights the South Island.
You can easily combine both itineraries if you have a month or more to travel in New Zealand. Many travellers backpack here on a year-long work visa. If that is the case, you have plenty of time to explore New Zealand’s beauty.
#1 New Zealand 2-Week Itinerary: North Island – Te Ika-a-Maui
2 Weeks: The North Island’s Highlights
This itinerary will start in Auckland. If you’re a city person, you can definitely find plenty of things to do in Auckland – restaurants, nightlife, galleries, and nearby beaches galore. This is also a great place to base yourself if you’re making the trip to the Bay of Islands (north), the Rangitoto Islands just off the coast of Auckland, or Coromandel, slightly East. You can also make a trip to Hobbiton, the real live set they used to film the hobbit wonderland in Lord of the Rings.
Then head to Rotorua, a geothermal hotspot (no pun intended) full of geysers, mud pools, and, yes, smelly sulfur. You can also engage with the indigenous Maori culture. Further south you’ll find Taupo and the epic Tongariro National Park. This is a great spot to hike and bike.
Next stop: the cool, hipster city Wellington, known for its food, drink, and art. If you’re a wino, make sure to drive through Hawke’s Bay Wine Country on your way to Wellington.
After visiting Wellington, loop back around to Mt Taranaki, a classic 2,518m volcanic cone. Then go to the Waitomo Caves: damp, underground tunnels home to glowing worms! Before getting back to Auckland, surfers should stop at Raglan, the hippy beachside slow-town of North Island.
#2 New Zealand 3-Week Itinerary: The South Island - Te Waipounamu
3 Weeks: The South Island's Dramatic Scenery
Get ready to be wowed. If you're backpacking New Zealand for nature, this is the itinerary for you. Start your trip in Christchurch, then make your way to Kaikoura on the coast. Kaikoura is popular for whale tours and helicopter flights! If you're a wine person, drink up some Sauvignon Blanc at the Marlborough Sounds. Picton is a quaint town to base yourself.
If these types of activities don't fit your budget, fear not, we're heading into nature soon. The best things in life are free after all?
Next Stop: Abel Tasman National Park. You'll think you're on a tropical beach (minus the temperature). Nearby you can drive to Whaririki Beach (pronounced ‘Far-ri-ree-kee') - squeezed between Abel Tasman and Kahurangi National Park - and will take you through wonderful hippy-haven Golden Bay.
Drive through Punakaiki, home of the Pancake Rocks: a series of coastal cliffs that literally look like giant stacks of pancakes. Around these rocks are also several impressive blowholes.
Next is off to Franz Josef Glacier to witness the world's steepest and fastest moving glacier. After that, continue to bohemian Wanaka, also known for its famous tree in the middle of a lake.
Wanaka is close to Queenstown and it's only a short trip between the two. When you're ready to leave darling Wanaka (never), travel to Queenstown, New Zealand's - and frankly the world's - adventure capital. Ski in winter, hike in summer, and bungee jump or skydive all-year-round.
Saving the best for last, get ready to make the Milford drive to Milford Sound. After being gobsmacked by Rudyard Kipling's "Eighth Wonder of the World" over and over again, finish South Island in New Zealand's own Deep South.
Travel to the Southern Scenic Route and the Caitlins to see some astounding forests and windswept coastline.
Start looking for places to stay in New Zealand now!
Now that we've covered the travel itinerary ideas, we're going to discuss some of the best places to go in New Zealand. Read on for more backpacking wonders!
Auckland is the starting point for a lot of people travelling to 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. It's busy and it's certainly not the best New Zealand has to offer, but it is worth noting that there are some beautiful places to visit in Auckland in the surrounding area (away from the CBD).
Visit the sky tower for some views over the city, or kickstart your adrenaline by jumping off the top! If you are willing to get out of the city, there is plenty to do. The forests to the west are way more inviting than the city vibes or head to the North Shore for some beach time!
Backpacking Rangitoto and Waiheke Island
There are a number of islands around Auckland to explore and it's as simple as catching the ferry there! No need to book in advance; just pop down to the ferry terminal to buy your ticket. These two spots near Auckland are definitely worth the day trip:
- Rangitoto Island ($36 NZD return) - A volcanic island off the coast of Auckland, Rangitoto is uninhabited by people and a reserve to some of New Zealand’s native birds and bush. There are multiple hiking loops and plenty of cool caves to explore. 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 though or you'll be stranded.
- Waiheke Island ($42 NZD return) - 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, so I would recommend bringing a picnic or barbeque food, or cooking yourself and eating down by the beach. It's the perfect next place to go in New Zealand after Auckland to detox those concrete jungle feels!
Before you completely bail on Auckland and start heading south, there's a whole region north of Auckland. It's kinda like Game of Thrones in reverse. Auckland is a big dumb wall (that ruins hitchhiker's days) and north of it, you have the land of eternal summer.
Although not strictly off of New Zealand's tourist spots, it is fair to say that it's lesser explored. There are fewer people up here and more empty space of some rather striking nature. It's kinda like the South Island of North Island. There's also more ice - I guess it is like Game of Thrones!
For a few of New Zealand's top highlights in Northland (on and off the tourist trail):
- Whangarei - The last city you'll get heading north with a gorgeous surrounding area - beautiful beaches and a bunch of small but sexy mountains (it's not the size that counts).
- Bay of Plenty - Easily the biggest tourist spot in the north of New Zealand but with good reason: it's spectacularly beautiful with a lot of cool islands to explore.
- Waipoua Kauri Forest - Did somebody say a 3000-year-old tree? The kauri trees here are magnificent and the giant snails ain't bad either (though he dead ones stink worse than Rotorua). Do note though, the ancient forest here is dying of the kauri dieback disease so follow all the guidelines.
- Far North - Pretty much anywhere you go this far north is going to be a much less touristic New Zealand backpacking experience.
- Cape Reinga / Te Rerenga Wairua - The almost northernmost point of New Zealand, there's like a whole section I could write on this magical place. It's arguably the most sacred place in all of New Zealand for the Maori people the air feels palpably otherworldly. Y'know, no spoilers: go find out the rest for yourself!
If it wasn't for an even more awesome hippy town coming up soon (in the south), this would be the top sticky place in New Zealand to visit for backpackers seeking those Byron-style vibes. This cute little hippie/surf town caters well to New Zealand backpackers.
It is touristy but it draws a good kind of tourist - the earthy backpacking joint-rolling kind. Raglan is known for being one of the best surf and kitesurf beaches in New Zealand and it has a great chilled out vibe. Most people around here will definitely be surfing (probs playing backgammon too) and everyone is keen to teach you how.
Surfboard rental is kinda expensive at about $20-$30 NZD for a half-day but if you stay at a hostel in Raglan, they will often have discounted lessons and board hire available. Definitely CouchSurf here; you will meet some wicked people who will probably have boards, boats, and kayaks that you can borrow!
Only a two-hour drive from Auckland is the Coromandel Peninsula. There are loads of activities making this a wonderful weekend getaway.
The white sand beaches are pristine at New Chums Beach and don’t forget to hike up to the overlook for epic views. Hot Water Beach, while not very scenic, is a fun experience to soak in natural hot springs oceanside during low tide. The Karangahake Gorge is very scenic and has some short walking tracks.
The best stop and a must-visit in New Zealand is Cathedral Cove. Come during low tide and preferably at sunrise or sunset. There are only two hostels in Coromandel, however, there are several campsites on the peninsula itself for around $10.
Rotorua - or the town that smells like farty-egg-feet as most people will refer to it - is actually not as smelly as it is made out to be... Ok, that's a lie. But it's still definitely a must-visit place in New Zealand!
There is LOADS of geothermal activity here. This town is incredibly tourist orientated and backpacker-friendly – the whole working part of the town comprises of backpackers. There are also heaps of New Zealand's adventure activities in the area making it a rival to Queenstown... except Queenstown doesn't smell like a fish's butthole.
