How I travelled New Zealand on a budget of less than $40NZD a day

Aotearoa. The land of the long white cloud, the mighty All Blacks and the “World Famous in New Zealand” L&P.

Although stunningly beautiful, New Zealand is renowned for being expensive. The cost of living in NZ is typically higher than other “Western” countries, and Auckland is the 38th most expensive city in the world to live in*. Plus, it isn’t exactly cheap to get to NZ (even on a budget flight!) since its so far away from everywhere else – its closest neighbour, Australia, is a minimum 3 hour flight away!

James and I were a little apprehensive about the cost of doing a working holiday in New Zealand before we arrived: Would we run out of funds before we got the chance to see the whole country? Would we have to go home early? Would we manage to find a job and actually save any money?

We’ve been in New Zealand for almost a year now, of which four months were spent living in our campervan as we travelled around the country like nomadic hippies without a care in the world. We had the time of our lives! And fortunately, we didn’t run out of money; in fact we learnt a lot of money-saving tips and realised that yes, it IS possible to travel New Zealand on a budget!

How I travelled New Zealand on a budget of $40NZD a day - spinthewindrose.com
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For the purpose of this post, I’ve averaged out the amount we spent per day across four months travelling NZ by campervan.

Total spent: ~around $4,500 (each) across 120 days.

This comes to $37.50 per day (each). Just for clarification, $40NZD is about £20GBP, $28USD or 25€. If you want to know how I saved up money in NZ, read this post.

At this point, I would like you to stop thinking what I know you’re thinking: “Oh, they travelled as a couple so this post won’t be useful to me”. NOT TRUE. Do not click the back button or the X button just yet (please and thank you). A lot of the information in this post does apply to couples and it also applies to friends travelling together as well as solo travellers.

And now to begin the nitty-gritty stuff.

Here is what the $40 per day I referred to includes and does not include:
  • Yes, it does include our accommodation costs.
  • Yes, it does include our hut fees on two of New Zealand’s Great Walks.
  • Yes, it does include our food and water (and beer!) costs.
  • No, it does not include helicopter rides, skydiving, or bungee-jumping.
  • Yes, it does include splashing out at Christmas and on James’ birthday (and on a new pair of hiking boots for me!)
  • Yes, it does include activities.
  • Yes, it does include our transport costs.
  • Yes, it does include petrol costs.
  • Yes, it does include the ferry crossing from Picton (South Island) to Wellington (North Island).
  • No, it does not include the cost we paid for our car (but more on that below).
  • Yes, it does include the cost of most of our camping equipment and gear for the car.
Mount Cook/ Aoraki, New Zealand
Mount Cook/ Aoraki

Getting around

The most important factor in your finances will be how you travel around New Zealand to see all of the incredible scenery and sights it has to offer. Travellers in NZ have a range of affordable options available to them.

Planes

After your initial flight into New Zealand (which probably terminated in Auckland, let’s face it), you might not consider flying to be a cheap option during your trip. Travelling between the major cities by plane is in fact very easy and also quite cheap!

New Zealand has two main flight providers: Air New Zealand and Jetstar. Think of them as the equivalents of British Airways and Easyjet; one a bit more budget than the other. By booking in advance, you can sometimes get flights for just $19 one way. They fly to all of the bigger cities in the country!

Top tip: Sign up to Air New Zealand’s grab a seat email notifications; you can often great deals on seats with or without luggage!

Flying over the Tasman Sea
Flying over the Tasman Sea
Buses

There are two big competitors for bus tours around NZ: KiwiExperience and Stray. From what I’ve heard, KiwiExperience is more suited to a younger audience, and I’ve heard good things about both companies. InterCity and Manabus / Nakedbus (two companies but operate as one) are also recommended bus companies for travel between the major cities.

Top tip: Manabus/ Nakedbus often have seats for sale for just $1 if you book far enough in advance! Even booking just a few days in advance, you can still get a good deal.

Rental vehicles

If you’re only going to be in NZ for a short time, but want the freedom of exploring the country with your own wheels, renting a vehicle is probably your best option. The cost of renting a small budget car starts at around $25 per day, but discounts are often offered for a longer trip. You can rent cars or camper vans, giving you the freedom to ponder your accommodation options too!

A few rental cars we saw while on the road included Jucy and Avis, though rental campervans were much more popular: Jucy, Escape, Spaceships, Affordable Rentals, and Hippie Campers. For a bit more luxe, check out motor homes like Kea, Maui & Apollo – though these are more pricey!

Note: I have no personal experience of renting a car in NZ as we decided to buy our vehicle, but, as with any purchase, I would advise you to shop around, consider the company’s reviews, and read the small print!

