Everything You Need to Know About Backpacking in New Zealand
New Zealand does things big: big landscapes, big activities, big hearts from the friendly locals, and generally big stuff. Backpacking in New Zealand is going to be one of the biggest adventures of your life. No doubt you have some questions.
To answer all your questions about work, travel and living in New Zealand, we just happened to put together the BIGGEST guide to backpacking in New Zealand. From the moment you start preparing your trip to leaving New Zealand, we are here to help you every step of the way.
A good place to start getting your head around the very notion of travelling long-term in New Zealand is by lapping up this whopping list of 30 tips for backpacking in New Zealand. Then you’ll see just how easy it is to start travelling, start opening your mind and start having the time of your life.
By the way, if you’re doing more “holidaying” than “backpacking”, then you might find our 31 Tips for Travelling in New Zealand more useful.
Watch These Tips on Video!
Can’t be bothered reading? Watch the 30 Tips for Backpacking in New Zealand video!
1. Get Yourself a Working Holiday Visa
Let’s begin with emphasising that there is so much to do here in New Zealand that you’ll want to stay as long as possible! The Working Holiday Visa usually allows holders to stay for 12 months with the ability to work. Replenish your finances as you go so you can stay for the entire 12 months if you want!
There are 42 countries that are eligible for a Working Holiday Visa. Find out if yours is one of them in What is a Working Holiday Visa? And if you really can’t leave, there are options to extend your Working Holiday Visa.
2. Stay in Hostels
What makes New Zealand one of the best backpacking countries in the world is its wealth of budget accommodation. Hostels or “backpackers” are extremely common in New Zealand, usually around the price of NZ$20-$30 per bed per night. Hostels are safe and a great way to meet other travellers. If you need more convincing, just check out Why Stay in a Hostel?
New Zealand is lucky to have an array of hostels, from the spacious and convenient to the downright quirky. Check out all our favourites in our Hostel Recommendations section, which we update every year.
Hostels also make a good place to work in exchange for accommodation, which you can read more about in the 10 Lessons You’ll Only Learn When Working in a Hostel.
You’ll also find some cool and quirky hostels. Check out the 13 Most Unique Backpacker Hostels in New Zealand.
3. Travel in the Shoulder Season
New Zealand is ‘crankin’ in summer, as the Kiwis say. Summer in the Southern Hemisphere is December-February, but expect things to get busy from October to March. We recommend travelling in the shoulder season between April and September. (The weather is not that bad, just check it out inThe New Zealand Seasons and Climate).
Despite what the majority of tourists think, you don’t need the heat of summer to enjoy New Zealand. Hiking, mountain biking, white water rafting, skydiving, whale watching, bungy jumping: it can be done all year round, so why reduce your travel time to the peak season?
You’re also much more likely to find better deals in the shoulder season, especially on transport like car/campervan rental and the backpacker buses.
4. Work in Summer
This point complements the above. Not only does working in summer give you the money to free yourself for travelling in the shoulder season, but there are a lot more work opportunities across New Zealand during summer. The horticulture and viticulture (fruit, veges and wine) industries seek more seasonal workers throughout the summer for fruit picking. (Check out Working a Fruit Picking Job in New Zealand). Advantages of working in the horticulture and viticulture also work towards extending your working holiday visa for many backpackers.
The tourism industry is also booming in summer, which in turn brings more seasonal tourism and hospitality work! The exception to the rule is ski season work in winter. Check out What it is Like to Work on a New Zealand Ski Field.
Have you checked out our job listings?
Of course, with determination and an active approach, getting a job in New Zealand is possible any time of the year. Follow our tips on How to Quickly Find a Job in New Zealand.
5. Travel South to North
There’s always that one guy who says: “Travelling North to South is the way to travel New Zealand”. False! The best tip to avoid the crowds and generally get better deals is by travelling from south to north. The rule of thumb when arriving in New Zealand is to start travelling from Auckland, as that’s where New Zealand’s largest international airport is. However, a quick flight from Auckland to Queenstown or Christchurch will increase your chances of breaking away from the funnel of tourists travelling north to south. Check out Which Airport to Arrive in New Zealand.
