New Zealand Summary
Things We Learned from Our Trip to New Zealand, Winter 2014
(prices given are US for planning purposes)
New Zealand is no longer an economical destination unless you work to make it so. The Kiwi dollar has gone from .56 to .86 to the US dollar in five years. For the most part food and restaurant meals are 25% to 35% higher than US. Gasoline is also somewhat over $7 a gallon. The only place to save money is on accommodations. Inexpensive motel/hostel private rooms or cabins with communal bathrooms and kitchens are about $50 a night, with private bath $60-70. In cities expect to pay $100 to 120 with bath and kitchenette. If you want better quality than clean and basic expect to pay what you would in the US.
We choose to do a combination of car camping and hostel type accommodations. Bad idea. We should have rented the cheapest camper van we could find. We hated the daily packing and unpacking, calling ahead for reservations, trying to predict the weather. New Zealand has gotten very popular—with tons of Germans, Japanese, and now Chinese vying for the same reasonably priced rooms. We like to be spontaneous and so ended up tenting far more than we wanted to. We also picked up bedbugs in one of the hostels. Yes, I know you can get them now even in 4 star hotels, but in your own camper van the likelihood would be near zero. You cannot imagine how horrible that was, and it ended up costing us about $300 and two suitcases to be finally rid of them.
On our last trip to New Zealand five years ago we had a sleeper van. Since campgrounds have also gone up--$20 to $35 a night for two, the best bet now is to wild or free camp as much as possible. Freedom camping, as it is called in New Zealand, has tightened up quite a bit, but if we had had a self contained camper, we could have spent at least 20 or more nights free camping and more nights at the Department of Conservation Campgrounds that are around $10 a night for two. Many freedom campers use rankers.nz and phone apps to find appropriate spots. You won't need a campground guide as the free AA guides available everywhere list almost all the commercial campgrounds and their prices along with hostels, motels, etc. We purchased the $79 GPS map for our TomTom but we really didn't use it much as there just aren't many roads to choose from and free maps are also available.
Unfortunately, camper van rental is not cheap. Our 2002 Nissan station wagon from Apex cost us about $1,900. for 77 days, partly during high season. An older self contained Happy camper van for the same period would be about $5,200 and would use more gasoline. However, we also averaged $47 a night for lodging including many uncomfortable tent nights in marginal weather. In a self contained camper van I think we would have averaged about $25 a night with 6 nights in city hotels, a night or two in a cabin, 20 nights free camping, and 50 nights in various priced campgrounds. So the camper van would have only cost us about $1,500 more plus maybe 15% more for gasoline. Why didn't we do this? Because we had been led to believe that freedom camping had all but disappeared in New Zealand and also because last year when we were reserving our vehicle the only camper vans that were certified self contained were well over $100 a day instead of $68. The camper van companies have been retrofitting their older vans with porta pottis and gray water jugs so that now there is much more selection at the budget end of the group. Just be aware that these vans are often well over 10 years old and have seen a lot of wear. However, older models have to pass safety inspections twice a year and all camper vans come with roadside assistance. We saw hundreds, probably thousands, on the road and never one broken down.
There are lots of camper van companies to choose from and though we searched diligently on the net there were several ones we missed researching. Here is a list of companies we saw a lot of in New Zealand: Escape, Happy, Hippie, Global, Mighty, Walkabout, Cruizy, Wendekreisen, Nomad, Britz, Juicy, Wicked, Spaceships. There are two competing chains of campgrounds, Top Ten and Kiwi. Both sell a discount card that is worth considering as you will end up in these some of the time where there is no freedom camping or DOC campground. Top Ten is the most expensive with the most amenities—but they have the only campground near Hot Water Beach. Otherwise, it is a tossup between the two as far as we could tell. With the discount the cost of the chains comes closer to the Mom and Pop campgrounds. So the best bet is just to pick one chain to go with. Tents sites are usually the same cost as RV sites, but you always have to pay extra to get electricity. Since we couldn't plug in, we ended up charging computers, cameras, etc. in the communal kitchen and lounge areas with lots of others. Be sure to buy your NZ electrical adapters in the US if you don't want to pay $25 or more each.