I would recommend CouchSurfing here since the hostels cost quite a bit. If hostels are your only option, Rotorua Central Backpackers is an awesome one in the centre of Rotorua.
While backpacking here, check out the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland for all things Geothermal. You can hire a mountain bike and take the trail to the park or pay for the shuttle service to take you there if you are in a less active mood. Entry to the park is around $33 NZD - 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, and 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 but hitchhiking is a snap in New Zealand.
Backpacking the East Cape Road
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 a chance to experience being off New Zealand's beaten track.
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 homestays! I stayed at the lovely Airbnb property Maraehako Bay Retreat for two nights.
Also in this area is the gorgeous Tatapouri: an incredibly small, local seaside town where you can feed Stingrays, tackle some of New Zealand's epic swell with your surfboard, and enjoy the view from horseback or a deckchair. Some sights to see around the East Cape include the East Cape Lighthouse, which is also the most easterly point in New Zealand.
You can also visit the Tolega Bay area, home of the longest pier in New Zealand and super fun to jump off of. There are heaps activities along New Zeland's East Cape and the area is incredibly backpacker-friendly given its removal from the rest of the tourist trail; volunteering opportunities are high!
Backpacking Tongariro National Park
Skip ahead to see more of New Zealand's wealth of national parks in a later section, but this one deserves special mention. This park is New Zealand’s oldest and is also a dual World Heritage site both for its geological significance as well as its spiritual significance to the Maori people.
Tongariro National park is one of New Zealand's most famous Lord of the Rings filming spots. It is home to the famous ‘Mount Doom’ and of course, the Tongariro Crossing – a 'Great Walk' one of New Zealand’s best day hikes.
There are many LOTR filming locations around here as well as many alternative walks but not much else other than hiking (tramping) trails. Tackle the mighty Tongariro Crossing (19.4km ) and witness steam coming off the still-active volcano. If you're brave enough, follow in Frodo’s footsteps and climb Mount Ngauruhoe (Mount Doom).
Taupo is a good base for exploring the park. It's a super beautiful lake and as an added bonus there are free hot springs to melt the weariness away after the walk! Head to the Spa Thermal Park.
Backpacking Mount Taranaki
The most picture-perfect volcano in New Zealand is Mount Taranaki; on a clear day, it can be seen from hundreds of kilometres away. This area of the North Island has some pretty amazing sights to explore and epic hikes. Climbing Mount Taranaki is one of New Zealand's harder hikes to do but the pay-off is well worth it.
For an easier hike than the summit, check out the Pouakai Tarns for a stunning picture of Mount Taranaki. Nearby in New Plymouth, the area around the Paritutu Rock is beautiful. Just up the coastline are two incredible places to explore during low tide.
The Three Sisters Beach and Elephant Rock, as well as the White Cliffs walkway, are some of the most scenic coastlines the north island has to offer. As with most major attractions in New Zealand, there are plenty of hostels in New Plymouth as well as other accommodations.
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, you can take the ferry across the strait or fly to the South Island pretty cheap from Wellington.
The city is super warm and carries a real alternative-friendly vibe. Hippies, travellers, LGBTQ folks, lovable guttertrash... Welly carries a genuine feeling of acceptance that usually feels more like a pretend mask in a lot of other "progressive" cities elsewhere.
If you have the time or have that wonderful working holiday visa for New Zealand, Wellington is easily a place to stay for a while. The surrounding nature is dope, the city has a lot of cool happenings going on, and the even in the central hub of the city there still manages to be a warm village feeling. Bumping into a friend randomly in the middle of the city is a given.
Any complaints? Yeah, the weather sucks in winter. Icy rains and 40km/h winds - fun!
Things to Do in Wellington
There are so many awesome things to see and do in Wellington. So much so, I just had to give it a little bonus section! Here are a few of my top 5 picks of what to do in Wellington:
- Freyburg Pool and Fitness Centre - Excercise? Boo!
Na, this place is the best! It's right next to Oriental Bay and beach and it's $5 for sauna privileges. You know what that means? Hot-and-cold, baby!
- Cuba Street - Any walk down Cuba Street is a solid day; gypsy street merchants, buskers, Wellington's night markets are there. There is a lot of BoHo(ish) shops along Wellington's Cuba Street and it's just something of a hub and focal point in the CBD.
- Op-Shopping - Speaking of shopping in Wellington! The second-hand shops in Welly are kickass (actually, in New Zealand as a whole). Go find something colourful!
- The Rogue and Vagabond - A neat little bar that has live music most nights of the week. The nightlife in Wellington is sweet with a bustling music scene but The Rogue and Vagabond gets some really eclectic and off-beat stuff!
- Rent a bicycle - Wellington has this whole mountain city thing going one and mountain city's have the whole 'bombing hills at 120km/h without a helmet' thing going on. Getting back up is a bitch though.
Backpacking Tasman and Golden Bay
Starting off South Island now and it's a strong start!
The northernmost areas of the South Island of New Zealand where the smokeables are dank and plentiful and the sun is emotionally-available most of the year. This area of New Zealand is spectacular and easily one of the highlights for me.
Tasman Bay begins with Nelson which is a pretty city but a bit 'East Coast Australia' feeling for me. Once you get a bit further north up to Motueka though, it starts to get real nice.
A top destination in New Zealand for Kiwis wanting to live the permaculture life (and travellers wanting to volunteer in it), with that comes the hippies and with that comes the endless swathes of smoke. Jokes aside, the area is gorgeous: gateway to the Abel Tasman National Park and some stunning beaches. Kaiteriteri is one of New Zealand's most beautiful beaches but touristy; check out Kina Beach for something quieter (with the $5 campsite next door).
Golden Bay just gets stickier. It's a bubble and I mean that in the best way possible. There's one road in and out over the mountains and it's safe to say that some people haven't crossed those mountains for a couple of decades.
Head to Takaka, a timeless little town, if you're looking to get embroiled in New Zealand's doof scene (hippy festival) or just wanna connect with some travellers of the grungier variety. They generally congregate down by the river. Don't worry: they're easy to find.
Backpacking the West Coast
The West Coast region of South Island is full-fucking-power Aotearoa - there are no there words for it. It's one of the most dramatic coastlines I've ever seen and I know that word is really overplayed but there simply are no other words I feel match it.
For me, it's one of the best drives in New Zealand. It doesn't actually feel like you're in the 21st-century anymore. You legitimately feel like a moa might step out in front of your car and kamikaze-roadkill itself at any time.
Giant ferns leap out over densely forested cliffs, the weather is harsh and unforgiving (it ain't called 'The Wild West Coast for nothing), and every bend on the highway opens up to some new "Ooohh". Oh, and those sandflies will eat you alive - bring protection! Legend has it that the coasters of the sparsely-populated West Coast have developed a natural immunity to these foul devils...
If you can do the whole thing from Westport in the north through to Haast and beyond to Wanaka, you'll get a true sense of how special travelling New Zealand is. West Coast - an unmissable place to visit in New Zealand, no questions.
Must-Sees of the West Coast Region of New Zealand's South Island
Some must-visit spots on New Zealand's West Coast. There are heaps more than this... Hell, if you can handle the hormonally-moody rain complete with mood swings (a rain jacket is mandatory packing) and the blackened legions of flying itchy-bitchies, you could get lost in the West Coast's jungles for a bit.
Failing that, however:
- Karamea - Actually north of the West Coast proper and comparatively less-frequented. There are beaches, caves, hot pools, and a backdoor entry into the Kahurangi National Park.
- Punakaiki - Not much going on here but it is home of the Pancake Rocks and blowholes - a famous New Zealand attraction.
