The Burnhams in Kiwiland 2001-2

Tips for the Traveller in New Zealand

Manuka in bloom


During our travels in New Zealand we have picked up quite a few hints to make travelling, especially as a backpacker, easier. Travel guides such as the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet give excellent recommendations for places to stay, where to eat, places to see, a brief history of the country and guides for cultural differences. Note that the travel industry changes quickly and may not make it into the version of the guide book you choose. New businesses open up and old ones cease to exist.

If you plan to travel in New Zealand in the near future, have a look at our tips. We have combined our experiences with our observations of travel in New Zealand to give our personal recommendations for modes of travel, places to stay, food, tramping and what to bring if you are backpacking.

If anyone out there has other suggestions to pass along, just send us an email. We would love to benefit from other people's experiences.

Click on any of the following topics to go directly to that section

Tramping or Hiking
Packing Light


Getting around in New Zealand is easy, whether it is travelling by bus, by car or even hitchhiking. We found having our own car a great way to get around. It allowed us to go wherever and whenever we wanted and it was very economical. We travelled the highways as well as unpaved back roads, of which there are many. Having our own car allowed us to store extra items in the traunk (or boot in Kiwi) we didn't want to carry with us when we went on an overnight tramp. Since the places we stayed in all had good kitchen facilities, we were able to transport a cardboard carton of non-perishables and a cooler (or "chilly bag") for the perishables around with us in the car.

Renting a car
There are lots of car rental agencies offering many models of cars and motor homes (caravans). Some of our friends have found it is cheaper to rent in New Zealand rather than arrange the rental before leaving home.

Most of the car rental agencies deal in late model cars, but there are a few that rent older models at a reduced rate. Caravans are very popular and can be quite luxurious. They cost more than a regular car rental, but fees in campgrounds are less than motels.

Buying a second hand car
Buying a backpacker car was the most economical and convenient way for two people to see New Zealand. Sedans, station wagons and camper vans are offered for sale. Most of the vehicles are old by North American standards but the New Zealand climate seems to be kind to cars. We bought a 1986 Honda Accord and it performed very well for the three months we owned it.

Some car rental agencies have a buy-back arrangement where you buy a used car and they guarantee to buy it back at the end of your trip. We didn't follow this route as it was reputed to be more expensive.

There are two common ways of buying a second hand car in New Zealand; one is to attend a car auction in one of the larger cities, the other is to answer one of the many handmade notices advertising cars for sale in backpacker hostels. The car auctions are held in the larger cities, usually on a weekend and could be a good source. Our car, Alice, was purchased by her previous owners at an auction in Auckland as they wanted a car with fewer owners.

We elected not to wait for a car auction. We found out which hostel in Auckland was the most popular and went there to check out the current offerings. This was an easy process as there are often lots of choice and prices seem to be similar.

It is just a matter of looking them over and making sure they are in relatively good mechanical order. Luckily, New Zealand requires that every car undergoes a safety check once each year. This Waranty of Fitness (WOF) gives you some confidence that the car will not completely fall apart while in your ownership. In addition, it is a good idea to have a mechanic check the car for any problems and fix them before setting out. Ray took our car, Alice the Honda, into a garage in Auckland. Luckily she only needed her oil changed and a new tire to see her on her way.

Selling a second hand car
You sell the car the same way you buy one. We investigated going to one of the car auctions, but we were told that car wholesalers go to these and that the prices were quite low.

We made up spiffy advertisements to find Alice a 'new home' and distributed them to most of the backpacker hostels in Christchurch, our final destination. Although we sold Alice within 24 hours, you are wise to allow a couple of days before you have to give the car away because you have run out of time. You need a telephone number for prospective buyers to contact you. That means you have to stay by the phone waiting for calls instead of running around town catching the last must-see attractions. A better solution would be to rent a cell phone for the last week and carry it with you. That said, there is nothing like personal contact with a buyer. We happened to be around putting up notices when prospective buyers were reading the notices. We sold to one of these buyers.

