Backpacking New Zealand: The Essential Guide
Let’s face it:
Backpacking New Zealand is something that all travellers should do once in their life. There are so many reasons to visit New Zealand, you would be crazy not to!
New Zealand has it all, from cultured cities such as Auckland and Wellington, spectacular scenery and outdoor activities throughout the country.
The contrast in scenery and landscapes across the country is perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the world!
There is no shortage of things to do in New Zealand. It’s a country that I highly recommend visiting, despite its remote location!
Backpacking New Zealand
- Capital – Wellington
- Population – 4,000,000 (estimate)
- Currency – New Zealand dollar
- Main languages – English
- International dialling code – +64
Citizens of most countries are able to obtain a 3-month tourist visa on or before arrival. British citizens are entitled to a 6-month tourist visa. A New Zealand working holiday visa is also available to selected nations, which allows you to live and work in New Zealand for two years.
Travelling Around New Zealand
Compared to backpacking Australia, travelling around New Zealand is relatively easy! Most of the major cities and destinations have an airport, that serves both international and domestic flights.
Travelling between the North and South Islands is either done via a flight, generally from Christchurch <-> Wellington, or by ferry across the Cook Strait. Obviously, flying is the quickest method, but the ferry offers a more scenic route!
The size of New Zealand is quite surprising. It may not look big on a map, but New Zealand is a big country. The South Island alone is the same size as Great Britain. So it can take longer than you may have thought to travel around, but this just gives you more time to take in the sights.
Getting around by car is straightforward. Car rental is cheap and it is virtually impossible to get lost, as there are only a few main roads. Renting a car provides you with more freedom to travel where you choose and I would recommend it over travelling by coach.
If you wish to travel by coach, there are a number of companies that offer services. Kiwi Experience is the most popular and offer tickets that take in most of the major spots in the country. Naked Bus is more like Greyhound in Australia, offering cheap tickets from destination to destination.
Reasons to go backpacking New Zealand
Travelling New Zealand is a fantastic experience, mainly because the country is quite diverse and has a range of things to do! There really is something for everybody in New Zealand, if you want to go hiking you can, while you can also relax at a beach if you so wish!
Backpacking New Zealand is brilliant, and below are a some of the best reasons to go and do it!
New Zealand has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. No matter what part of the country you are in, there is generally something incredible to see. Travelling around the South Island, in particular, is incredible! It doesn’t matter whether the weather is awful or great, the scenery never disappoints.
The range of landscapes in the country is quite remarkable! In the South Island, you can go from semi-tropical in Nelson to glacial landscapes in Franz Josef, the contrast is crazy! One thing’s for sure, you won’t get bored of the scenery when travelling New Zealand!
In contrast to Australia, the culture of the indigenous people, the Maori, is widely embraced in New Zealand. The Maori are great people and eager to teach you about their culture. Visiting a Maori village in the North Island is highly recommended!
Aside from Maori culture, Kiwi culture is very similar to that of England. I felt very much at home in New Zealand, there’s slight differences, such as the fierce love of rugby. Otherwise, the culture is very similar! The people in New Zealand are very friendly, so it makes the experience of backpacking New Zealand all the better!
Lord of the Rings
New Zealand is home to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. So if you are a fan of these films then you are in for a treat. A visit to Hobbiton is an absolute must to see the set of the Shire. There are also a number of tours throughout the country, which take in various locations where the movies were filmed, which are worth doing as well!
Lord of the Rings tourism is huge in New Zealand. It’s probably one of the main reasons for people to go travelling to New Zealand! If you want to experience Middle-Earth, then backpacking New Zealand is something that you should definitely do!
New Zealand is not a highly regarded destination for winter sports, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t excellent slopes. Coronet Peak, The Remarkables and Mt Hutt, are three great locations for skiing and snowboarding, that rival any destination in Europe or the Americas!
The only downside to skiing and snowboarding in New Zealand is that it can be quite expensive. This is especially the case if you’re renting the gear. I paid around $120 sometimes when we skiing in Queenstown! Still, it’s worth doing once or twice, especially if you’ve never done it before!
New Zealand is regarded as the adventure capital of the world and it is for good reason. Any activity that involves elevating your heart rate can be done, from white-water rafting to bungee jumping. Queenstown is the place to go if you a shot of adrenaline, with skydiving, bungee-jumping and jetting all available!
However, it’s not just Queenstown that has adrenaline activities. You can find these places across the whole of New Zealand. White-water rafting is popular in both the North and South Islands. While Rotorua in the North Island has its fair share of adrenaline activities as well!
Best backpacking routes in New Zealand
These are a few of the routes that I recommend doing while you are backpacking New Zealand. A road trip in New Zealand is the perfect way to see the country, so it would be a waste not to drive one of these routes. Check out this book by the Lonely Planet for more info on road trips in New Zealand!
I would recommend going to New Zealand on a working holiday, but there are other options if that’s not possible. You can travel around the country in less time. Phenomenal Globe has a great 6 weeks in New Zealand itinerary, which you should check out if you’re travelling New Zealand for a short period!
