I thought long and hard about whether or not to share this story with you, but seeing as my inbox is filled with "How can you afford New Zealand on $1000 a month?" questions, I figured I might as well share my secrets. Secrets that I only discovered as a local. Because let's be honest, New Zealand is an expensive place and Lonely Planet doesn't exactly help you save money as much as it makes you want to spend more and more of it.
So with no further ado, here they are. My five best travel hacks for enjoying New Zealand on the cheap.
1. Free car rental
Seeing as it's one of the best countries in the world for driving, most visitors to New Zealand do a road trip. You have two options for what kind of vehicle you drive: either a non-self contained car or a self contained one that lets you "freedom camp" – i.e. stop and sleep wherever as long as there are no signs prohibiting it. Regardless of what you pick, however, be prepared to spend quite a few dollars on car rental during high season, anywhere from NZ$40/day for a small car to NZ$250/day for a campervan with toilet and shower.
That's a LOT of money. But guess what? We're getting our campervan for a five-day road trip completely for free! How?
It's called relocation. Because everything in New Zealand is super expensive, that means that car rental companies have to pay a pretty penny to get their cars moved from one location to another.
So instead, some companies choose to "rent" their cars for free and often include a tank of gas and the ferry transfer if you're going from the North to the South Island (or vice versa). Granted the time frame is likely fewer days than you'd ideally want, but can you really argue with free?
Jucy has some great relocation deals and Transfercar is an aggregator that lists deals from different companies. One thing I've noticed with Transfercar, however, is that their rental periods tend to be shorter than if you book directly on the providers' websites.
2. Super discounted activities
So you want to bungy, sky dive, rappel down into a cave full of glowworms, rent a canoe, enjoy some hot springs, take a cruise, and stay on budget? Good luck.
Well actually, it's possible if you know where to look. Because many activities end up having a few last minute open seats, it makes a lot of sense for tour operators to offer heavy discounts. So how do you find the sales?
BookMe has some really good deals for tours and activities. We've used them for the hot springs at Lake Tekapo and the gondola and luge in Queenstown. If you're going to Milford Sound, buy your tickets on BookMe. They're at least 50% cheaper than buying anything in Queenstown itself!
GrabOne also offers some decent deals, though we've generally found them more useful for restaurants than activities.
The best thing about these sites is that they're geared toward locals, which means most tourists don't know about them. Since the businesses aren't overwhelmed with demand, they treat their "discount" customers exactly how they treat all their other customers, which is a nice change from using a Groupon in the U.S.
3. Free housing
In Asia, we rented private beachside bungalows for $15 a night. In New Zealand, that won't buy you a bunk bed in a 12 person dorm—and even if it did, I'm not exactly a bunk bed kind of girl. Decent rooms for two with a private bath will run you at least NZ$80 per night, which can eat into a budget quickly. So how do you get around it?
Many people campervan or camp, which are two fine options, though not ideal if you need Internet and a desk. If you're staying in New Zealand for a while and have some time and flexibility, the best option by far is housesitting. We've been living for free in New Zealand for over three months now, and that comes with a free car. The site we use is kiwihousesitters.co.nz, but there are lots of other global sites out there that list housesits all over the world. Usually the only catch is watching some animals in addition to the house!
The cheapest food—and free drinks!
Call it a dairy, grocery store, or supermarket, it doesn't change the fact that it's expensive. I've already mentioned GrabOne for good deals on restaurants and bars, but eating out every night (even at a discount) will still likely be too expensive for travelers on a budget. Plus, if you splurged on that campervan, you'll probably want to do some cooking.
Farmers markets are the way to go. Unlike in the States where farmers markets are trendy and often overpriced, in New Zealand you can get a kilogram of apples for NZ$1! (Those same apples sell at the grocery store for NZ$5/kilogram!) You can also buy whatever vegetables your heart desires, fish, meat, tofu, breads, cheeses, etc.—all at a lot cheaper than at the store. We absolutely love the farmers market in Dunedin and are going to be sad to leave it when we move to Queenstown.
If you aren't lucky enough to stumble onto a farmers market (ask the locals for time and place or do your research), there are still some other options. Smaller grocery stores often heavily discount food that's about to expire. If you are looking for something to eat that day or night, this is ideal. Salads for 80% off, hummus that goes from $5 to $1.25, fish for $3, etc. Look for the sale stickers. (For example, I recently bought 1.5 kilograms of vegetables for $3 at Queenstown's Mediterranean Market, a gourmet supermarket. Score!)
I promised free drinks too, right? This is a bit sneaky, but many bars in New Zealand have loyalty clubs you can join to access free drinks and massive discounts. All you need is a local phone number. The info is often on a poster in the bathroom (random) and you typically get a free drink as soon as you sign up via text!
And don't forget about wine tasting, which is typically free all over New Zealand.
The great outdoors
At the end of the day, you're not coming to New Zealand to go to museums, stay at nice hotels, or eat at fancy restaurants. You're coming here to enjoy nature because the landscapes here will absolutely blow your mind.
And guess what? Nature is free! If you're a hiker, there are some great day hikes you can take without paying a penny. If you prefer taking in the view from your car window, there are great drives all over the country.
So talk to a local. Find out the secret spots and head there for scenes that will knock your socks off. And don't forget—locals don't pay to spot penguins, swim with dolphins, or get epic views of glaciers. You can do it all for free, as long as you know where to look!
BONUS. Dirt cheap flights!
With gas running close to US$7/gallon, driving in New Zealand is expensive, even with a free car. It sounds crazy, but many times it's a lot cheaper to fly, as long as you know where to look. GrabASeat has awesome deals throughout the North and South Island, which means you can often fly between somewhere like Auckland and Queenstown for around NZ$79. Can't really beat that!
Help us help you
Know any other travel hacks for New Zealand? Let us know in the comments!