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The Complete Guide to Campervan Travel in New Zealand on a Budget

 In camping, Destinations, International Destinations, travel


New Zealand: there really isn’t anything quite like this country. Everywhere you turn there’s something stunning to see. At the end of every day, you crawl into bed and think, there is no way I’ll see anything more beautiful than what I saw today. The next day your jaw will drop and you’ll be speechless yet again. You’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t see the country by road and stay in campsites along the way. Get amped, get charged, and get your road warrior on with these rules of the road for traveling New Zealand by Campervan

new zealand by campervan - mt cook

Two Weeks Traveling in New Zealand with a Campervan

As an American, I didn’t have too much time to spare when we traveled to New Zealand. In two weeks, you can hit many of the South Island’s highlights, however, travel from the north to the south island would be tedious and ambitious. If you’re the kind of traveler that likes to stay in one place, opt to hit the highlights of the South Island. If you don’t mind moving every day, you can see quite a bit. Here is a look at where we went in two weeks and notes about where we would have liked to spend more time.

  • Christchurch (not terribly interesting, but plan on spending a day here to rest. We picked up our van and immediately hit the road, this was a mistake)
  • Akaroa (I would swap Kaikoura for Akaroa)
  • Picton (the haul from Akaora to Picton was LONG, although Picton was one of our favorite campspots
  • Abel Tasman National Park. Plan on spending at least two nights here.
  • Punakaiki. This area was well-traveled, but beatutiful (check out the photo below).
  • Franz Josef. We had plans for the glacier, but the weather said no. We ended up only spending a few hours here and continued on to Wanaka.
  • Wanaka. I was largely unimpressed. It was quite windy and not too much to see.
  • Queenstown. Very expensive and tough to find places to stay.
  • Te Anau. One of our favorite spots. It’s well-worth several days here if you really want to dive into Fiordland National Park.
  • Curio Bay
  • Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park. Well-worth several days if you can swing it.

For a list of amazing hikes in New Zealand, check out this post.

new zealand by campervan - the west coast

Our budget limited us in terms of activities. However, walking around and hiking is always free, so plan on doing quite a bit of driving, stopping, and walking. Drive times tended to be pretty accurate when compared with Google, but keep in mind you’ll be stopping every five minutes to snap a beautiful photo.

Choosing the Right Van for the Job

It took a good deal of research to figure out what to drive and find the best deal. There are countless options out there and hundreds of companies to choose from. I’ll save you the boring bits and get to the point. First, we narrowed it down to a van. RVs are simply too cumbersome and overpriced. Sure, you can pull over and camp practically wherever if you have a toilet on board (New Zealand law), but honestly, DOC campsites suited our needs just fine (see the next section).
We ruled out a car for two reasons, one it does not provide housing. Yes, you can definitely bring or rent camping gear and give it a go that way. We saw lots of younger 20-somethings doing this. However, we definitely didn’t envy them when it rained for three days straight and we watched a group argue with a girl in tears because they put their wet tent in the same bin as their sleeping bags.

new zealand by campervan - standing up

Our mighty ride of choice was from Escape Campervans. We wanted something with a little bit of space, a touch of luxury, and some good ‘ol flair – Escape offered us just that. All of their vans are uniquely painted by local artists. The van had a queen sized bed in the back which was a plus compared to other brands.
Our van, dubbed the Volcan, was an older model. It ran smoothly and tackled both mountains and dirt like a beast. The service Escape Campervans provided was top notch and booking was a breeze. We read complaints about the bed being a bit too stiff (the pads were wearing thin), we just brought along our Thermarests for backpacking and had zero problems. The Thermarest actually came in handy for lounging around outside the van as well. The company was laid back but professional and very easy to deal with.
If you’re going to be in New Zealand for a few months, buying your van might be more economical. Check out this post to get the inside scoop on how to buy a campervan in New Zealand.

