As you’re planning your upcoming trip to New Zealand, you’ve noticed there are a ton of blogs, articles, and recommendations for tour guides. It’s probably a trip like you’ve never planned for or researched before. At least that’s how it was for us.  I’ll be sharing some thoughts on this specifically in a different post, but wanted to focus this one on saving money when planning your trip, especially if you’re going anytime in December thru February. This time frame is their peak season and most expensive time of year to travel throughout the country.

  • Most likely you’ll be driving via RV, Camper Van, SUV, or car for the trip. Unless you plan on sleeping, showering, and driving in your vehicle, you don’t need a camper van. The car or SUV option is the cheapest and honestly the easiest to maneuver the crazy New Zealand roads.  We splurged on an SUV but still saved $800 on not getting an RV or camper. The SUV allowed us the option to sleep in it if necessary, spread out luggage and groceries, and even have room to air dry clean laundry when needed.

    Camping at Mt. Cook with our favorite SUV of the trip

  • Get a diesel vs petrol rental car. You will save several hundred dollars in gas with the amount of driving you will be doing. We racked up over 3500 miles in three weeks. We had a diesel car the first two weeks on the South Island and only filled up 2 1/2 times. We were stuck with petrol car on the North Island and noticed IMMEDIATELY the difference. We ended up having to stop for gas every 2 days to make sure we weren’t going to get stranded anywhere. Diesel will save you money in the long run and time trying to find a gas station.
  • Book Direct as often as you can for the currency exchange rate. When we were there in December 2016, the conversion rate ranged between .67-.69 US cents to 1 NZD.  When you book “direct” (vs an online travel agency like Expedia or Priceline) at a hotel or campsite, you’re booking in NZD and thus saving money.  We learned the hard way when we booked last minute in Te Anau on Hotwire and thought we were saving money. We found out once we checked in that if we had booked direct we would have paid in NZD vs USD and could have saved over $80 for the night. The same went for booking months in advance via Airbnb for our Christmas and New Year lodging.

    A few things to note about Expedia, Hotwire, and Airbnb regarding lodging:

    • Hotwire only charges in USD, even if you’re trying to book in another country. While traveling in some countries, this may be the cheaper option. However, this approach will cost you more in New Zealand
    • Unlike Hotwire, Airbnb knows your home country via your account so regardless of what country you’re in, they’ll still charge you in USD
    • If you book via expedia.co.nz the reward points do not sync to your expedia.com (US site) account. If you try to have them reward you, they’ll have you call Expedia NZ and you still won’t get rewarded since their systems don’t connect.
  • Since you’re driving, book the cheapest option for the Milford Sound Overnight Cruise, directly on their site, for $308 NZ.  This means you’re going to drive to Milford Sound versus getting picked up in Queenstown ($410 NZD or $809 NZD) or Te Anau ($389 NZD). Not only is it cheaper, but it gives you time to make the drive at your own pace and pull over for photos at your leisure. We suggest getting there at least an hour early to explore, go on the educational walk, and relax before your overnight cruise starts. Also, when you book direct you don’t have to pay for parking. WOOT!
  • Book popular activities like Hobbiton Evening Banquet Tour and Milford Sound Overnight Cruises at least six months in advance. Hobbiton adds two more nights a week for their Evening Banquet Tours to support Christmas and New Year crowds.  Still, plan to book in advance. We purchased our tickets in July for a December Tour and there only a few dates to choose from.

    The Shire at Hobbiton

  • The local grocery store is your best friend. You’ll be on the road for hours at a time, and unlike the US there’s not a lot of places to stop and grab a bite to eat. Make sure to stock up on apples, bananas, oranges, trail mix, bread, and peanut butter for easy breakfasts and lunches. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also save time. The latter will help you get to your final destination faster.  For dinners, we had salads, pasta, fajitas, and freezer dried food I brought with us from the US. We planned to do a lot of camping and wasn’t sure how easy it was to get freezer dried food in New Zealand. To be on the safe side, I brought 8 meals with us. That said, NZ is a country who LOVES the outdoors and they are prepared. You can get freezer dried food easily at any grocery or outdoor store ($11-12 NZD which is approx $8-9USD).

    We were able to cram 8 freezer dried meals, 12 trail mix bars, granola, gummy bears, and beef jerky with us along with our camping and hiking gear in our checked luggage

  • Camp as much as possible. If you’re thinking about camping and bringing your camping gear, commit fully. It’s safe to assume that if you’re visiting New Zealand you’re going to be outdoors doing fun stuff like hiking, camping, swimming, kayaking, etc. And if you need even more incentive New Zealand campsites are amazing, clean, and cheap! It only cost us $128 for the both of us to camp for six nights in a row throughout the South Island. If we had camped for the entire trip we could have saved over $1200! Yes, you read that right.  $1200!! Honestly, we struggled with how to prepare for this part of the trip and just couldn’t figure out if we’d get access to showers, laundry, etc, especially around Christmas and New Years. We ended up with a range of accommodations from tent camping to Airbnb homes to hotels, with a secured place to do laundry and shower every few days. This approach was super expensive and I wouldn’t recommend it. Looking back on this, if we had committed to tent camping we could have saved a lot of money and enjoyed ourselves just as much. Most sites have showers, even clean and fully stocked kitchens. Figure out your approach and commit fully. Your wallet will thank you. It will also make it easy to pack and unpack since you only have one option. We were constantly having to repack and reassess what we needed as our sleeping accommodations were constantly changing.

    Gillespie Beach, South Island, New Zealand $8 pp/night to tent camp

    We loved our trip to New Zealand and can’t wait to go back. However, next time we’ll be smarter with our lodging accommodations.

    Have money-saving travel tips to share? We’d love to know!