- Franz Josef and Fox Glacier - Ahh, now this is the true tourist spot on the West Coast of New Zealand and one of the busiest areas you'll come across there (even comparatively to Greymouth - the largest town). I'm actually not a fan.
The glaciers weren't super impressive and the prices in the area are all mega-jacked. HOWEVER, if you have the spare cash for a helicopter tour and hike on the glaciers, then you're in for a treat. A glacier is way more impressive from on top of it rather than a few kilometres away...
- Hokitika Gorge - Super beautiful in its own right but the river (and river mouth) is an excellent place to go in New Zealand to find pounamu - that type of jade every single bloody Kiwi wears around their neck like they're in a secret club. (I want in!)
Just remember how sacred pounamu is. If you find one, then your pounamu has chosen you and that's your pounamu.
- Blue Pools - Let's just say that that's no misnomer.
Sweet darling Wanaka, oh how I adore you. If you were an Italian maiden, I'd serenade you from beneath your balcony (and then eat poison and die).
Consider Wanaka like a good Queenstown. Okkk, some people love Queenstown but it's super touristy and just a bit... backpackery (I know, I know, but you know the vibe I mean).
However, half-an-hour drive away is Wanaka, full of eccentric loveables, surrounded by the same gorgeous mountains of Queenstown, and still with a twinkling lake (complete with that famous tree). I would say that for anyone that Queenstown just feels like a bit much, stay in Wanaka.
There's no shortage of that uncut Otago region nature around Wanaka to explore Hiking Rob Roys Peak is a good start; it is crazy beautiful once at the peak. There is also no shortage of lake activities in Wanaka: joints by the lake, joints on a cruise on the lake, joints while kayaking on the lake. Hell, joints while abseiling down a waterfall!
Hostels in Wanaka are pricey (welcome to accommodation in New Zealand), however, there are some campsites around town... that are also kinda pricey. If you need to save some cash, Couchsurfing or sneaky camping is the way to go. We'll talk about saving on the cost of travel in New Zealand soon.
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 in Queenstown is never-ending. With so many travel and tour companies operating here, it's certainly the place to go for adventure travel in New Zealand.
A snow destination in winter with delicious icing-sugar powdered slopes, or in summer, it's the place in New Zealand for every other adventure activity you could think of: massive bungee jumps, hiking, white water rafting, climbing and mountaineering, and it's a top spot for skydiving too! It's also a total backpacker hub.
There's heaps of nightlife in Queenstown, substance-galore, and no shortage of tourists of the 'young, dumb, and full of red-hotted ideals' variety. If that's what you're seeking, Queenstown is the perfect destination in New Zealand for it. It's also an easy place in New Zealand to find a backpacker job; a lot of people just spean a season of their working visa in Queenstown.
Hostels in Queenstown are expensive, even by New Zealand's standard and the council has pretty rigidly clamped down on freedom camping of any description. A good alternative is staying out of town somewhere cheaper (Franklin, Arrowtown, or there's a free campsite at Cromwell) and hitching in.
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! Oh, and for any nights out, pre-greasing the wheels is a must.
Backpacking Aoraki / Mount Cook
The tallest mountain in New Zealand is…Mount Cook! And no, you cannot hike it. Well, you can, but you'll need some heavy-duty gear, a strong sense of stupid-bravery, experience (it's a knife-edge point), and probably a parental permission slip too.
It doesn't matter though because Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is another hiking marvel of New Zealand (and another special mention) with some of the best tramping to be found. This national park is centre to the stunning Southern Alps mountain range that defines the South Island of New Zealand. The drive into Mount Cook National Park winds along the lake with several viewpoints and it's a very sexy approach.
Once in the park, there are two valleys to explore, the Hooker Valley and the Tasman Valley. The Tasman Lake was once a massive glacier that has receded several kilometres in just the last decade. The Hooker Valley Track is a wonderful easy 3-hour walk to Hooker Lake; glacier melt floats in the lake beneath the watchful peak of Mount Cook.
For one of the best hikes in New Zealand, head up to Mueller Hut. This popular day hike takes around five hours or plan ahead and book a night stay in the hut. These are the best views of Mount Cook and staying for sunset to see the last light on the tallest mountain in New Zealand is truly something special.
It is cold, so come prepared but staying the night in complete silence mixed with thunderous booms from nearby collapsing glaciers is incredible to experience. There are no hostels around Mount Cook, however, there are lodges in the village or paid camping is available in the park. Or head over to Lake Tekapo; stop and check out the Church of Good Shephard if you head that way!
Backpacking Milford Sound and the Fiordlands
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 known and most visited fiord and with good reason. As Rudyard Kipling called it, "the eighth Wonder of the World".
The Fiordlands of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on earth so, again, that rain jacket is a must. Moody, serene, and devastating all at the same time, Milford Sound is something you gotta see to really feel the scope - no written word and captured image can do it justice...
There is a number of ways to see the sounds. You can stay in the small town of Te Anau as a base: there are plenty of campsites, freedom camping spots, and camper parks here plus some hostels. Self-drive down and take in the incredible views; the drive is just as beautiful as the destination.
For getting out on the sounds, cruises are the tourist-standard but a kayaking adventure is going to be way more adventurous! There are also a couple of other spectacular multi-day tramps (and more of New Zealand's Great Walks).
The Milford Track (pre-booking the walk is almost a guarantee) is one of the most authentic ways to experience the sounds. Waterfalls, rainforests, and glacier-carved valleys are all there on this four-day hike.
Alternatively, the Kepler Track is another multi-day hike that will take you on a different journey to see a less-touristed side of the Fiordlands. One way or another, you gotta walk in this area. It's too damn pretty!
Getting off the Beaten Path in New Zealand
It's totally possible - a few steps into New Zealand's overwhelming natural wonder just about anywhere is going to give those adventure feels. At the same time, it's New Zealand so you never quite get that feeling of being lost in an unknown and foreboding land - it's a good mix!
If you're looking to break away from New Zealand's tourist spots, the aforementioned far north and New Zealand's 'Deep South' are both excellent starts. I love that New Zealand has a deep south - it totally is too! Endless oceans of sheep, a slightly drawlier accent, and a lot of farmer life. That said, the people are still wonderful.
A few of the best spots in New Zealand's deep south are the Caitlins Region and the Southern Scenic Route along the souths's coastline. It's hard hitching but well worth it for the payoff in the feeling of beautiful desolation and wildlife spotting opportunities.
Once you hit Bluff (the almost-southernmost point of New Zealand) you can catch a ferry to Stewart Island/Rakiura - Aotearoa's under-appreciated third island. There's like one settlement here and then nothing but unabashed and untouched nature. It's also the best place to go in New Zeland to see wild kiwis (of the actually feathered variety).
Dunedin is another city in the south that often gets overlooked by backpackers. It's an interesting city with Scottish architecture, an odd mix of conservative people and best-brand-weirdos, and a bustling student life. There's a whole local party scene with the students and a dope fire-dancing scene too - the best I found in New Zealand!
Arthur's Pass on South Island is another must-visit in New Zealand. Not strictly tourist-free but such a wild piece of Jurassic mountainous nature that it doesn't matter. Head to Castle Hill in the area for some of New Zealand's best bouldering (it's a goddamn proverbial playground)!
That, of course, is all the highlights of the South Island because that is the majesty of South Island - one giant rugged adventure! I'd say, however, if you're more looking to get off the beaten path in New Zealand in a cultural sense, volunteering is the way to go.
Workaway opportunities, WWOOFing, and everything else is extremely common in New Zealand; honestly, there's something around just about every corner. Any step into this life is not only a perfect way to backpack New Zealand on a budget, but it's also a great way to see the local life. Even just talking to strangers and expressing interest will often find you a host.
Accommodation is not cheap in New Zealand; even hostels are expensive! In the ‘high season’ (summer and in some areas, winter) they will set you back by upwards of $35 NZD per night for a shared dorm. Only use the hostels in New Zealand when absolutely necessary or your daily budget travelling in New Zealand is going to fall apart.
