New Zealand has a landscape totally unique to itself, and lots to offer to the enthusiastic backpacker. The scenery, especially in the South Island, cannot be beaten. If you are a fan of hiking, camping, trekking, or outdoor activities in general, and want to do it easily and safely, this country is for you.
Out of the 18 (and counting) countries I've been to, New Zealand is by far the easiest one to travel in. The infrastructure is good, crime is low, buses run on time, and every tourist town has a dedicated information center. It is extremely simple to book activities and arrange accommodation, whether you are camping, staying at hostels, or going a more luxurious route.
For what you get in ease of travel, you pay for in cost. Being a Western country, New Zealand isn't exactly a cheap tourist destination. However, I was able to keep costs reasonably low, by cooking most of my meals and staying in backpacker dorms. Additionally, I didn't pay too much for activities, because one of my favorite activities, hiking, is totally free! If you love taking short, beautiful hikes, the country will be a paradise for you.
Before getting into a cost breakdown, a couple of things should be noted. First is that New Zealand is undoubtedly a car country. While I found it easy to get to most of the places I wanted via buses, there are countless sites that cannot be seen without the use of a personal vehicle. Every once in awhile, I managed to hitch rides with car-owning friends that I met at hostels. However, the rest of the time, if something wasn't within walking distance of the town, I was shit out of luck. If you are coming here for an extended period of time, definitely consider buying or renting a car (though once again, I had an amazing time even without one)!
The other thing I should mention is that I traveled the off-season. The high season is December through March, and while the weather will likely be much better, prices for various things (hostels, etc) will be higher. I specifically chose September/October to travel in because it would be less crowded, prices would be lower, and the temperature outside wouldn't be completely awful. Maybe it's just that I got lucky with the weather, but I do not regret at all traveling during the off-season. I was able to spend less and deal with smaller crowds.
In total, I spent 39 days backpacking through New Zealand. I went as far south as Te Anau/Milford Sound and as far north as Auckland. Here is a breakdown of what I spent during those five and a half weeks (all costs will be described in USA dollars, NOT New Zealand dollars).
Food - $607.17
I spent the largest share of money on eating, and there is a simple explanation as to why; I ate out one meal per day. Many backpackers cook all their meals, but not having a car to store things in, I couldn't be fussed to prepare all of them. So I bought groceries most of the time but spent a fair amount eating out. Without having done this, I could easily have shaved hundreds off the cost. Oh well.
Accommodation - $519.49
There's not much that can be helped about this one, and for most people, this will constitute the lion's share of spending. I always stayed in hostel dorms, averaging about $14 per night. Not terrible, considering New Zealand is a Western country!
Transport - $368.31
I learned my lesson very early on, that booking bus tickets one by one would be too expensive. So I bought a "flexipass" from Intercity (NZ's main bus company). By booking a certain number of road hours, I was able to pay less per kilometer than if I'd paid individually for tickets. One thing to keep in mind: the more you buy upfront the cheaper it is. I could have saved even more had I bought a larger block upfront.
Activities - $177.89
This is a tricky one, as activities tend to be very expensive in New Zealand. A tour of Milford Sound set me back $80 and entry into Hobbiton was $54. A lot of people do things such as skydiving and bungee jumping, and these can cost hundreds. Thankfully, my free hiking "habit" led to this category costing not so much.
Miscellaneous - $74.89
Includes mobile data, laundry (quite expensive), toiletries, and other random expenses.
Average daily cost of $44.81. Despite freaking out a bit initially about how expensive New Zealand was going to be, I came out slightly under budget. I spent less than $45 per day, and I'd say that's excellent for a country like this. For a more comfortable time, you might want to budget a minimum of $50 per day, though this depends on what sorts of things you are planning on doing.
As I took the ferry from Picton, I realized this was it. This would be my last chance to see all the people I had met and places I had gone to in the ten months I spent in Wellington. Sure, I could always come back some other year, and keep in contact with various individuals. But it wouldn't be the same: the right people in the right places. Although I spent only three days in Wellington as an actual backpacker, I made sure to see as many old faces as I could. It had only been three weeks away on the South Island. But it already felt like a lifetime.
There were so many things I had missed during my time in Wellington, but I wouldn't have time to see them all. So I spent one day visiting the Weta Cave, tourist hub of the eponymous VFX and prop company (responsible for helping produce Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Another day, I went to my favorite restaurant, Great India. I had their $12 lunch special for the last time, and savored every last bite. I stayed at the hostel which had been my home for nearly a year, and hung out with the few long-termers that remained.