Top Tip: You can also relocate rental campervans for a small cost, or sometimes for free! It’s easiest to find relocation vehicles which need to be taken north to Auckland. I haven’t relocated a vehicle myself, but have trawled through options on transfercar.co.nz.

Camping at Purakaunui Bay
Buying your own vehicle

If you are staying in NZ longer than a few months, I strongly recommend buying your own car; if you rent a vehicle you won’t get that money back, but you may be able to make back what you paid (or even more!) if you buy and sell a vehicle.

James and I knew we wanted the true New Zealand experience – living in a campervan, waking up next to mountains and cooking over the fire… We wanted the dream! We chose to buy a car over renting one because we were travelling for a long period and it was financially a better option for us. And whilst it wasn’t always that dreamy, it did save us one hell of a lot of money!

We bought our own vehicle, the cost of which I haven’t included in our daily budget, simply because we paid for it at the start of our travels. We bought our car for $2,500 in Christchurch in the shoulder season; it was cheap because it had no equipment with it besides a mattress and two camping chairs. We ripped out the two back seats to make more storage space and completely decked it out with pots and pans, a stove, a camping table – even a washing line! We were lucky enough to be able to sell it for $3,500 in Auckland in the high season.

Top Tip: Scour Facebook groups and Trade Me for vehicles for sale, and always take it for a test drive before you buy. Read this post for a guide to buying a car or campervan in New Zealand.

Travelling New Zealand by campervan
James and our camping set-up
The transport costs factored into our $40 daily budget include:
  • Fuel costs

We drove about 15,000km in four months, and reckon we spent around $100-150 per week on fuel ($50-75 each). Everybody says fuel is expensive in NZ, but it isn’t if you’re from the UK. Petrol costs around $1.60-$2.00 per litre, while diesel costs about half of that (but you have to pay tax per kms you drive).

Top Tip: Grab yourself a free AA Smartfuel Card from any BP garage. You accumulate cents off per litre, which you can then redeem and save heaps of money. Our biggest saving was 42c off per litre – amazing!

Top Tip #2: Fuel prices fluctuate across the Islands; it’s much cheaper up north, near Tauranga, as this is where the fuel is imported, whereas it is much more pricey on the South Island. Beware of running out of fuel in isolated places – the petrol station in Haast is cripplingly expensive!

  • The ferry crossing

The thing you have to remember when travelling in New Zealand is that it’s actually made up of two islands, so you need to pay to travel between them. There are two companies who provide commercial crossings of the Cook Strait for both passengers and their vehicles: the Interislander and Bluebridge. We took the very early but slightly cheaper Bluebridge ferry from Picton to Wellington for $226 (two people and our vehicle).

Top tip: The ferry costs more for vans. If you have a 7-seater car that’s been converted into a campervan, you’ll only pay for a car.

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand
The Tongariro Alpine Crossing


Where to stay

Accommodation is the expense that can quickly add up to a LOT of money in New Zealand; even if you stay in a budget hostel, you’ll still be spending way more than you would in South East Asia, South America or even Europe! There are a range of options available, from high-end hotels to budget hostels offering nothing more than a dorm bed. For an idea on pricing, check websites like hostelworld.com and booking.com.



Booking.com

Hotels and motels

At the higher end of the budget, you can are hotels and motels, which often have their own kitchenette, across the country. These normally start at over $100 per night so aren’t really a budget option. Be weary of what’s included in your booking; we stayed in a motel in Te Anau and were surprised to find that bed linen wasn’t included in the standard room rate.

Hostels

Dorm beds usually start at around $22-25 per night, while a double private room starts at around $60-$70 per night. Hostels sometimes offer a weekly or fortnightly rate if you hang around a while. Prices fluctuate depending on the season, as does the availability – sometimes it’s well worth booking in advance, particularly in popular places like Queenstown.

Eco-Pod at Collingwood Park in Golden Bay, New Zealand
James in our Eco-Pod at Collingwood Park in Golden Bay
AirBnB

Another great option is AirBnb, which has really hit it off in New Zealand. We’ve used it numerous times since we’ve been here. Prices are competitive and many listings book up quickly because you pay less for a bigger, better, and more private space.

Top Tip: Click here to get $25NZD off your first booking by being referred by me.

Couchsurfing

Free accommodation options are harder to come by. Couch surfing is something I can’t recommend as I’ve never done it, and I have no idea what that scene is like in NZ. That said, kiwis are the most hospitable people, so it would probably be great.