If you're looking for a paid room, sadly hostels still remain the cheapest option. You may occasionally stumble across a cheap place to stay somewhere in New Zealand on Airbnb, but it's still a limited selection. So how about saving money on accommodation in New Zealand?
CouchSurfing is widely used and a great way to meet new people and locals while backpacking in New Zealand. It does require some pre-planning though; the rock up in town and see what is around is not the best method for Couchsurfing.
Working for accommodation (and probably food too) is another excellent option in New Zealand. If you know you are going to be hanging around an area for a while, check with local hostels homestays if they offer some sort of bed and board thing. Workaway, again, is another great platform, as is WWOOF for farm-based work, or Facebook groups and even the local town notice board (legit).
Camping in New Zealand - free or otherwise - is the other cheap accommodation option. Tents, cars, and the vanlife is all a dream in New Zealand but it's not a cut-and-dry though so I'll cover camping in a different section coming up.
You’ll find Kiwi’s are incredibly generous when it comes to opening their doors to you and hitchhiking or meeting folks sometimes can end up in a bed or place to stay. Yeah, travelling costs in New Zealand are high but the country and people are also super kind to the homeless dirtbag. Generally, in New Zeland, it always somehow works itself out.
Where to Stay in New Zealand
|Auckland||Verandahs Backpacker Lodge||This cute 1900's hostel is nestled in the heart of the city. The verandahs is a great hangout spot & you have an incredible view of Auckland harbour!|
|Waiheke Island||Waiheke Backpackers Hostel||Amazing location right above Onetangi Beach with stunning sea views. BBQ deck overlooking the ocean.|
|Raglan||Solscape Eco Retreat||A nature lovers dream, nestled at the bottom of Mt Karioi & overlooking the Tasman Sea. Near surf at Ngaranui Beach & Manu Bay. This hostel is all about reducing your ecological footprint & living sustainability.|
|Rotorua||Funky Green Voyager||This hostel is environmentally friendly & has an awesome backpackers vibe. The social areas are great, it's got a beautiful big backyard with a BBQ. Plus if you want to save money on food, it's got a modern kitchen.|
|Gisborne (East Cape)||YHA Gisborne||Perfect location surrounded by stunning beaches, the harbour, cafes & nightclubs.|
|Tongariro||YHA National Park Backpackers||An outdoor junkies' paradise with its own indoor climbing wall. It's located on the doorstep of Tongariro National Park & even provides transport to & from Tongariro Alpine Crossing & surroundings.|
|Wellington||The Dwellington Hostel||Great social scene with half the area dedicated to common areas. There's a chef style kitchen, long dining table, TV, games room & chilled outdoor areas. WiFi is free & so is breakfast!|
|Fox Glacier||Ivory Towers Backpackers Lodge||You know it's a good hostel when it has a spa & sauna! If you're going to cook, the kitchen has free tea, sugar herbs and spices and oil. Chill by the wood fire on a cold night, get social & play some games or amuse yourself with the big TV & their hundreds of movies.|
|Wanaka||YHA Purple Cow||This hostel is located in the stunning alpine village of Lake Wanaka. They have a free pool table, sky TV, movies, BBQ & fireplace. You can book adventure activities like skydiving, canyoning, rock climbing etc here!|
|Queenstown||Adventure Q2 Hostel||Right in the heart of the city, close to the nightlife & across the road from The Village Green.|
Top Things to Do in New Zealand
When it comes to what to do in New Zealand, the options are endless. It's not a large country but is absolutely bursting with wonder and amazement. These aren't all of New Zealand's must-dos by any stretch, but they are the pick of a few of my faves.
1. Tramp Like a Kiwi
You have so many options for hiking in New Zealand - legitimately endless. The wealth of huts to stay in on trails - both free and paid - make this only easier. Suit up with your best backpacking gear and go have an adventure!
2. Go Bungee Jumping
This is the country bungee jumping was invented in, after-all. With so many beautiful places to jump, you'd be a fool not to jump off a bridge! (Plus, this is New Zealand, so really you should feel safest here.) Queenstown is the go-to destination in New Zealand for yoyo-like fun but there are plenty of other jumps around.
3. The Maori People...
Are truly spectacular. On a personal note, this isn't like the Aboriginals of Australia where a wall of division is immediately obvious (rightfully so given their despicable persecution). The Maori people are incredibly open to travellers: bigass smiles and endless flows of conversation. Generally, I found they were also delighted to teach people about their culture, language, or just talk some shit so go meet them!
4. Find a Wild Kiwi: Gotta Catch 'em All!
Again with the Australia comparison, spotting a kiwi bird in the wild in New Zealand is the equivalent of a wild platypus in Australia. It's the holy grail and a total rite of passage so you better get (non-violently) hunting! Stewart Island is the top point of interest to check out in New Zealand but there are other hotspots too.
5. Splurge on a Glacier Heli-Hiking Excursion
Why nooot? I can't say that this is cheap, but it is one of those once-and-a-lifetime experiences. Besides, maybe you'll see a yeti!
Oh yes, the doof scene is cranking in New Zealand and the music is hella tight. From wobblin' psy to breaking D'n'B to some real funky glitchy bangers, hippies are boogieing everywhere (and the scene is super open to travellers). The Golden Bay area is the prime hotspot but parties in New Zealand are everywhere. Twisted Frequency Festival over New Year's Eve is the supreme cliff-jump into the rabbit hole.
7. Cycle along Central Otago
All you bikers out there have to get to this area to cycle along the Otago Central Rail Trail through beautiful landscapes and old mining towns. Balance the fitness with numerous historic pub stops or vineyards! And just as a side-not. the Otago region just so mwah!
8. Kayak the Milford Sound
I've just gotta make a second shout-out to Milford Sound because it is one of the most spectacular things to see in New Zealand. This part of New Zealand has waterfalls, staggering cliffs and peaks, and dark cobalt waters. It rains most of the year, so enjoy the moody vibes if you don't get a sunny day. Head out there on a kayak and your eyes peeled for seals and dolphins!
9. Drive around New Zealand in a Campervan
New Zealand and the vanlife go together almost as well as New Zealand and an overwhelming sense of inner peace! This actually isn't as expensive as it sounds, and the best way to see New Zealand is by campervan! You will need to have at least $3,000 to buy a van but after you're done backpacking around New Zealand, you can hopefully sell the van close to the amount you paid for it. Plus, a van will allow you total freedom in New Zealand and the ability to camp more versus staying in expensive hostels and hotels.
If you're being temtped by that tingly impending-adventure feeling, check out our post on campervanning in New Zealand.
10. Live in New Zealand
Many countries are able to get a year-long work visa for New Zealand. This means you can work for several months, and travel afterwards with the money you saved up! If the opportunity to live in New Zealand is there, it's one of the best things to do; it's a truly magical place and a new home to many expatriated travellers who finally felt they'd found the place to settle.
New Zealand Travel Tips
Below I've covered the essential travel guide information for New Zealand. This includes the best time to visit, how to get around, and what costs you should expect including how to backpack New Zealand on a shoestring budget.
Best Time to Travel to New Zealand
December to February marks high season (and summer) in New Zealand. These are the busiest months for the beaches, hiking, and outdoor exploration. There are plenty of festivals and events going on too. This is also the most expensive time to visit New Zealand.
The ski towns (Wanaka and Queenstown in particular) also experience high season in winter (June to August).
Your best bet for backpacking New Zealand on a budget is to visit during shoulder season, so March to May, and September to November. The weather is still great (although noticeably less great the further south you are), and you're going to get fewer crowds and better deals.
Outside of the ski towns, winter in New Zealand is a cheap time to visit as well, though the beach towns will be cold and sleepy. Northland and the Tasman/Golden Bay area stay pretty damn nice all-year-round though.