With an older camper van you also may not be very pleased with the quality of the duvet, pillows, cookware, etc. and may want to bring your own or buy in NZ. We found some things to be very inexpensive as we paid only $8 for camp chairs but if you wanted a 12 volt cooler that would have been almost $200. Most older vans will also only have one battery—no coach battery, and probably a coolbox not a 12 volt cooler. We actually took a 12 volt cooler with us from the States but with long stops during the day and not being able to plug it in at night, we wished we just had a regular cooler with ice. Just budget for $3-4 for a bag of ice every other day.
Insurance is a quandary. We didn't get the extra insurance and did get a small crack in the windshield. We had it repaired ourselves for $50 and nothing was said at check in or later. The usual deductible on a rental is about $1700 unless you buy extra insurance which for a 77 day rental on an older camper van is about $800 or more. We took out a $300 year long travel insurance plan from DAN (the diver's group—you don't even have to join) that gave us a $300 deductible and other travel benefits for a year. Just know that all during the summer months they are working on the roads in New Zealand, spreading gravel, and if you don't crack your windshield you will have been very lucky.
Wifi was non-existent in many places, spotty in some, and good in most towns and cities. However, in summer, it can be overloaded even in towns and cities during evening hours. We bought a USB modem from Vodafone and a SIM card for our international phone which worked well for us. We didn't have a smart phone with us, but most travelers did, so the rates must not have been too exorbitant to buy a plan in NZ.
NZ is an outdoors place to visit. There is lots to see from car windows but even better with some day hikes. The NZFrenzy books by Cook were terrific for finding easy and moderate day hikes and neat places to visit. About 1/3 of his suggestions require only 30 minutes walking to get to and about 1/3 would be in the moderate range. Cook's books are only available in the US through Amazon. We also had copies of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet. Each had pluses and minuses and since you are already spending a lot of money for this trip, you might want both. We also saw Birds Eye books sold at DOC offices and one covered day hikes and one multiday tramps. They had lots of detail along with satellite photos so you could really see the lay of the land. They were expensive in $40 to $50 range. All books in NZ are about 50% more than retail in US, so bring what you want to read with you. There were occasional book exchanges at campgrounds but for the most part they were pretty poor. If you are Lord of the Rings movie fans be sure to get the guidebook in the States if you can. It is $40 in NZ. We had the original one and compared it to the revised edition and frankly there were few differences.
We spent two months on our first trip and almost three months on our second. A perfect trip would last 4-6 months. There is easily that much to see and do. You can save a lot of money traveling in shoulder season and the weather would be pretty good for camping. However, the southern part of the South Island won't be free of snow and high stream levels until mid January or later if you are interested in Alpine hiking. School vacation is from a week or two before Christmas till the end of first week in February. The two weeks around Christmas are packed everywhere and very expensive. Camper and car rental is cheaper if you start in Christ Church and end up in Auckland. In fact, our car rental company paid the $150 ferry fare for the car because we were going northbound.
Be sure to bring sun screen, lots of insect repellent, anti itch stick, and over the counter medicines with you. When we started to run low on our Alleve, we priced the generic version at $1 per tablet—I kid you not. Also alcohol is very expensive with the cheapest wines $6-7 a bottle on sale at the grocery store and beer $11 and up a 6 pack. In addition, it is nearly always windy, so if you wear contacts lenses you might want some sort of wind protective sunglasses. Contact solutions are also over $20 a bottle. One other thing hard to find in NZ is a windshield sunscreen—we brought one of the spring reflective kind and it was great to keep the car temperature down.
Overall, in addition to the car rental and accommodations already mentioned, we spent an average of $14 per day for food and a total of $435 eating out. We just didn't eat out much. We also spent a total of $1,200 on cruises, admissions and entertainment, and in driving 5,200 miles we spent $1,329 on gasoline. Laundry--$110, phone and internet--$150. Looking back I amazed at how little we spent on food. The prices at the grocery were so high that we tended to buy what was on sale and didn't splurge much. When a Costco style deli chicken is $18, you tend to head for the $3 a pound mussels.
We love New Zealand and will hopefully get to return. If we were five years younger and just starting our retirement I think we would have bought a camper there, shipped one from the US to Europe, and had one in the US. For us a perfect retirement.