It’s time we talk about backpacking New Zealand. Whether you are looking to march to the top of Mount Doom in Mordor, or just want to experience the natural beauty the country has to offer, there is no shortage of things to do.
But one question I always get is whether you can do New Zealand on a budget.
After living and traveling in New Zealand for eight months, I’ve learned that you can actually travel New Zealand on a budget. I compiled these tips and tricks to help you save money, making traveling in New Zealand on a budget very possible.
If you follow these specific tips, you’ll see that it is possible to go backpacking in New Zealand without breaking the bank!
The first trick to staying on budget is to fly at the cheapest time of year.
New Zealand has two main travel seasons: The summer (around the end of December to the beginning of March) and the winter (from July to August).
So, avoid the crowds—and the high price of plane tickets—by traveling during shoulder season.
Generally, you’ll find the best price if you book your flight between April and June or September and November.
The other thing to note is where you fly into. Smaller touristic towns like Queenstown are more expensive to fly in and out of, whereas big cities like Auckland and Christchurch will be more affordable.
In New Zealand, certain campervans are “self-contained certified,” which means you can camp for free in them! Renting a self-contained vehicle might seem more expensive at first, but you can save a lot of money without having to pay for accommodation along your travels.
Okay, but how much do they cost?
This really depends on what features you want your camper van to have. A typical two or three person camper van will run you around $330-$675 USD for a week. However, if you hunt around and rent during the offseason, you may be able to find a better price.
Pitch a Tent
You don’t need a campervan to go camping! You can still go to campsites and holiday parks and camp.
Whether you use a tent or put a mattress in your car, camping can cost as little as $8 USD per person per night!
However, at a holiday park with showers and kitchen facilities expect to pay around $15-20 USD per night per person.
There are many people in New Zealand who will give you free accommodation in exchange for a couple of hours of work per day. This often includes helping paint or garden, or even just helping a family prepare meals each evening. The Workaway website is a great way to connect with locals and get some free accommodation at the same time!
Where to Stay While Backpacking New Zealand on a Budget
Choosing the right place to stay is important for traveling on a budget in New Zealand. When it comes to hostels, you want to pick ones that offer the best value—including clean kitchens you will actually want to cook in and a location that is walking distance to attractions.
Remember, money saved is money better spent elsewhere. And trust me, you’ll probably run out of money before you even come close to seeing everything.
How to Save on Travel Expenses While Backpacking New Zealand
Getting from point A to point B in New Zealand will likely be one of your biggest expenses while traveling in the country. The InterCity buses are expensive, and with high fuel prices, driving is also expensive.
That said, domestic flights in New Zealand are sometimes cheaper than driving yourself. Keep an eye on these flights. Sometimes you can score a domestic flight for around $45-$135 USD.
So, let’s talk about travel expenses.
Hitchhiking and Ride Sharing
The cheapest way to get around is to hitchhike. In New Zealand, hitchhiking is a common way to travel, especially in the South Island. New Zealand is a very safe country (generally speaking), but hitchhiking does have its risks. Always be aware of your surroundings and carry a charged phone to be safe.
An alternative to hitchhiking is ride-sharing with other travelers. In many hostels, there are bulletin boards with forms you can fill out to see what other guests are doing. You can easily hitch a ride with another traveler—just be ready to pitch in some gas money.
Facebook groups are also a great way to find ride-shares with other travelers.
Taking the Bus
If you do decide to take the bus, you can buy bus passes with a specific number of ride hours on them that can be used for any journey. These type of hourly bus passes are sold at a discounted price in comparison to passes sold per journey.
Bus fares vary depending on where you are going. A local bus costs around $1.30-$2.70 USD per ride, while intercity trips are $7-$47 USD, depending on the length of the journey.
And Then There’s Driving
Fuel in New Zealand is expensive. I’m not going to try and sugarcoat it. The average prices range from $1.50 USD per liter for unleaded gas, and $1.00 USD per liter for diesel.
How much is that in gallons?
You don’t even want to know. But for the brave among you, that’s around $6 USD per gallon. On average, you should budget around $100 to fill up your gas tank.
Make sure to get loyalty cards for fuel stations that give you instant discounts and bonus points. Most fuel stations give out free loyalty cards that save you 6 cents per liter.