What to Pack for New Zealand
Make sure to pack right for New Zealand! On every adventure, there are six things to never go travelling without:
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottles are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
4. Headtorch: Every backpacker should have a head torch! A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl Actik Core rechargeable headlamp - an awesome piece of kit! Because it’s USB chargeable I never have to buy earth polluting batteries.
5.Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
6. Toiletry Bag: I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super-efficient way to organise your bathroom stuff. Well worth having, whether you are hanging it from a tree whilst camping, or a hook in a wall, it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out our full backpacking packing list.
Oh, and bonus entry: sandfly protection and lots of it.
Books to Read about New Zealand
- The Backpacker Bible – Get it for free! Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. To inspire and help the next generation of Broke Backpackers, you can now grab ‘How to Travel the World on $10 a Day’ for free!
- Pounamu Pounamu - A short story collection penned by the esteemed Witi Ihimaera, the same author of ‘The Whale Rider’. Pounamu Pounamu depicts themes of Maori culture, identity, and perspective in 1960s New Zealand. It’s an important read for any traveller of New Zealand seeking a deeper insight into the country and its people.
- 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 insider's perspective.
Useful Travel Phrases for New Zealand
So, English is the spoken language in New Zealand (officially) If you're reading this, you're presumably golden. That said, the Maori do very much have their own spoken language (on top of English) and it's not uncommon for a white Kiwi to know a few words... usually about three.
The left side is a few Maori words; the right side is some choice New Zealand slang:
Apps to Download Before Backpacking New Zealand
Download the following apps as you go backpacking through New Zealand!
- Maps.Me - Prone to getting lost or taking that 'shortcut' that adds another few hours onto a simple walk? This app is definitely for you. My favourite offline maps app, download your map and route before you venture out to keep you on track while backpacking New Zealand, especially out on the trail.
- XE Currency - I used this a lot when backpacking New Zealand. It is a great help while calculating expenses.
- HIDE.ME - I always have a VPN ready to go on both my phone and laptop, I personally use Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
- CamperMate - This amazing app is a must for anyone camping or with a campervan in New Zealand. It has information on every campsite, costs, and user comments. There is also heaps of additional information such as public restrooms, free showers, supermarkets, and petrol stations. The app is free for IOS and Android users.
Staying Safe in New Zealand
I almost feel silly writing about safety in New Zealand, considering New Zealand is consistently ranked as the most peaceful country in the world. Crime rates are extremely low and everything from sleeping in parks to hitchhiking is extremely safe!
Therefore, when we talk about staying safe in New Zealand while backpacking, we are instead referring to the unpredictable weather while you're out doing adventurous things. Don't underestimate nature, keep updated about the weather (that shit turns quick), and invest in proper hiking footwear, relevant attire, and camping gear, if you plan to be out in the National Parks a lot.
Secondly, the sun is strong in New Zealand - it turned my bloody hair blonde! The clear, unpolluted atmosphere and relatively low latitudes produce sunlight stronger than much of Europe or North America. Always stay sun-protected.
Thirdly, crime is low but dicks be dicks - I got my phone stolen in Raglan once... two days after returning someone else's lost phone - Karma is a lie! Stay smart, especially on beaches, and travel with a money belt to protect yo' cash and goodies!
Oh, and watch out for the sheepies while driving.
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to staying safe while travelling in New Zealand (or anywhere else for that matter). Also, I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp, especially if you're camping in New Zealand. Check out this post for a breakdown of the best headlamps to take backpacking.
Sex, Drugs, & Rock n Roll in New Zealand
Sex? Well, yeah, duh.
Kiwi girls are some of the most beautiful, friendly, and down to earth chicks you’ll ever meet when backpacking. Typically they love to have fun, drink, and party, and it goes the same with the lads. If you be looking, you'll find a date no sweat.
It's all there from deliciously dank bud to knockin' psychedelics to catapulting stimulants. It's all illegal so be smart where and when you buy and take it, but everything is available if expensive. New Zealand even has a pretty major crystal meth problem so that's fun! Bonus safety tip: stay away from meth ('duh, no shit sherlock' moment of the century).
Booze and cigarettes are expensive as you would expect in New Zealand. Cigarettes, however, are shockingly expensive: bring as many pouches of tobacco as customs will let you. And when it comes to a night out, you gotta pre-drink.
As a general rule though, there is a kickass party scene in New Zealand and holy shit the boogies are tight!
World Nomads Insurance
Be sure to get your travel insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking trip to New Zealand, especially with its high adrenaline activities and crazy adventure sports. I highly recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance.
Getting an estimate from World Nomads is simple - just click the button or image below, fill out the necessary info, and you're on your way!
Find out why I recommend World Nomads; check out the World Nomads Insurance review.
New Zealand Travel Guide - Getting In and Around
For a travel guide for New Zealand to successfully do its job, it's gotta tell you how to actually travel! Here's all the tasty deetz of getting into and then around New Zealand.
Arriving in New Zealand
The two easiest airports to fly into are Auckland on the north island and Christchurch on the south island. Wellington also gets some international flights but not as many as Auckland. Since New Zealand is an island (well multiple) you will have to fly here!
Auckland will most likely have the cheapest flights, and it's easy to catch a domestic flight from there to most any other airports in New Zealand. It's also worth noting that a domestic flight from Wellington to Nelson can cost as much - or sometimes less - than the ferry crossing
Entry Requirements for New Zealand
The rules change a lot depending on where you're from but luckily the official site for visa information for New Zealand is magnificently designed. Suck it, India: that's a proper user experience!
I told you New Zealand was easy right? Well, a Visitor Visa is applied for online (for most nationalities) and is to be obtained before arrival. Entering as a visitor, you must have sufficient funds to cover your stay in New Zealand and onwards travel and you may be asked to present proof of said funds and onwards travel. Those things are always a 'potential scenario' though.
Alternatively, you can apply for a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority and then once you arrive at Auckland's International Airport (it has to be Auckland for the NZeTA), you can apply for a proper visa.
A New Zealand Visitor Visa can last up to as long as nine months, but it is highly contingent on the variables, especially where you're from. After the allowed term, you can apply for another visa or even move to a student or working visa if you're looking at living in New Zealand.
So, what's the cost of a visa for New Zealand? Again, it's extremely nationality-dependent so you'll have to do your own research. It is worth mentioning though that a number of countries get visa waiver in New Zealand so also check when you're working through that oh-so-elegant UI.
Looking for a longer and more budget-friendly New Zealand backpacking adventure? Many nationalities have access to a Working Holiday Visa in New Zealand. This will allow for a stay of up to 12-months, and you can work!
There are a few extra stipulations, however:
- Full medical insurance for the length of your stay.
- Ages 18-30 only.
- Have at least $4200 NZ in funds available.
Again, the New Zealand Working Holiday visa fees vary by country so some adulting will be required. ...Before you go to New Zealand and forget your adult responsibilities.
How to Travel in New Zealand
Ok, so here's the deal. Travelling around New Zealand kinda sucks... or does it? (Foreshadowing.)
The best way to get around New Zealand is definitely by car... sorry! There are multiple rental companies within New Zealand and depending on your budget, there are endless options in regards to the type of vehicle you can rent. You can also buy a vehicle and then sell it at a later date (probably to another hapless New Zealand backpacker).
There are buses in New Zealand but they're kinda hopeless (outside of public transport in cities which is more than serviceable). The intercity buses (conveniently named InterCity) are expensive: $38 NZD, or the price of an expensive hostel, to get from Auckland to Wellington as an example. Furthermore, for getting to the breathtaking points of interest in New Zealand (i.e. the reason you presumably came), you're shit outta luck!
You can generally find shuttles and other transport for the major attractions, however, as you probably guessed, they're expensive. So, about that car...
