Backpacking in New Zealand: a Travel Guide

Find out everything you need to know about backpacking in New Zealand. What travel essentials should you add to your backpack? How can you stay on a budget in one of the world’s most prosperous nations? And where can you go if you want to get off the beaten track? Learn all about New Zealand and its unique culture in our complete first-hand experience New Zealand Travel Guide for backpacking ‘Aotearoa’.

Table of Contents

About New Zealand

There’s no place in the world quite like New Zealand. Situated south of Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, the country is also known as Aotearoa in M?ori. Aotearoa means ‘the land of the long white cloud’. Watching the clouds linger around the mountains in North Island’s Tongariro National Park, it becomes obvious why. New Zealand’s landscape is littered with epic mountain ranges reaching for the clouds, and spectacular glaciers pierce out of the country’s lush temperate rainforests. The country is home to a variety of unique wild animals, and with over 15,000 kilometers of shoreline, the nation’s marine wildlife is equally impressive.

Aotearoa, ‘the land of the long white cloud’
Aotearoa, ‘the land of the long white cloud’ (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

New Zealand consists of two islands bordering the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean: the bustling North Island, and the otherworldly South Island. Up on North Island you can explore urban Wellington and experience the international vibe of Auckland, or hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing featured in The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003). Down on South Island, you’ll find winter sports haven Queenstown, as well as Kaikōura, a small coastal town dominated by a multitude of mesmerizing forms of wildlife.

The remote geographic position of New Zealand helped preserve the country’s unique and peaceful existence. Aotearoa’s untouched landscapes have been explored by a handful of local movie directors, such as Peter Jackson, who shot both King Kong (2005) and The Lord of the Rings-series on the islands. His fellow countryman Taika Waititi in turn filmed Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) in west Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges. Though the films painted a beautiful portrait of the country’s stunning scenery, New Zealand’s isolated nature luckily prevents it from ever getting too busy.

Quick Facts

Capital: The capital of New Zealand is Wellington.

Language: The official languages in New Zealand are English, Māori, and NZ Sign Language.

Currency: The currency in New Zealand is the New Zealand dollar (NZD), informally known as the “Kiwi dollar”.

Power Plugs: Plug Type I, with the electricity supply running at 230/240 volts.

Drinking water: In New Zealand, the tap water is fine to drink. The country’s mountains provide an excellent source of clear water.

Safety: While locals in Australia humorously claim “everything can kill you” Down Under, New Zealanders reinvented the statement by jokingly stating that “in New Zealand, nothing can kill you”. New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world, offering backpackers an easy and comfortable traveling experience.

7 things to look forward to: hitchhiking, kiwis, Fergburgers, glaciers, fur seals, mountain ranges, Hobbits.

Video: On the Road: New Zealand

See what it’s like to travel New Zealand! (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Money saving tips: backpacking New Zealand on a budget

How much money do you need to travel around New Zealand? Backpacking the country will set you back quite a bit more than visiting other popular backpacker destinations such as Thailand or Argentina. New Zealand boasts a strong economy dependent on agriculture and international trade. Dairy, milk, wool, and wine are some of the nation’s most popular products. In comparison to most countries in the world, New Zealand is a rather expensive country to go backpacking. Unlike the ‘nearby’ Southeast Asian countries, it’s not just the flight ticket that will set you back financially. Transportation, accommodation, and activities all come at a relatively high price.

Despite the country’s strong financial positions, New Zealand offers plenty of opportunities to cut back on your spending while backpacking. Rather than traveling by public transportation, it is possible to rent a car or campervan, or even hitchhike. Additionally, every city you’ll visit on your trip is likely to have at least one or two relatively cheap hostels. The best way to save money while backpacking New Zealand, however, is by doing your own cooking. New Zealand is a very popular work-and-travel destination, and you’ll often run into backpackers who are semi-permanently living in the hostels you stay at. Because of this, most hostels feature a fully equipped kitchen, making it possible for visitors and temporary residents to cook their own meals.

Hitchhiking South Island
Hitchhiking South Island (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Aside from travel and accommodation, your travel budget will largely be determined by the activities you intend to do. New Zealand, for example, is the birthplace of bungy jumping. A single jump will cost you a steep amount of money. If you intend to travel onwards after New Zealand to places where bungy jumping comes at a quarter of the price in a similarly beautiful location, what will you do? It’s these choices that will affect your budget in a big way.

