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Walking down to Rock Burn Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand | © Thomas Sobek/Flickr
Walking down to Rock Burn Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, New Zealand | © Thomas Sobek/Flickr
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The Ultimate Backpacking Guide to New Zealand

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 16 March 2018
New Zealand has something for every traveller. Beautiful landscapes, epic adventures and a healthy dose of laid-back Kiwi hospitality are just some of the things that make the country so attractive to visitors. If a memorable backpacking expedition is what you seek, this guide will help you make the most of your stay.

The backpacker scene

Many backpackers between 18–30 years old come to New Zealand on a one-year working holiday visa. This allows them to make some money, add some international work experience to their resumes and explore the country at a leisurely pace. Backpackers will typically take temporary jobs in places like farms, orchards and hostels as they make their way across the country; most of these gigs are paid, though some backpackers opt to work for free in exchange for a place to stay, or in the case of farms, for both food and accommodation.

Given New Zealand has a heap of natural and urban attractions to share, backpackers from all walks of life are drawn to it. In the main cities like Auckland and Wellington, you might stumble across a dynamic party crowd. Ditto with Queenstown, the resort aptly known as New Zealand’s adventure capital. For those who like a bit of serenity, going off-grid is easy enough; there are many unspoiled escapes allowing you to go hiking and camping for multiple days. Whether you’re in town or out in the bush, safety is a natural given.

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Two hikers on a trail in the mountains | © David Marcu/Unsplash

Making the most of it

It helps to know a few local tips before you set off. With that in mind, here are some pointers that will help make the most of your surroundings right from the get-go.

Learn some basic Maori words before you travel

One of New Zealand’s least intimidating aspects is that English is the main language of communication. That being said, Maori words seep into daily life all the time; in fact, they are well-ingrained into New Zealand’s cultural identity. At a supermarket, for instance, you won’t find any sweet potatoes — they’re called ‘kumara’ here. You’ll also see signs in both English and Maori and it’s quite common to hear ‘te reo’ greetings and phrases in local TV and radio broadcasts. So having a few basics under your belt will definitely enrich your knowledge about New Zealand, as well as give you a better understanding of the community you’re stepping into.

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Maori carving in Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand | © Greg Salmon/Flickr

Choose your activities wisely

New Zealand has a lot to offer when it comes to activities. Trouble is, trying to tackle everything in one go will quickly drain your travel budget, especially if you’ve got a penchant for all things adventurous. A bungy jump, for instance, can set you back around NZ$200, while a black water rafting experience in the Waitomo Caves will cost you between NZ$140–$240. What’s more, popular multi-day hikes like the nine Great Walks require you to book well in advance because of limited accommodation options. So you need to prioritise your bucket-list items, and make sure to look into the free options around the areas you’re keen to visit.

Be on the lookout for local discount schemes

A ‘daily deal’ site like Grabone might help you save money on local attractions and popular places to eat. Supermarkets also have their own discount and loyalty cards which can help you lower your grocery costs in the long run. Backpacking hostels might also get you special discounts for certain places, and there are various ‘hostel network’ membership options around if that can help you lower your accommodation costs as well as provide other budget-friendly perks.

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Kaituna River Rafting, Rotorua, New Zealand | © eyeintim/Flickr

Safety

New Zealand is incredibly safe. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear about backpackers who have successfully hitchhiked their way across the country. Solo travellers can also make their way around with ease, and in many cities, you should be relatively safe walking at night.

That being said, this is not some magical utopia devoid of all crime: you should still lock up your valuables, research the places you’re visiting carefully so that you know which areas/neighbourhoods to avoid, and if you’re going the hitchhiking route, do it at your own discretion. Basically, as long as you don’t take your safety for granted, you should be fine.

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A traveller in Queenstown, New Zealand | © Jean-Pierre Brungs/Unsplash

Food and accommodation

Many travellers are shocked to find that food and alcohol in New Zealand can be quite expensive. Grocery shopping is the best way to keep your food costs down — but don’t just default to large-chain supermarkets, as community farmers’ markets and small-scale grocery stores (think Asian or Indian supermarkets) can be cheaper. Main centres like Auckland and Wellington have a fair share of cheap eats options to try out too.

As for accommodation, every town and city in New Zealand has backpacker hostels. Some are part of the BBH network, others might fall under the YHA label and a fair few are independently owned. To get you started, take a look at some of the best in Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown and Christchurch. Other budget-friendly options you can try include camping, Airbnbs and self-catered motels.

