In 2017 Matt and and fiance Kelly set off from the UK on their big trip around the world. On the New Zealand leg of their journey they hired a self-contained campervan and joined Okay2stay. When we discovered he had written about his experiences in his blog called 'Done with Adulting', we asked Matt if we could share some of his experiences of travelling around New Zealand in a campervan while trying to stick to a budget.
So we’ve been in New Zealand for nearly 40 days now, and thanks to insider information, personal (slightly educated) experiences and months of research before setting off, we’ve quickly picked up how to save a few bucks whilst travelling here. We had a budget for 2 people of £5000 for 40 days. We’ve still got £1000 left and we leave in 3 days, we’ve still seen the sights, had all the fun, eaten and drunk out on quite a few occasions, bought stuff, got a tattoo, seen unique wildlife and generally felt like we’ve not missed out at all! Whilst this list isn’t exhaustive, hopefully you’ll get some help from it.
This may seem counter intuitive, but seriously, it’s without a doubt the best way to see New Zealand in all its glory whilst giving you the freedom to roam as you please. We tallied up some costs of doing a coach tour with separate accommodation and driving ourselves worked out very well for the pair of us (even cheap accommodation is close to $100 a night). We hired a self-contained camper (meaning we can camp anywhere, have a toilet and cooking facilities built in, see below) for about $5300 NZ at peak rate. We found a company called Detour NZ who have been great and I’d highly recommend. Personally I’d say avoid the companies with smaller sleeper vans as they get a bad reputation amongst locals and scream ‘tourist with lots of stuff in to steal’; and to be honest they look pretty cramped.
Be aware though, if you are going to hire a campervan do it WAY in advance! We booked ours 12 months in advance of arriving, but spoke to people who tried 3 months before they arrived and could only get the D list vehicles.
In New Zealand you can do a thing called freedom camp if you have a ‘self-contained’ vehicle. Self-contained basically means you can stay off grid without leaving a trace (no waste or rubbish basically). To be self-contained you must have a toilet on board, and a way to dispose of waste water without simply spilling onto the road.
The benefit of freedom camping is you can effectively park anywhere, unless there are signs saying you can’t camp there (which there often are). You can also make use of a number of camp sites that are ONLY available to self-contained campers. We’ve stayed in freedom camp sites (or Okay2stay sites, see below) every night so far, so haven’t paid a penny for accommodation! It’s seriously worth getting a fully self-contained vehicle just so you can do this. Often, the sites are areas of natural beauty so you’ll stay in some breath-taking locations. Other sites offer more facilities such as power, showers and launderettes but can charge $20-$25 per person per night - note per person, not per vehicle!
One thing to be aware of though is the negativity applied to freedom camping in some regions. Sadly many people have abused the ability to freedom camp so places are simply banning it now. For example in Milford sound, you can’t camp anywhere except a site that’s $50 minimum. This was more commonplace on the South Island than north though. Just be aware, freedom camping doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never pay to camp.
It’s worth mentioning some of the most beautiful places we’ve camped have been freedom camp sites; another reason to really consider it!
This is a scheme we signed up for back in the UK and only discovered by chance. Okay2stay is a paid membership scheme that gives you access to stay at different sites across NZ. These can be anything from a vineyard to a coffee shop, brewers to olive or lavender growers. Again, you need to be self-contained to make use of this, but it is well worth it! The general rule of thumb is you purchase something from the place you stay at, but this is still cheaper than paying for a campsite (which are often about $18 per person for a non-powered site)! They also offer discounts on some paid camp sites with all the niceties.
The first time we stayed with Okay2stay, we were at a craft-brewery with onsite restaurant that was absolutely superb! We only had a parking space in the car park but it was worth it. The second day we stayed at a boutique vineyard, and spent the night drinking Pinot Gris with the owner of the vineyard in his house! We also had our own private toilet and hot shower, and had truly breath-taking views over the vineyards overlooking the 90 mile beach peninsula! The next few occasions have been vineyards again, cheese makers, you get the idea. This is particularly worth doing if you like wine, as down the east coast of the north island there are tons of vineyards to stay at! You’ll buy a bottle anyway so might as well get free accommodation AND a locally made bottle of something wonderful. I found the nicest Pinot noir I’ve ever had thanks to this scheme. Often the sites are rather secluded too so you’ll get great views of the stars too.
Seriously this is one of the best things we found and signed up for! At $59NZD for a year’s membership you’ll make your money back if you stay at two places.
You’ll probably get told about this by others too, but Campermate is an app that shows you everything you’ll need to know about whilst driving across NZ, including all the different camping sites (freedom, paid, powered etc) but also everything from spots with free wifi, public toilets (very useful to know even if you’re self-contained), dump stations, petrol stations, shops, the list goes on! It’s free, can offer offline downloads of maps, and if you enable location services the app will chuck the odd deal at you for activities, accommodation, etc.