While most blogs might pinpoint you on a budget of NZ$3,750,- per month per person (€2,100,- or US$2,500,-), you can easily make it on a monthly budget of less than NZ$1,500,- (€850,- or US$1,000,-) if you make all the right choices. More than in any other place, your expenditure here will depend on your need for comfort, your sense of adventure, and the choices you make along the road.

Quick Tips

A few quick tips for saving money while backpacking New Zealand:

  • Hitchhike.
  • Don’t fly; travel the roads.
  • Go CouchSurfing, or stay in hostels.
  • Cook your own meals.
  • Seek your own adventures: hike, raft, and enjoy the country’s mesmerizing landscapes, but avoid spending hundreds of dollars on activities you can do for peanuts on your next trip to Southeast Asia.

Accommodation

Sleeping in New Zealand

In terms of accommodation, New Zealand has something for everyone. As a backpacker though, you’ll most likely want to look into the nation’s many hostels. When choosing your accommodation in New Zealand there are two important things to look out for:

  1. is there a kitchen available for cooking your own meals, and
  2. how did previous visitors experience the WiFi connection – if there is one at all?

Kiwi WiFi is notoriously bad, and you’ll need to make sure you can at least use the hostel’s connection for travel essentials, such as making bookings and checking reservations. Of course, there’s a certain charm in not being able to spend your days on your smartphone. You’ll find that in an enchanting town like Kaikōura, it’s easy to forget about your daily browsing habits.

Here are some of our favorite hostels in New Zealand:

South Island

North Island

Lose yourself in the wilderness of New Zealand’s South Island
Lose yourself in the wilderness of New Zealand’s South Island (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Work and travel

Throughout New Zealand you’ll see that backpackers aren’t the only foreigners staying in the country’s many hostels. Many young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 come to New Zealand on a work and travel visa. The idea is simple, yet effective: they fly to New Zealand, where a few month’s work can earn them a rather sizeable amount of money. Living in hostels comes cheap, especially when making a deal with the hostel owner regarding a long term stay. In this way, it is possible to save enough money within half a year or so to travel the whole country, Australia, and perhaps a bit of Southeast Asia or Polynesia as well.

If you’d like to try out New Zealand’s work-and-travel program, and you opt for a long-term stay in a hostel, do keep in mind that the people you share your room with are on a vacation. They’ll arrive tired and will often have to get up early in the morning to catch their next ride. Don’t act like you own the room just because you’ve stayed there so long. Long term residents are considered the greatest nuisance in any of New Zealand’s hostels, so it’ll be up to you to improve their reputation!

Getting around in New Zealand

Renting a Campervan or Car

For backpackers, the most popular way to explore New Zealand is by hiring – or buying – a vehicle. During your time in ‘the land of the long white cloud’, you’ll come across many campervans driven by vacationing flashpackers. Hiring a campervan (or car) means opting for the freedom to explore the country at your own pace: you can go anywhere you like, and sleep anywhere you like.

You’ll be surprised how easy it is to purchase a second-hand car in New Zealand. Backpackers often travel North to South, or vice versa, which means that in “final” destinations such as Queenstown, Wellington, or Auckland, you won’t have much trouble purchasing a car from travelers who just finished their trip. Again, this is where it pays off to stay in hostels, as hostels are the perfect place to find backpackers willing to sell their car. Additionally, you can find a car through the Facebook groups Backpacker Cars New Zealand and Backpackers Cars Buy&Sell New Zealand.

New Zealand roads are spacious and allow for safe driving, though locals might not always agree with that statement. Though some Kiwis feel their roads are not up to standard, you’ll only find yourself chuckling at their complaints when comparing their roads to any other road you ever drove on. It is safe to say Kiwi roads are most often in pitch-perfect condition, despite being called “dodgy” by the locals every once in a while.

Rent a car or campervan to navigate New Zealand
Rent a car or campervan to navigate New Zealand (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Hitchhiking

The true budget-friendly option for getting around New Zealand is hitchhiking. Down in South Island, your thumb will get you anywhere you like within no time. Unless you are truly unfortunate, you’ll be picked up within 30 minutes or less from most spots. You’ll find Kiwis to be quite friendly and considered. Especially on South Island, where there’s not much traffic, people will be generally inclined to give you a ride.

You’ll have a bit more trouble hitchhiking the North Island – especially around Wellington, where the “big city vibe” leads to many chauffeurs shrugging off your presence – but even there you’re likely to be picked up within the hour.

Keep in mind that legally, campervans and trucks aren’t allowed to pick you up, as there is a set limit to the number of people allowed inside their vehicles, and no one is allowed to sit in the back while driving.

