Would you do this trip differently knowing what you know now? Tricia asked me on our flight leaving Auckland. I know why she was asking this question. New Zealand was not a cheap trip even during the shoulder season with an unpredictable weather. The weather forced us to truncate major parts of our plans like the Milford Track and led us to drive back and forth between Tongariro and Taupo. But we also gained from traveling in the shoulder season by avoiding major crowds. Despite our best effort to keep down the cost, the trip felt pricey for travelers like us, who were used to $10-20 per days budget while hiking and camping in third world countries. How I would do this trip differently was an interesting question to ponder. I don’t usually regret the decisions I make– especially in travel– because even bad experiences are good stories to tell in the years to come. So what would I change in this trip? I think there are major aspects I would consider changing: one, trim down the cost where it was unnecessary; two, hike trails that don’t necessarily have the biggest names.
Keeping things under budget
How would I cut down on the cost without compromising the comfort of traveling in a first world country? Let’s start by breaking down our bill.
Flights were the most costly item in this trip because it included both international flights between Seattle and Auckland and domestic flights between Auckland and Queenstown. I think our flight timing was great, and I wouldn’t change anything here.
Accommodation was the next most costly category. We initially booked all accommodations in hotels until we learned from fellow Kepler trekkers about the great AirBnb experience in New Zealand. Unlike in the US and Canada, where AirBnb providers routinely charge cleaner and service fees on top of their listing prices, adding 20-30% to final bill, the AirBnb’s in New Zealand are impressively honest with the listing prices and final bills. We didn’t encounter a single case of hidden cleaner and service charges adding on top of the listing prices. Since the housing market in New Zealand went through the roof in the recent years, forcing many people to open up part of their homes to short term renters, there are plenty of AirBnb’s for travelers to pick from. The competitive short term rental market kept the prices reasonable and drove the AirBnb providers to create better accommodation environment. The houses we stay in were all spotless; many of them provided a simple breakfast; most of them had a kitchen and provided shampoo for their showers and soap at their sinks. We often found it more comfortable staying in AirBnb’s while paying half the price of a hotel room.
If you really want to cut down the cost of accommodation, you may consider camping in the public camping lots. I researched Rotorua and Taupo area, and there were abundant public camping spots, with no reservation necessary, for $10/night.
Another accommodation option is renting a camper van. Many of them come with stove tops and a mattress in the van– apparently van camping is a common way to travel New Zealand. There are many van camping sites scattered in New Zealand, and many of them are located in scenic spots like lake or beachsides. We encountered many camper vans on our trip. A company called Jucy with vans painted purple and green was very popular, but, according to my research, they were not cheap. I believe there are cheaper van renters in the market if you are willing to dig around a little.
Car rentals can be very reasonably priced in New Zealand since there are a lot of older cars in their rental world. We picked up a rental from near Auckland airport for $10/day, but the car had over 300,000 km on the odometer. I suspect that would have been less likely to happen if I had been less stingy. But the car held together fine during our trip.
The rental car insurance system in New Zealand is different from ours. Here’s my understanding of it (make sure you do your own research to verify what I say here):
- Rental car are already insured with a high deductible, called “excess” in New Zealand, which is usually around NZ$2-3000. The cost of the insurance is already covered by your premium/rental company but you are left with the question whether to cover the excess.
- When you pick up the vehicle, you have the option to pay for another insurance to cover this excess. The rental company usually present you with insurance options of NZ$5-20/day to reduce the “excess” from NZ$3000 to NZ$1000 or even NZ$0 if you are willing to pay for it.
- The risk and benefit of not paying the insurance is basically the same as it is in the US. If you consistently take your chances without additional insurance, you are probably going to incur a large charge at some point when/if you have an accident. However, in the long run, you’d probably come out on top without the additional insurance.
- When I paid the rental with my Visa or Mastercard in the US, my credit card covers the collision insurance. I called my credit card to see if it provides any coverage in New Zealand. Unfortunately, the answer was no. So make sure you check with your credit card before you head to New Zealand.
- If you want more information on rental insurance in NZ, here’s an article that I found useful.
Tours and tickets are expensive in New Zealand. But there are ways to cut down the cost here. I don’t know why I didn’t do more research before booking my tours, but there are a number of websites that offer discount coupons for various activities like Hobbiton tour or Waitomo Caves tour. One of the useful websites I discovered later is called Grab One. Make sure you read the fine prints to ensure that the deal works for your travel dates. Another website is called Treat Me. If I could go back to the planning stage months prior to my trip, I would’ve spent more time on these two websites looking for tour deals.
Keeping New Zealand wilderness wild
From the inception of our trip, we made up our minds to check out the Great Walks of New Zealand. They are beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but they are ridiculously expensive. Starting in 2018, the DoC increased the accommodation prices, especially steeply for foreign tourists. A bunk bed in a common room in the cabin of the Great Walks costs NZ$140/night. If you want to hike the Milford Track, which is one of the most iconic South Island treks, you are also liable for the cost of transportation which adds another NZ$2-300/person.
But don’t panic, like I said, there are a ton of hikes in New Zealand. Many of these multi-day hikes also have hut systems, often maintained by the local communities, and cost NZ$15/night in the huts! Here are a list of them that I found out only after my trip.
- Humpridge Track (3 days): we hiked the first few miles of this track on the beach. It’s beautiful. We would have happily done this trek had the weather permitted.
- Hollyford Track (2-8 days): a trek in Fiordland National Park that opens year round.
- Pouakai Circuit (2-3 days): a hike around the base of Mt Taranaki.
- Round the Mountain Track (4-6 days): around the base of Mt Ruapehu; South of Tongariro.
- Inland Track (2-3 days): in Abel Tasman National Park; accommodation is NZ$5/nt.
- Aotea Track (2-3 days)
- Mangapurua Landing (2-3 days): near Tongariro.
- Southern Circuit Steward Island/Rakiura (4-6 days): Home to lots of flightless bird species only found in New Zealand.
We didn’t complete any of these hikes listed above so I can’t give you any personal tips. But on our next trip to New Zealand, you can bet these treks will be on our to do list.
What do you think? Anything other tips you’d like to add to this post? Please feel free to leave me a comment below!