A West Coast of New Zealand road trip is one of the most spectacular routes to take in New Zealand! Nelson at the top of the South Island is a beautiful city, near the amazing Golden Bay. From there you head down through Greymouth, Westport, to the amazing glacier at Franz Josef and on to Wanaka, Queenstown and potentially Milford Sound. It is definitely one of the most scenic routes in New Zealand!
Not to be outdone, the East coast also has spectacular scenery and great cities to visit. Ideally, you would start from Picton and go down, but Christchurch is also a popular starting point. From Picton down, you can take in the magnificent Marlborough Sounds, the picturesque town of Kaikoura, then the broken city, Christchurch.
Heading further down, you pass through Timaru and Oamaru, which is close to the wondrous Moeraki Boulders. Then it is on to the beautiful city of Dunedin, with the potential to head into Southland and visit Balclutha and Invercargill!
Wellington <-> Auckland
There’s a lot to see in between the two biggest cities in the North Island. You can head to the Tongariro Crossing from Wellington and onto the beautiful town of Taupo. A North Island road trip is not complete without a stop at Rotorua, where there is an abundance of things to do.
A stop at Hobbiton is an absolute must and from there you can head to the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula and visit Hot Water Beach and Mount Maunganui before heading up to Auckland! There are various other routes as well, you could head to Napier or New Plymouth and carry on up to Cape Reinga at the tip of the North Island!
Christchurch <-> Queenstown
This is an underrated route, but one of the most spectacular! Taking in the incredible Arthur’s Pass, you will see the amazing scenery of New Zealand in full! There is the option to go straight to Hokitika on the West Coast or turn off Arthur’s Pass towards Queenstown. If you’re heading to Queenstown for the weekend, turn off here, otherwise, heading towards Hokitika is not a bad idea!
Backpacking New Zealand: The best places to visit
There are many destinations to choose from when backpacking New Zealand. Here’s a selection of some of the places that I enjoyed while I was travelling New Zealand.
This is the number 1 destination in New Zealand if you want to get your fix of adrenaline and partying. Queenstown has it all, from bungee-jumping and skiing to great bars and clubs to unbelievable scenery! This mix makes Queenstown a great place to visit, as there’s something to do for everyone here!
Another place that you can’t miss in Queenstown is the fantastic FergBurger! I think it’s possibly the best burger I’ve ever had! The diversity of places here makes it a great place to travel to! You would be stupid to visit New Zealand without seeing Queenstown, it is the perfect backpacker location!
Read more: Queenstown Travel Guide
I went travelling to Christchurch after it was devastated by earthquakes in 2011. If you are on the working holiday visa then it is the perfect place to go, as there will be work for at least the next 10 years! The city really got hit badly by the earthquake, but it’s slowly getting back on its feet!
Christchurch is worth visiting, just to see what nature can do to a city! It feels like you have stumbled into a war-zone, such was the damage caused by the earthquakes! Christchurch is an ever changing city, and one of the more places to see when travelling New Zealand!
Read more: Christchurch Travel Guide: The Broken City
Milford Sound is one of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand. Primarily, because of the beauty of the place. The drive through Fiordland to Milford Sound is spectacular, and then viewing the mighty peaks is a sight to behold. Exploring the Sound by one of the many boat trips is a must, to grasp the scale of Milford Sound and its beauty!
One downside of Milford Sound, if you can call it a downside, is that it’s often quite wet there. As you can see from the below picture it can be very wet and grey. The odds are you won’t get to see Milford Sound in all its glory due to the weather on the West Coast. However, it’s still a great sight even when the weather is bad!
The Tongariro crossing is one of the most spectacular hikes in New Zealand, as you hike across the volcanic terrain. The views along the 12.1 miles (19.4km) track are spectacular and there is also the opportunity to climb Mt Ngauruhoe. The crossing takes about seven hours and is definitely worth it for the views and exercise!
I’d never heard of the Tongariro Crossing before I visited the North Island. However, it really is a great place to visit, as the hike is fantastic. You’ll need to book a bus there and back, unless you have your own vehicle. But, it’s definitely a must do while backpacking New Zealand as the landscape here is amazing!
Wanaka is a stunning location which offers a more relaxed vibe than nearby Queenstown. Lake Wanaka is spectacular and looks like it is straight out of a postcard, while Coronet Peak offers some great skiing. There is also Puzzling World, which has a great maze and loads of funky illusions!
I’ll admit that there wasn’t an awful lot to do here I felt. I’m sure there’s some great hikes around here, but we didn’t have time to do any of them unfortunately! The town is also famous for the Wanaka tree, which is perhaps the most photogenic tree in existence! This was another attraction that I missed, but it’s worth seeking out if you visit Wanaka! It’s definitely one of the best places to visit in the South Island!
Not so great
Backpacking New Zealand is great, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows! There are a few things and places that aren’t so great while travelling around the country!
Below are a few of the downsides to travelling New Zealand that I encountered during my year there!
Chances are you’ll probably end up in Auckland before you leave New Zealand. The city itself is good, with lots to see and do, but for me, it was not as good as the rest of the country. There are much better places to visit while in the country and I would only recommend spending a few days here.