Another bonus is for those who want to rent a vehicle. Car and campervan rental companies have an influx of vehicles being dropped off in their South Island depots, so tend to charge less or even provide more car relocation opportunities with pick-ups in the south and drop-offs in the north! Something to think about!
To see what to expect when arriving in Auckland Airport, check out Arriving in Auckland Airport, New Zealand.
6. Pick the Best Transport Option for You
This is something every backpacker has an opinion on, saying: “Car travel is the best”. Or: “Buses are the best”, etc. There are pro and cons to each mode of transport when on a gap year in New Zealand and you should really take each one in consideration to choose the best transport for you and your situation. The time you have in New Zealand, the locations you want to get to, and the sort of experiences you are looking for all heavily rely on the mode of transport so have a look at the following transport sections for travelling New Zealand:
- Buying a Car/Campervan
- Renting a Car/Campervan
- Backpacker Buses
- Train Network
- Ferry Between the North Island and South Island
- Fly in New Zealand
Have a look at our Other Transport category for more transport like taxis.
7. If Buying a Car, Don’t Get Scammed!
New Zealand is a great country to road trip – the roads are well connected (even if some of the highways are literally gravel roads). However, it is pretty notorious for having a few shoddy cars knocking about.
Instead of buying the first car you see, follow these steps:
- Buying a Car in New Zealand Step 1: Car Inspection
- Buying a Car in New Zealand Step 2: Test Drive
- Buying a Car in New Zealand Step 3: The Paperwork
Want to buy a car but don’t know where to start? Try the 5 Ways to Find a Car for Sale in New Zealand.
8. Use the Backpacking Facebook Groups
The backpacking community in New Zealand often really want to help each other, offering advice on the best places to visit, getting together for group meals in hostels, and offering each other lifts around the country.
Facebook groups dedicated to backpackers travelling in New Zealand are a great place to find people to travel with, buy and sell cars and camping gear, and ask questions to other travellers. Join the Facebook group, Backpacking New Zealand, to get all these benefits. Give it a go!
While you’re at it, how about liking us on Facebook for more of our travel tips for New Zealand.
9. Always Have Layers of Clothing With You
“Four seasons in a day.” This is a phrase you will hear a lot in New Zealand and for good reason! The weather changes so rapidly and unexpectedly that you’d be a fool not to carry extra layers around with you. For hikes, pack some wind/waterproofs, some thermal base layers, and a T-shirt, for instance. For more advice, check out How to Prepare for a Great Walk in New Zealand. Otherwise, being outdoors for just a couple of hours will likely warrant carrying a hoody or a jacket with you.
Check out What to Pack for a Gap Year in New Zealand: Pre-departure Checklist to gear up for New Zealand!
10. Hike Until Your Shoes Wear Out!
New Zealand is a land of varying landscapes and Middle-earth scenery. No matter where you go, there is a hike to immerse yourself in the beauty of New Zealand. What’s more, it’s an ideal free activity! So when you are in a town or a national park and you want to save a bit of money, you can always rely on a hike in New Zealand.
The Department of Conservation (DoC) maintains most of the walking tracks in New Zealand which are well sign-posted with (sometimes questionable) walking times. Whether it’s a short and easy stroll through a picturesque landscape or an epic multi-day hike, have a look at our Hiking category to find a variety of hikes in New Zealand.
Oh yeah, and to actually avoid your hiking shoes wearing out, have a look at How to Choose a Good Pair of Hiking Boots.
11. Work for Accommodation
A great way to save money so you can afford to stay in a place that you love for longer is to work for accommodation. This is common practice in New Zealand, the most popular being working in a hostel or WWOOFing. WWOOFing is a term used in New Zealand for working 2-4 hours a day, five days a week in exchange for a bed and food. Have a look at Everything You Need to Know About WWOOFing in New Zealand.