Working in exchange for accommodation

You may have heard of the huge, internationally acclaimed organisation called WWOOFing which originates as volunteers working on farms in exchange for free accommodation costs. Well, there are three big organisations (that I know of) like this in NZ: WWOOF, HelpX and Work Away. All of them require a cost to register, but it isn’t much, especially if you do a few different ones! Note that legally you will require a Work Visa (or Working Holiday Visa) to be able to work in exchange for accommodation, even if you won’t be getting paid.

We stayed with a lovely lady called Julie for two weeks in Colac Bay while we sorted out our route and waited for the weather to get better. We replied to her advert on HelpX, and, in exchange for a few hours “work” each day, she gave us a gorgeous bedroom (with heated blankets!) and the most delicious food (she’s a chef). Our tasks ranged from helping out in the restaurant to cleaning the windows, vacuuming, ironing, cleaning the bathroom, polishing, tidying up, and (on sunny days), mowing the lawn and weeding the garden. We had the best couple of weeks with her and spent next to nothing!

Colac Bay, New Zealand
Colac Bay
Camping

The cheapest (and in my opinion the best) accommodation option while in New Zealand is camping in one of the hundreds of fantastic campsites or holiday parks across the country. The Department of Conservation maintains a network of campsites in the most beautiful settings: by lakes, rivers, beaches, mountains… These usually cost between $6pp and $15pp per night, though many of them are completely free.

Privately owned holiday parks normally have a number of facilities and are often located close to townships; these are therefore more expensive and their prices fluctuate with the seasons. Another factor to consider is whether your vehicle is powered or unpowered (see this post if you don’t know what that means) – powered sites understandably cost more than unpowered/tent sites. With this in mind, the most we ever paid for an unpowered site was $21pp at Frankton Motor Camp in Queenstown in November, though more often than not, we stayed at free campsites.

Top tip #1: Most campsites operate with an honesty box where you leave your fees. Don’t abuse the system, be honest and pay your dues.

Top Tip #2: Download the Campermate app for a quick, simple guide to finding campsites in NZ.

Top Tip #3: Read this post about Camping in New Zealand.

Sunset at Lake Te Anau, New Zealand
Watching the sunset over Lake Te Anau at Henry Creek campsite in Fiordland
The accommodation costs factored into our $40/day budget include:

I advised that the $40/day budget was an average of what we spent over the full period we were travelling, and this is where the term ‘average’ really plays a part.

  • Free accommodation: The majority of nights cost us nothing, being spent either in free campsites, staying at a HelpX or staying with friends
  • Most other nights were spent in budget campsites (under $10pp per night) or in holiday parks (around $20pp per night).
  • We spent three non-consecutive nights in hostels before we did the Great Walks (to repack our rucksacks, to charge my camera and to have a decent shower), which cost between $60-70 per night for both of us.
  • We spent three nights in an ‘Eco-Pod’ at Collingwood Park Motel in Golden Bay over Christmas which cost a bit more, around $100 per night.
  • We also spent a total of six nights in the Great Walks huts, but I’ve detailed these costs under ‘activities’ since they’re more about the walking tracks.
Camping in the Coromandel, New Zealand
Camping in the Coromandel

Food and Drink

Everyone says that food and drink are expensive in New Zealand, and yes they are probably right, but there are still places you can buy your food and drink cheaper than others!

Groceries

The Big Three supermarkets are New World, Countdown and Pak n Save, of which the latter is the cheapest and the first is the most pricey. Something we’ve noticed is that there aren’t as many ‘home brand’ choices as there are in supermarkets back home, or as many multi-buy offers. Supermarkets can be found in most large towns, though sometimes there is just one, meaning they have a monopoly over the town and their prices aren’t anywhere near as competitive.

Convenience stores, which are more commonly known as dairies in NZ, can be found in the larger towns as well as the smaller ones, and in rural areas they can sometimes be the only shop for miles! Convenience stores are generally more expensive than supermarkets, though the ‘chains’ like Four Square and Fix sometimes run promotions. Seeing as a small bottle of water can set you back $4, I would avoid shopping in convenience stores regularly.

Top tip: Sign up for free supermarket loyalty cards to save money; they often offer exclusive discounts to cardholders. Onecard is Countdown’s loyalty card, and New World has its own.

Fruit and Vegetables

The best place to buy your fruit and veggies is at local farmers markets, many of which are in the
Lonely Planet guidebook or can be found with a quick Google. These usually take place on the weekends but are also sometimes during the week. Try to buy what’s in season – it’s cheaper as it won’t have travelled so far. At markets, you’ll be giving your money to local producers instead of supermarket giants – always a happy thought! Additionally, in rural areas, you may spot a stall selling fruit, veg, eggs etc outside someone’s home with an honesty box for donations – another lovely way to support locals!