Be aware though the camping sites listed are not exhaustive; there are loads more about, but it’s a good start. I also recommend reading the users comments for each place, especially if you’re a bit picky about facilities like toilets etc (this has been very useful for us when finding a place to stay, do they have toilets, and how far away they are). By reading comments from others we were able to filter out spots very quickly.
The department of conservation have free guides for both islands which detail all their certified camp sites. These tend to range from ‘scenic’ sites at $5 per person to fully powered sites that could be up to $20-30 per person (note again, PER PERSON, not per vehicle). We’ve not stayed at many sites we had to pay for (see above) but if you want a bit more luxury (like in some cases a swimming pool, games room, proper kitchen and wifi) it might be worth a look.
The more we’ve driven around, the more and more we’ve seen this. Marinas have a bunch of facilities for boat owners like toilets, dump stations and showers that you can make use of. I guess because loads of boat owners also camp in vehicles on long weekends away, often the marinas have no restrictions on freedom camping.
Similarly, we’ve found toilet and shower facilities at loads of beach front areas! Just be aware of camping restrictions in these car parks (some said it was okay, but more often than not they don’t allow camping overnight).
A great recommendation from some of our buddies camping a couple of weeks ahead of us! Our mates suggested making use of public pools of which there are hundreds around the country! You pay around $8 for access but can have a great swim at a great pool, then a proper shower.
New Zealand ain’t cheap for food, period! Comparatively, prices are very similar to London to be honest, with a meal for two at a mid-range bar/restaurant being at least £15-20 each ($20-35 at time of writing), and a pint of craft beer being about £6: we spent £60 our first night on two meals and 2 drinks each! The trick to keeping your costs low here is to cook for yourself in your camper (priced example below)
PaknSave: There’s loads (or heaps as the kiwis say) of stores around that you can shop at, but PakNsave is by far the cheapest we’ve found. This is a real no frills shop that’s a hybrid of an Asda/Walmart and cash and carry like Makro, but it does the job for sure! We’ve found that some items (standard things like spices, tinned produce or cleaning items) are literally HALF THE PRICE of other stores!
New Zealand isn’t like the UK or USA where convenience stores are literally everywhere, you could drive 100k+ without seeing another store (or many other forms of civilisation to be honest) so I’d recommend stopping off each time you see a store and stocking up on the small bits.
Another alternative I found was New World, which is more Waitrose. We ended up shopping in these a couple of times; they are definitely more expensive than PakNSave but if you’re careful on what you buy (see below) you’ll be okay.
Veggie stalls and local markets: Regardless of what shop you go to, fruit and veg is expensive. Surprisingly I found that a huge amount of produce is imported too, especially at the supermarkets! For example, a bag of grapes from Chile cost me $10, and imported avocados can often be $2 each. Fortunately people grow loads of stuff here, and often sell their produce on the roadside.
You’ll see loads of people selling produce like this. Seriously, stop at every place you see. Even if they only promote one fruit they probably sell more. The other day we bought a massive bag of peppers, courgettes and sweetcorn for $5, that would have cost way over $10 from any store! We’ve seen loads of people selling avocados (especially in Northland) for <$1 each too.
We also discovered today that you can normally buy local meat for good prices. For example if you’re in an area that’s well known for beef rearing, hunt out the local butchers and stock up on mince (not fillet steak, that ain’t cheap anywhere). Just to give an example, I picked up some venison mince at a market in Dunedin for $5. That’s comparable with beef mince prices in supermarkets and half what you’d pay in a supermarket directly!
Seriously though, whoever thinks you can’t cook awesome food for cheap whilst in a camper is clearly doing it wrong. Tonight’s dinner came in at $5 each, and was bloody delicious! New Zealand lamb chop steak (reduced at New World to $4 a pack) with locally ‘sourced’ rosemary (free), sun-dried tomato (PaknSave), avocado (from a stall) and rocket salad, potato salad (PaknSave), and homemade honey sesame and lime dressing. This probably would have cost $30 each minimum eating out!
Finally, a local veteran camper who just travels around New Zealand 9 months of the year with her husband (and cat) told us to make use of locally growing fruit. If it’s on public land, it’s free reign! She was very proud of the fact she had apple compote from freely taken fruits in her freezer.
Shop seasonal: You literally won’t believe the price of some produce when shopping around! I was genuinely shocked to find that limes were $30 a kilo! Have a wander around the local markets, generally there’s a farmer’s market every Saturday in most towns, and you’ll quickly see what the seasonal or local good are.
