New Zealand Backpacking Route
by Kayla Kurin
Our New Zealand travel itinerary starts in Christchurch and loops around the South Island for wildlife, camping, glaciers, and activities for adventure junkies. The route then crosses to the North Island for immersive indigenous culture, unique natural hot-spots, and, of course, filming locations from the Lord of the Rings films.
TIME NEEDED – 5 weeks
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1500 | €1700 | US$2000 | 3000 New Zealand Dollars
US$60/day is certainly doable in New Zealand but these figures are fairly rough and depend greatly on how you travel and what kind of trip you want. Hostels are reasonably good value with prices tending to range from US$10-20/night. Renting a car may cost roughly US$150/week + gas so obviously the trip will become more affordable if you’re travelling with other people. Many of the highlights on this route are natural ones and are generally free but if you plan on doing lots of extra trips/tours/activities, you could end up spending more.
This budget doesn’t include the cost of getting to/from New Zealand or any other pre-trip expenses. It is loosely based on November 2017 exchange rates. Read our more detailed Backpacking Budget for New Zealand which includes more typical travel costs in the country.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR COUNTRY
New Zealand has pretty relaxed entry requirements and citizens of visa-waiver countries are eligible to stay for up to 3 months without a visa (6 months if you are British). Working holiday visas are also quite popular and relatively easy to obtain for those aged 18-30 and will allow you to stay for up to a year.
Travel insurance is advisable. Australian company World Nomads are one option for adventurous trips in this part of the world.
NEW ZEALAND BACKPACKER TOURS
Stray Travel are a Kiwi company that have a number of options for exploring the country with other travellers if you’re not keen on going it alone. They also have hop-on, hop-off bus passes if you’re reluctant to travel by car/public transport but this route is based on travelling independently.
Backpacking route for New Zealand
New Zealand is easy to get around and is set up for backpackers, so you’ll have no problem finding places to camp or hostels to chill out in. Our recommended mode of transportation is by car. While getting around on public transit is possible, you’ll have less flexibility and miss out on that undiscovered lookout point when you stop for lunch. The roads in New Zealand are generally well- maintained and highways connect most of the spots on our itinerary.
This route summarises a typical path travellers in the country take and you could easily do it in reverse, depending on where you want to fly out of.
Take a day to get settled – you’ve probably had a long flight in. The next morning take a stroll to the Re: Start Mall – a mall made of shipping containers that was built after the earthquake in 2011. After stocking up on snacks and local crafts, take a stroll through the botanic gardens, and finish off the day with a beer in a container bar like the Retro-Politan.
If you’d like to spend a third day here, hop in your rental car to Akaroa for a day trip and charming seaside town.
The main reason to visit Oamaru is to see the yellow-eyed penguins. They don’t come out until sunset, so it’s worth it to stay the night. If you have time before sunset, check out the ‘Steampunk HQ’ in the centre of town.
Fur seals, sea lions, and more penguins can be found on the beach in Dunedin along one of the many coastal walking trails. Chocolate lovers can enjoy a visit to the Cadbury factory, and history buffs will have time to explore the many museums in Dunedin. This is also one of the few locations you can see the Southern Lights, or, Aurora Australis!
On the way to Queenstown, be sure to stop off at Slope Point, the Southernmost point of the South Island. You’re now closer to the South Pole than to the Equator!
In the winter season, you can enjoy skiing, snowboarding, or bungy jumping. In the summer, you’ll find hiking trails, white water rafting, skydiving, zip-trekking, or dirt biking. For those not into heart-stopping activities, you can spend a few days ambling around town, enjoying hot chocolate, taking in the scenery, and partying.
Best done as a day trip from Queenstown, unless you want to hike the Milford Track (3-4 days). The best way to see the sound is to hop on one of the many boat tours. Don’t forget the windbreaker.
Franz Joseph Glacier
Join a glacier hiking tour, or just enjoy the views from the ground. The Franz Joseph glacier is the best glacier park in New Zealand and offers a unique backdrop for your road trip!
To make your way back to to the east coast, follow the road north and then cross the country through Arthur’s Pass. Enjoy the scenic views while driving through, or spend a few days camping and hiking in the area. There are hostels and campgrounds available in various parts of the pass.
A nice place to stop on the way to the North Island. Here you’ll find a colony of baby seals and wildlife lazing on the beach.
Picton & Abel Tasman National Park
This seaside town is best known for its ferry connection to Wellington, but don’t miss the chance to spend a couple days here and enjoy the kayaking trails around Picton and Abel Tasman National Park. You can do one-day kayak trips or multi-day adventures.
You won’t run out of things to enjoy in Wellington. First, there’s the cool cafes, restaurants, and bars that litter the winding streets of the city centre. Then, there’s the harbour where you can catch university students jumping into the ocean on a nice day. History nerds can visit the Te Papa museum to learn more about New Zealand’s history, and Zealandia, an exhibition of New Zealand’s natural history. When you’re tired of the city centre, the hills surrounding Wellington make great day hikes or mountain biking adventures. For wine lovers, the Martinborough region is a days’ drive away from Wellington, and for movie, nerds visit the WETA workshop, famous for creating the creatures in the Lord of the Rings films.
Tongariro Northern Circuit
Ever wanted to cross an active volcano? A volcano better known as Mount Doom? The Tongariro Northern Circuit is one of New Zealand’s 9 great walks and takes 2-4 days to walk (43km). Hiking huts are available to sleep in but need to be booked in advance. You can also do a through day hike (Tongariro Alpine Crossing).
Waitomo glowworm caves
If you’re into caves and glowy things, splurge on a boat trip through the Waitomo glowworm caves for a unique experience. After the caves, either spend the night in Waitomo, or head to Rotorua for 2 full days there.
Most people come to Rotorua for the thermal pools, but there are a few other reasons to visit. There’s a living Maori village that you can see, and many opportunities to learn more about the Maori culture and history. If all else fails, head to the volcanic hills winery.
Auckland & Around
The centre of Auckland may feel a bit dull compared to Wellington, but there is a lot to explore in the area. Stroll around the harbour, and visit some of the many galleries and gardens in Auckland. Waiheke Island is worth at least a day trip – rent some bikes and go on a self-guided wine tasting with stunning views. If you have the time, you can spend a few days on the Bay of Islands to enjoy the scenery and quiet pace of life.
If you haven’t gotten your LOTR/Hobbit fix yet, take a day trip to the Hobbiton Film Set – which is still a working farm. It’s a 2-hour drive from Auckland, which can make for a nice day trip, or you can stay overnight in the nearby town of Matamata.
Extending your trip
You can extend your trip by staying longer in any of the places on this route. Adventure junkies and nature enthusiasts may wish to spend more time in Queenstown, the home of the Southern Alps, known for its hiking, skiing, bungy jumping, skydiving, white water rafting, and more. Those more interested in culture might wish to extend their stays in Wellington or the Auckland area.
You can also extend your stay in Oceania by linking this New Zealand backpacking route with our Australia route.
Kayla left Canada to go on a round the world trip in 2012 and hasn’t stopped traveling since! She’s visited, lived, and worked in over 40 countries and writes about her travels, social enterprise, and the benefits of yoga and mindfulness. Follow her journey on her website, twitter, and instagram.
This article was published in Novermber 2017.