Updated on 12 July 2018: Add more detail links to each destination I went in New Zealand.
New Zealand is one of those countries that everyone wants to visit and yet when it comes to planning as a solo backpacker, the information is surprisingly limited.
For one, New Zealand is an expensive country and it can be a turn off for most backpackers. The fact that New Zealand's towns are so remote also creates a perception that you would need to rent a car to travel around. That is not entirely true and this post will explain how I backpacked my way through New Zealand on a budget without renting a car. Let's begin with the pre-trip planning
One of the most misunderstood facts about New Zealand is that you need a car. Yes, having a car is more convenient but it is also more costly and you lose the opportunity to mingle with other people on the bus.
For this trip I went with the NakedBus, one of the cheaper bus service out there that focuses on getting you to your destination fast and cheap. Buy a 15-trip Naked Passport pass when it goes on sale (which is quite often) at 249 NZD and that should be enough to cover almost the whole trip.
Note: With the pass, you will still have to book your trip online beforehand so do plan accordingly, especially during the high season.
If you find yourself stuck in a place because of Nakedbus's schedule, don't sweat. You can go with another service that runs more often (but more expensive), the Intercity bus. The Nakedbus runs less often on the West Coast of the South Island so you might find yourself going with the Intercity bus instead.
To cross from the North to the South Island, go with the Interislander. They run several times a day so you can book it online when you are in Wellington. I paid 57 NZD for a low season ticket.
As a backpacker on a budget, your best bet is to stay in hostels. Camping could be an option if you are willing to carry your gears around. For me, I just went with dorm rooms in hostels. Here are all the hostels I stayed in chronological order:
Auckland: Oaklands Lodge: 28.00 NZD/night
Rotorua: Hotel Crash Palace Backpackers: 19.00 NZD/night
Lake Taupo: Taupo Urban Retreat: 26.00 NZD/night
Wellington: The Dwellington: 25.00 NZD/night
Picton: Hotel Sequoia Lodge Backpackers: 27.00 NZD/night
Free chocolate pudding at 8PM everyday!
Nelson: Hotel Tasman Bay Backpackers: 26.00 NZD/night
Free chocolate pudding at 8PM everyday.. again!
Motueka: Hotel YHA Motueka / Laughing Kiwi Backpackers: 28.00 NZD/night
Westport: Bazil's Hostel: 30.00 NZD/night
Franz Josef: Glow Worm Cottages: 30.00 NZD/night
Wanaka: Hotel YHA Wanaka: 29.00 NZD/night
Queenstown: Adventure Queenstown Hostel: 28.00 NZD/night
The best hostel by far. Free fast & unlimited internet, plugs with USB sockets near every bed. GoPRO and iPad rental. Very well located.
Te Anau: Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers: 28.00 NZD/night
Routeburn Track: Lake Mackenzie Hut: 50.00 NZD/night
Routeburn Track: Routeburn Falls Hut: 50.00 NZD/night
Lake Tekapo: YHA Lake Tekapo: 33.00 NZD/night
Mt Cook: Mt Cook Backpackers: 34.00 NZD/night
Christchurch: Jailhouse Christchurch: 33.00 NZD/night
One interesting looking jail/hostel
Dunedin: Central Backpackers Dunedin: 30.00 NZD/night
Here comes the most stressful part of pre-planning, preparing your budget. New Zealand is an expensive country no doubt, but it doesn't have to be if you know how to save. Here are tips I used to minimize cost while not sacrificing the adventure I was there for:
- Cook your own food: A meal in New Zealand could cost you 15 NZD or more. By cooking your own food, it will cost you less than 10 NZD per meal.
This is a little harder as a solo traveler but it is possible. My usual go-to recipe is a salad, a canned flavored chicken, and a tortilla wrap. I got a little more creative and mixed & matched a bunch of other things such as hamburgers, spaghetti, and noodles. Or if you are not keen on cooking, go for a Subway's sub-of-the-day sandwich. It should cost you no more than 6 NZD.
- Stay in Hostels: It's much more affordable for backpackers and you got to meet a lot of people in the process.
- Walk: New Zealand is a beautiful country and the government knows it. That's why they built so many great nature trails both in cities and remote areas. All are free and it makes you healthier, what more could you ask for.
- Buy a Bus Pass: You will be relying on buses most of the time so you might as well buy a bus pass before you arrive. Some bus pass is valid for a year so keep an eye out for a discount and buy them when it goes on sale.
- Hitchhike: Hitchhiking is extremely common and quite safe in New Zealand. It is free, exciting and you got to experience the country with the locals first hand.