I can’t really pinpoint what it was about Auckland that I didn’t like, but I just didn’t get a feeling for the place. It reminded a little of bit of Sydney, which I didn’t like either. That said, there’s some great spots in and around the city, especially the ancient volcano and Mission Beach which are definitely worth visits!
Christchurch is on the above list, but for the same reasons it is also on this list. With the city in a state of flux, it can take some getting used to and there is not an awful to do besides work if you live there. You should visit Christchurch, but if you are backpacking and not working, then I would only stay for a few days.
Things might have changed since I was there, as the city is constantly changing due to the rebuild. When I was there in 2014, the shoots of recovery were just beginning and the city centre was virtually dead. There’s not a lot going on, but it’s an interesting place nonetheless!
New Zealand is a fantastic place to visit, but living there can make you feel like you are cut off from the world. It is very isolated from the rest of the world, this in part is what makes it so great. However, you often do feel like you are removed from the rest of the world. Plus, travelling to other countries takes a long time, even Australia is a 4-hour flight from Auckland!
Although this is a downside, it may be an upside if you look at it a different way. New Zealand’s isolation from the rest of the world has probably meant that the country has not suffered from mass tourism, ruining the beauty of the country! I could only imagine the numbers of visitors if New Zealand was in Europe! It would be astronomical! Maybe, New Zealand being so far-flung isn’t that bad after all!
New Zealand is a country of extremes when it comes to the weather. The best time to visit New Zealand can vary from place to place. The West Coast receives a lot of rain, while the top of the North Island has an almost tropical climate.
The weather is very changeable and strange. For example, when I was living in Christchurch it went from freezing in winter one day to 20 degrees the next! The West Coast of the South Island is also one of the wettest places in the country, which is a shame, as it’s beautiful! So if you’re planning on travelling New Zealand, prepare for the unexpected!
New Zealand is not as expensive as Australia, but it is still pricey. Food shopping can be quite expensive if you’re not keen on eating pasta all the time. Tourist activities, such as tours and bungee jumping also cost a fair bit. So just bear in mind, that your money could go quicker than you think if you’re not smart!
How much does it cost to travel in New Zealand?
New Zealand can be an expensive country. Especially when you factor in the cost of the numerous tours and adrenaline sports that are available in the country. However, if you are smart and budget properly, you can save a fair bit of money!
This part of my New Zealand backpacking guide will give you a flavour of what the prices are like in New Zealand and a few ways you can save money along the way!
Hostels are cheaper than Australia, but they can still be expensive depending on where you stay. Expect to pay around $20-27 a night for a bed in a hostel. These prices will vary depending on how many people are in your room.
Some hostels also do a weekly deal, which could save you a bit of cash. Unfortunately, the internet in most hostels is not free and you will have to pay about $5 for 500mb of data. So, don’t go overboard on your internet usage, as it can soon run out!
Food and drink
Food can be expensive in New Zealand, especially if you eat out, which I recommend you keep to a minimum. However, there are ways to keep some money in your pocket! Try and stick to backpacker staple foods such as pasta and rice, as these are relatively cheap in most of the supermarkets here.
Pak N’ Save is possibly the cheapest of the three major supermarkets, so head there for your food. Depending on what you buy, you could limit your weekly food spend to $40-50, but this would include a lot of pasta and rice!
Alcohol can be cheap in New Zealand, but I would try to keep this minimum! Beer is cheaper than in Australia, but still pricey, at about $5-7 if you are in a pub! You can get some good deals at liquor stores on beer, so if you really want beer, head there!
Tours are a big part of any New Zealand backpacking itinerary and are an almost unavoidable expenditure. However, the cost can add up significantly if you do a lot, so consider what is top of your list before you book any!
A bungee jump in Queenstown can cost between $100-250 depending on what extras you purchase. So, you could be left with little cash to do other activities such as skiing or white water rafting. A tour around Hobbiton costs $80, so if you aren’t a big fan of the Lord of the Rings, (shame on you!!) I would avoid it.
That’s not to say that you should avoid doing as many tours or activities as possible. Just that you should consider what you want to do before you arrive in the country.
Tips for saving money
- Go to a local library or McDonalds/Burger King when you want to use the internet. The wifi is free and fairly good. Although, it is worth noting that the internet in New Zealand is not as good as in other countries, so don’t be surprised if it’s a little slow!
- Renting a campervan is a great way to save money travelling New Zealand. You’ll avoid paying to sleep in a hostel, although the cost of petrol will add up. However, as you simply cannot visit New Zealand without doing a road trip, a camper van is a good way to keep costs down.
- Visiting some of the popular attractions such as Milford Sound and Queenstown during the New Zealand winter from May to August is a good way to save some coin. Most tourists visit during the summer and the price is often discounted as a result. You also get the added bonus of smaller crowds in these spots in the off-season!
Backpacking New Zealand is something that you should highly prioritise! Hopefully, my New Zealand Backpacking Guide has given you a few pointers on where to visit and what routes to take during your stay in Middle-Earth!
For more information on backpacking in New Zealand, check out the Lonely Planet New Zealand (Travel Guide) guide here!