Road Tripping New Zealand in a Camper Van
New Zealand was on my bucket list for a long time. This is one of those countries where I wanted to spend at least couple of months to explore and see different places because there is such a variety of things to do and places to see. Of course, if you want to do a longer trip like this it would require more money to fund it. That was definitely one of the reasons why we delayed New Zealand trip for couple of years. Finally, last year we decided that it was time for us to cross New Zealand off our bucket lists.
We've heard that there is a strong van culture in New Zealand. Van life was something that we really wanted to experience so we decided to buy a van for the duration of our trip. It sounded crazy to us at first to buy a van for just a two months long trip, but we learned that it is possible and even the best option because of the constant flow of travelers and ease of the process. I am glad that we decided to buy a van because our trip would be very different without it, and it would also be a more expensive. So here is how it went and everything we’ve learned along the way.
Why Traveling in a Campervan is the Best Way
First of all, if you want to travel in New Zealand you need some kind of a transport and lodging. Campervan combines the two and saves a lot of money otherwise spent on hostels or hotels. Yes, you could go with a tent option too, but being able to stay inside the van, and not dealing with setting up and taking down the tent every time does make a lot of difference.
Another important reason for traveling in a camper van is the ability to be in the right place at the right time. By that I mean that we were often able to spend the night near the trailhead or location where we wanted to be which made it more convenient. Even the ability to pull off the road and take a break for a few hours, and just hang out, cook a meal or wait for a sunset no matter the weather, and be comfy and cozy inside the van was priceless. It was also especially helpful because we were traveling with an infant. We were able to take it slow and stop in beautiful places along the way so that we could feed our daughter or even put her down for a nap. Our daughter also didn’t have to get used to unfamiliar places because we had our ”little home”.
If you are coming to New Zealand for a longer trip (at least two months) I would highly recommend buying a van. We bought and sold our van for the same price. Renting a campervan is pretty expensive so being able to cut this expense down made our two months long trip very affordable compared to what it could be if we had car rental and lodging expenses. So if you are planning to buy a van this next sections is for you.
Buying and Selling a Van in New Zealand
To be honest, we were a little nervous at first about buying and selling a van in New Zealand. We didn’t want to spend too much time on a search for a van or selling it at the end of our trip because our trip was only two months long. The other concern, of course, was that we didn’t want to end up with a van that had issues and spend a lot of our trip time and money on repairs.
Our Van Requirements
When we were looking for a van we wanted it to have a third seat for our baby, to be self-contained certified, and to have a little “kitchen” to be able to cook inside the van. Let me clarify on a self-contained van certification. There are certain requirements in New Zealand for a van to be certified as self-contained. In short, it has to have a portable or fixed toilet, fresh and grey water tanks containing three-day water supply and a sink. I probably missed some of the specifics and other items but you get the idea. The reason why we wanted a self-contained van is because there are more camping places available for self-contained vehicles and that are also free in New Zealand vs all other vehicles. Cooking outside is also not very fun when it’s cold or rainy so we really wanted a van that had enough space for us to cook inside. It honestly did make a difference because we had a number of rainy days during our trip, and we cooked our meals pretty much the whole time with the exception of few times. If you come to New Zealand for a long trip you could also take the time to build out a van or at least convert and certify one as self-contained.
Search and Buying Process
We started looking for a van several weeks before our arrival to New Zealand, but in the end we didn’t feel like commiting and putting down a deposit without seeing a van, We just decided to look for one when we get to Auckland. We were looking for a van on the Backpackerboard, Trademe, and Facebook Groups for backpackers buying and selling vans. We were even considering vans that were not self-certified and had kitchen in the back of the van because we didn’t want to spend too much time on a search for a “perfect” vanm, but in the end we found our “perfect” van, that was named Taco, through one of those Facebook groups, and bought it the next day from a French couple. The van was in great condition because the previous owners took good care of it so we felt good about it, and didn’t take it to a mechanic for a checkup before buying it. Buying process was actually very easy, and you can just do it at the Post Shop or online for about $10. Other things to pay attention to are the expiration dates for the Warrant of Fitness (Wof) and Registration (ReGo). Buying a van with Wof and Rego recently done will save you money and time. Our van came with pretty much all the essentials for the trip such as bedding, stove, and all kind of kitchen and other supplies. We spent an extra day in Auckland building another shelf in the van for more storage, adjusting few things to our needs, and we were ready to take off for an epic road trip.