You can book a rental car for New Zealand before you even arrive so that it is waiting for you at the airport. Easy as! Booking ahead is crucial to ensuring you get the lowest price and your choice of vehicle.
Make sure you also purchase a RentalCover.com policy to cover your vehicle against any common damages such as tires, windscreens, theft, and more for cheaper than you would pay at the rental desk.
So, about that foreshadowing, hey?
Campervanning in New Zealand
This also extends to car camping but van travel in New Zealand is just the dream. I met more van-gypsies in there than anywhere else in my travels. Paired with a longer stay or a working holiday in New Zealand, buying a van is just da best.
Backpacker cars and vans are seasonal. When a rush of backpackers arrives in early and mid-summer, the buying frenzy is on and prices go up. Likewise, just before winter, backpackers are trying to offload their vehicles, sometimes finding themselves without a buyer, and begging for a quarter of the price they purchased it for - off-season travel wins again!
When you're buying a car or campervan, your best option is finding a car on TradeMe. Facebook groups and backpacker forums have tons of cars but finding a good one is like finding a needle in a haystack. Prices can range from $2,000 NZD for a station wagon, $4,000 NZD for a whiz banger campervan, or up to $8,000 NZD for a high-end self-contained campervan. While a campervan is more comfortable for sleeping, a station wagon is a great alternative.
Make sure to get a vehicle pre-inspection, ensure it has a valid WOF, and run a vehicle history report to make sure it is not stolen or money is owed. When the time comes, say goodbye to your baby and sell her on (maybe even with a little profit).
A huge part of the attraction of backpacking New Zealand is exploring the truly gorgeous landscapes and making spontaneous stops. There is so much freedom in a vehicle and the portable home - and skipping on accommodation - is going to make for much cheaper travel in New Zealand.
Campervan Hire in New Zealand
If you are short on time or just want to make an epic few-week road trip around New Zealand, you can hire a campervan. Budget allowing, it's the best way to travel New Zealand - no contest,
So who to book with then? There are tonnes of van rental companies in New Zealand but I recommend Wicked Campers. They operate in a lot of places but their van game in Australia and New Zealand is strong. Plus, they've been around for yonks!
Check em' out and enjoy the shenanigans.
Hitchhiking in New Zealand
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. This is where it all began for me. What started out as hitchhiking in New Zealand filled me with adventurous fire and led to many other journeys hitching (Japan, India, Israel, to name few).
You know who else hitchhiked in New Zealand? My dead grandma! (...When she was alive, of course.) This is back in the bloody 1940s or something so, man, hitching across Aotearoa's magnificence is a two-thumbs-up recommendation and a blessed land for the beginner.
It's easy - Western country rules - and people are ridiculously kind. Kiwis that you never in a million years thought would pick you up will, sometimes accompanied by an offer of a bed or dinner. Better yet, they'll be heartwarming meetings and lead to the weirdest of most wonderful adventures.
There's not much country-specific knowledge required for New Zealand: I'll just point you to our Hitchhiking 101 guide for the beginners or a refresher course for the vets. Cities like Auckland (the fucking wall) or Wellington can be a total pain but still manageable and even in the south-of-the-south, someone will eventually pick you up (though longer wait times are a given).
In summary? Do it.
Onwards Travel From New Zealand
Since New Zealand is surrounded by water, you'll be catching a plane and the choices are pretty straightforward.
Travelling to Australia is the no-brainer (unless you just came from there). It's another backpacker dream journey and it's right next door (and usually so far away). Australia is another superb working holiday destination as well. Bless that obscenely high minimum wage!
Heading off backpacking to Southeast Asia is the other likely candidate. It's close by and it's way cheaper. If you're getting sick of paying a small fortune for a bowl of porridge for breakfast, consider Southeast Asia.
Any other suggestions? Yeah, one more and it's a cool one.
Since you're in the area, consider travelling to any of the Pacific Islands and exploring Oceania/Australasia/still-kinda-Asia more. Though still touristy - especially with lads and laddettes from Down Under - they aren't so heavily backpacked. Plus, after backpacking New Zealand, you may just have a strong affinity for Polynesian cultures,
There are a lot of Pacific Island nations but as some brainfood:
In some cases, you can actually make reservations online for transport in and out of New Zealand. By using an online resource, like 12Go, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and maybe even some cash. Check it out!
I made no solid plans for New Zealand. In fact, my research of the country pretty much consisted of binge-watching The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit films. And then the reality of the cost of travel in New Zealand hit me.
New Zealand is booming as a backpacking destination, courtesy of those famous setpieces for Lord of the Rings. Despite the backpacker boom, New Zealand is expensive. There are no two ways about it; Kiwis say it, Saudi Arabian princes would say it, Indians definitely say it!
That doesn't mean you can't travel cheap in New Zealand because you definitely can. I was able to travel on less than $10 a day. But you gotta get dirty!
A more realistic daily budget in New Zealand for those that prefer their meals not to be from the trash can is about $20-$30 NZ a day with the appropriate budget backpacking tools-of-the-trade. This is going to mean a mix of skipping accommodation, volunteering, hitchhiking, cooking, and going easy on the goodies - drink, drugs and activities. With those tricks loosely applied, you'll still have some budget-leeway for the good stuff.
Instead, at a more New Zealand backpacker holiday level (hostels, meals out, shopping, and whatevs else you crazy cats get up to), $70-$90 NZ is more realistic. Yikes!
Looking at individual costs:
- Food prices in New Zealand are expensive. You can cook budget meals definitely, but eating out always hurts and there's no cheap and local everyman street food (except arguably fish 'n' chips)
- Accommodation prices in New Zealand suck smelly Rotorua egg-farts. You'll find cheaper hostels in New Zealand, but you'll never find a cheap one
- Transport costs between New Zealand's cities are not wholly unforgivable, but they're still expensive. Inside cities is ok though.
- Living the van life will help the costs, but the fuel prices in New Zealand are super yukky so it only goes so far.
The good news is that, while there are a lot of expensive activities in New Zealand, there are also plenty of free ones. Hiking, going to the beach, bathing in hot springs, and visiting amazing scenery is just the tip of the glacier.
A Daily Budget for New Zealand
New Zealand dollars are shown. For a point of reference, $10 NZ is about $6.50 US.
Money in New Zealand
At the moment (February 2020), 1 NZD = .63 USD. You can work this out as $10 NZ being $6.50 US or $7 US if you're lazy.
The money in New Zealand is super colourful and uncomplicated to manage. It's covered with pretty birds and creepy faces.
Credit cards are widely accepted, and ATMs in New Zealand are pretty much everywhere: just watch out for international fees. Travel with a travel-specific debit or credit card to avoid these! If you're working in New Zealand, you'll be getting an NZ bank account regardless.
I said that backpacking New Zealand on a budget was totally doable, right? Well, it is! But you'll have to be creative.
After a pretty long stint in New Zealand spending very little money, I've put together these kickass tips for travelling New Zealand on the cheap. It's the simple life.
- Camping - A dire necessity but see the next section
- Couchsurfing - Although you can get by with a tent, Couchsurfing is a wonderful safety net for budget travellers in New Zealand and a lot of fun too!
- Volunteering - Always a strong recommendation, especially in New Zealand. Days spent with dirty hands and full bellies are my spiritual Nirvana.
- Cook your own food - Carry a pocket rocket stove on your backpacking trip to New Zealand, especially if you're camping. When you do have a kitchen available, cook up a storm!
- Hitchhike - You already know how I feel about hitching, however, it's also a brilliant way to save on transportation costs in Australia. I couldn't have travelled New Zealand without it.
- Dumpster diving - It works a treat in New Zealand. Maybe this isn't your jam but just give it a shot at the night markets in Wellington and you may change your tune.
- Busking - Much like hitchhiking and volunteering, New Zealand is where the busking madness began for me. A solid busk a day can definitely cover the minimum cost of travel in New Zealand.