new zealand by campervan - road to milford

Where to park your van and camp in New Zealand

New Zealand is beautiful, period. If you aren’t staying in DOC campsites you truly aren’t doing it right. DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites are scattered throughout the country. They run you about $6-$7 NZD (roughly $4 USD) a night. They had toilets of varying degrees of cleanliness but definitely much better maintained than almost anything you would see at a park in the US.
The sites were always in beautiful spots. The one knock I have with camping in NZ is that everyone is up in everyone else’s business. Coming from someone who usually car camps for free with quite a bit of privacy on the backroads of Colorado, having someone park right next to you ruined the experience at times, especially when there was plenty of open space elsewhere (I still to this day don’t get that). We went in March – the start of the slow season out there, I couldn’t imagine what it must be like during the high season.
Our favoite app was the CamperMate app.  This app gives reviews and information about nearby camp spots and it proved to be invaluable.

new zealand by campervan - the far south

Amenities while traveling New Zealand by Campervan

Since we largely opted to stay in DOC campsites instead of Holiday Parks, we totally stank.  You can certainly heat up some hot water to wash your face and tender bits, but be sure to pack wet ones for a quick clean in between showers.
When we needed to clean, we stayed in holiday parks. Normally these facilities have coin-operated showers, kitchens for use and even laundry. They certainly vary in cleanliness and amenities, so be sure to read reviews on the app first.

new zealand by campervan - kayaking

Ways to make your journey by campervan more enjoyable

When it comes to living out of a vehicle, there are a few helpful tips to make your trip more successful.

Rule 1 – Wait

The first rule of vanlife in NZ would actually be to wait. Yes, you read right, wait. John and I thought it would be “no big deal” to fly for 24 hours across the globe, arrive in Christchurch, pick up the van, drive through a construction ridden city in right-hand drive vehicle, and then continue onwards for an hour or so until we reached Akaroa.

To make matters worse, we arrived utterly exhausted at where we wanted to stay that night only to realize that there was a drum circle festival going on. Not really what we had in mind. I would definitely not recommend going about business that way. Stay somewhere in town, get some rest, get your wits about you, then hit the road the next day.

 Rule 2 – Balance

Rule number 2 for vanlife is to stay balanced. I’m an American living in the western US. We pride ourselves on being road warriors. Distances are so vast from place to place out here that a 16-hour drive just gets me to shrug my shoulders. Don’t try to cram too much in here – you’ll be stopping every 30 minutes to get out and freak out over how beautiful it is. Eventually, we had to stop stopping or we wouldn’t make progress. There really aren’t any endless boring stretches of road like – no offense – most of the state of Nevada. Beauty is everywhere, and I’m convinced the road designers built the roads so they would be best enjoyed in a sports car.

Milford Sounds self-guided

We looked into what we could accomplish in two weeks and decided to rule out the entire North Island (the South Island is more beautiful anyway). Our itinerary was pretty aggressive. We wanted to see the entire South Island top to bottom, and we did. It was quite funny, most of the Europeans we ran into thought we were slightly insane, but we never felt rushed. We drove just over 2,000 miles in two weeks and we spent the night at a different place each night. We averaged about three to five hours of driving a day (with the exception of one 10 hour day early on in the trip – but we stopped quite a bit). Whatever your style, you’ll see quite a bit in two weeks.

This daily life of drive a little play a lot was easily accomplished thanks to the prohibition of campfires. This meant we ended up living by the sun. Sun went down, we went to sleep. The sun rose, we were awake. Generally, we rose early and beat the crowds. We’d take our time arriving at our next destination and still have most of the day to hang out and enjoy the sites.

new zealand by campervan - akaroa

Rule 3 – Be Creative

Rule number three is to be resourceful. Don’t go buy a ton of stuff you only need for your time on the road. Get creative. Escape had a little nook in their shop where you could pick up things other campers had left in their vans. Someone left a bag of tea lights. Each night Squirrel and I would light a row of them up on the sink/counter of the van and write in our travel journal.

I would wash my clothes in the sink and air dry them by clipping them to the drape wire in the van with clothespins I found. Raining? No problem, pop the hatch of the van up and sit underneath it, no need to retreat inside. Buy local wines, ciders, fresh fruit/veggies/eggs at stalls along the road. Use only what you need (we used the cardboard from cider purchases for a cutting board). Enjoy living simply. You don’t need a million things to get by.

Just enjoy the van, scenery, open road, and wind in your hair!

