I've had a travel bug for the last few years and spent a lot of my time researching places I needed to travel to. I decided to spend most of 2019 travelling and I've been lucky enough to check some really amazing places off of my bucket list. New Zealand had been very high on my list for years, but I was never really sure if I would make it or not. I was a really nervous flyer and the thought of sitting on a flight for 20 hours deterred me from hopping on a plane. I decided to start my travels in Australia and knew I had to make a stop in New Zealand. The country absolutely blew me away. New Zealand is even more beautiful than the pictures and everywhere you look you're surrounded by incredible views, amazing rainforests and beautiful people. It was an amazing experience and I am already planning my trip back.
You really can't visit New Zealand and only see one or two places. You need to travel around both islands and see as many places as possible. The only way to do this is to rent a car or a camper van and plan a road trip around both islands. Both islands are equally as amazing and if you're going all the way to New Zealand you need to see both. If you can take the time, I would suggest at least two weeks. One week for each island. Although more time is suggested because there is so much to see.
Rent the camper van
Renting a camper van is the ideal way to travel around New Zealand and it will save you money on accommodations. It is also a really great experience that I think everyone should have. When you are choosing your camper van, make sure you check all of your options and definitely get one that comes with blankets and pillows. We made the mistake of renting one that did not include these and our first night in the van was very cold. The camper van we rented was from Wicked Campers and came decked out with some hilarious graffiti. We found out later that some of the graffiti on these camper vans are offensive and they have been banned from a few campsites so do your research. We were lucky and didn't have any issues but better to be save than sorry. Travelling around New Zealand on a budget means you're going to want to cook a lot of your meals yourself so make sure you rent a camper van with a sink and camper stove.
Pack some snacks
I'll say it again, New Zealand is expensive. Eating out will most definitely break your budget so you should really do some groceries. You'll also be spending a lot of time driving around so snacks are necessary. There are long stretches where there won't be anywhere to stop and you will really wish you had some food. Make the grocery store your first stop and load up on water, snacks and some easy meal items. We picked up some dried fruit, nuts, granola bars and crackers for snacks on the long drives between towns. Our camper van came with a cooler so we made sure to pick up ice so we could keep our lunch meats, fruits and vegetables cool. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches became our go-to meal during this trip. If you have a camper van with a stove, you'll be set to make almost any meal you want.
Be prepared to skip your daily shower
In the last few years, New Zealand has cracked down on freedom camping making it nearly impossible to just park your van where you want. You need to have a self-contained vehicle to do this, which means you need a toilet and those camper vans were WAY out of our budget. When we rented our camper van it included a DOC campsite pass which allowed us to camp at certain campsites around New Zealand for free. If your rental doesn't include this, you can pick one up at most information centres. These campsites are VERY basic and did not include showers, so we had to get creative. There are campsites you can stay at for an extra fee that do include showers but we were on a budget. You can buy a shower bag which you easily fill with water and pull a string to pour over your head. This works great and is an affordable way to shower while on the road. I'll admit we failed in Queenstown and ended up spending the extra $25 per person to stay at a fully equipped campsite just so we could have a real shower.
Plan your routes ahead of time
Gas in New Zealand is the most expensive I have ever seen. When we were there it was anywhere from $2.30 to $2.40 CAD a litre. This is nearly double what we were paying back in Canada and driving a camper van all the way around a country means you are burning A LOT of gas. I suggest planning out your route ahead of time and investing in a map. GPS will get you most places but sometimes electronics fail and having a map will make sure you aren't driving too far out of the way and burning more gas than necessary. There were quite a few times that we ended up on the wrong road and not only was this very frustrating, we also had to fill up more often because of our horrible sense of direction. If you plan out your route, you can also see how far you'll be from gas stations to make sure you never run out. There will be long stretches of road with nothing around and you really wouldn't want to be stranded on the side of those roads.
There are also some apps you can use while travelling around New Zealand that will help you. CamperMate is a great app for finding campsites around you so make sure to download it when you're looking at planning out your routes. Wicked campers had their own app as well so ask your rental company what they recommend.
The two weeks we spent driving around New Zealand in our camper van were amazing. As much as I was desperate for a real bed and a real shower, I was sad to end our trip and drop our camper van off. We were able to see so much more of the country because we had the freedom of a vehicle and weren't stuck with pre-booked accommodations. This lets us change our plans based on how much we liked a town and didn't force us to venture to the next stop before we were ready. The freedom to go at your own pace without restrictions was ideal for us and I would highly recommend the camper van life. New Zealand is another really expensive country so travelling there will definitely put a dent in your bank account but with a few adjustments to your trip, you can make it worth every cent.