Is renting a campervan the cheapest way to see New Zealand? No. Is campervan travel a great way to see New Zealand? Well, we certainly thought so. If you are looking to stretch your budget, you may want to consider renting a car and either packing a tent and sleeping bags or staying at backpacker hostels. If budget isn’t your number one priority, and you’re looking to spend several weeks exploring the more isolated countryside, you may want to consider a campervan.
For us, the campervan seemed to be the best option. New Zealand was our first stop on a year-long journey, and we weren’t interested in hauling tents and sleeping bags across southeast Asia in the heat of summer. We were also lured by the idea of just unpacking for an entire month and freely roaming the rural countryside in a cozy little mobile home. If you’re considering exploring New Zealand’s gorgeous scenery from a campervan, read on for some details from our experience, as well as some of the pros and cons, tips and tricks.
We did a one-month, one-way rental from Christchurch to Auckland. We had no formal itinerary, just a number of hikes, sights, and regions we knew we wanted to visit. We ended up spending 2.5 weeks on the South Island, and 1.5 weeks on the North Island:
|South Island:||North Island:|
|• Christchurch (rental pick up)
• Mt. Cook National Park
• Moeraki Peninsula
• Dunedin/Otago Peninsula
• The Catlins
• Te Anau/Fiordlands National Park
• Franz Josef Glacier (West Coast Route)
• Abel Tasman National Park
• Bushy Park
• Tongariro National Park
• Bay of Islands
• Auckland (rental return)
After reading a lot of reviews and doing a lot of price comparisons, we ultimately selected a 2 +1 berth campervan from Euro Campers, a reputable company with offices in both Auckland and Christchurch. The van was clean, comfortable, mechanically sound, and we had no issues whatsoever. There was a small kitchen with plenty of room for standing, two bench seats and a table that collectively collapsed down to accommodate a double bed, and storage for our clothes/gear (both overhead in the single bunk bed area, as well as built-in cabinets under the banquettes).
We originally considered hiring a slightly larger van with a small wet room bath (toilet, small sink, shower head), but it was ~$60-70 USD/day more expensive. The savings of the smaller vehicle without proper bath was worth it, as many of the campsites we stayed at had public restrooms and shower facilities (we averaged ~$14/night at campgrounds at a combination of powered and unpowered campsites).
Specifications (2+1 Berth Budgy Traveller):
- 1999 Toyota Hiace (our initial odometer reading: 172,260 km [107,037 mi])
- Manual transmission
- Exterior height: 2.5 m (8.2 ft)
- Exterior length: 4.9 m (16 ft)
- Exterior width: 1.8 m (6 ft)
- Interior height: 1.85 m (6 ft)
- Black water capacity: 10 L (2.6 gallons)
- Grey water capacity: 40 L (10.6 gallons)
- Fresh water capacity: 25 L (6.6 gallons)
- Amenities: kitchen (fridge/freezer, sink, microwave, gas cooktop, cabinet for food storage), bedding (sheets, blanket, pillows), towels, camping toilet, solar camping shower bag, broom & dustpan.
- Unlimited kilometers
- 24-hr roadside assistance
- The rental also included a gas card that allowed us to save $0.10 to $0.20 USD/liter ($0.40 to $0.80 USD/gallon) at two major fuel chains.
- The campervan was equipped with a 12 V internal battery that ran the fridge constantly. We did enough driving to keep the fridge powered, but needed to intermittently stay at powered campsites if we wanted to charge electronics (phone, tablet, batteries) and use the microwave. During the course of a typical 8- to 12-hour overnight stay, we depleted about 1/3 to 1/2 of the internal battery charge (separate from the engine battery) running the fridge and overhead lights.
|Campervan rental (28 days)||$3,029|
|Gas (4,428 km [2,751 miles])||$632|
|Ferry (Interislander, Picton to Wellington)||$251|
- Campsite cost averaged $14 USD/night (avg. of free, unpowered, & powered sites)
- Petrol cost averaged $0.23 USD/mile ($0.14 USD/km)
- Total cost per day (for 2 people): $173.96 USD
What we liked:
- First, the bad news: campervan travel is not the most budget-friendly form of travel. If you’re on a shoe-string budget, it’s guaranteed to be cheaper to rent a car and stay at backpacker hostels. That said, we loved the campervan experience and would go back and do it the same way in a heartbeat. The flexibility of having a house on wheels was priceless when trying to explore as much of the New Zealand countryside as we could possibly squeeze in, and we loved just unpacking our bags for a month, being spontaneous, and never worrying about a thing. Even though the cost per day was more expensive with a campervan compared to traditional lodging, we loved our one-month adventure on the road.