- Pack a travel water bottle - Bottled water is dumb and people who buy it are dumb. Don't use plastic.
- Food giveaways - Are around and quite open to travellers (eg. The Free Store in Wellington). Alternatively, the Krishnas are bloody everywhere in New Zealand - haribol! From Auckland to Wellington to Dunedin they are always doing cheap meals, food giveaways, and probably yoga classes too.
Ok, so here's the deal: New Zealand is (sometimes) seen as a golden freedom camping destination and that's becoming less and less true. A lot of campsites these days are not free or purely for self-contained vehicles i.e. has toilet, greywater, and sceptic waste functionality.
As a whole, travelling in a non-self-contained campervan in New Zealand is still possible, but you'll either be paying or aiming for free campsites (apps are good for sifting through the campsites) or paying. So, is freedom camping dead in New Zealand?
Na, not by any stretch. Even outside of just parking in a mate's driveway, rules (formal or informal) do change by region so it's still possible in many areas. For example, the Otago region cracks down hard on freedom campers courtesy of Queenstown's popularity but up in Golden Bay, they tend to turn a blind eye mostly.
What about sans-car? Well, it's still illegal pretty much anywhere outside of designated areas, but that doesn't mean it's hard to get away with. Generally in a nice hidden spot, you'll be fine; just be discreet, pack up early, and leave no fucking trace or I will Freddy Krueger your dreams.
It is worth noting that you're always risking a heavy fine, but that's the bureaucratic side of things. Most Kiwis I met were all guns-ho a'blazing about a vagrant hitchhiking gypsy enjoying Aoteroa's land to the fullest. Hell, most of them would point me to the best park to sleep in a city.
Here's a list of some camping gear roundup posts I recommend checking out before backpacking in New Zealand:
- Best Budget Backpacking Tents
- Backpacking Sleeping Bags Review
- Best Sleeping Pads for Backpacking
- Sleeping Bag Liners Roundup (not a necessity but I love them)
- The Best Hammocks for Backpacking
Joining an Organised Tour in New Zealand
For most countries, New Zealand included, solo travel is the name of the game. That said, if you are short on time, energy, or just want to be part of an awesome group of travellers, you can opt to join an organized tour. Joining a tour is a great way to see a majority of the country quickly and without the effort that goes into planning a backpacking trip. However, not all tour operators are created equal - that is for sure.
G Adventures is a solid down-to-earth tour company catering to backpackers just like you, and their prices and itineraries reflect the interests of the backpacker crowd. You can score some pretty sweet deals on epic trips in New Zealand for a fraction of the price of what other tour operators charge.
Check out some of their awesome itineraries for New Zealand here…
Volunteering in New Zealand
Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long-term on a budget in New Zealand whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than Worldpackers. World Packers is an excellent platform connecting travellers with meaningful volunteer positions throughout the world.
In exchange for a few hours of work each day, your room and board are covered.
Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in an awesome place without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project.
Worldpackers opens the doors for work opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs, and eco-projects around the world. We’ve tried and approved them ourselves - check out our Worldpackers in-depth review here.
If you’re ready to create a life-changing travel experience and give back to the community, join the Worldpacker community now. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll get a special discount of $20. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $29.
Teaching English in New Zealand
Are you a native English speaker looking to earn cash whilst travelling the world? Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English pretty much anywhere in the world. English is a highly-sought-after skill and the ability to teach it opens up a lot of doors internationally.
In addition to giving you the qualifications to teach English online, TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read our in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR).
Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Making Money Online whilst Backpacking in New Zealand
Let's take teaching English one step further. Keen to live the digital nomad dream while travelling the world? Damn right you are!
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. TEFL certificate in-hand, you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills! It’s a win-win!
Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online or learn what it's like to be a teacher with VIPKID, a top company in the field of online English learning.
Whether you are keen to teach English online or in a foreign country, a TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Internet in 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. However, wander out in the sticks and your signal will disappear pretty quick.
The cheapest and easiest way to stay connected in New Zealand is with a local SIM card. You can buy one at the airport or just wait until you're in town. The major providers of SIM cards in New Zealand are:
Honestly, they're all pretty comparable price and coverage wise. I do recommend Spark though because they have a crapton of public phone boxes around the country which act as WiFi hotspots for Spark customers. You get a 1 GB allowance per day, they're seriously everywhere (like tuk-tuks in Asia), and one time while downloading Spotify playlists at a booth, I met some random legend and he offered me a ride.
WiFi is pretty common throughout New Zealand, and most hostels and homestays will offer WiFi. Free WiFi is offered at certain hotspots around cities, on buses, and in some cafes and bars, but you will often have a limit on time or download usage, so don’t expect to Skype for long! Outside of busy urban areas, free WiFi becomes harder to find.
Must-Try Experiences in New Zealand
There is a lot of beauty in New Zealand and a lot of things to see. Even more, there is a lot to experience. From the Maori culture to the Kiwi smile, there is a lot to pay attention to while backpacking around New Zealand more than just sunsets and Hobbiton.
Don't let New Zealand pass you by.
People in New Zealand
As Peter Jackson once described, “New Zealand is not a small country, but a large village.” It's so true. 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 to where you need to go (often with a parting gift of something dank).
New Zealander's pride themselves on their laid-back camaraderie for life and collective openness to strangers. It's fair to say that it's just a Kiwi thing. Travelling in New Zealand I felt none of the cynicism towards tourists that I've felt in so many other places; only a sincere desire to share their home
On my travels in New Zealand, I have been consistently amazed at just how kind the Kiwis can be - strangers will open up their homes to you or just check to see if you need some help. Sometimes I didn't even have to hitch; people would just pull over and offer me a ride as I was walking out of town.
The Maori people, though obviously Kiwi and very much fitting in with the above statements, still retain their cultural identity, and it is a beautiful one. Family comes first but family is more than just your blood.
The Maori culture stands as something truly amazing to explore and learn about. If the opportunity arises to spend some time with them and make some Maori friends, take it. It'll be worth it.
As a final note, New Zealand and all its people feel harmonious. Things are not perfect, and neither is their history, but when put in comparison to their nearby ex-colony neighbour, New Zealand's history is one much-less stained with blood and decrepit behaviour.
Non-Maori Kiwis on average possess a much higher level of respect for the indigenous people of their home and it is heartwarming to behold. Put it this way:
Once while backpacking through the north of New Zealand hitchhiking, a middle-aged woman picked us up. In her car, she was playing an educational CD teaching the Maori language.
That would never happen in Australia.
What to Eat in New Zealand
Maybe food isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of travel in New Zealand, but actually prepare to be amazed (at both the taste and your empty wallet).
New Zealand has both fresh seafood and produce markets throughout the country to get your breakfast on. You can find all sorts of dining experiences from simple yet hearty traditional Maori food, to a thriving coffee and craft beer scene (not to mention the world-famous New Zealand wine), to just the many damn delicious places to eat around New Zealand.
- Maori hangi - This involves meat and vegetables slow-cooked in an underground oven.
- Fry bread - It's bread that's fried. Is it good? Do the 3 extra kilos I put on from fried bread alone give you a clue?
- Boil-Ups - A popular dish in Maori communities. These are cooked by boiling different ingredients together like a soup.
- Seafood - From lobster and fish to sea urchin, New Zealanders consume a lot of seafood!
- Paua - A large sea snail seafood delicacy.
- Whitebait Fritter: A delicacy in New Zealand and currently demands the highest price of any fish in the country.
- Fish 'N Chips - So, the Kiwis didn't exactly create fish 'n' chips but man they know how to cook 'em! Find yourself some kumara chips (sweet potato) for some extra awesomeness.
- Kiwi Burger - Beetroot and fried egg along with your standard burger patties.