Selling process went also pretty fast and smooth for us. We posted our van for sale about three weeks before the end of our trip, and we received a lot of interest. One couple that was arriving just couple of days before the end of our trip commited to buying a van and they put down a deposit. They felt comfortable trusting us and buying a van without seeing it beforehand because of our social media presence. And just like that our van Taco found new owners. We sold the van for the same price we bought it for thus our end cost associated with the van were only for improvement, maintenance, insurance and , of course, gas. You are not required to have car insurance in New Zealand but we bought a basic insurance online, and put down an address of an airbnb where we stayed at the beginning of our trip. One tip for selling the van is to take appealing pictures of the inside of the van when posting it for sale. It might and should be obvious, but I did see a number of messy and unappealing van pictures that were posted for sale. It sure doesn’t help the selling process.
Other Useful Things We’ve Learned About Traveling in a Camper Van
How to Find Camping, Restrooms and Showers
Number one most useful thing for your road trip in New Zealand is the CamperMate App. This app is free but it has all the information you will need. We used it every single day to find places to camp, get water, dump stations, restrooms, public showers and groceries. The great thing about this App is that there are also reviews that we found pretty helpful and accurate. We were able to find a lot of free camping places to stay along the way because, as mentioned previously, we had a self-contained van which also saved us some money. Even if there was a portable toilet in our van (stored under the bed), we didn’t use it and neither did the previous owners. It’s so easy to check on CamperMate where the closest restroom or shower is and plan to stop there. I often found good inexpensive showers at the aquatic centers or campgrounds.
Keep Van Organized
Traveling and living in a small space like a van can be challenging but you get used to it, and figure out how to do it best. We found that the best way to stay sane in such small space is to have a spot for all the items/gear, and to always put them away in their place right away. No matter how tired we were when coming back to our “little home” after a backpacking trip, we tried to unpack our backpacks and put everything away so that we can relax in our van. Some items that helped us utilize our van space efficiently were Eddie Bauer duffel bags that fold down. We brought with us several bags full of camping and adventure gear, and I honestly can’t even imagine where we would store bags if they were not compact when folded. So don’t bring with you those bulky suitcases. We also had all our clothes organized in Eagle Creek packing cubes*. It makes my life a lot easier when I don’t have to dig and look for a piece of clothing I need. So whatever system you come up with, organization and having everything in its own spot is the key. It makes van life a lot more enjoyable.
Take It Easy and Cook Your Meals
I have to be honest that as awesome as traveling is it often throws me off balance. I feel that there is so much to see and do that I end up not eating as healthy, and opting for food on the go. I also find it hard to eat out healthy without spending a bunch of money sometimes. Cheap on the go options like a sandwich, while tolerable on some occasions, just don’t make me feel good in the long run. And I have to say that often my diet also affects my mood. Luckily, with having a little kitchen in our van I could cook what I would normally eat at home. Of course, there are challenges like not being able to store fruits, vegetables, and other fresh produce for a long time because we didn’t have a fridge or a lot of space. So we just had to go to a grocery store every couple of days to replenish our fresh produce supply. We also had to often fill up and dump out water because there were always dishes to clean. All these things most certainly take extra time and might seem like an inconvenience BUT I see it as an investment because healthy diet affects mood and wellbeing which also helps to enjoy adventures better. There are grocery stores all over New Zealand even in small towns, and many of them like PaknSave and New World even have Wifi. So take the time to take care of yourself by cooking your own meals which will also save you money.
Powering and charging electronics on the road is another challenge. Our van came with a second battery which was a great help. We also brought with us Goal Zero Sherpas* to store power. These awesome devices come with us pretty much everywhere. We also had an inverter charger which is very helpful on a road trip. We tried to always use the long driving stretches to power up our electronics. Not only we were able to edit pictures on our laptop but we also watched all of the Hobbit and LOTR movies. That being said, we were able to generate enough power for our needs and more during the trip.