Budget-friendly tips for travel by van in New Zealand

All things considered, we kept the cost of our trip fairly low. Here are a few quick-tips for budget-friendly travel in New Zealand.

  • Don’t eat out. The food is extremely expensive.
  • Take advantage of farmer’s markets and little produce stands. Buying direct from the farmer is cheaper and yummier!
  • Buy food that is in season. This was simple for us, since we were traveling during the harvest season.
  • Don’t buy liquor. Almost everything is imported here, and that makes prices of booze soar. Instead opt for the local wine or ciders.
  • Don’t speed. You’ll use far more gas that way, and remember, you’re paying by the liter!
  • Keep tours and activities to a minimum. We found that the price of some of the adventure activities was insane. We splurged once or twice, but most of the time we took advantage of free hikes and walks.
  • Travel during the shoulder season. The price of your van will be a bit lower, and the weather is still pleasant.
  • Use DOC sites. These campsites may be more basic, but you have everything you need in your van. Use holiday parks for showers and feeling clean again.

More on Vanlife and Roadtrips

Travel in New Zealand by campervan. Tips and tricks for budget New Zealand travel. Budget holiday in New Zealand. Comprehensive itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand. Tips for vanlife in New Zealand. How to find a rental campervan in New Zealand. What to see on the South Island of New Zealand. #NewZealandTravel #travel #vanlife #budgetnewzealand
Travel in New Zealand by campervan. Tips and tricks for budget New Zealand travel. Comprehensive itinerary for the South Island of New Zealand. Tips for vanlife in New Zealand. How to find a rental campervan in New Zealand. What to see on the South Island of New Zealand. #NewZealandTravel #travel #vanlife #budgetnewzealand
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Showing 24 comments
  • Aleney

    I adore New Zealand. Half of my family lives there and I have visited several times . But I’ve never had a chance to do the campervan thing. Looks amazing.

    • foxintheforest

      Me too!!! It’s a fantastic place! I’m actually going to try to relocate there in a few years. I’m waiting for my architectural license (my other job) to become valid there. I fell in love when I visited. I’d highly recommend doing the camper thing. It’s great to have a home on wheels!

  • Pete

    That was my honeymoon. New Zealand by campervan. Totally fell in love with the place. So much scenery, so much magic!

    We had one night where we camped at a lookout. A high, windy place with a great view. When we weren’t being shaken by the wind, we were woken by couples parking.

    Milford Sound, we found a little place by the river. Splashed across a shallow stream and tucked up for the night. Quiet and peaceful, except for the drumming of rain on the roof. Milford Sound – Rain. No idea where those glorious photos of mountains rising to a perfect blue sky come from.

    In the morning, the river had risen, and so had the little creek we’d splashed through. My bride, a country girl, gunned the engine, the water rose in a bow wave halfway up the windscreen, the engine spluttered, and…

    We lurched up the far bank onto the road. Whew!

    But mostly we staid at caravan parks and hired a powered site and had showers and a shop.

    • foxintheforest

      Wow Pete, what a story! Such an excellent honeymoon idea! We did the rougher sites – but we are used to car camping here in the states where it’s literally just pull over in a dirt patch on a dirt road and enjoy some freedom.

      NZ is truly a fabulous place!

  • Lauren West

    This sounds like utter freedom! Moving somewhere new in a place as beautiful as NZ would never get old, too. Would be awesome to try this some day.

  • Whitney

    I want to go! After going on an RV trip recently, I fell in love with that style of travel. However, there were showers in the RV and I think I would need that. NZ looks beautiful and I will be checking out their parks next time I’m there.

    • foxintheforest

      Definitely do! You can always stay in holiday parks – they have showers for a small fee (like a dollar for 5 mins). I’d recommend doing the camper because the RV is too big for the roads out there. Still – either way – AMAZING!

  • Carly Wayward Heyward

    I had no idea that you could rent a camper van! I thought all these people had been buying them! That’s so exciting! I’m going to check this option out in multiple countries!

    • foxintheforest

      Nope you can totally rent one. We didn’t go with the cheapest option, but the one that would best suit our needs – it was PERFECT.