Another thing to consider is vehicle insurance. No one wants to be responsible for paying for an expensive campervan should you crash. Insurance costs between $20-$68 USD per month.
Save Money by Working in New Zealand
A working holiday is a modern approach to visiting New Zealand on a budget. In New Zealand, there are tons of jobs with decent wages which will allow you to save some money while exploring all that the country has to offer.
Some common jobs include:
Working in the hospitality industry
Tour and booking agencies
Helping out on farms
Because there are so many types of jobs available, you shouldn’t have any difficulty finding something that suits you.
New Zealand isn’t a big country by any means. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a lot of heart. There is so much to do and see and do in New Zealand, you could spend several months exploring and still not do everything.
However, after personally traveling in New Zealand for the past 8 months, I’ve handpicked a few highlights that I feel are worth checking out.
Mount Cook National Park
This is my favorite place in New Zealand! It’s New Zealand’s largest mountain and it’s huge.
There are various hikes and walks you can do within the park including the famous Hooker Valley Track, which is a short 3-mile trail leading you to a lake at the base of Mount Cook.
Mount Cook National Park is also the perfect place to visit if you you’re backpacking on a budget. There is a hostel right in the national park called the YHA Mount Cook that makes it easy for you to explore the park.
The park also has many walks within, and best of all, they are all free! Besides the Hooker Valley Track, be sure to walk the Tasman Glacier and Sealy Tarns Track.
Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. It’s here where you will find all sorts of activities such as bungee jumping, skydiving, canyoning, rafting, and more.
If it involves seeing your life flash before your eyes, Queenstown has it.
Besides the adventure, Queenstown is also a fun town to explore. At its heart, it’s a tourist town that caters to travelers. There are countless cheap things to do in Queenstown, tons of bars and restaurants, and an atmosphere that is vibrant. Just walking the streets in Queenstown will make you feel like you are really on vacation.
In Queenstown, be sure to try a couple adventure activities, but in order to save your budget, be sure to take advantage of the hikes and walks in the area that are completely free! The mountains and lakes around Queenstown are breathtaking and well worth checking out.
Milford Sound is one of the most popular places to visit in New Zealand, and for good reason! This fiord is an incredible sight to see that no visitor to New Zealand should miss.
When visiting Milford Sound, you have to get out onto the water to really explore. Boat cruises in Milford Sound are as cheap as $27 USD, but there are also kayaking trips available.
Coach tours from Queenstown go to Milford Sound and return to Queenstown. But be warned, these trips make for a long day. This is your best option if you don’t have your own car.
However, if you do drive, stay a night or two in the Fiordland National Park. For the hiking junkies among us, this park has some awesome hiking trails. My personal favorite track is Lake Marian, which is a short 3-hour return hike with views of an alpine lake and towering snowy mountain peaks!
The towns of Rotorua and Taupo are separated by an hour-long drive along the Thermal Explorer Highway. From this highway, it’s possible to visit several different geothermal attractions including geysers, hot springs, and bubbling mud pools.
As for your budget?
Attractions like these will run you around $13-$33 USD each.
Besides all of the geothermal attractions, in Taupo you can explore New Zealand’s largest lake, and from Rotorua go on a Maori Cultural Experience tour.
The Coromandel Peninsula is a region on the North Island famous for beaches. If you want warm weather, white sand, and surf, then this place is for you!
If your trips started on the South Island, don’t worry. There are many ferries available. These ferries cost $40-$47 USD per person and $47-$61 USD per vehicle. Check out the Facebook pages for the different ferries—sometimes you can find discount codes.
One of the highlights of the Coromandel is visiting Hot Water Beach where you dig in the sand to create your own private natural hot pool all while enjoying the ocean view.
Cathedral Cove is another big attraction displaying a large cathedral cave on the coast for visitors to explore.
If you’re looking for something a little more physical, there are several hikes you can do.
In the very south of New Zealand sits an area referred to as The Catlins, Here, you will find beaches rife with wildlife like penguins, as well as hundreds of waterfalls! Personally, I’ve never heard of a better combo. Prove me wrong.
The best way to explore the Catlins is by car. The road is located between Invercargill and Dunedin, and can be driven in one day. However, if you want time to check out all of the attractions, you should give yourself about three days.