Home-cooking

Cooking your own meals is SO much cheaper than eating out at restaurants. Most hostels have a fully equipped kitchen, and most motels have a kitchenette, so you have the chance to cook your own meals instead of eating out. We stocked up on the basics like pasta, rice, beans, chopped tomatoes and spices at the supermarket and usually bought enough fruit and veg at a time to last us a few days. It’s amazing what you can cook on a camping stove when you put your mind to it!

Tapas in Nelson, New Zealand
Tapas in Nelson
Eating out

Sometimes, you just don’t want to cook, and sometimes you want to visit that restaurant that sounds amazing in your guidebook! James and I very rarely chose to go out for dinner; mains usually cost around $20, starters or desserts around $10, and drinks around $10 each, so you could easily spend your daily budget on a meal. There are generally more deals in restaurants at lunch than dinner, so if you are planning to eat out for one meal a day, lunch is your best option.

Drinking

Whilst it’s home to some of the best craft beer and wineries in the world, New Zealand is a country that doesn’t serve alcohol cheap. Supermarkets occasionally have half-decent offers on crates of beer or bottles of wine, but you’ll have to go to a liquor store to buy spirits. That said, don’t be expecting much… it’s not like in the UK where you can buy three crates for £25 in summer. Drinks prices in bars or pubs fluctuate dependant on their location; a “pint” in a bar in Auckland can easily set you back $10, whilst the exact same pint in a local pub in a small town can cost more in the region of $8. Also, a “pint” in NZ isn’t actually a British pint; it’s about 3/4 of a pint. Luckily though, water can be found for free very easily; there is usually a tap or water fountain in each township where you can, like us, refill your multiple water bottles free of charge.

Monteith's Cider, New Zealand
Cider on the beach in Golden Bay
The food costs factored into our $40/day budget include:
  • Our staple breakfast of porridge with banana or eggs with bread and butter.
  • Lunches, normally consisting of sandwiches, salad, wraps/pita breads, or stopping somewhere for a pie.
  • Dinners, which usually entailed some of the following: chopped tomatoes, chickpeas, noodles, pasta, rice, onions, carrots, broccoli, mixed herbs, soy sauce.
  • Beer (particularly in the summer months!): Watch out for deals on crates in supermarkets
  • Visiting numerous pubs and bars on the Nelson Craft Beer Trail
  • Copious amounts of food and drink at Christmas
  • A few meals out, here and there (Devilburger in Queenstown, Tapas at the Underground Bar in Nelson…)
  • Water: to drink, cook with, wash our dishes with, brush our teeth with…
One of each please! The Mussel Inn, Golden Bay, New Zealand
One of each please! The Mussel Inn, Golden Bay


Activities

James and I weren’t huge spenders when it came to activities as we aren’t really adrenaline types; we’d prefer to be in the mountains!

Adrenaline-inducing

That said, New Zealand is the adrenaline capital of the world, with so many incredible experiences to try that you just cannot do elsewhere. If you’re coming to NZ to get your dose of adrenaline, be aware that you may want to blow a small portion of your budget on something incredible – and it’ll be so worth it!

There are all sorts of activities to choose from: zorbing in Rotorua, helicopter rides in Wanaka, kayaking in Doubtful Sound, bungee-jumping in Queenstown, skydiving in Taupo, dirt-biking, snorkelling and diving, Glacier discoveries in Fox and Franz Josef, luges, zip-lining, canyoning, white/black water rafting, skiing, caving, hang gliding, paragliding, jet boating… The list is endless.

Exploring Doubtful Sound by Kayak with Fiordland Adventure
Tours, cruises and attractions

There’s also heaps of tours, cruises, and attractions across the country, and these are often the best way to see some places in NZ; sometimes taking a tour is the only way to see certain areas of the country, for example Doubtful Sound in Fiordland and White Island in the Bay of Plenty.

Top Tip: For deals and discounts on tours, cruises and activities, check out bookme.co.nz and grabone.co.nz.

Visiting geothermal Rotorua at Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland
Walking tracks

Fortunately, the walking and tramping tracks across New Zealand are budget-friendly: they are completely free. This is what James and I love most about NZ: trekking up to the top of a hill to see what it looks like from up there, creeping through the rainforest in the early morning listening to the calls of native birds as they woke up… New Zealand is home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the world and I think it is a real gift that they are accessible to everyone.

Overnight tracks and the network of nine Great Walks require you to organise accommodation; depending on the track this is sometimes a free campsite or a few Doc Hut Tickets (see their website for info here). The Great Walks are the most expensive, costing $32-54 per night in a hut or less in a campsite.