There are several bus lines catering to backpackers. One company, Magic Bus, sells different packages, depending how long you are travelling or how much of the island you want to visit. The buses visit the most popular areas and drop clients off at backpackers hostels. All types allow you to stop off as often as you wish, within the package time limits. There are regular local buses but they only service the major cities and towns. Most backpackers chose one of the special bus lines. One advantage is that single travellers get the chance to meet fellow travellers and have company along the way.

There are two ferries linking Wellington on the North Island and Picton on the South Island. The Lynx is the "fast" ferry, taking about 2 1/4 hours to traverse the Cook Straight and the Interislander ferry takes about 1/2 hour more. The ferry bookings get filled up very early in the prime season, from the end of December to the end of February. In addition, you pay a premium price for last minute bookings. For these reasons, it is wise to book well in advance. There are different rates depending on the date and time of the crossing, so make sure you ask for the lowest rate available. We booked at the end of November and were able to get an afternoon sailing on January 1. The rest of that first week in January was already full. Ray had to ask twice if there were any other sailings that would be cheaper than the first price quoted. We ended up paying $160NZ for the car and $40NZ for each of two passengers. We have heard of lower rates for Kiwi residents who booked the previous summer, so you could try your luck on the internet if you know the date you wish to sail. The lowest rate for a foot passenger we heard of was $25NZ for a 1 AM sailing.

There are also ferries in Auckland Harbour linking the islands in the Hauraki Gulf and a ferry to get to Stewart Island from Ivercargill. Inquire about these ferries in New Zealand.

We are experienced bicycle tourers, but this time we elected to drive around New Zealand. This year I feel we made a good decision. New Zealand experienced the worst summer weather on record. November and December were especially rainy and I do not enjoy getting soaked. Nevertheless, we spoke to many bicyclists and if you are interested in getting around by bicycle, here are our suggestions.

  • Learn to like hills. There are lots of them and many are long and steep.
  • Bring full rain gear and waterproof paniers.
  • Bring your own towel and sleeping bag.
  • Use a touring bike with at least 28 mm tires to travel unsealed roads.
  • Get good detailed maps.

An easier way to see New Zealand by bicycle is to join a guided bicycle tour group. For a price all your meals and accommodation is arranged and your luggage is transported each day to the next location. Companies come and go so the best bet is to go through a travel agent or google bicycle tours in New Zealand and read their testimonials.

New Zealand seems to be one of the last, safe places to hitchhike. We picked up several, mostly young people who were travelling super economically. The downside is you need to have lots of time as you never know how long it will take to get a ride. We had room for just one hitchhiker, so couples were at a slight disadvantage.


There are lots of choices of where to stay, depending on how much you want to spend. We were on a limited budget, so the backpacker hostel type of accommodation suited us just fine.

This was our choice. Hostels are no longer restricted to the under 30 age group, although we, as middle-aged travellers, were definitely in the minority. We looked forward to meeting everyone and trading travel experiences. For us, this gave the hostels a definite edge over motels, where you are less likely to interact with other guests.

Hostels all provide a choice of dorm rooms and double rooms. A very few even have an option of a room with a private bathroom, but this is unusual. We were able to get a double or twin bedded room for an average cost of $40NZ per night where ever we went. Dorms slept from four to twelve people and usually cost less than $20NZ per bed.

The beds come with a clean bottom sheet and a pillow and pillowcase, but you are usually expected to provide your own soap, towels and blankets or sleeping bag. Some hostels had towels and duvets at additional cost.

The shared bathrooms were always clean and conveniently located. The kitchens were well equipped with multiple sinks, stoves and refrigerators. We had the use of pots and pans, dishes and cutlery, plus some hostels even provided spices. There was usually a shelf of "free food" left behind by other travellers. It was worth your while to look through the selection for usuable items.

The hostels all had good coin operated washers and dryers, so having clean clothes was easy. A box of detergent soon was added to our backpacker's kit. Many hostels also had outside clothes lines to hang up those items that can't go in a dryer. We found that a few of our clothes pins came in handy when there were not enough at the hostel.

Several hostels had computer terminal with Internet connections for the use of their guests. Sometimes you were offered a half hour free, but most were coin operated machines. The backpacker owners have had too much trouble in the past with people who changed the settings or imported viruses. As a result, the coin operated machines allowed internet connection only and had no CD or floppy drive access.