- Pavlova - A desert in New Zealand made with meringue, whipped cream, and fruit. The cause of WWIII will be the ongoing dispute between Australia and New Zealand as to baked the first pavlova.
- Manuka Honey: Highly sought-after honey internationally due to its acclaimed medicinal purposes.
- Vegemite - It's Australian but if you've come this far, you need to try it. If anyone tells you Marmite is better, punch them in the dick.
Festivals in New Zealand
There are heaps of dope festivals in New Zealand and any are worth checking out while you're backpacking there. It just depends on what you like. From food to kickass tunes to the hippy goodness, it's all there.
- Twisted Frequency - Far from New Zealand's only doof (psytrance festival) but certainly its biggest. Runs over New Year's Eve and draws in only the best ferals.
- Kiwiburn - The regional burn of New Zealand. If you know anything about burner culture, you know that shit is gonna get weird! Usually takes place in January sometime.
- WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) - An absolute banger of a festival featuring a lot of world music and international artists and generally happening in March.
- CubaDupa - Also in March, a free festival in Wellington where the whole of Cuba Street gets turned into a madhouse of funky fresh happenings. This is when Welly gets weird...er.
- World Busker's Festival - Almost two weeks of sweet busking goodness starting at the end of January. Some of the best street performers from all around the world show up at this time (in Christchurch), so you are guaranteed to have a few jaw-dropping moments.
- Hokitika Wildfoods Festival - For the foodies! In Hokitika on the West Coast in March; there will be mean kai!
- Rhythm & Alps/Rhythm & Vines - Two sister festivals of some serious tuneage - the lineups are sweet! They take place at the lead up to NYE near Wanaka on South Island and near Gisborne on the North Island respectively.
- Rainbow Gathering - New Zealand generally gets two: one for North Island and one for South Island. If you don't know what a Rainbow Gathering is... well, no spoilers.
If hiking is your thing, you will quickly realize why Kiwis throw on their gators and massive hiking boots to hit the mountains any chance they get.
The most popular hikes in New Zealand are the Ten Great Walks. These hikes have world-class infrastructure, comfortable huts, and are all good hikes for beginners. Hut reservations are required in advance, and bunks cost between $32 and $140 NZ per night depending on the hike.
Check out this post for a comprehensive guide on Nine of the Ten Great Walks of New Zealand.
While these are the most popular, don’t be worried if you didn’t score a reservation. There are even better treks in New Zealand! Getting into the backcountry, or tramping as the Kiwis call it, has advantages of smaller crowds and more serious hiking.
For experienced hikers, you cannot go wrong with your pick of:
- Travers-Sabine circuit to Blue Lake
- The Copeland Track
- Or potentially one of the absolute best hikes in New Zealand, the Cascade Saddle
If venturing into the mountains is not your thing, it is still worth checking out some of the incredible day hikes around New Zealand. The best day hikes in New Zealand for beginners are:
- Diamond Lake
- Key Summit
- Roy’s Peak
For a more advanced hike, check out:
- Mount Taranaki
- Mueller Hut
- Avalanche Peak
One way or another, everywhere you go in New Zealand, there's a walk worth doing. It's safe to say that some of the best hikes in the world are in New Zealand. Make sure you spend at least a little time getting lost in New Zealand's spectacular national parks.
A Brief History of New Zealand
While the Dutch explored New Zealand first, the British were the ones to colonise New Zealand in the 1800s. Prior to that, New Zealand - or Aotearoa- was only inhabited by the Maori people, a Polynesian people who settled sometime between 1320 and 1350.
The Maori culture is rich, vibrant, and fairly unique having developed isolated from other Polynesian cultures over many years. For many years, the Maori tribes engaged in regular warfare and combat was a vital part of their culture along with a deeply-ingrained mythology, dance, art, and numerous other things (shout-out to the poi spinners).
The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 was supposed to lead to coexistence between the two peoples - indigenous and colonisers. Unfortunately, Maori came under increasing pressure to sell their land for settlement.
This led to conflict and in the 1860s, war broke out on the North Island. While the North Island experienced a series of wars, the less-populous South Island remained relatively peaceful with only one Treaty-related armed conflict.
Around the same time, many aspects of life on the South Island allowed New Zealand to flourish. The Otago region was experiencing a major gold rush, and Dunedin became the country’s wealthiest city. Sheep farming was established on extensive grasslands and railways were built with towns springing up or expanding.
In 1893, New Zealand became the first country to give women the right to vote. State pensions and state housing for workers were also offered first in New Zealand and in 1907, New Zealand became independent.
New Zealand in Modern Times
In modern times, New Zealand has borne the brunt of conflicts similarly to much of the rest of the world, namely WWI, WWII, and the Great Depression. Despite this, New Zealand stands as an incredibly prosperous country and, rather pridefully, is considered one of the most peaceful on the planet.
Although Maori relations have struggled periodically over the years, noticeably throughout the 1970s and latter half of the century when protest movements began to arise among Maori people over land rights and recognition of the culture, many of these grievances have been settled.
There are ongoing concerns and nothing is perfect, but in the greater scope of the world's history, the largely positive relationship between New Zealand and it's first people is not only heartwarming but also worthy of respect.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking New Zealand
We're almost at the end. You're almost ready to hit the road, hoist that backpack, and go to New Zealand. Before you do, any last thoughts for the New Zealand travel guide?
Yeah, one more important thing.
Be a Responsible Backpacker in New Zealand
That means a lot of things. Generally, it means don't be a dick.
Reduce your plastic footprint. Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.
Don’t pick up single-use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.
Recently, our gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single-use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint. Don't be part of the problem.
Need more guidance? – Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
Be Good to New Zealand
Travelling gives us a lot of opportunities. Sometimes, it's for the betterment of ourselves and the world. At other times, it's to just act like a twat.
Too many drugs, drinks, or just plain ego, we all mess up. I've messed up. Some days we wake up on the wrong side of the bed. Other days we just miss home.
It's still important to remember to take responsibility for yourself and your actions on any backpacking trip, and New Zealand is no different. Smile, be kind, show an interest in the culture: no one forced you to be there. You've chosen to enter someone else's home as a visitor so be respectful.
Take off your shoes, don't use up all their toilet paper, and be good. Nothing says it better.
Now You're Ready to Go To New Zealand!
That's it, all the info you may need... more or less. Truly, backpacking in New Zealand is an unforgettable experience.
This outro is the outro to an update for our New Zealand Budget Travel Guide being written in 2020 (by me). It's been two-and-a-half years since I travelled in New Zealand and I still miss it.
New Zealand taught me a lot of things. It taught me how to travel and how to travel well. It taught me to believe in the goodness of people and the beauty of life. New Zealand taught me how to love life.
A lot has changed since those simple dirtbaggin' days in Aotearoa. I've changed, the world has changed, and travel changes, but New Zealand hasn't - not so much. It's still one of the most gorgeous places on this beautiful and complicated planet.
I don't go so much in for the hippy-dippy spiritual stuff anymore, but New Zealand deserves it. It's a truly special home, and I genuinely believe there is healing in that land. I genuinely believe there is magic there.
If this it and you're going to New Zealand, budget travel or a holiday, I bid you the very best time. Keep this travel guide handy and see the best of New Zealand while backpacking there. If you happen to choose to settle, you wouldn't be the first.
Hell, maybe I'll see you there one day. Love and light to you. Did I really just say that?
Dammit, New Zealand.
Updated: February 2018 by Timon at Beard and Curly.
Updated: February 2020 by Ziggy Samuels at Zigz Writes Things.
Support the site and learn how to travel the world on $10 a day - check out The Broke Backpacker's bible!
“Yay for transparency! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that if you book your accommodation, buy a book or sort your insurance, we’ll earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We only link to stuff we’ve actually used and never endorse crap. Your support helps keep the site going… and us employed… thank you!”
Need More Inspiration?
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.