Backpacking New Zealand on a Budget

View of Queenstown

New Zealand is by far, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. For such a small country, it is very geographically diverse. You can view ancient tropical forests and volcanoes one day and vast snow-capped mountains the next. 

Although the flight Down Under can be a bit pricey (depending on where you are flying from), backpacking this humble destination can be done easily with a budget. As tourism is one of the biggest industries in Aotearoa (the indigenous name for New Zealand), the country is ideal for backpackers coming from all corners of the world.

To make the most of your trip and to stretch a Kiwi dollar, here are a few tips when backpacking through New Zealand on a budget.  

Stay in a Hostel

Photo from Choicebackpackers

Don’t let the film “Hostel” scare you from staying in many of New Zealand’s hospitable hostels. It is quite common for travelers to stay in one and it can be a really enjoyable experience. One of the benefits, other than it being incredibly affordable, is being able to meet other travelers from different parts of the world. Meeting other travelers offers a wealth of knowledge to learn where to go, how to get there, and sometimes, even provide a friend or two to share the journey!

There are generally multiple stay options from 4-8 bunk beds (this would be the cheapest option and great for a socialite), to having a private room. Most hostels have a shared kitchen and/or shared bathrooms, and also have co-ed or single sex options. Staying at a hostel can also offer discounted prices to some of the local activities such as skydiving or bungee jumping – a Kiwi favorite. To view the different price ranges available, check availability at Hostelworld.

Rent a Camper Van (or buy one for cheap!)

Traveling the islands in a van

You can skip accommodation altogether and rent a camper van to travel around the country. There is nothing more freeing than traveling around New Zealand in a van – stopping wherever you want and whenever you want. You can rent a camper van on one of the many sites online like Camper Champ.

Depending on how much you have in your budget and how long you will be backpacking through NZ, you could even purchase a van or camper van. This is quite common amongst travelers to purchase a van, use it for their time traveling, and then sell it to other travelers. This is so common, you can search for vans for sale on the Backpacker Board.

Regardless of which route you decide to take, you are going to want to find a place to park overnight. There are a couple of options, including RV parks and campgrounds, both of which will probably have a fee. If you are really trying to be frugal, you can try Freedom Camping, which brings us to our next tip.

Freedom Camping

Freedom camping in the mountains

Freedom Camping is camping on public land that isn’t recognized as a camping ground or holiday park. It is usually a minimal space to park your car, tent, or camper van. The space may or may not have running water, toilets, or electricity, but for those who have all of the amenities they need in their camper van, this is hardly a problem. You. might want to invest in a solar powered phone charger, however, just to stay connected. You can find yourself sleeping on a beach, in a beautiful rainforest next to a stream, or on a prairie overlooking an old volcano. The best part of Freedom Camping, is that it is completely free.

Being respectful to the land is expected, and every county or district has their own by-laws, so I would suggest learning a bit more on the New Zealand government site here. To make sure that you are camping on a site that is allowed, you can use the Department of Conservation search page to locate all of sites.

Use Public Transportation

For those who don’t want to rent or buy their own transportation, don’t fret, New Zealand has a pretty decent public transportation system. You can get around both islands using buses, trains, or even ferries to get to a nearby island or to move between the North and South Island. Domestic bus systems in cities and towns have regular timetables and are very affordable and safe.

To move in between multiple cities, you can try coaches or bus companies such as Intercity to explore multiple destinations. It’s possible to travel the whole country using one of these bus companies. Now, if you are moving between the two islands, or want to explore some of the local islands, using a ferry would be necessary. Taking a ferry is a great way to view the ocean and marine life while you’re traveling. Flying is also an option, but is definitely more expensive.

Pack Food for the Road

Banana boat with almond butter, dates, and romaine lettuce

An excellent way to save money while backpacking is to pack the majority of your meals and snacks for the road. You will be tempted to try many of the delicious restaurants and cafes that are available, but if you are pinching pennies, packing your meals will really help your dollar stretch. There are many ideas online for what to pack and whether your food needs to be refrigerated. I have found that a lot of fresh fruit and nuts/seeds are very low maintenance.

It is not uncommon to drive through the countryside and find small fruit stands outside of family houses and orchards with fruit for sale. Often, this fruit will be pre-bagged, with a coin jar next to it and the money exchange is based on an honor system. You leave the money and take the produce without being observed by a person.

To help keep your food fresh, bring a cooler and restock ice at the petrol stations, or even invest in an electric cooler that is charged by your car like this one. It is also great to treat yourself once in a while on a cooked meal from a restaurant and cafe, which you will appreciate a lot more after living on road trip foods.

Enjoy the Sights for Next to Nothing

Enjoying Huka Falls – one of the many beautiful waterfalls

There are many activities for you to try in New Zealand. There are so many that it is easy to blow a lot of your budget on every wine-tasting, bungee jumping, or ziplining adventure. The country is exquisite on its own and is filled with National Parks that only cost the gasoline it takes for you to get there.

There are many hiking trails that lead to ancient forests, volcanoes, geothermal parks, and glaciers. Waipoua Forest is home to Tane Mahuta, the largest tree in New Zealand. Franz Josef Glacier is absolutely a sight to behold. Huka Falls near Taupo is a waterfall with immense power and is a gorgeous color of baby blue.

Backpacking on a Budget is Possible!

Backpacking through New Zealand doesn’t have to be an expensive endeavor, and it can actually open your eyes to the beauty of the country that might get missed when you are an average tourist. Being creative with how you spend your money and time will show you just how much this breathtaking country has to offer, even when you don’t have a lot of money to go around.

Kia ora!