- Having a small kitchen (sink, gas stovetop, small fridge/freezer, and microwave) and cooking our own meals allowed us to save significantly on food costs, and gave us a lot of flexibility for eating on the road (see also: quick, easy, and inexpensive PB&J sandwiches for hiking).
Tips for traveling by campervan:
- Campervan size is a major consideration, and bigger is not necessarily better. New Zealand’s roads are quite different from what you’re used to in the U.S. Many roads are steep, narrow, winding, and rife with blind corners and hills (and exceedingly so when you get out into the mountains and rural areas). We passed many of the larger campers on the road, and couldn’t imagine trying to get around in those things. And even if you do consider yourself a seasoned driver on precarious roads, some roads are simply not accessible to vehicles above a certain size/weight. A couple other considerations: confined parking areas (e.g. small lots and pull-offs for scenic overlooks) and larger cities. While we spent most of our time in the countryside and national parks, we did attempt to navigate a few cities (Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown, Wellington, Auckland). Let me say, getting around a city in a campervan is not as easy as you may expect. Many parking garages have low clearances that won’t accommodate the raised roof of a campervan, forcing you to find an uncovered lot or street parking… and then attempt to parallel park your gargantuan ride, of course. In some cases, a couple meters difference in campervan length may as well be a couple astronomical units.
- While our campervan did not include a proper bathroom, it was equipped with a camping toilet and sun-shower that pulled out from an under-bench storage cabinet. Because we at least had the camping toilet, our van was certified “self-contained,” meaning we could make use of New Zealand’s free camping zones. Though serviced & standard campsites are most common, there are some designated spots that allow free camping. Typically, there are no (or minimal) services at these spots, and they seem to be becoming fewer and fewer as travelers don’t properly care for the sites. It should also be noted that it’s not legal to just pull off the road and camp/park anywhere. A lot of land is owned privately or by the government, so be sure you are camping in a sanctioned area (fines are strictly enforced for illegal camping). For details on freedom camping, check out the Department of Conservation and Freedom Camping websites.
- While the money-saving aspect of free camping is appealing, it is often a bit easier to stay at a campground with at least basic facilities. New Zealand is designed for campervanning, and there are countless campgrounds and holiday parks across the country to suit your needs. Typically, you don’t have to drive far to find one, even out in less populated areas. Most campsites offer basic amenities – toilets, showers, access to clean drinking water, and barbeque areas. Many campgrounds also offer powered campsites, if you need a recharge or just want the luxury of electricity for the evening. Some serviced sites even offer additional amenities, such as fully-equipped, communal cooking areas, dining pavilions, laundry facilities and playgrounds. The cost, of course, can vary wildly based on location and facilities, and a powered site will cost at least several dollars per night more than an unpowered site. The general range seems to be around NZD $10–40/night ($7–30 USD), which can add up quickly on top of the cost of the vehicle rental & fuel costs. We did a combination of free camping, powered, and unpowered sites, and spent roughly $14 USD/night over the course of 28 days.
- Camping NZ (NZ Rankers) is a fantastic free app for iPhone or Android that is a must-have if you’re traveling by car/campervan. The app features offline maps, and displays all nearby campsites – including cost, amenities, and camper reviews. WiFi in New Zealand is notoriously unreliable (and expensive, if you do find a good connection on the road), so we found the app and its offline features to be tremendously helpful.
- Since I’ve now brought up the topic of unreliable and pricey WiFi, I should mention that a great place to find reliable, free WiFi on the road is at public libraries. New Zealand’s libraries are easy to find (even most small towns have one) and universally gorgeous, and we made use of a number of them along our travels, either for sending a quick email to family back home, uploading photos, or posting an entry to our blog.
- Island hopping: All the campervan companies we initially contacted indicated that is was permitted to take the motorhomes on the ferry across the Cook Strait. If you are hiring a car, be sure to check with the rental company before booking. Many of the international companies advise/insist you do not make the ferry crossing (if the car gets damaged, they won’t cover repairs), while many local, New Zealand-based companies allow their vehicles onboard the ferries.
- When making your reservation, check for deals. We’d initially planned to begin our trip in Auckland and head south. The hiring company offered us a substantial discount if we rented the camper from Christchurch and returned it in Auckland, likely because they needed to get the van up there for another rental. We simply reversed our itinerary and saved a bunch of dough!
The big question: Is campervanning worth it?
With all that, is campervan travel the best way to see New Zealand? If you’re on a tight budget, perhaps not. But if you’ve got a little wiggle room in the financial plan and the experience sounds exciting, we thought it was a fantastic way to see the country. For those of you gearing up for your campervan adventure or planning ahead for a future journey, we hope these insights help you make the most of your experience.