New Zealand is, without question, an expensive place – whether you’re on a tight budget or not.
But, epic nature, the kindest people you’ll ever meet, and no shortage of activities make it worth seeing in your lifetime if you have the means to save, plan and travel.
It may not be a ‘budget destination’, but you can travel the South Island on a budget.
Note: I’m sure this is possible for the North Island too, but we only ventured south with our week in New Zealand.
10 Tips for Planning a Road Trip Around New Zealand on a Budget
Why a road trip?
Because that’s the best way to see the country- some cities may have limited public transit, but to truly experience the best New Zealand has to offer, you’ll need to rent a car (or camper van).
Tip 1: Reserve a car early for a chance at best rates
We reserved ours two months ahead of time at a cancellable rate, and then checked weekly for price drops.
At the end of winter, during peak ski season in Queenstown, we paid £15 per day from a budget provider, Scottie’s, and £60 for a week of insurance. We had an old car, but it worked perfectly.
And, parking fee wise- we didn’t encounter national park or parking fees anywhere, aside from street parking in Queenstown. Even there, you can find free, limited time parking if you’re willing to drive around for a while to avoid the expensive metered lots.
Tip 2: Decide what activities you want to do ahead of time, and budget accordingly
A glacier flight, onsen spa night, Queenstown cable car, and fjord cruise were the four things we cared the most about, so we built our trip around them.
You can seriously ball out in New Zealand- skydiving, bungee jumping, adventure sports galore- or you can be sensible and pick a few special experiences.
Another perk to visiting in the off-season?
We noticed discounted rates for a lot of our experiences, notably the glacier flight and fjord cruise. At many providers, we saw signs advertising winter deals, only applicable until October.
Tip 3: Stay in hostels
Those familiar with backpacking won’t take issue with this, but I know people who are putting off a trip to New Zealand simply because of how expensive they believe accommodation will be.
We stayed at YHA’s in private rooms- some had en-suite bathrooms, others were shared. All were good, YHA Tekapo was especially great.
The private rooms were clean, and just like in a hotel, often, we were provided with mini shower supplies, towels, bedding, a coffee/tea maker (plus packets of coffee/tea/hot chocolate), and access to WiFi. One of our hostels, the YHA in Tekapo, even had a trendy restaurant attached to it, and gorgeous lake views.
Quality varies, of course- some are older, others are newly built or renovated. All were the perfect place to rest our heads, and a fraction of what hotels would have cost us.
And, if you’re wondering- YHA’s also have dorm rooms.
Rates we saw at the end of winter varied place to place. Queenstown, Wanaka, Tekapo and Cook were the most expensive places, with much better deals to be found in Franz Joseph and Te Anau.
Dorms started at £12-20 per night, and for private rooms, we paid between £30-65 per night. By comparison, hotels in popular areas will start at £100-175 per night and go higher in peak season.
Normally a fan of Airbnb, I was disappointed to see skyhigh rates throughout the South Island. We only ended up staying in an Airbnb once, which was a private room attached to someone’s home, located 15 minutes outside of Wanaka.
If you’re traveling in a big group, Airbnb may be a good choice. The reason why so many rentals seem expensive for two people, like us? Many listings are for entire homes. So, if you’re sharing with 6-8 people, it’s no longer as cost prohibitive.
Of course, you can do accommodation even cheaper if you rent a camper van or go straight up camping (when it’s warm enough).
Tip 4: Consider renting a camper van
If going to New Zealand again, I’d price out camper vans.
Be sure to include shower stop fees, petrol costs and camp sites in your estimate.
I truly believe this is the best way to see New Zealand, because you have loads more flexibility.
However, some campsites book out early- like Milford Sound- so, be sure to research which ones you need to reserve ahead of time, and which ones you can be more flexible with reserving.
And, looking into campsites ahead of time is also a good idea because there are free ones around the South Island.
Tip 5: Fuel up in main towns, even if you don’t need much petrol
We fuelled up often, every half tank, to avoid running out in remote places and paying a premium to refuel.
Each half tank was £15-20, pending location. Cost varies, pending where you go and how much driving you do, but we spent ~£120 for a week of petrol and drove a lot.
How much is a lot?
Our route: Queenstown – Te Anau – Milford Sound – Queenstown – Hawea – Franz Josef – Arthur’s Pass – Tekapo – Mount Cook – Wanaka – Queenstown
Tip 6: Be prepared to be offline
Data is expensive in New Zealand, around £15 for 2 GB.