Some of the most popular things to see in the Catlins include the McLean Falls (a massive waterfall accessed by a very short and easy trail), Slope Point (the southernmost point of New Zealand), and Cathedral Cave (a huge cave on the beach that you can explore).
At the top of the South Island, there are some incredible ocean bays, complete with towering mountains covered in trees. This area is known as the Marlborough Sounds.
The Marlborough Sounds aren’t just famous for beaches though, it’s also famous for its wildlife. The area is full of penguins, Kiwis, dolphins, and more!
Remember when I mentioned penguins and waterfalls? Kiwis and dolphins are a close second.
If you like checking out local wildlife, I recommend the boat cruise to one of the remote islands. That’ll give you the best chance at spotting wildlife in the area.
If your budget is tight, there are many ways you can save money in New Zealand. The best way to stay on budget is to focus on free things to do like hiking and sightseeing. Luckily in New Zealand, many outdoor activities are free or very cheap.
You can hike mountains, stay overnight in huts, or visit tourist attractions for free or for only a few dollars.
Unfortunately, not everything in New Zealand (or life) is free. In fact, many of the most popular tourist attractions extremely expensive. Activities like bungee jumping or white water rafting can cost hundreds of dollars.
If adventurous activities like this are your thing, you should expect to pay around $68-$170 USD for each one.
However, I’ve found there are a few ways you can save money on these attractions.
The website Book Me has countless deals and discounts on travel and tourist activities. Some of them are up to 70% off! There are also many restaurants on the website with big discounts on food and drinks. Grab One is another website similar to Book Me offering lots of deals and specials to save!
If you travel in New Zealand in the off-seasons, you will notice that prices are cheaper. Tour companies have specials during these seasons. Also, if you are going to do more than one activity, try and book them all through the same tour booking agency. Sometimes they will offer discounts if you book several things at once.
How to Save Money on Food in New Zealand
Let’s talk food. All that adventuring is going to make you hungry and thirsty! The best tip I can offer is to cook for yourself, and shop at grocery stores and local markets. Fruits and vegetables can be very cheap when you buy what is in season from the smaller local shops or markets.
When shopping at big chain grocery stores, be sure to sign up for the loyalty program to get the best deals.
In terms of eating out at restaurants, check out the websites Groupon or First Table to save 50% or more on a meal!
And what about beer and pub food? Yes, yes, priorities. A typical pint of beer will cost between $3.30-$8 USD, while you can score a happy hour pint for $3.30 USD. A pub meal will run you $10-$17 USD, while fast food is cheaper at $5-$10 USD.
Coffee? The better tasting version of water costs $2.50-$4 USD.
Daily Budgets for Backpacking New Zealand
Your daily budget in New Zealand will depend largely on the number of activities and tours you do, how often you cook, the amount of drinking you do, and what kind of accommodation you plan to stay in.
Low Budget: $25-$40 USD per day
This budget is possible if you camp, cook nearly every meal, and skip organized tours. You can still experience a lot of New Zealand on this budget as many of the best things to do are free! However, you’ll want to avoid Queenstown and expensive paid activities.
Mid-range Budget: $40-$55 USD per day
This budget includes eating out at cheap places occasionally, staying in hostel dorms, some paid camping, and the occasional tour or paid activity. This budget would be the most common for backpackers in New Zealand. You’ll also be able to afford a beer or two, but make sure it’s during happy hour.
High Budget: $55+ USD per day
The high budget is easy to do in New Zealand, in fact, just eating out for every meal will ensure you reach this total! If you want to do lots of tours, or plan stay in private accommodations, expect to exceed the $54 USD budget quickly. For those on a short holiday in New Zealand wanting to see and do as much as quickly as possible, the high budget is the most realistic. It provides you with all the flexibility you need.
So, Is it Possible to Travel New Zealand on a Budget?
While New Zealand isn’t the most budget-friendly place to travel, if you are careful it’s possible to explore this gorgeous country without breaking the bank.
Focus on free outdoor activities and take advantage of the many camping opportunities! Eat locally grown produce and travel with friends.
If you do so, you’ll find your New Zealand holiday costing you a lot less than you would have expected.