New Zealand would be a true paradise for me if it wasn’t for one thing - SAND FlIES. These little bloodsuccing pests are annoying. They were especially a concern because we had with us a defenceless little baby. Don’t get me wrong, I would take sand flies over mosquitos any time. Sandflies can’t bite through clothes, or keep up if you are walking, they can’t see in the dark so they are gone at night, they also don’t like strong wind and hot sun. Also, if you don’t itch their bites from the very beginning those bites most likely are not going to bother you. But you get the idea that they are still a pain in a butt, and can make even a beautiful place not as enjoyable or relaxing. Some areas or campsites have a ton of them. We tried to avoid those ares as much as we could. But something that really helped us was our DIY screen. We simply bought a mosquito screen at the home improvement store and attached it to our van door with magnets. It wasn’t super fancy and still let couple of sandflies in, but it kept most of them out allowing us to have an open door, and to cook inside the van without making it too hot or steamy.
How Much Did We Spend on Our Trip?
I know that this is the juiciest part of my blog that everybody are curious about.
So...for our two months long road trip in New Zealand we spent about 6200 US dollars. Now, keep in mind that I don’t include what we spent to buy a van because we sold it for the same price. Van prices vary depending on what you are looking for, but I’d say that you can buy a decent van for $4000-8000 dollars.
Plane tickets - $2000 for both of us with an upgrade to the front seats with a bassinet, and also one extra checked bag both way. It is a great deal for a flight to Auckland so you definitely should watch for flight deals or sign up for deal alerts.
Airbnb - $200. We stayed in an Airbnb places only at the beginning and the end of our trip. It was about $35 per night per room. We don’t stay in fancy places but there are a lot of affordable options if you don’t mind sharing the house with other people. The rest of our trip we slept in our van or in a tent/hut when in the backcountry.
Gas(Diesel) - $1500 for about 5400 miles driven. Gas/Diesel is definitely more expensive in New Zealand. Our van had diesel. So while you do pay less at the pump, you are required to purchase RUC (Road User Charge) licence for every 1000 km you drive. You can buy it at any Post Shop, and I would probably recommend buying as you go instead of buying for the entire road trip. So which one is cheaper gas or diesel? Honestly, I don’t really know but it looks like it might be about the same in the end.
Car Insurance -$145 for two months. As I mentioned earlier car insurance is not required in New Zealand but we did feel more relaxed having one. I have to say that generally New Zealand drivers are really good and respectful, and nobody drives fast maybe with the exception when you are in/around a big city.
Groceries/Personal Items - $1400. These price includes food and all the different items we purchased at a store. So this price is not only food/personal items for the two of us but also diapers and baby formula/food. I also have to mention that we were not really saving on food. Healthy nutrition is important to me so we were eating well. I found that a lot of fruits and vegetables were more expensive in New Zealand because they were imported, which was really surprising to me. New Zealand has really good quality produce though. We really liked New Zealand cheese. And when it says grass fed on the packaging, I do believe it because I saw countless cows and sheep roam around on the most beautiful green pastures.
Eating Out - $200. As I covered earlier we didn’t eat out much during our two months long road trip and cooked in the van. It was much cheaper and healthier to cook our own meals.
Adventure/Entertainment - $500. This price includes camping fees for our two Great Walks. We chose to camp instead of staying in a hut because Great Walk huts are definitely more expensive. We did buy though hut tickets to stay at some of the other DOC (Department of Conservation) backcountry huts. New Zealand has an amazing network of backcountry huts, and I would highly recommend buying a hut pass if you stay at a number of them. We mostly parked at free camping spots with the exception of several places. While New Zealand has a lot of different exciting activities you could do, we chose only the free activities because we didn’t want to spend additional money. The only couple exceptions were Kiwi House in Queenstown and Auckland Zoo. Plus our focus on this trip was to hike and enjoy nature which you can do without spending a lot of money.
Ferry - $335. Because we did both North and South islands we had to take the ferry twice. Each island is unique and has some must see and visit places. But if you have limited time I would recommend just doing the South Island.
Well, I hope this gives you an idea of all our expenses. We normally save money on lodging, eating out, and by not doing different activities. Of course, you can spend more or less than this. It really depends on your lifestyle choices and what you are willing to sacrifice or say “no” to.
So if you’ve been dreaming about a road trip in New Zealand I hope that you can find and use information I provided. It was definitely a trip for the books, and road tripping in a camper van is definitely a way to go.
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