There are lots of hostel choices all over the country. Hostelling International runs quite a few and sells an annual membership, $30 each in 2002. You could stay in a hostel without being a member, but there is a surcharge of $3NZ each for the room . We got a card that got stamped once for each night we stayed in a hostel. When the total reached $30, we would be given an annual membership good for the rest of the year.

The backpacker hostels in New Zealand formed an organization, Budget Backpacker Hostels (BBH) in August 2001 to offer similar advantages to a Hostelling International membership. For $40NZ each, we got a booklet listing all the member hostels, plus a $20NZ phone card. Without the membership there was a surcharge of $1 - $3 per person. The phone card allowed us to call anywhere in New Zealand or North America for just $0.25 per minute. We used the cards to call everybody at home at Christmas and to book ahead for the next night's lodging. The two cards we bought lasted until the end of our trip. The hostel listings included rates, amenities and guest ratings. The membership was good value and was used by the majority of backpackers we met. For an online look at member hostels, try

Camping and Caravan Parks
The very least expensive way to travel is to take a tent and camp. There are a few out of the way places where you can set up your tent for free, but this is not encouraged. Instead, many of the backpacker hostels have space for tents, at a reduced rate, or you can stay at one of the many campgrounds. The only problem with campgrounds is that they are often a distance from town. This is a problem if you do not have a car or at least a bicycle.

If you are travelling in your own caravan, most parks have hook-ups, kitchen facilities and washrooms to use. The prices we saw advertised were very reasonable.

Caravan parks often have simple cabins to stay in. They usually had double or twin beds and partial kitchen facilities, but no private toilet or shower. You could count on a table and chairs in the cabin and a few cabins had a fridge and stove but most expected you to use the communal kitchen to prepare your meals. You may even have to provide your own dishes and pots and pans. The beds come with a clean bottom sheet and pillow, but you provide your own towels, soap and sleeping bag or blankets. These are a good alternative if you don't have a tent or it is raining, as it often was when we were in New Zealand.

We were lucky enough to stay as paying guests in three different private homes in New Zealand. We had our own bedroom and shared the bathroom and kitchen facilities with the rest of the family. It gave us a chance to talk with New Zealanders and find out more about their lives and how they differed with ours in Canada. The problem is that these are harder to find. Two we stayed in were advertised as hostels and the third was a referral when the homestay-hostel was full. The rates were about the same as a hostel. Ask around and you may be lucky.

There are lots of very nice motels to stay in. As a rule, they come equipped with a TV, bedding, towels, soap and a full kitchen. The price is about double that charged for a double room in a hostel, but you get a private bathroom.

Bed and Breakfast
Our experience with B&Bs in New Zealand is limited as the ones we saw advertised were far beyond our budget. The usual rates were over $100NZ per night for a double room. The ones we saw were very nicely decorated rooms in private homes and included a more-than-we-could-eat breakfast. Some homes offer additonal meals as well. The advantage is a very pleasant atmoshphere and the chance to interact with New Zealanders.

Again, our experience is limited, mostly because of our budget. Several we read about operated as luxury cabins in a country setting and others are more like B&Bs on a farm. The value, in my opinion, would be to experience farm life in New Zealand.

Several of the young people we met had obtained work visas and spent up to three months working on a farm. They loved the experience, but it was hard work and does not pay very well.

Some farms, mostly organic, offer room and board in return for four hours unpaid work per day. Since you are not paid a wage, you do not need a work permit.


Although there are lots of restaurants in the tourist centers and larger towns, meals are not inexpensive. As mentioned in our tips, nearly every type of accommodation has kitchen facilities for their guests. Consequently, many travellers elect to prepare most of their own meals and save dining out for special occasions.

All the larger towns had large, well stocked grocery stores, making it easy to prepare simple, nutricious meals. We bought a "chilly bag" (or cooler) and a freezer pack to transport our perishables. As soon as we reached our destination, we stored our food in the refrigerator in a plastic bag marked with our name and the date we expected to leave. Our non-perishables, stored in a cardboard box, either went on a shelf in the communal kitchen or in our room. We never had any problems with food theft, but the naming system allows the hostel owners to clean out the refrigerator on a regular basis.