Breakdown of my Budget
- Flights (1,672 NZD total):
From Bangkok to Auckland, New Zealand (Qantas) - 1502 NZD
From Dunedin to Auckland - 170 NZD
- Buses (570 NZD total):
NakedBus 25 Trips Passport - 295.00 NZD
Intercity Bus 15 hours Flexipass - 119.00 NZD
Tracknet Drop Off and Pickup for Routeburn Track - 86 NZD
Cook Connect Coach from Lake Tekapo to Mt Cook - 35 NZD
Cook Connect Coach from Mt Cook to Twizel - 35 NZD
- Cruises (212 NZD total):
Interislander from Wellington to Picton - 57 NZD
Milford Sound Cruise + Pickup & Dropoff coach - 155.00 NZD
- Accommodation (966 NZD total)
- Activities(1,108 NZD total optional):
NZone Skydive 12,500 ft + videos and photos - 568 NZD
Franz Josef Ice Explorer - 325 NZD
Tongariro Alpine Crossing Coaches - 65 NZD
Abel Tasman Aqua Taxi: Seals and Sand - 75 NZD
Wai-o-Tapu Half day morning trip - 75 NZD
- Miscellaneous (1,487 NZD total optional):
5 weeks of Groceries, coffee, and pocket money - 1,389 NZD
Spark Mobile Internet for 3GB x 2 - 98 NZD
Minimum Cost: 3,420 NZD | 2,445 USD | 2,199 EUR | 85,558 THB
Optional Cost: 2,595 NZD | 1,856 USD | 1,669 EUR | 64,866 THB
Total Cost: 6,015 NZD | 4,536 USD | 4,096 EUR | 146,781 THB
If you are looking for a travel insurance to go along with your trip to New Zealand, I would recommend WorldNomads.com, which is what I use to look for a travel insurance that fits my kind of adventure. They have a simple and flexible search system that allowed me to find the right insurance for the right amount of time at an affordable price in seconds. If you need a travel insurance, give WorldNomads.com a try.
The Perfect Backpackers Itinerary
Stay one night in Auckland and get use to the custom. I used my first day to go out and prepare groceries for my trip. If you are staying at the same hostel I did, you could spend half day climbing Mt Eden and mingling with people who live and breath the city.
Rotura is one of the most colorful place in the world due to its vibrant thermal and volcanic activities. To see more spectecular thermal activies, go to Wai-o-Tapu, a thermal reserve where the famous Champagne lake is located.
Spend the morning exploring the Wai-o-Tapu landscape and in the afternoon, walk to the Redwoods and immerse yourself in gigantic alpine trees. To tell you the truth, I prefer Redwoods more than Wai-o-Tapu just because it was less touristy and there are several walks for me to choose from.
After Rotorua, head down to Lake Taupo and stay there for 2 - 3 nights. I stayed for 3 nights and dedicated one full day to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (the best day hike in New Zealand). They don't call it the best day hike for nothing. You will go through a variety of landscapes from rugged terrain and volcanos to mountains and lush forest. All can be done in 6 - 9 hours. You will also have the option to summit Mt Doom from Lord of the Rings (Mt Ngauruhoe) which I highly recommended.
The next day, go and take a walk to the Huka Falls. At night, go out and enjoy live music at an Irish pub in the city center. You could also go bungee jumping or skydiving instead since I heard that it is cheaper to do them here.
Stay one night in Wellington and explore the capital city of New Zealand in the morning. Go enjoy a coffee or a museum. Once that is done, take a bus to the ferry terminal in the afternoon and set off to Picton.
Don't make the same mistake I did and dropped my bag at the terminal before exploring the city. As it turned out, the terminal is way outside the city center and going back and forth was not the best use of your limited time.
Cruising from the North Island to the South Island should give you a glimpse of the beauty of the Queen Charlotte Sound. Sleep in Picton for a day and in the early morning, grab a map, a coffee and walk the Snout Track. You would be rewarded with an infinite view of the Sound streched out as far as the eye can see.
Enjoy a laid back day in Nelson Reward yourself with a nice meal and a Flat White at Deville. Go on a walk to the Tahunanui beach or climb a mountain to the Center of New Zealand. At night go out at the Sprig and Fern bar on Hardy street and enjoy a nice live music.
After a nice laid back day in Nelson, hop on the bus to Motueka and go for a walk at night to the Janie Seddon shipwreck. The shipwreck will be illuminated by stunnig stars with a flickering light from Nelson as a backdrop.
Book an Abel Tasman day tour with the AquaTaxi at the hostel and they will pick you up in the morning the next day. You can choose either walking or kayaking for the tour, although the Abel Tasman is well known for its beautiful kayak route along the coast. You will spend the whole day in the national park, enjoying the sight of dolphins, seals and all kinds of birds. This will be the closest to nature you will ever get.
For the west coast, I wouldn't recommend Westport since there was nothing to do and the town had this uninspiring abandoned wild west cowboy town vibe. That said, Cape Foulwind made it all worthwhile for me. To get there, you will have to bike 8 kms from Westport to the cape and then start walking along the cliff. In addition to the stunning view of the cape, the massive seal colony that laid at the end made it quite an interesting sight to see.
For Karamea, you have to time your arrival in Westport carefully as only one bus runs in the late morning each day. If you missed the bus, you can also arrange a hitchhike with backpackers in any hostels nearby. If you made it to Karamea, go cave exploring for a day at the Oparara Basin.