There are a few other ways you can work for accommodation, which we talk more about in the 6 Ways to Work for Accommodation.
Not only does working for accommodation save you money, but it allows you to hang out with locals and stay somewhere long enough to make lasting connections with people.
A great place to start is by reading our How to Find Work for Accommodation in New Zealand.
12. Be Savvy When You Hitchhike
Hitchhiking is common practice here in New Zealand. It’s legal and there are many friendly locals and travellers who don’t have a problem giving you a lift somewhere if you stick your thumb out. However, there is always an element of risk with hitchhiking, so if someone seems dodgy, it’s perfectly fine to wait for the next one. The New Zealand Police advise that hitchhikers should not travel alone. That can also apply when picking hitchhikers up – its safer to pick people up when you already have others in the car with you.
New Zealand is a safe country, all you need is a bit of common sense. Have a look at Is New Zealand Safe? for more tips on staying safe.
Of course, there are other cheap public transport options to give you peace of mind. Check out the Bus Networks in New Zealand for your cheapest national public transport option.
13. You’re Only in New Zealand Once!
Another awesome thing about backpacking in New Zealand is that you have excellent cheap accommodation options, there are plenty of ways to keep the costs down on food, and there are cheap transport options available. This means you can save money for those bigger activities you’ve always dreamed about doing!
There are many activities you can only do in New Zealand, whether it’s skydiving over Mt Doom from the Lord of the Rings or exploring inside one of the world’s fastest-moving glaciers. Check out the whole list in 10 Things You Can Only Do in New Zealand. Remember, it is likely you are only in New Zealand once. This is YOUR gap year. Don’t let every big price tag hold you back. Budget well and you will be able to afford to make your gap year epic.
For more awesome things to do in New Zealand, check out the 11 Epic Activities to do in New Zealand or even the 101 Things to Do in New Zealand: The Ultimate List!
14. Book Direct!
Want to save some cash when booking hostel nights, transport or activities? Of course, you do! Booking direct means booking straight with the hostel company, transport company or activity provider. Not only do they tend to offer a cheaper price than their booking agents (because they have to give commission to agents that sell their products), but if you do see a price cheaper than what’s advertised directly with hostel/activity chances are the company will match that price if you book direct.
Booking direct does not only benefit you, but it benefits the company that is offering you a great time in New Zealand and helping you along with your gap year.
To give you an idea on typical prices in New Zealand, we have put together What is the Cost of Backpacking in New Zealand? and What is the Cost of a Working Holiday in New Zealand?.
For more tips on budgeting on a gap year, check out the 11 Ways to Save Money and Stretch those Dollars Further.
15. Get Used to Being Less Connected
Yep, decent WiFi hotpots are extremely hard to come by in New Zealand. Although some hostels offer free WiFi or access to the Internet, don’t expect super speeds every time. New Zealand is a bit behind on Internet connectivity, but we like to think of this as a good thing. That’s more time away from your phone and more time connecting with other travellers face to face. Plus, there are so many other activities and amazing life experiences in general that will occupy your time.
However, there are times when things get desperate, so if you need some emergency WiFi, take a look at How to get Internet and WiFi in New Zealand.
One more thing, NZPocketGuide.com loads super quickly and looks pretty sexy on a phone so we’re always a good mobile data option.
Spend less time on your phone and more time meeting new people. Take a look at the 9 Ways to Meet People When Travelling Alone in New Zealand.
16. Declare, Declare, Declare!
New Zealand’s ecosystem largely relies on us pesky humans not bringing unwanted pests and diseases into the country that could damage it. For this reason, there are strict biosecurity rules you must adhere to when arriving in New Zealand, otherwise, you may face a NZ$400 fine and/or get your risk item taken away from you.
To avoid this awkward scenario, declare, declare, declare!
