The Complete Guide to Campervan Travel in New Zealand on a Budget
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
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.
Choosing the Right Van for the Job
Where to park your van and camp in New Zealand
Amenities while traveling New Zealand by Campervan
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.
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.
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.
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.