Give my top five tips a read before planning your incredible trip!
1. Consider Travelling Outside of Peak Travel Times
NZ still feels new to tourism to me and during peak times, the parking lots and towns aren’t able to support the number of visitors. If you are planning to go during December and January, booking in advance is your only option if you want to have a place to sleep, do any of the Great Walks, etc.
Part of me thinks planning EVERYTHING in advance takes away from the spontaneity that comes with travelling. Even though my itinerary provides full days of activities in the best order, I think of people using it to go for an add-on when the weather is amazing or postponing a section for another part of the guide if the weather is challenging.
Great traveling conditions begin in October and stay until the end of April!
2. Purchasing A Vehicle is Advisable for Longer Trips
Something amazing about NZ’s traveling culture is how common it is to purchase second hand vehicles (at an affordable price) during your stay. For example, a decent van, station wagon, or car will cost between $3,000 to $6,000 NZD. Once your trip comes to an end, you can sell the car to another backpacker and recuperate a significant amount of the cost. (Note that prices WILL go up in December due to the increase in people travelling and prices fall around April before Winter).
The downside of purchasing a car it the time investment. Expect to spend two weeks locating and purchasing the right car (time searching, arranging meetings with owners to test drive, and filling out the paperwork to make the transfer). However, the paperwork is the easiest part of the process- just take a form to the Post Office and don’t forget to buy insurance. Then, at the end of your trip, you will need to budget an additional two weeks to make sure you sell the car! For this reason, if your trip is under three months, you might prefer renting a vehicle.
Look for a Vehicle to Purchase on Facebook NZ Working Holiday Groups, Facebook Cars for Sale Groups, ads in the newspaper, on bulletin boards at hostels, or car lots. Additionally, Backpacker Board has tons of information on purchasing and renting cars in New Zealand, as well as jobs, activities, and hostels.
3. Consider Staying at Holiday Parks or Freedom Camping
On most travels, lodging can be a significant expense. However, New Zealand accommodates all budgets through the use of Holiday Parks (quality facilities while you car camp including laundry, kitchen, lounge, bathrooms and showers, usually $20-$25 NZD per night) and Freedom Camping (if your vehicle meets certain requirements, you are free to camp wherever you like for FREE).
There is a handy app that allows you to search for nearby car camping (including regular camping with no facilities usually around $13 NZD). When deciding on a car to buy or rent, making sure it has a self-contained certification could be important to you if you plan to freedom camp often; just be sure to follow all rules in regard to freedom camping so that they continue to allow it (and also make sure you only freedom camp if you have that sticker otherwise you are looking at a significant ticket ($200 NZD)).
I enjoyed staying in Holiday Parks more than regular campsites due to the communal areas being nice for meeting people. Without the communal areas at campgrounds, I noticed more people staying to themselves. So, if you are traveling alone, holiday parks and hostels might be preferred and if you are travelling in a group, freedom camping and regular camping with the occasional holiday park to clean up would work well!
4. Great Walks Aren’t the Only Backpacking Trails
The first thing I remember when researching New Zealand outdoor activities was the Great Walks. These tramps/backpacking trips are put into the Great Walk category based on the number of people who visit each year. So as the years go on, more and more trails will reach “Great Walk status”.
I’d consider several of these trails “must-dos” because they are scenic and have good infrastructure (booking systems, trail maintenance and condition reports, transportation for point-to-point trails, etc). You can see the must-dos from the hikes rated list (link) I have for New Zealand. However, DO MORE than just these trails! I have met so many people who came for 3 weeks and still managed to only experience Great Walk trails and I feel that they missed out. Other trails are even more beautiful and you instantly feel you are off the beaten track by the different people you meet (many Kiwis) and get to see a more rugged part of New Zealand.
Also, if you plan to spend at least 6 nights in backcountry huts, purchase a 6-month or 1-year pass depending on the length of your visit to save money.
5. North and South Island are More Different than You Think
I spent a lot of time before my trip trying to decide how to split my time and talking to many people as I travelled New Zealand about their North Island experience (since I started on the South Island), and my recommendation is to budget at least 75% of your trip to the South Island.
The South Island is mountainous, rugged, and pure with lots to offer for backpacking, coastlines, and cool towns. In the six months I spent in New Zealand, I spent just 7 days in the North Island due to there being so much to do and explore on the South Island that 5 months and 3 weeks still wasn’t enough.
On the other hand, North Island is where you will find tons of geothermal wonders, white sand beaches, and big cities. There is something special about those things, but I am biased into thinking that the South Island takes the cake for best scenery!
My tip is to start on the South Island so you make sure you have time for all the amazing things it has to offer and then hop over to the North towards the end (with a maximum of 25% of your trip spent there).