Backpacking On A Budget In New Zealand

Backpacking & Trekking, Cabins & Camping, Dispatches from the Road, New Zealand — By on January 31, 2012 at 12:00 pm

By Sarah Deveau

When you think backpacking, Europe likely pops into mind. Yet far-flung New Zealand is a popular backpacking destination, especially for adventurers looking to avoid the hassle of skirting around areas of turmoil or travelling nervously through them. A compact country with relaxed beaches, spectacular scenery and a reputation for extreme fun, New Zealand has everything a backpacker wants. But can you afford it? “Granted, we have no $11 a night beach huts or $2 noodle bowls, but backpackers won’t have to thumb their way across the country if they travel smart,” says Gregg Anderson, a general manager with Tourism New Zealand.

As a backpacker, you can whittle your expenses down to four primary categories. Moving, sleeping, eating, and enjoying.  Though the exchange rate is favourable to North Americans ($1US = $1.29NZD), the cost of, well, everything is higher on this South-Pacific Island than it is on North American soil.


Lone backpackers often choose to travel by tour bus, selecting one with plenty of flexibility in destinations and timelines. Kiwi Experience is New Zealand’s legendary hop-on, hop-off bus tour, with 25 different routes covering every corner of the country and a distinctive ‘gap year’ ambiance. Depending on the route and days on the road, expect to spend anywhere from $500NZ for a week- long trip to $2100NZD for the longest, most comprehensive pass. Veteran driver Kane It suggests the 20-day Funky Chicken offering (priced at $1135NZD) for those wanting to see a lot, but not spend a lot. “The Funky Chicken route is one of the best deals for backpackers. You’re going to see a lot of the country affordably. One of the best things about riding a Kiwi Experience bus is that the drivers have so much knowledge about cheap deals, and our passengers get great deals on hostels, restaurants, excursions – pretty much anything,” says It. Alternatively, companies like Nakedbus offer trimmed down, get-ya-there service at much cheaper rates, but without the perks and camaraderie. An unlimited trip pass on the Nakedbus rings in at just $597NZD.

Campervans are a cost-effective option for pairs or groups, especially if you’re planning to cave or tramp (hike) along the way, exploring the more remote locales. A basic campervan for a couple can be had for under $100 a day, and long-term backpackers can buy, then sell, a van for even less. Note that the average campervans are tiny compared to North American standards, but being cramped is worth it at the pump – Kiwis currently pay $2.19NZD a litre for their fuel.


Backpackers will find excellent and affordable hostels in even the smallest towns. Booking ahead at hostels isn’t required except for the most popular locations during high season, and for those traveling on a bus tour, the first night is often pre-booked. Plan to spend at least $18NZD a night on a basic bed in most cities, slightly more in the smaller resort towns.

Campervan travelers are encouraged to visit an I-Site tourism office to find free or inexpensive campsites, but it’s not uncommon to see lines of JUCY vans roadside or huddled together in parking lots for the night. If you’re straying further off the highways, there are more than 950 backcountry huts available for trampers. You can work long tramps into your schedule, sleeping in these inexpensive huts (many with running water and flush toilet facilities). The majority of these mountain or forest walks are achievable for the least physically fit traveller.


There’s a facial expression visitors make (wide eyes, gaping maw) when buying food in New Zealand that set them apart from more common Australian backpackers, who see the local prices as a good deal. There are precious few cheap and filling food stands, so backpackers tend to stick to setting up small pantries in their hostel if they’re staying in one area for a few days, or buying fruit and deli products in single servings while exploring.

Locally grown fruit is a good bet for the budget and the palate; the tart feijoa, luscious apples, and the golden kiwifruit, a sweeter version of the more common green variety.


No visit to the birthplace of bungee would be complete without partaking in a little thrill-seeking. Bungy, jetboating, skydiving, zorbing, caving, paragliding – adrenaline junkies will have no problem going over their adventure budget. “Cities like Queenstown have a little bit of everything within easy reach by foot or public transit, and plenty of storefront tour operators willing to offer last minute deals,” says Anderson. “Visitors shouldn’t miss the chance to jump, soar, drop or dive, but there are plenty of ways for backpackers to save on these activities.”

As a budget backpacker in New Zealand, you’ll have an advantage over those traveling with no financial constraints. A low budget for excursions will force you to seek out free versions of the higher priced tours, whether it’s the self-guided walks of glow worm caves in Dunedin, the art deco walk in Napier or finding the locals’ natural hot springs spot in Rotorua. Searching for lower priced meals will send you to farmers markets, and the cheapest forms of travel and accommodation are usually how you’ll find the best new road friends.


If You Go

·         Getting There: Air New Zealand offers convenient non-stop flights through many North American gateways.

·         How long to stay: Though compact in land mass, each region of New Zealand packs a lot of adventure in a small area. Allocate two to three nights per region.

·         Avoiding bad deals: Qualmark is New Zealand tourism’s official mark of quality. All accommodation, transportation, activities and attractions that display Qualmark have been independently assessed as professional and trustworthy.

·         Campervans: There are a lot of campervan hire companies in New Zealand but the one you’ll see most is JUCY Rentals.

·         Resources: New Zealand Travel is the official site for New Zealand tourism and it’s top-notch. With videos, in-depth articles, and interactive trip planning features, it’s the only website needed to plan a backpackers ramble or decadent whirlwind tour.

Photo credit: Sarah Deveau


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  • Link says:

    Apart from Kiwi Experience there’s also other backpacker or hop-on hop-off buses like Stray Bus and Magic Bus. Currently Stray Bus have promotion ( so do check them out as they consistently being rated the best among the 3 major backpacker buses in New Zealand.

    If anyone are interested to book Stray bus pass, do use or quote Stray Mate Code KL3909 and you’ll get instant $25-50 off purchase! (for passes >$400)

  • Jack Martin says:

    Okay I have done the backpacking around Europe thing in the past, and that was a great experience. This sounds pretty great, too. I would love to do some bungy-jumping. Not sure if I could get myself to jump out of a plane, though.

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