Top Tip: For inspiration on your hiking options in New Zealand, check out this post.

Fiordland National Park as seen on the Kepler Track
The activities costs factored into our $40/day budget include:
Bilbo’s House in the Shire, Hobbiton, Matamata

Travelling with others VS travelling on your own

It goes without saying that travelling with others tends to save you money; you can split your costs for food, accommodation, and many activities and tour companies give you a discount as a group. Splitting the cost of a car or renting a vehicle is much more budget-friendly than going it alone.

However, that’s not to say that travelling solo in New Zealand is unaffordable; I guess you just have to be a little more frugal and do a bit more homework on budget options. Many people who come to NZ alone end up with heaps more friends, and the Facebook groups are a great place to start (just search for things like “backpacker New Zealand” or “Working Holiday New Zealand”). Many solo travellers post in these groups looking for travel mates, and we have come across many groups of travellers who in fact met each other on the road. Additionally, many people use these groups as a way to hitch a lift or offer a ride if they have a spare seat!

Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Lake Tekapo at dusk

When to go

Another very important factor to consider when organising your trip to travel New Zealand is the time of year you choose to go. The best time to travel is during the shoulder seasons (September to November and March to May). Ski resorts across NZ (e.g. the Remarkables, Coronet Peak) are hugely popular during the winter months (June to August) while tourists and locals alike flock to the coasts during summer (December to February). Not only is travelling during the high season more expensive, there are also many more tourists, meaning accommodation books up much more quickly and room rates are generally higher, so it pays (mind the pun) to book ahead.

If you’re planning on camping in New Zealand, bear in mind that the winter months can get really, really cold – particularly on the South Island – so you might not want to pitch your tent in minus temperatures and pouring rain. This could mean unexpected nights in hostels to escape the weather, which in turn means spending more money. Likewise, in the summer, the humidity and high temperatures are sometimes unbearable!

James and I travelled NZ from October to January – when we began our trip in Christchurch it was still cold enough (for me) to sleep in 3+ layers of clothing, whilst travelling the Northland in January reminded me of being in Asia, with high temperatures and the occasional tropical storm. December to January was also a lot more busy, as it’s the summer holidays and lots of people take time off work. Considering the timing of your trip to NZ before booking your flight is really worthwhile.

The West Coast, New Zealand
Wild weather on the Wild West Coast

So, there you have it.

By travelling with James, staying in cheap campsites, cooking our own meals, and choosing free hiking tracks over expensive activities – that’s how I managed to travel New Zealand on less than $40NZD per day.

In a country as pricey as New Zealand, you do have to stay disciplined with your money, but I can honestly say that I don’t feel I missed out on anything due to budgeting. For me, it made more sense to budget for longer than to blow a lot of money on something crazy like a skydive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right way to travel NZ. Don’t go worrying over every cent; just be prepared and do your research. Above all, enjoy NZ!

Have you travelled to New Zealand before? Do you have any money-saving tips for travelling the country on a budget?

Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Note: All of the photos used in this post are my own. Some links in this post are affiliate links which help run this site.

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this INSANELY HELPFUL post, Abbi! So many comprehensive details here, even down to buying water to brush your teeth with. Timely for me, too – a best mate and I are planning to go to NZ next February for a mixture of workaway/hiking/road-tripping and we’ve been debating on how much money we’ll actually need to save up before then. This guide is awesome, definitely bookmarking it so I can refer to it probably multiple times in the months leading up to our trip! Would you say that tourist levels and general prices start to get a little bit lower in February as opposed to December and January, or is it the same?

    Mel x
    illumelation.com

    1. Hi Mel, you’re welcome! Ah I’m so excited for you both! Tourist levels definitely start to decrease by February because the kids go back to school and parents back to work, though it’s still not particularly “quiet” as tourists are still about. I reckon prices are probably quite similar – food/produce prices change (for example now peaches are ridiculously expensive compared to a couple of months ago), and we found that hostels seemed to hike up their prices in Dec-Jan simply because it’s the high season, so hopefully they will have dropped a bit by Feb. Petrol is similar year round but changes dependant on where you are in NZ. Thanks for your comment and enjoy NZ – always happy to help with any future queries 🙂 Abbi X

  2. Tip from a local… You should NEVER pay for water in NZ!!! Our tap water is almost always great (unless otherwise specified like in some very remote areas) Otherwise all great tips!

    1. Agreed! As I mentioned in the post we only bought water at the start of our trip so we could refill the bottles! There were often taps in every local township where you can refill for free. We also refilled from streams once or twice (in areas where safe to do so)

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