When driving, you’ll drop cell signal often- we didn’t have service 90% of the time while driving. Really, we only had signal through towns, which was more than enough to check directions.
And, I know what you’re thinking- well, what about WiFi?
Most places, bar major cities like Queenstown, won’t have it readily available (including at cafes and restaurants).
Also, hostels and hotels tend to cap your ‘free’ allowance. We saw caps ranging from 500MB to 2GB per stay.
You should 100% bring a map and downloaded directions in case you find yourself without service.
Tip 7: Go outside of cities to buy groceries
We bought groceries outside Queenstown in a shopping mall near the airport where there are two budget stores (Pack ‘n Save and FreshChoice).
Buying downtown or central in any other town, like Wanaka will cost 2-3x more (based on what we saw, browsing prices in shops).
Believe we spent ~£60 total for a week of groceries, including treats, and tons of fresh fruit vegetables.
Selecting groceries that would travel well and hold up over the course of a week without regular access to refrigeration was a bit of a challenge, but we managed- only needing to top up a few times.
Mostly, we bought-
- Bread for sandwiches
- Peanut butter, jelly
- Fruit: Apple, oranges, bananes, blueberries, stone fruits
- Vegetables: Carrots, celery, tomatoes, bell peppers, avocadoes
- Granola bars, packets of oatmeal
- Cheese sticks
- A selection of New Zealand crisps to try
- Treats (hello, lamingtons, L&P, giant chocolate chip cookies, and special New Zealand candy)
- No need to buy water- New Zealand water is pure, the South Island has some of the best in the world
If we were worried about something not being refrigerated overnight, we just left it in the car since it was fairly cold wherever we went (especially at night).
With these groceries, we only ate out 3x. And, even then, we chose our meals out sensibly- all three times, each meal under £10 per person.
We also did 1-2x daily coffee from cute cafes, because I love experiencing cafe culture, which usually came in at £2 each. Bring a reusable cup for a discount here, we noticed it was often 10-50 cents per cup, which can add up if you’re avid coffee drinkers like us.
There are some seriously great restaurants in Queenstown and Wanaka, and I’d loved to have try them, but the experiences we did were more important.
Tip 8: Limit drinking out- pick up beers, ciders or New Zealand wines to try from grocery stores
Neither of us were drinking much alcohol while in New Zealand, which made budgeting here pretty easy.
However, we do like to try local ciders, wines and craft beers, and with such a great scene for all three in New Zealand, we wanted to try a couple.
We picked up some from grocery stores, which proved much, much cheaper than drinking out.
Throughout the week, we did have a few drinks out, twice. We noted a cider/beer/glass of wine in Franz Josef was ~£6, and beer/wine in Wanaka at the craft brewery we visited was ~£4.
Tip 9: Visit in the off-season
Summer is peak time to visit the South Island.
But, in winter, you’ll find better deals just about everywhere, sans ski hubs like Queenstown. Although, even in Queenstown, things are cheaper in winter than summer.
Plus, in winter, the mountains are capped in snow.
That said, we didn’t experience snow or ice storms, but you should acknowledge that risk.
Weather may usually be nicer in summer, but with storms, slips/road closures are common. So, I don’t know that there’s truly a ‘fool proof’ time to visit the South Island.
I’d go in the fringe. We went near end of winter and had a fantastic time.
Rates for most things start to go up again in October, as spring goes on.
Tip 10: Unless you’re visiting in the high season, book some things as you go
In summer, hotels/hostels/campsites may book up, but if you’re there in the fringe season or winter, you can likely roll into just about any town and find somewhere to stay. This won’t mean you’ll always find the cheapest rate, but you will have more flexibility in how long you spend places.
For the most part, we did hostel reservations that were cancellable up to 48-72 hours without penalty, so we had some degree of flexibility in moving things around if we so desired.
And, if you’re going the camper van or full-on camping route, read forums like TripAdvisor to get a sense of just how full potential campsites you’re interested in get.
Finally, flights to Queenstown were fairly cheap for us- departing from Melbourne, returning to Sydney. Each leg was under £80-100 with EasyJet.
We watched flights for weeks, and booked in advance to secure good rates.
If you’re coming from across the world, look for connecting flights into Asia’s major hubs- Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpar.
Then, if you have time, I’d fly into Oz (often, good deals to be found on returns from Asia’s hubs). And then, I’d fly to New Zealand. I know it all depends how much time you have, but my point is, there are ways to get flight price down as well- no matter where you’re coming from.
Have you ever visited New Zealand? Is a trip there on your travel wishlist?
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