Busses and Trains

When choosing comfort over freedom, New Zealand also offers the option to travel by bus. Services are good, and many of the busses are tailored especially for backpackers and other travelers. Kiwi busses will get you in and out of major towns and tourist hotspots, but it might prove difficult to visit the country’s off-track destinations.

Aside from the amazing TranzAlpine railway on South Island, trains are virtually non-existent in New Zealand and come at a high price.

Domestic Flights

There are many options for traveling around New Zealand. To get the best out of your holiday, we would definitely recommend against flying, though. The country isn’t all that big, and only ground travel will allow you to truly experience the nation’s breathtaking landscapes. Plus, you’ll keep your trip eco-friendly, and save some money at the same time!

When to visit New Zealand

New Zealand’s landscapes define its climate. Temperatures vary heavily around the country due to the many environmental differences. On average, the temperatures on the South Island are a bit below those on the North Island. So pack wisely, and be prepared for anything!

Summer is often the most popular time to visit New Zealand. In December, January, and February, the temperature rises, as does the number of tourists. This means hotels, touristic destinations and even roads can get a little busy.

The best time to travel to New Zealand, however, is during the spring, or during autumn. In September, October, and November, little lambs and tiny alpacas take a hold of the country’s boundless green countryside, flowers start blooming, and the snowy mountain caps slowly melt away. A few months later in March, April, and May, the leaves turn color and the crowds move out as the country prepares for the winter season.

Queenstown in the autumn
Queenstown in the autumn (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Of course, if you are into winter sports, winter will be your season. The Kiwi winter starts in June and lasts throughout July and August. New Zealand’s impressive mountains offer great opportunities to engage in snow sports, such as skiing and snowboarding.

What to pack for New Zealand

The Essentials

I’m going to New Zealand, and I’m bringing…

  • A light-weight scarf.
  • One sweater or coat; or be prepared to layer-up when cold weather hits.
  • (Fingerless) gloves.

New Zealand features all the comforts of home, and you’ll lack nothing. Still, if you’ve just flown in from Indonesia, you might regret not buying some warm clothes before leaving the equator. Buying clothes is quite expensive in New Zealand. The day you arrive you’ll notice it to be a common mistake for backpackers from Southeast Asia not to bring warm clothes. In Queenstown, it’s especially easy to spot Asian travelers who failed to recognize the changeable Kiwi weather in advance: they all walk around wearing scarves, sweaters, and gloves bought at the local tourist shop. Consider it a warning: unless you want to spend your first days’ budget on buying warm clothes, come prepared.

Unlike traveling in ‘nearby’ Australia, you best pack your coat, your umbrella, and a lightweight scarf, even when you’re visiting New Zealand during summer. Prepare for any kind of weather, but don’t over-pack: make sure you have enough clothes to combine them into layers. Only bring your thick coat when you’re traveling in winter; during other seasons, combine a lighter coat with shirts or a sweater. Since most hostels accept long term residents, it’s often possible to do your laundry along the way.

New Zealand’s snow-capped mountain ranges
New Zealand’s snow-capped mountain ranges (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Visa Information

To enter New Zealand you must have a valid passport and approved New Zealand visa. Most visitors can obtain a New Zealand Electronic Travel Authorisation-visa (NZeTA), which is valid for 90 days or less. Though this is known as a ‘visa on arrival’, you must apply for it before take-off. Make sure to have valid onward travel arrangements when entering the country, as you are required to prove you don’t intend to stay permanently.

Aside from a regular visa, working holiday visas are also relatively easily obtained – but only after you’ve secured a job. You can obtain one of these temporary working visas if you are aged between 18-30 years (18-35 for some countries), and have enough money in your bank account to afford an outbound ticket from New Zealand.

Enjoy the local culture

The Old and the New

Compared to most nations, New Zealand is a relatively young country. The islands of New Zealand were first settled by seafaring Polynesians approximately 700 years ago and were later discovered by the Dutch in 1642. The Polynesians’ descendants became known as the M?ori, who formed their own distinct culture. Colonization and large-scale European settlement led to many changes, eventually giving rise to the country we know today.

New Zealand’s culture is defined by a mix of the old and the new. The country’s architecture is predominantly European, but local Polynesian influences can be detected in most areas. A visit to the country wouldn’t be complete without immersing yourself in the rich culture of the indigenous M?ori tribes.