During an international flight to New Zealand, you are given a Passenger Arrival Card to fill out. Tick the boxes if you have, for instance, any food, sports gear, animal products or plant products packed in your luggage. If you are unsure, just tick the relevant box anyway. Once at the airport, the immigration officer and biosecurity officer will ask if you have anything to declare. This is when you mention that you have some cheese that you can’t live without, or hiking shoes, or whatever. Chances are it will be completely fine and you can keep your items, but only if you declare it first! For more information, check out our guide, Arriving in New Zealand: Airport Customs, Biosecurity & the Arrival Process.
17. Travel Alone
Unless you have that other half that you just can’t shake… But travelling alone means you can really make your gap year in New Zealand your own. You don’t have to worry about making sure your partner or travel buddy is having fun and expense of your own. Plus, there’s no better confidence booster than travelling to the other side of the world on your own.
That’s not to say that you will experience this whole trip in New Zealand alone. Many backpackers are in the same boat as you travelling alone so are keen on socialising. Then working holidaymakers often make long-lasting friendships with people once they settle down for work or WWOOFing. For more tips, take a look at the9 Ways to Meet People When Travelling Alone in New Zealand.
Not enough to convince you? Then take a look at the 10 Reasons to Travel Alone in New Zealand.
And ladies, don’t worry, travelling alone in New Zealand is safe as well. Check out Can a Girl Travel Alone in New Zealand?
18. Get a Kiwi Access Card or an NZ Driver License
In New Zealand, there are only three valid forms of photographic ID that are accepted in places that sell alcohol:
- Your Current Passport
- A New Zealand Driver Licence (Read our guide on how to apply in Converting Your Driver License into a New Zealand Driver License)
- Kiwi Access Photo ID Card (Read our guide on how to apply inHow to Get an ID Card in New Zealand)
No matter how hard you try, your driver licence from home or international driver licence will not work. Using one of the three valid forms of ID is a strict rule in New Zealand used in any places that sell alcohol, from supermarkets to breweries to nightclubs. For more information, check out What ID is Valid for Buying Alcohol in New Zealand?
Because taking your passport out with you all the time can be a bit risky (and it’s not always an easy thing to replace), we recommend getting yourself a Kiwi Access Card if staying in New Zealand less than 12 months, or a New Zealand Driver License if you intend to stay more than 12 months. (It is illegal to drive without a New Zealand Driver Licence after staying in the country more than 12 months).
Once you have got your ID sorted, here are some drinks to try in the 11 Drinks You Have to Try in New Zealand.
19. Have an Open Mind
This is a good approach to take with both work and travel in New Zealand. Some of the best experiences come out of trying things you never expected to do or visiting places you never knew existed! Say “Yes!” to new things!
When it comes to finding work, you will find work much faster if you have an open mind to trying a completely new and random job. Who knows what you’ll learn along the way. Check out the 5 Reasons to Be Open-Minded When Choosing a Job in New Zealand.
Having an open mind is just one of the 17 Lessons that Only Backpacking in New Zealand Can Teach You.
20. Stick to Your Travel Budget
There are so many temptations in New Zealand: good food, good drink, exceptional activities, that sticking to a budget means you need some good discipline! Once you have that in check, there are many easy ways to stay on a budget when travelling. Take a look at the 11 Ways to Save Money and Stretch those Dollars Further.
Check out our tips on how to save money on the little things like food in the 11 Backpacker Tips to Save Money on Food, and if you are travelling on one of the other backpacker buses, How to Budget for a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Trip Around New Zealand.
We recommend you start a working holiday in New Zealand with at least NZ$5,500 (plus flights, plus travel insurance) to start travelling before topping up the travel funds through work. For more budgeting advice to get you started on a gap year in New Zealand, check out How to Save Money for a Gap Year in New Zealand.
We have heaps more budgeting tips in our Budget section.
21. Eat Well and Cheaply!
Staying healthy gets a little more challenging when travelling on a budget, but a balanced diet is key! Being active and changing your lifestyle usually means you need to eat more healthily than when you were at home. Don’t rely on instant noodles every day, fruit and veges are essential! So you know what to expect for buying food in New Zealand, take a look at Food Shopping in New Zealand.
