When we go on roadtrips, it’s not all ‘glitz and glamor’ – we sleep in our car, eat peanut butter sandwiches and sometimes go days without showering as we de-prioritize more of the ‘material’ things in exchange for natural beauty and adventure.
The fact that we are working full-time in our professional careers does help in providing disposable income, however we have always consciously looked for ways to save money so we can spend our cash on things we REALLY want to do! Outside of a few recent partnerships, we’ve funded more than 97% of our adventures the last year from saving where we can and prioritising when to splurge.
So in hopes of helping others, we thought we would share some of our tips on how we save while travelling in New Zealand (although in general these tips can pretty much be applied to any country you visit)
One of the best things about New Zealand is its culture of ‘freedom camping’ and network of low-cost Department of Conservation (DOC) camping sites. When we landed in Auckland last September our first purchase was a car and the #1 thing we checked for was the ‘sleep test’. We wanted a car that had seats that could fold down flat to allow us to car camp, but wanted a fuel-efficient vehicle as well – hence the quirky Ractis was the winner!
It doesn’t look like it’s possible, but Jordan and I can both sleep comfortably inside our tiny compact car! We’ve had some pretty funny looks from people when we crawl out of the car in the morning and can tell by their face they’re thinking ‘How did they sleep in there?’
We save a ton of money by forgoing the expensive hotel stays and opting for a more rugged adventure sleeping in our car or at staying at hostels. One of our Top 5 NZ Apps is the Campermate App that provides a map view of all the camping sites in the country – Freedom sites, DOC sites, Holiday parks and Hostels. It can even be used offline so no need to worry about using up all your data. If you’re visiting New Zealand, I would recommend renting a campervan. If you want a really economic option, check out Motorhome Republic (sounds sketchy but they have retired Jucy vans – pictured below left) or if you want a bit more room or have a group of friends, the larger Jucy campervans are a great option too.
Freedom sites are becoming more scarce though with many areas banning it all together so be sure to check the site Camping our Way to see what regions allow it. Many DOC sites have little to no cost ranging from FREE to $6-$12 each per night. All offer toilet facilities (outhouse) while quite a few have water tanks and shelter/picnic areas for cooking food. Our favorites have been Moke Lake outside Queenstown, Gillespies Beach in Fox Glacier, Okiwi Bay outside Kaikoura and Okareka Lake in Rotorua. You can also pick-up a brochure at any i-site that shows all the DOC sites around the country.
Every other night we do look forward to a hot shower, so staying at one of the many Holiday Parks around the country provides some basic amenities while still a low-budget option. We usually opt for a non-powered site that allows us to stay in our car, while having access to the kitchen, washroom and common area facilities. Most sites are between $15-$20pp and usually offer the ability to stay along the beach or a beautiful lake while still having lots of amenities. Some even have little ‘rooms-to-move’ that have a bed and small table for when the weather just doesn’t make it very comfortable for staying in your car or tent. A couple great ones we’ve stayed at are Tatapouri Motor Camp in Gisborne (be the first in the world to see the sun rise), Waikite Valley Thermal Pool Campground outside Rotorua (free natural hotpool!!) and Aspiring Holiday Park in Wanaka (hot tub, sauna and free wifi included)
Every now and then though we long for a ‘real’ bed. So when we get tired of sleeping in the Ractis, we usually stay at a backpackers hostel. YHA and BBH hostels are quite common and each town has its own small local hostels. These can run between $15-25pp in a shared dorm room to $20-$35pp for a private room with shared bath. Since there’s two of us we usually opt for a private room. One trick I’ve learned though is calling same day and saying ‘we’re a young couple looking for a room tonight – what are the shared room rates?’ – more often than not we get offered the private room for the same price as a shared! Always ask for the cheapest option and hope for an upgrade 🙂
Some of our favorites have been Tasman Backpackers in Nelson (free wifi, continental breakfast and CHOCOLATE BROWNIE PUDDING WITH ICECREAM), Flaming Kiwi in Queenstown (free wifi & hot tub), and Bob & Maxine’s in Te Anau (free wifi & bike hire). As you can tell we always look for hostels that offer free wifi – it’s become a basic need now 🙂
Not all hostels are created equal though. We stayed at one in Picton that was pretty much run by cats – this guy checked us in and we found some of his friend’s hair in our ‘free’ icecream…
Believe me, I’m a huge cat person, but this place was a bit much
Another way we save on money is food. Eating out can be expensive in New Zealand, so buying groceries to make our own meals is important. When we’re out on the road, we always plan to make our own breakfast and usually either lunch or dinner. We’ve got a pretty good food plan that works for us – here’s a sample of what we eat:
– Bananas, Granola Bars, Apples, Oatmeal (cooked with our Jetboil), Orange Juice
– Peanut Butter or Pepperoni & Cheese Sandwiches, Salads (Jordan loves his salads no matter where we are)
– Almonds, Granola bars, Chocolate bar, Carrots, Cheese, Crackers, Kiwi fruit
We picked-up one of the ‘disposable’ cooler bags at a local grocery store for ~$3 to help keep our food ‘cool’ (it’s not a fridge but helps a bit). We also bring with us a large 4lt jug of water to fill our water bottles, clean dishes and brush our teeth (and fill it up when we’re at a hostel or Holiday Park). Buying large bottles of juice from the grocery store also keeps us from buying drinks at gas stations and take-aways (they are so over priced!)