The Māori

Two of the best places to explore Māori culture are the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, and the old Māori village of Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao, situated just south of Rotorua in the Taupo Volcanic Zone. It is possible to visit the Māori village – Whakarewarewa for short – using a local guide who will introduce you to the spiritual stories and traditions of the Māori. Traditionally, the Māori prepared their meals over the volcanic zone’s thermal vents. These natural make-shift ovens named ‘hangi’ can be found everywhere in Whakarewarewa. Your guide will also teach you the traditional Māori greeting, the hongi, which is performed by two people pressing their noses together and sometimes includes the touching of foreheads.

Performing the traditional Māori greeting, the hongi
Performing the traditional Māori greeting, the hongi (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

A Healthy Nation

Perhaps due to their isolated nature, New Zealanders are often welcoming to foreign travelers. They have a strong sense of social responsibility and healthy living, as is evident in several cities where smoking inside the city center is forbidden. If you manage to catch a local TV broadcast, you’ll notice there are many commercials targeting mental health problems such as depression and isolation, rather than ads trying to sell cars and other trinkets. Kiwi TV is a clear indicator that New Zealand has evolved into a considered and caring nation.

Things to eat and drink

New Zealand cuisine constitutes of a mix of Australian, European, and local specialties. Being an agricultural country featuring many sheep farms, you can expect mutton to be a large part of your diet during your stay. Additionally, the country’s extensive coastline bordering the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean serves as an important source of food as well. Aside from mutton and seafood, New Zealand features a few other distinct food options you must try while visiting.

The Fergburger

The Queenstown Fergburger is one of the country’s most famous specialties. Prepared locally in the Fernburger hamburger restaurant in Queenstown, the burgers are prepared with lamb, cod, falafel, a swine-and-chicken mix, or venison.

The Fergburger, a Queenstown speciality
The Fergburger, a Queenstown specialty (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

New Zealand Wine

New Zealand’s unique soil and climatic conditions express themselves perfectly in the wine produced in the South Island. Otago is one of the country’s richest wine regions, which is mirrored by Hawke’s Bay on the North Island.

Hokey Pokey

Around 1980, the Kiwis invented a new combination of ice cream flavors: vanilla ice cream with small, solid lumps of honeycomb toffee. You can find this typical Kiwi ice cream in many dairy shops, or in local supermarkets.

Hangi

The Māori traditionally prepare their food using natural resources, such as thermal vents. It is a truly amazing experience to dine on a tender and delicious piece of chicken or mutton – or going vegetarian, potatoes – prepared over many hours in the Māori’s traditional thermal ovens. The volcanic gasses add an earthy, smoky flavor to the food.

A 'hangi', a tradtional Māori thermal oven
A ‘hangi’, a tradtional Māori thermal oven (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Seafood

One of New Zealand’s local specialties on South Island is crayfish or rock lobster. Though seafood can be quite expensive, it’s definitely worth the money. Given the nation’s island status, the seafood is invariably fresh. From British-style fish and chips to green-lipped mussels, other shellfish, and scallops, New Zealand offers the best from the deep seas.

Kiwi Fruit

When in New Zealand, don’t ever call a kiwifruit a “kiwi”! Doing so is considered insulting, as the word “Kiwi” is used as the official nickname for New Zealanders. Though the distinction is only made in Australia and New Zealand, it’s an important one to remember. Also note that the kiwifruit is of Chinese origin, which wasn’t grown in New Zealand until the early 20th century. The name “kiwifruit” was conceived for export marketing in the early ’60s.

Whittakers

The New Zealand Whittaker family has been producing chocolate since 1896. Whittaker is the largest chocolate brand in New Zealand, and in recent years its popularity overseas has grown as well. Though Whittaker’s chocolate was sold using horse and van in the past, it can now be found everywhere in the country. A classic Whittaker’s slab is the Roasted Almond milk chocolate bar.

Meet Pies

Popular in both Australia and New Zealand, hand-sized meat pies are a treat in-between treats. The pies contain diced or minced meat and gravy, sometimes combined with onion, mushrooms, or cheese. The meat pies are often consumed as a takeaway food snack. Though the nutritional value of meat pies is a hot topic in New Zealand, it remains a popular treat.

Milford Sound, one of South Island’s most magnificent fjords
Milford Sound, one of South Island’s most magnificent fjords (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Get off the Beaten Track

Most backpackers heading for New Zealand start off at Auckland on North Island, and travel downwards until they reach Queenstown or Te Anau on South Island. For what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime-experience, this might not be the best solution for you.