Don't bother comparing Franz Josef and Fox Glacier. They are both identical in terms of activities you can do. I went with Franz Josef just because the town seems a little bigger. On your first day, take a walk to the glacier and appreciate its size from the bottom. The next day, book an Ice Explorer tour and go up to the glacier. The tour includes a helicopter ride to the top where you will be walking for 3 hours. It is only when you are at the top that you will realize how massive the glacier actually is despite the dwindling of its size over the years.
Usually 2 nights would have been enough for Franz Josef but with many extreme activties, the Ice Explorer tour relies heavily on nice weather and it is important to leave rooms for when the tour get canceled due to bad weather. It canceled on me the first day and I had to extend my stay to 3 days.
Are you ready for a non stop adventure? Because you will climb mountains after mountains from here on out. As you arrive in Wanaka on your first day, go on a small hike to the top of Mt Iron and get the feel of the surrounding. You will realize why Wanaka is a ski town. It is surrounded by mountains. The next morning go out and climb Roy's Peak to get the full view of Lake Wanaka and the peak of Mt Aspiring.
If you are unlucky like me and was in Wanaka during the first week of November when Roy's Peak is closed for 10 days, you can go for a walk around the lake or go skydiving instead. Lake Wanaka is beautiful beyond words.
The capital city of adventure, Queenstown gives you the option to do all sort of things and 3 days might not even be enough to some. From going on a luge, mountain biking, bungee jumping, skydiving to eating Fergburger, enjoying Sunday DJ session at the beach, and going in an ice bar, there's endless stream of activities for you to do here.
But since you have 3 nights here, go climb Mt Ben Lomond for a day, and skydive the next. In between that, eat lots and lots of Fergburger. Again, leave rooms for when the skydive get canceled so you will not be disappointed. The skydive did canceled on me once due to cloudy whether.
Go on a cruise to Milford Sound for one whole day. It really does live up to the hype.
If you are in New Zealand and you did not do any great walks then you have not really experience the true beauty of the country. The routeburn track is one of the most beautiful great walks in New Zealand and the trail began from The Divide in Te Anau and ended at the Routeburn Shelter near Queenstown. You will need to book a Tracknet coach for transfer service from Te Anau to The Divide and pickup service from Routeburn Shelter to Queenstown.
You will be walking in the Fiordland, climbing to the top of the Key Summit, walking along cliffs and waterfalls and sleeping in mountain huts for 3 days. Only gas are available in mountain huts so you need to prepare a stove, a torchlight, a sleeping bag, and enough food for the trip.
Keep in mind that the mountain huts and Tracknet coach need to be booked way beforehand as it can often be fully booked for weeks.
After the walk, the Tracknet coach will pick you up and drop you off in Queenstown. You will need to stay the night and catch the bus to Lake Tekapo the next morning.
Now, we are going up north inland instead of along the west coast. Lake Tekapo is a good place to stop and spend the night. The turquoise colored lake is so vivid you won't believe your eyes. Spent half a day walking along the lake and when at night you can go on a stargazing tour at Mt John Observatory or if you are a cheapskate like me, walk to the Church of Good Shepherd and just look up and stare in wonder.
If you are there in late summer you might even see the Milky Way in its finest form.
Mt Cook is a no-brainer. It is the highest mountain in New Zealand and one of the most accessible one. Spent 4 - 5 hours and do the Hooker Valley walk. A walk that will take you through many suspension bridges directly to the heart of the mountain range with a grand view of Mt Cook itself. The walk was so easy, you might not even sweat one bit.
At night, go out and have a drink at the bar in the most expensive hotel in New Zealand, The Hermitage hotel.
Christchurch (1 night)
Take the Cook Connect from Mt Cook to Twizel and catch a NakedBus to Christchurch.
Christchurch doesn't have the beauty it used to have after the earthquake and even though it's been a few years, the main part of the cities were still under construction. Unfortunately, it is unavoidable because you will have to catch the bus to Dunedin in the early morning.
There is so much to see in Dunedin but some area might require you to be a little creative to get there. First, go and walk around its Botanic Garden, the oldest garden in New Zealand. In the evening, take a bus to the Signal Hill and get the overall feel of Dunedin in one go. Go out for a drink or two in the Octagon at night.
The next morning, book a coach from the hostel to the Otago peninsula to see penguins and the Albatross. In the evening, go to St Clair beach and enjoy a nice meal or take a walk around the area. It's very nice in the evening.
Last but not least, spend and hour at the Tunnel Beach or Aramoana beach if you have time. Head to the airport and fly back to Auckland. Sleep at the airport for the night and head home in the early morning.
Holy cow! Did I just dissect my whole trip out in one post? There you have it, the perfect one-month itinerary for poor backpackers like me. If you have any questions about New Zealand, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments below. Travel safe and enjoy the world!
P.S. If you are still wondering what camera I used, here it is: Sony RX100 M1.
The Solo Traveler’s Journal is a series of posts by BucketListly where we will follow our founder, Pete Rojwongsuriya around the world as he singlehandedly travel alone and experience different cultures, people, and historical locations one country at a time.
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