Buying booze: Beer is damn good here, but ain’t cheap! As mentioned previously a pint of something hoppy and wonderful will be about $12 in a bar, and a carafe of NZ white will be close to $30, and bottles up to $50 easy.
I bought a 6 pack of very nice India pale ale (BRB brewery) for $10; very drinkable and way more cost effective than going out to a bar to buy the same. Most NZ wines (it’s tough to find a bad one here) start at $10 a bottle at local stores, and probably $25-30 if you go to a boutique vineyard like you’d find on Okay2stay.
Obviously to really save cash, just avoid the booze….
Buy a local sim: ifi is EXPENSIVE HERE!! Even at campsites many places charge around $5 for 200mb, plus they throttle their connections so are in the realms of dialup speeds (remember dialup kids? No? Damn I’m old). The worst I’ve seen was in Milford Sound. When you arrive at the airport you can buy an 8GB tourism sim with 200 mins and 200 texts (both international) for about $80 or 3GB data for $50. As long as you aren’t desperate to stream Netflix every night this will be everything you need. Data connections seem to stay fairly consistent at good 3/4G, or nothing at all. Just be careful and turn off background app refresh, push notifications and mobile data use for non-essential apps. We were using this sim as a hotspot for other devices and quickly mullered that $80 of data. To get more it’s $10 per 1GB, so watch out!
However if you DO want to watch Netflix….
McDonald’s for wifi!!! Most restaurants we found didn’t seem to offer Wi-Fi (and have tacky signs saying there’s no Wi-Fi, so talk to each other, etc). However McDonald’s does consistently across NZ and they are EVERYWHERE! They also don’t appear to throttle connections (we downloaded 9 episodes of stuff to watch in one stop with no issues), and don’t require any annoying authentication or sign up processes. Also, most Macca’s have a separate McCafe, so you can just order a coffee rather than feeling obliged to gorge on Big Macs every time you want to download the latest episode of House of Cards. We’ve absolutely RINSED this, and drunk some surprisingly good coffee in the process.
Don’t try and do everything: New Zealand is definitely the land of fun. There’s so much to do, but once you start signing up to do all of the fun, the prices really ramp up. We did a quick tally of the stuff we wanted to do on the North Island alone and it was in excess of £1000 for the pair of us! Not backpacker budget friendly by any means…
I also quickly realised whilst there loads to do here, do I actually have to do a specific activity here? For example, dolphin watching tours often cost in excess of $100, but I am going to Fiji next month where I can probably do for substantially less! We also found at the Catlins (south of the South Island) there were hector dolphins (super rare to see in their natural habitat) were visible from the beach!
Have a think about what you can only really do in NZ and what are your priorities and work from there. Obviously, skydiving over a glacier isn’t something you can really do in Thailand, so I’d probably prioritise that one for here. I did this, and they had to cancel because of bloody clouds!! New Zealand is definitely a place where you can do some seriously unique things for little money. Don’t think for a second the only thing you can do here is bungee jump or skydive!
Consider sacking the tours off: One thing we quickly picked up on though is the tours are disgustingly expensive! For example a kayak trip to cathedral cove is $100 but you can hike for 90 mins for free, or even snorkel around! We also rented a body board for the sand dunes in the north for $15 instead of doing a tour for $55 . Similarly the hot springs by Rotorua can quickly cost you $50 but there’s loads that locals make use of that are free. Basically, do your homework, ask the locals for advice (people are very friendly and accommodating here) and save yourself a fortune.
Some things are simply unavoidable though. Abel Tasman for example is inaccessible by road, you have to get a boat there, and there’s only one company doing boat tours to the park. We decided to do a hike in the park with the boat drop off and pick up (also including a quick seal spotting tour) that still cost $60 per person, but that’s less than $150 for a day on kayaks. Basically, we found if we hiked/walked rather than a comparable activity like kayaking or cycling we could do the same stuff but for free (in most cases). Also, google stuff in advance!
Bookme.co.nz: If you are set on a tour but tight on funds, I’ve found deals for trips and tours up to 70% off. They are mostly last minute but that’s no drama. It seems to work like groupon so you’re effectively buying a discount code to use at checkout when buying the actual tours, so be aware.
iSite freebies and AA guides: NZ is literally covered in tourist information sites or iSites as they are known here. Raid all the guides and books, they all have discounts inside for attractions (some up to 25%)! When you arrive in New Zealand pick up the arrivals AA guide. It’s absolutely packed with discounts only available in that guide that cover both islands. We ended up using loads of them. Likewise check out the regional guides available at iSites across the country. They have other discounts in but are full of info on must see beauties.
And there you have it! Hopefully these tips prove to be of some use to you. We reckon we’ve saved over $2,000 NZ at least by sticking to some of these steps over the past five weeks, hopefully you will too!