To liven up your recipes take a look at:
- 10 Meals Easy to Cook in a Hostel
- Why Every Backpacker in New Zealand Should Cook With Kumara
- 5 Easy Pasta Recipes for Backpackers
- 5 Traditional New Zealand Recipes
Plus, we have more meal ideas popping up regularly on our Food section.
It’s also very common in hostels and flats for people to enjoy potluck dinners together. Get some inspiration at the 5 Potluck Dinner Recipes for Backpackers.
22. Get an EFTPOS Card
What the hell is EFTPOS? In other words, this is a debit card or that card you pay for things with. EFTPOS stands for electronic funds transfer at point of sale. New Zealanders mostly pay for things using EFTPOS rather than carrying cash. For backpackers, opening a bank account in New Zealand and getting an EFTPOS card is a good idea if staying in the country for longer than a couple of months in order to not pay constant exchange rates and to manage your money better. Check out How to Open a New Zealand Bank Account.
The likely times that you will need cash are limited to some regional public transport and maybe the odd food stall… Either way, the New Zealand bills are pretty sexy – just have a look at Who are the People on the New Zealand Banknotes?
Plus, if you intend to work, you’ll need to apply for an IRD number (tax number) which you can only do if you have a New Zealand bank account.
For more information on taxes in New Zealand, have a look at New Zealand work tax system: work and pay your taxes! and Tax System in New Zealand: What is GST?
23. Adapt to the New Zealand Job Market
Working in New Zealand is not only the best way to fund your travels but its a great way to open yourself up to a new culture. (There’s more where that came from in the 9 Reasons to Work Abroad at Least Once in Your Life). Finding a job in New Zealand is likely to be a lot different from home. Nevertheless, it is easy once you know how to adapt to the New Zealand job market. Luckily for you guys, we have all the tips for finding a job quickly in New Zealand, from making a New Zealand CV to impressing employers in an interview. Take a look at the articles below:
- Create a killer CV using How to Create a New Zealand CV
- Find a job on our job listings page, as well as using these tips in How to Quickly Find a Job in New Zealand
- Finally, impress your future employer by following How to Nail a Job Interview in New Zealand.
Once you have bossed a year working and travelling in New Zealand, make your new CV / resume the best it can be with How to Use a Gap Year as Valuable Experience on Your CV / Resume.
24. Get Off the Beaten track
Sure, you’ve heard of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown, but really, they are just dots on the map compared to the array of destinations on offer in New Zealand. Very often, the best experiences are found in the places you have never heard of. Here are a few destinations to get you started:
- 20 Places Off the Beaten Track in the North Island
- 20 Places Off the Beaten Track in the South Island
25. Load Up on Free Activities
Sure, you’ll spend some of your money on activities. But,let’s be honest, you’re going to spend most of your time doing the free stuff!
Hikes, to natural hot pools, crazy rock formations, waterfalls, museums, galleries, events…You’re spoilt for choice with free activities. We challenge you to get bored in New Zealand!
To get started on some free (or cheap) things to do, have a look at some of these in popular destinations:
- 14 Free or Cheap Things to do in Auckland
- 10 Free or Cheap Things to do in Rotorua
- 15 Free or Cheap Things to do in Queenstown
- Plus, we are constantly adding more and more destinations to our Free & Cheap Things to Do section.
Don’t forget that hiking makes a great free activity in New Zealand. Check out our Hiking category to get inspired.
26. It’s Ok to Be a Tourist
We get it, some activities might be off-putting because it seems “too touristy”. Chances are, if an activity is popular, then it’s popular for a reason. For example, too many times, backpackers go to Milford Sound and just stay at the shores when the cruise has “tourists” on it. So stopping being a hipster and shamelessly enjoy being a tourist once in a while.
