How To Backpack Around New Zealand Without a Car or Camper Van

by stephmylifetravel

Travelling through New Zealand by car or camper is probably the best way to see this stunning country. It’s a great way to get off the beaten track and discover the beautiful hidden gems that New Zealand has to offer. Most people want to spend their entire time travelling by Camper or car, however this isn’t an option for everyone and it wasn’t an option for us!

If you can’t drive, you don’t have the time to see everything you want to see by car, hiring a camper is not in your budget, or like us if there aren’t any campers available for most of your holiday then there are plenty of other options to get around cheaply and conveniently. We found ourselves without wheels for most of our trip so we used a variety of different modes of transport to get around. We took local buses, private buses, an organised tour, the InterIslander ferry, the TranzAlpine train, and a flight to see as much of the country as possible in our short 10-day trip.

I’m going to run you through the different ways we travelled through NZ and what we thought of them, plus some ways to save money when booking!

First: Hire A Camper For As Long As You Can

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If you can’t find a camper for your whole trip then consider getting one for part of it, as it really is a good way to see the country. You will most likely be able to find a camper for a night or two along your trip, and I would definitely recommend doing it. For the rest of the trip you can use the other transport methods below.

We booked our trip very last minute so we were only able to find a campervan for the last 3 nights of the trip. We rented from Wicked Campers in Queenstown. We’ve rented from Wicked before when we first got to Melbourne, and while they aren’t the most comfortable campers they are very very cheap and ideal for backpackers. You have a couple of choices with your camper, we went for the cheapest and most basic options ‘The Iconic’ 2 seater / sleeper graffitied van with a bed in the back. You can pay extra for an attachment to sleep on the roof, extra for a van with no graffiti (so that people in the campsite don’t come up to you asking to buy weed which actually happened to us!!), there’s 5 and 7 sleeper options for groups, and Wicked rent out pretty cheap cars too. One thing to be aware of is that Wicked do not show up on any of the price comparison sites for campers so you have to go directly to their site to get a quote.

The basic price for our camper was $89.99 / £48 / €54 per day which is extremely cheap, but there are a few non-optional charges which drive up the price:

  • Remote location fee of $150 (applies in certain locations in NZ)

  • Mandatory liability reduction cost of $100

  • $31.35 admin charge

  • We also chose to pay $5 per day to rent a folding table and chairs so that we could eat outside the van.

The total price we paid was $656.21 / £342 / €385 for 3 nights which was still a fraction of what other rental companies were asking.  The van comes with unlimited kms and you can add an extra driver for free so both people can drive

The back of the van is set up as a camp kitchen – you get a sink, a gas stove, crockery, cutlery, a cooler and various pots and pans. There are thick and comfortable sleeping mats provided inside but you have to bring your own bedding. We had sleeping bags from our camping trip (check out The Warehouse for cheap ones) and we always bring pillowcases in our backpacks so we just fill these with our clothes and use them as pillows.

Wicked Campers definitely aren’t luxurious by any means, so if you like your creature comforts and are a stickler for cleanliness then they might not be for you. But if you’re happy to just have a reliable set of wheels and somewhere to lay your head for a small price then I would definitely check them out!

If you have a little more time in New Zealand and want to save money then I would consider doing a camper van relocation. Many camper van companies need people to drive their vans between cities for pickups and rent these out for $1-5 per day, with a generous fuel allowance. We’ve used Transfer Car before and found some great deals. One thing I noticed was that most relocations in NZ go from South to North so if you want to do a relocation try to plan your route that way – and these get snapped up really quickly so you have to be decisive! There are some fantastic deals to be found, we got a 6 berth Mercedes camper van for $1 per day with fuel allowance.

Catch a Backpacker Bus

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Marlborough

There are a whole host of options if you want to travel around New Zealand by bus. Intercity is the national bus company that connects major cities and tourist sights, it seems to offer the most in terms of routes but can be a little expensive. There are a several backpacker-focused bus companies too that are mainly full of 18-24 year old gap year backpackers and are good for young, solo travellers. Nomadic Matt has compared three of these companies here.

We had at the different companies and booked our trips through Naked bus and Intercity. Naked bus is not specifically geared towards young, solo travellers and the prices are extremely competitive. Tickets start from as little as $1 if you book far enough in advance and they offer a ‘naked passport’ which gives you a flexible 3 to 20 stop ticket all over NZ at a good price.

We took the Intercity and Naked buses on the flowing routes:

  • Picton – Nelson: Sit on the right for some gorgeous sea views!
  • Nelson – Marahau return: Sit on the right on the way to Marahau / left on the way back for the best views.
  • Nelson – Greymouth: Great views on either side, if you take the Intercity bus the driver will stop at the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes for around 30 minutes along the journey.

Buses are clean, spacious and pretty cheap, there was no bathroom or wifi on any of the buses we took, but they did stop for bathroom breaks on long journeys. The drivers act as tour guides, giving you a description of any attractions you pass and a little history of the areas. We found that they aren’t super punctual though so you can end up cutting it fine for any connecting journeys.

Travel By Boat

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InterIslander Ferry

On the boat from Wellington to Picton

 We took the InterIslander from Wellington to Picton which cost $104 each. This is one of two ferries that connect the two islands and you can board as a foot passenger or with a car. The other ferry is run by Bluebridge and from what I have read prices vary from $50 to around $100 so do shop around for your ticket. I’ve heard that it can be a good idea to wait until you’re in the country to buy your ticket as you can get a better price in hostels and tour offices.

There is a cinema on board, multiple restaurants, a bar with an indoor viewing deck if the weather is bad, and an outdoor viewing deck with 360 degree views.

This 3-hour ferry takes you past some amazing scenery and through Marlborough Sound which remains my highlight of the entire trip. It’s an amazing first glimpse of the turquoise seas, rolling hills and stunning peaks that characterise the South Island, and the first time I felt I was in the New Zealand I’d seen in guidebooks!

Take a Scenic Train Ride

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On board the TranzAlpine Train

We took the TranzAlpine train from Greymouth to Christchurch which is regarded as one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. I wrote about our experience and how to book here.

Hop On A Plane

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Due to time constraints we flew from Christchurch to Queenstown. Our flight was with Air New Zealand and took 55 minutes. We paid $87 / £46 each and we got free drinks and snacks on the flight.

I would definitely recommend flying with Air New Zealand, the plane was clean, the staff were lovely and seats were super spacious. We booked our flight 2 weeks before we left and it was pretty cheap, but we checked the prices a few days beforehand the price had gone up to £400 each so definitely book early if you can.

If you’re sure of a route but not sure of your date then Air New Zealand offer a flexi-fare that allows you to change your flight up until a the day of departure free of charge. This can help you to lock in a cheap price early and still leave your travel plans flexible.

Uber / Taxi

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We used Uber to get around Wellington and Christchurch cheaply, there was always one nearby and as always the cars were clean and the prices were low.

Queenstown doesn’t have Uber so we took taxis a couple of times when we were dropping up / picking off the van. Taxis in Queenstown are outrageously expensive – I’m talking $26 for a 6 minute drive. Even the drivers themselves told us that you’d be crazy to pay the prices when there is a good, cheap bus service running there. Checkout Orbus and buy a Go Card to get $2 fares to and from Queenstown Airport.

Thanks for reading!
Steph
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