The urban feel of North Island might be attractive to some, but the Kiwi cities situated on North Island aren’t exactly unique. They are modern, urban hubs similar to big Australian and American cities. In the Kiwi cities, you’ll find all the same brands, foods, and stores you’re already familiar with, combined with a few local ones.

The real splendor and uniqueness of New Zealand lies in the South Island. Quiet and untouched, the South Island’s landscapes and wildlife will stay with you forever. There, you can hike through national parks such as Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, visit the International Dark Sky Reserve on the south side of the Southern Alps, or travel northwards of the Alps along the Franz Josef glacier.

If you are looking for a unique adventure – one you can only have in New Zealand, and nowhere else – but you don’t have the time to visit both islands, then the South Island will be your destination of choice. Not exploring New Zealand’s national parks is similar to visiting Australia without seeing a single kangaroo.

Check out our full list of things to do in New Zealand!

Thunder Creek Falls, one of New Zealand's many waterfalls
Thunder Creek Falls, one of New Zealand’s many waterfalls (Credit: The Bite-Sized Backpacker)

Pre-view: the best films from New Zealand

To get you excited for you trip, we’ve selected some of the best films from New Zealand!

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Directed by: Taika Waititi, 2016.
A national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush.

Once Were Warriors

Once Were Warriors
Directed by: Lee Tamahori, 1994.
A family descended from Maori warriors is bedeviled by a violent father and the societal problems of being treated as outcasts.

Whale Rider

Whale Rider
Directed by: Niki Caro, 2002.
A contemporary story of love, rejection, and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize.

Black Sheep

Black Sheep
Directed by: Jonathan King, 2006.
An experiment in genetic engineering turns harmless sheep into bloodthirsty killers that terrorize a sprawling New Zealand farm.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Directed by: Peter Jackson, 2001.
A meek Hobbit from the Shire and eight companions set out on a journey to destroy the powerful One Ring and save Middle-earth from the Dark Lord Sauron.

What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows
Directed by: Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi, 2014.
Viago, Deacon, and Vladislav are vampires who are finding that modern life in Wellington has them struggling with the mundane – like paying rent, keeping up with the chore wheel, trying to get into nightclubs, and overcoming flatmate conflicts.

The Piano

The Piano
Directed by: Jane Campion, 1993.
In the mid-19th century, a mute woman is sent to New Zealand along with her young daughter and prized piano for an arranged marriage to a wealthy landowner, but is soon lusted after by a local worker on the plantation.

Boy

Boy
Directed by: Taika Waititi, 2010.
Set on the east coast of New Zealand in 1984, Boy, an 11-year-old child and devout Michael Jackson fan, gets a chance to know his absentee criminal father, who has returned to find a bag of money he buried years ago.

Pre-read: the best books from New Zealand

To get you even more excited about your trip, we’ve selected some of the best books about New Zealand as well. Pick up one of these gems to get into the spirit of the Land of the Long White Cloud!

A Land of Two Halves
Author: Joe Bennett, 2004.
After 10 years in New Zealand, Joe Bennett asked himself what on earth he was doing there. Hitching around both the intriguingly named North and South Islands, with an eye for oddity and a taste for conversation, Bennett began to remind himself of the reasons New Zealand is quietly seducing the rest of the world.

The Luminaries

The Luminaries
Author: Eleanor Catton, 2013.
In 1866, young Walter Moody comes to South Island to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. Instead, he stumbles into a tense meeting between twelve local men and is drawn into a complex mystery involving a series of unsolved crimes.

Plumb

Plumb
Author: Maurice Gee, 1978.
Long regarded as one of the finest novels ever written by a New Zealander, Maurice Gee’s Plumb introduces the intolerant, irascible clergyman George Plumb: half saint, half monster, superhuman in his spiritual strength and destructive in his utter self-absorption.

Once Were Warriors

Once Were Warriors
Author: Alan Duff, 1990.
Alan Duff’s harrowing vision of his country’s indigenous people tells the story of Beth Heke, a Maori woman struggling to keep her family from falling apart, despite the squalor and violence of the housing projects in which they live. Conveying both the rich textures of Maori tradition and the wounds left by its absence, Once Were Warriors is a masterpiece of unblinking realism, irresistible energy, and great sorrow.

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All - A New Zealand Story

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story
Author: Christina Thompson, 2008.
Thompson’s book details the story of the cultural collision between Westerners and the Maoris of New Zealand. The story is told partly as a history of the complex and bloody period of contact between Europeans and the Maoris in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and partly as the story of Thompson’s marriage to a Maori man.

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