After Wellington, I went to Napier, a cool Art Deco styled city in Hawke's Bay. Then came Taupo, home to New Zealand's largest lake. There, I hiked to some waterfalls and later spent an afternoon checking out a thermal walkway full of steaming craters. A few days later, I headed to Rotorua, a city whose geothermal activity comes with a distinct sulfuric smell. I spent a good chunk of a day there hiking through a beautiful Redwood forest (planted at the beginning of the 20th century, not indigenous to New Zealand). At the peak of the trail was a beautiful view of Rotorua and its glorious steaming geysers and hot springs.
Hobbiton was the one touristy thing I felt compelled to do, so I booked a hostel in nearby Matamata and bit the bullet. Indeed, most of the things I was afraid of going in (heaps of tourists and endless fan lip service) were true. However, I still felt that I got some inspiration from visiting the movie set. As an aspiring movie director, it simply blew my mind that a set like this could be built. Hobbiton is essentially a small village built into farm hills, and the attention to detail is astounding. It feels like a real, lived-in place, and gave me a new appreciation for this kind of intricate set design.
The list of places I didn't get to see in the North Island is too large, so I won't even attempt to write them out. However, I will say the biggest thing I was unable to fit into my itinerary was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (a long walk that passes over active volcanic terrain). The weather was way too cold to do the hike solo, and I would have had to pay $200 NZD to do it with a guide and alpine gear. Oh well, better luck next time!
The past few days have been spent lazing about in Auckland, trying lots of local eateries and relaxing. Tomorrow, I will be flying to Bali, Indonesia, in what promises to be a very different adventure from the one I have just concluded. I hope to follow up soon with a breakdown of my costs in New Zealand, so you, fellow traveler, can start planning your trip to this beautiful country!
The vast majority of New Zealand is made up of the North Island and the South Island. Today I'll be talking about my experience in the South Island, the larger of the two.
I had made peace beforehand that, no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn't be able to see everything within a three week time frame. So I booked my flight to Queenstown, bought a bus pass (essential for bus travel through New Zealand), booked a hostel, and set off. In the past 20 days, I made my way from Queenstown to Picton. Along the way, I also visited Arrowtown, Te Anau (and Milford Sound), Wanaka, Franz Josef, Hokitika, and Nelson. It was glorious.
After ten months stuck working in Wellington, and having the country hyped up for ever for me, I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I would be underwhelmed with New Zealand. Sure, it would be beautiful. But I've been to plenty of beautiful countries, and everyone seems to think the one they are currently in to be the prettiest. Within 24 hours of beginning my trip, however, I realized how truly misguided my concerns were.
New Zealand really is one of those drop-dead gorgeous countries, the kind where simply looking out the window of a bus can take your breath away. From the first hike I did in Queenstown (where at the peak I was treated to a stunning mountain view of the city), I realized this was going to be a memorable experience.
It was the first bus ride I took, however, where things kicked in full force. We were headed to the South Island's southernmost region, Southland. It was probably the most picturesque drive I've ever been on, with mountains, rolling green hills, and flocks upon flocks of sheep. The experience didn't end there, however. The very next day I took a cruise to Milford Sound, a fjord with countless waterfalls, cliffs, and wildlife. I was very lucky to have great weather during those days; even though I was traveling off-season, I got to see blue skies and crystal clear views.
The South Island is a hiker's paradise. I don't think a week went by without me going on at least two hikes. Some highlights: visiting Franz Josef glacier (which sadly, due to climate change has receded quite a bit in recent years), tracking glowworms at night in a forest, and visiting the famous Pancake Rocks during a bus stop through Punakaiki. There were also scenic lakes in Wanaka and Te Anau, as well as a teal-colored gorge near Hokitika.
There were also some added benefits of traveling off-season. New Zealand tourism can get very busy starting around December time, but I never had trouble booking a bus or finding a bed in a hostel. Prices were a bit lower at this time of year (September), and the dorms were rarely crowded or noisy. A couple of the hostels even served free homemade soup at night! This gave the few of us travelers an opportunity to hang out and be social. Nothing brings people together like free food.
In the next couple weeks I'll be exploring a bit of the smaller, more densely populated North Island. This is the island that has active volcanoes, so that should be fun!
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.