A good place to start is with these:
- 10 Token Tourist Photos You Have to Take in the North Island
- 10 Token Tourist Photos You Have to Take in the South Island
You can also find an ongoing selection of things you can’t miss in our Must-Do section!
27. Plan According to Your Travel Time
Whether you are here for a whole year and have given yourself a few months to travel or are only in New Zealand for two weeks, don’t try to visit absolutely everywhere! It’s just not possible. New Zealand might look like a small country but getting around by road takes time. Roads are usually winding, uphill, downhill and even gravel.
Spend a few days in a place to really make the most of the activities and see the sights before moving on. Otherwise, you may find yourself on the road constantly trying to cover some ground, while not experiencing very much at all.
Speaking of New Zealand’s roads, take a look at How to Drive in New Zealand.
28. Compare Phone Network Providers
Your phone habits for your time in New Zealand are likely to be a lot different from home. That’s why we recommend putting some thought into what phone network provider to go with. There are four phone network providers in New Zealand: Skinny, Spark, 2Degrees and Vodafone. Have a look at all of them before picking up the first free SIM card you see in your hostel. More information can be found in What are the Best Phone Networks in New Zealand.
As you are only going to be in New Zealand temporarily, choose a prepay option rather than getting stuck in a contract. A flexible prepay combo or bundle will allow you to change the amount of data, minutes and texts you want throughout your time in New Zealand. Believe us, you’ll probably have a lot more contacts in New Zealand by the end of your trip than when you started.
We also suggest you look at the overseas calling options and price list – this is often a lot cheaper than buying loads of data for data-sucking video calls.
More information can be found in Cellphone Networks in New Zealand!
29. Be a Savvy Consumer
You now know how to stick to your travel budget thanks to Point #20, but when it comes to buying goods and using services, there may be a few differences in New Zealand from your home country. Be aware of the Goods and Services Tax, which you can read more about in the Tax System in New Zealand: What is GST?
Although it’s not incredibly likely that you’ll use a dodgy seller or service provider (except your banker, but that’s expected), it’s smart to know What Are Your Consumer Rights in New Zealand?
A few extra tips to help you be a savvy consumer is to get cheaper fuel from gas stations away from big cities, compare food prices by the kg, pick up supermarket loyalty cards (worth it considering there are only three major supermarkets), and if a deal seems too good to be true it probably is.
30. Don’t Be Scared to Move on
You’ve got out of your comfort zone, travelled across the world, found yourself a new job, friends and a home in New Zealand. Soon enough, you’ll start to feel comfortable again – too comfortable to move onto the next destination to live and work in. It can feel a bit daunting to do it all again, but you’ll find yourself much more satisfied doing several short-term jobs rather than a 10-month stint in just one place. Just remember how easy it was to start anew!
If you need the inspiration to start travelling again and see the rest of this amazing country, just check out our Inspiration section!
Make the Most of NZPocketGuide.com!
As New Zealand’s biggest travel guide, we’re here for you every step of the way. Have a look at our NZ Guide to every single city, region and national park to see where your wanderlust will take you.
Our Travel Tips section gives you answers to all those questions you may have about spending an extended amount of time in a new country.
When it comes to planning the next leg of your trip, our Activities section is sure to inspire you and give you ideas on how to make the most of your gap year. Must-dos, free things, hikes, adrenalin, water sports, wildlife, location-specific activities, art, food, nightlife… We have it all covered and are updating every single week!
Looking for places to stay? Check out our Accommodation section. We cover hostels, campsites, holiday parks and give tips for finding long-term accommodation.
Working Holidaymakers make the most of the Work in NZ section packed with tips, work visa advice, and what to expect from popular backpacker jobs.
Finally, we have hundreds of backpacker jobs listed on our Job Listings page!
For a more personal touch, check out New Zealand’s Biggest Gap Year, the blog section of our website where we take on 365 days doing 365 activities in New Zealand. And if all that doesn’t answer your questions about backpacking in New Zealand, be sure to join us for our live Q&A session on YouTube where you can ask us questions.