We had our own cooking pot and dishes with us but these were only needed for our overnight hiking trips. The kitchens were generally well equipped. The only item often lacking was a sharp knife, so our Swiss Army knife got good useage.

There were often a number of people trying to prepare dinner at the same time, but generally this was accomplished in a cooperative manner. We were pleased to note the efforts put into tasty meals by all the backpackers. Except for the occasional slob, each person cleaned up their own pots and pans and dishes. The owner's responsibility was to further clean the kitchen on a daily basis.

Our favourite meals were simple stir fries with lots of fresh vegetables and a smaller portion of meat, poultry, fish or cheese served over rice or pasta.

Of course, a meal is not complete without a glass of wine, so we sampled several of the local offerings. The New Zealand wines, especially the Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, were very good, but often a little more expensive than their Australian counterparts. For everyday meals, we stuck to whatever was the bargain offering in the local store and only occasionally indulged in the local vintages.

We are not big beer drinkers, but we managed to taste many of the New Zealand brews. They all got our approval, especially after returning from a long tramp.

Tramping or Hiking

We are full of praise for the extensive system of hiking trails and huts in New Zealand. In our opinion there is no better way to appreciate the New Zealand landscape than to hike up one of the hills. After visiting the sights in the cities there is nothing like getting away from it all on one of the well kept tracks or trails. More times than not you will have the trail all to yourself and be able to enjoy the unspoiled countryside in peace.

Just a few preparations are needed. If you haven't been hiking regularly, try a short trail with not too much uphill, then work up to more strenuous outings. You do need a good pair of hiking shoes or boots, and a map of the area. The Department of Conservation (DOC) is an excellent source of both day hikes and longer overnight tramps. The DOC also provides weather and trail condition reports. We used The Lonely Plant Tramping in New Zealand as a guide for overnight tramps, plus we would get individual maps from the DOC for the area we wished to explore.

For a day hike you need a small day pack to carry water, a snack, your camera and because the weather can change quickly, a rainjacket and perhaps a fleece. We carry a sandwich for lunch and a bag of trailmix for snacks. There are lots of trail mix varieties in the stores.

Drinking lots of water keeps your energy level up and allows you to recover quicker after you have stopped. You can't depend on your body to tell you to drink in time. By the time the instinct to drink kicks in, it is past the time when you really should have had more water. I like to carry two litres of water, which will last me all day long. Carry at least one liter for a short hike. Nalgene bottles, purchased at most outdoor stores, are great as they have a screw top that doesn't leak. You will drink more water if it is easily accessible. That means keep the bottle on the outside of your daypack. If your pack does not have side mesh pockets to hold a bottle, outdoor stores sell a fabric pouch that attaches a Nalgene sized bottle to a strap on your day pack. You can also attach the bottle with a carabiner clip, used by moutainclimbers. Last summer I bought a plastic bladder system, called a Platypus, that holds two litres of water and is dispensed through a plastic tube and nozzle. It has worked out perfectly.

We have found that a walking stick is invaluable. It saves your knees on the downhill, helps to climb those hills and provides extra balance when you are crossing streams. Many people use two walking sticks, which takes another 20% of the load off your knees.

Packing Light

No, you don't need to bring absolutely everything you might ever need. Each year we travel we find we can get along with fewer things. Just remember, extra clothes add weight and even car trunks have their limits. Laundry facilities are plentiful and you can always buy some essential you have forgotten or used up. The trick is to make sure everything has multiple purposes. If you will be travelling with one or more other people, you can share articles like a first aid kit or pots and pans.

Organizing your belongings means you can find that warm sweater or spare battery when you need it. We use stuff sacks made of light weight nylon, mesh or siimply plastic zip lock bags. Plastic bags help keep your belongs dry but they do rip. We carry a large green garbage bag to use to line our backpack when there is a chance it will rain while we are hiking. I like mesh bags for my clothes so I can see what is inside. One cloth bag is good for all those little articles that might fall out of or make holes in mesh bags.

We have come up with a list of suggested items for the backpacker. Since it is quite long, it is on a separate page. Click Backpacker Packing list to see our suggestions.

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