  • Bhushavali

    I’ve not been to Australia or New Zealand. A friend of mine lives in NZ and can’t stop raving about the country!!! His FB photos are enuf to make me fall in love with the beauty of NZ! Now, I have your blogpost too to kindle my interest to visit the place! The campervan looks like a great idea!!

  • Alice Teacake

    Going on The Mongol Rally taught me a ton about road tripping. It’s so true that you really need the bare minimum. DO NOT go out and buy a ton of stuff. It will clutter up your space, waste fuel and just mess up your feng shui 🙂 Congrats on a beautiful 2 weeks!

    • foxintheforest

      Oh I bet! That’s the ULTIMATE road trip! I still really want to do it. I totally agree. I got by with practically nothing, and it was totally glorious. It made transitioning from sleep/camp mode to what I needed for the day a total breeze, just move my small shoulder bag to where I could access it while driving and bam – day touring mode haha.

  • Gracie

    NZ is my dream country to visit! We already started our NZ fund since last year. My in-laws also live there and they are into travelling adventures too. I will tell them this idea to explore NZ! Thanks for the idea 🙂

    • foxintheforest

      Hey Gracie,
      I’m glad I could give you a little travel inspiration :). You’ve got to go – it wasn’t the cheapest place I’ve visited, but honestly, doing the whole van thing saved A LOT of money (cooking your own meals, you get wheels and a bed to sleep in). There’s also plenty of free things to do in NZ – just wandering around the country is beautiful and that’s almost free. Hope that helps.

  • Katie

    Thanks for the advice! So excited to start exploring this amazing country!

  • Lydia@LifeUntraveled

    New Zealand looks like a dream destination and I think you did the best thing by renting a camper van – it sounds like a lot of fun (well, when you get along with the other person of course)! I applaud you for traveling that far for only 2 weeks – or did you go somewhere else after?

    • foxintheforest

      Hi Lydia,
      It was soooo much fun! I’m actually thinking about doing it again in Iceland this year. In America we only get 3 weeks paid time off a year. We actually bumped into a lot of people in NZ that were curious about that. They were doing our same itinerary but had 4-6 weeks to do it. I work full time. As you can see that’s a problem when adventure and travel is your passion. I did what I could in 2 weeks and then went home. The jet lag kicked my butt when I was back to work – but it was worth it!

  • Rhiannon

    I’ve always loved the idea of just getting a van and driving as far as I can for as long as I want! And to be honest NZ or Australia would be top of the list of where I’d do it! Although I suppose I should get my licence first haha. This sounds like such a fantastic experience! And what a way to get to know your partner 🙂

  • La Vida Viva Travel | Amanda

    Sounds like you had an amaaazing time there, I’m so jealous just reading your post. I can’t believe the DOC campsites are so cheap – that’s incredible! Love this, thanks for sharing!

  • Adrenaline Romance

    Indeed, judging at your photos, we would probably stop every 15 minutes to take in the stunning views. New Zealand has been in our sights for quite some time now, and it would be a wish come true to visit that beautiful country. Specifically, we want to climb the mountains there.

    Riding a camper van is a fun, adventure-filled road trip. Problem is, it’s not applicable in our place, the Philippines, as it is an archipelago. That means, we have to cross a lot of seas to get from one place to another.

    • foxintheforest

      Yes!! Me too! Mt Cook would be a lot of fun to climb! I’ve been taking mountaineering courses so I can start to climb bigger peaks. I absolutely love being in the mountains. I see what you’re saying with the Philippines – maybe a house boat would work 😉

  • Paul RYKEN

    Nice article and good rules to consider.

    Did you take note of what it cost for your two weeks in New Zealand? What would you do again on a return visit? Did you make any friends with Kiwis in New Zealand that you are still in contact with?

    • foxintheforest

      Hi Paul,
      We traveled just after the busy season and the trip rounded out at around $1,500 without airfare. I wouldn’t call it the most budget-friendly getaway. Camping and living in a campervan in New Zealand does not provide many opportunities to meet Kiwis. However, my close friend’s uncle owns a winery in NZ and I did meet with them. We do still keep in touch, but it is not a normal occurrence to stumble across a friend of a friend in a faraway place.

      Yes, I would certainly do it again. However, I would spend time backpacking or wild camping in certain areas instead of trying to drive and get a taste of each region.

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