3. Finding Free Activities
New Zealand has a reputation for being an expensive destination – but it doesn’t have to be! You can enjoy much of what New Zealand has to offer without spending a penny. There are hundreds of beautiful waterfalls, short hikes, beaches and caves to explore that are just as fun (if not more) than any paid tourist activity you can find. Some of our favorite adventures were at ‘natural gems’ like Rere Rockslide, Cave Stream, Elephant Rock and Moeraki Boulders.
If you’re looking for some great ‘off the beaten path’ activities, check out NZ Frenzy. Scott shares all kinds of great tips for little unknown gems in his North and South Island books. A few he mentions are Castle Hill, Nugget Point, Clifden Caves, and a secret hot pool waterfall in Rotorua! I’m still amazed by how much natural beauty is crammed into such a small country – one of the reasons New Zealand is so special!
Earlier this year we compiled some of our favorites in our list of Top 20 FREE Activities in New Zealand.
4. Travel in the Off-Season
New Zealand’s temperate seasons mean you can pretty much visit any time of the year and have fairly good weather. Yes the dead of winter won’t guarantee sun every day, but if you plan to visit just before or after the busy seasons you can really save some money.
Last October we completed 4 of the most popular Great Walks in the ‘off-season’ (May-October) and not only saved a ton of money but had the luxury of a less busy track and huts. During peak season, the Great Walk huts can run you between $32-$54 per night, but during the off-season some are only $15 per night. If you’re looking to take in a few walks, a back country pass for $122 (or $100 at YHAs) can get you 4 of the Great Walks and many of the backcountry huts for FREE!
Note: If you plan to do any hiking in the off-season, be sure to talk with local DOC offices about the conditions/weather and always rent a locator beacon. Learn more about our tips on how to prepare for hiking in New Zealand.
Many of the tourism operators also provide off-season discounts. We did the famous Black Water Caving with Kiwi Cave Rafting for nearly half the peak season price! And since you’re underground all day, it doesn’t really matter what the weather is like outside!
Many hostels have off season deals, often throwing in some free stuff. If you’re travelling to Nelson be sure to stay at Tasman Bay Backpackers. For only $30 each/night we got a private room, FREE wifi, FREE breakfast and FREE delicious chocolate pudding with icecream dessert! Seriously the best hostel we’ve stayed at and the owner is such a nice guy.
Save to splurge every now and then
So when we find ways to save money on accommodation, food and taking in as many free activities as possible, we allow ourselves to splurge every now and then on a paid activity of our choice. New Zealand has a thriving tourism industry that the country’s economy relies on, so it’s very easy to spend money on some pretty amazing activities. Some of our favorites we’ve taken in over the last year and can whole-heartedly say they were WORTH EVERY PENNY are Milford Sound, White Island, Fox Glacier, Bungy Jumping. Hang Gliding and Hobbiton to name a few.
So we hope these tips will help you when planning a trip around New Zealand. Despite it’s reputation for being an expensive destination, there are always ways to save money so you can splurge on those bigger ticket items!
How do you find ways to save when you travel? What activities have you splurged on when travelling?