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Artisan breads on sale at a market in Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand | © Tom Hall/Flickr

Making friends

In New Zealand, a long-lasting friendship is never too far away. Most backpacking hostels have communal areas and regularly host activities that will get you mingling with like-minded travellers. Working in New Zealand and participating in community volunteering events will also help you get to know the locals. If you’re in a city like Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, try to check out some local Meetups too — that tends to be another great alternative for making new friends and getting to try out activities you might not have known about previously.

And if you want to impress some of the locals, make sure to brush up on your Kiwi slang — here’s a quick guide that will get you started.

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Travellers exploring the nature together | © Azrul Aziz/Unsplash

Money, money, money

Because no travel plans are ever complete without a proper budget.

Currency

Monetary affairs in New Zealand tend to be quite straightforward. The official currency is the New Zealand Dollar (NZD) which, as of March 2018, is not that different to the greenback:

1 USD = 1.37 NZD

Cash is the go-to in farmers’ markets and other community events with food and craft stalls. Other than that, Kiwis tend to default to using their ATM cards (known as EFTPOS) for most transactions. You’ll find more information about the NZD here.

Costs

1 meal (10–35 USD): That’s for a main course in a mid-range cafe or restaurant. A gourmet burger might cost you around 10 USD, whereas the average price for a pie (a New Zealand culinary staple) will be around 3 USD.

1 beer (5.70 USD): Expect to pay around 7–10 NZD for a beer or a glass of wine at a bar.

1 night at a backpacker hostel (14–155 USD per night): Usually on the lower side of the spectrum, though there are some pricier options around.

Inner-city travel: Between 1.40-14.50 USD for buses and trains. If you’re spending an extended time in the bigger cities like Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch, buying a bus card will help you keep your public transport costs low. Also keep in mind that buses usually stop operating around midnight — in which case you might need to budget for a taxi or Uber.

Hygiene and medical products (10-20 USD): Local supermarkets stock vitamins, hygiene products and basic medicines like non-prescription painkillers; pharmacies tend to sell these at premium prices.

Affordable experiences (mostly free!): Every place has its fair share of free or cheap activities. Museums and art galleries, public parks and gardens, short-distance hikes and long-distance cycling trails… essentially, if you research your chosen towns or cities well, you’ll find a breadth of budget-friendly attractions to tap into.

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Mount Eden Summit, Auckland, New Zealand | © Aaron Birch/Unsplash

Where to go

While you’re putting the finishing touches on your itinerary, make sure these must-visit destinations are on your watch list:

Auckland: New Zealand’s largest city is home to a trove of natural and urban attractions that all travellers should set their sights onto: from the beautiful beaches to the lovely parkland and a dynamic cultural scene.

Tongariro National Park: Every national park in New Zealand is worth visiting. The reason for choosing Tongariro above all others is the fact that it is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with interesting hikes, awe-inspiring alpine vistas and some of the most incredible volcanic summits and ski fields you’ll ever see.

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Tongariro National Park, New Zealand | © Pablo Heimplatz/Unsplash

Wellington: The capital is adored for its alternative cultural vibes (a visit to Cuba Street is an absolute must), wonderful panoramic views and its close proximity to some epic day trip destinations.

Queenstown: Kiwis and international visitors alike are drawn to this popular South Island resort because of its postcard-worthy landscapes, heart-stopping thrills and the wonderful vineyards that make the region so desirable for food and wine enthusiasts.

Milford Sound: The fairy tale-like Milford Sound can be enjoyed through a pleasant cruise or through a memorable multi-day trip around the Milford Track. Whatever you choose, you’ll be amazed by the sheer geographic diversity that surrounds this fantastical fjord.

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Miford Sound, New Zealand | © Pixabay

Bucket list experiences

Finally, here are some of the attractions you should definitely consider adding to add to your New Zealand travel bucket list.

Watching the first sunrise in Gisborne: The North Island city of Gisborne is the first place in the world to welcome the new day. Just venture into a local beach at the crack of dawn to see this spectacle in its brightest colours.

Stargazing in the South Island: New Zealand’s clear dark skies make it an optimal place for stargazing. The South Island’s Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve is one of the best spots to see this dazzling light show. Bonus points if you get to see the Aurora Australis during your visit.

The ultimate Lord of the Rings’ expedition: Because no New Zealand visit would ever be complete without paying homage to one of its most famous cinematic feats. Hobbiton is the obvious contender in a LOTR-based itinerary; this guide will help you see what else awaits in the real-life Middle Earth.