We’re closing in on the end of our sixth month in New Zealand. I have to say, it’s been one of the pleasantest places we’ve had the privilege to travel. It definitely falls near the top of our “easy to travel” countries list.
Even if you’re a very new traveler, or have special needs, you’re going to find NZ a pleasure.
- It’s first world
- English speaking
- Accessible in most places for wheelchairs
- Sign-language is an official national language, so many people speak some
- It is a virtually GMO free country, with excellent food labeling systems for people who have allergies or intolerances.
- There are loads of playgrounds and skate parks in even the smallest towns
- Children’s menus and pricing are ubiquitous
- It’s compact and easy to get around, so in even a few weeks you can see a lot
- Most museums are free, or by donation, which stretches the budget and the learning
- It’s very safe, there’s nothing poisonous, you don’t need special vaccinations
- It’s a very open, tourist-friendly culture
This is also a country made to be driven.
If you come here and don’t hire a car and hit the roads, you’ll have missed some of the best the country has to offer. The cities (small by international standards) are wonderful, but it’s the countryside and the small towns that hold the real charm and the real adventure.
Lots and lots of people come to New Zealand every year to see the country by camper van or RV. My parents did, ten years ago, and their raving about their adventures here were a large part of why we decided to stay for so long. While the famous “free camping” that New Zealand has been known for, has been ratcheted down on somewhat in the last couple of years, due to abuse and misuse of public properties, there are still some free and very good low cost options. The catch: most tourists never find them.
If you google “camper vanning New Zealand” or some such, what will come up is a long list of camper van and RV hire sites. Everything from the more than a little dodgy “Wicked” vans to the very efficiently marketed “Jucy” fleet, to the big “Apollo,” “Britz,” & “Kea” RVs (which is what we would have needed for our family of six with big kids.)
Knowing that the best way to see this country is by camping, it’s really tempting to hire a van. We know lots of people who have, with varying degrees of happiness with the service and results. It doesn’t seem like it will be *that much* more expensive than staying in a hotel, perhaps it will even be cheaper if you are used to staying in nice places and you’re only coming for a couple of weeks.
A few myths to be debunked:
- Renting a camper van or RV in New Zealand is NOT CHEAP
- Most of the best “free camping” sites and virtually all of the low cost ones you will not be able to use, but you’ll never even know it (I’ll tell you why in a moment).
- Factor in the cost of gas (currently $2.25/L or $10/gallon) or diesel ($1.50/L or $6/gal) but with diesel there’ll be a tax surcharge which levels the playing field
- With a rental you can expect to be paying for camping 80% or more of the time. If there are two of you, you might find campsites for as little as $20-30 a night, for our family of 6, we average $80 a night if we have to stay in a campground. Camping is charged by the head almost everywhere outside of North America.
- While renting means that all taxes, registration and maintenance are rolled into your price, if you have trouble with your van, it is likely that you will have to return it to your point of origin to get it fixed, this is a real inconvenience if you’ve only got a few weeks. This happened to our friends. They opted to just fix it on their own dime so it wouldn’t ruin their trip. They were not reimbursed.
- If you are from a righthand drive country there may be insurance differences.
We started planning in July of last year for our February arrival in NZ, we researched every rental option. I pitched several of the companies that have rigs big enough for our brood, hoping to make a deal for product review and promotion to reduce the cost for a six month stay. The very best deal we were able to cut, off season (it’s winter in the southern hemisphere) with a reduction in rate for a long term rental, and my ability to write on the company’s behalf… are you ready? $24,000NZ. You read that right. Twenty four thousand dollars for six months. Before gas. Before camping fees. Before feeding the kids.
The buy-sell flip
The obvious observation is that we could buy a used RV for that price, sell it when we leave, take a loss on the flip and still be WAY ahead of the game.
This is relatively easy to do, and there are tons of sites and businesses in NZ that are dedicated to exactly this action. The big cities all have camper van trade marts where you can go and pick up a dandy for not a lot of money. When you leave the country, you leave your van in the hands of one of these places, they sell it for you and take a cut. Easy peasy. Unless, of course, you have more kids than sense and need one that sleeps six, four of whom are full grown, then the pickings get slimmer. If you’re a family of two or three, or even four, if they’re tiny, I’d look hard at this option. We can’t recommend any specific company from experience, but google it and you’ll see, as we did, the options.
This is the NZ equivalent of Ebay or Gumtree, if you’re from OZ. You can find everything from free furniture to boats and cars on here, and handily, lots of RVs and camper vans as well. These are all listings by private sellers on an auction platform.
The catch: you cannot bid or buy from outside NZ. We set up an account and could look all we wanted, but were shut down instantly when we tried to contact sellers from outside NZ (we were in Thailand). If you have a contact inside NZ who can login to your account and make those contacts for you, it can work beautifully. And here, I give a huge hug and kiss and shout-out to our good friends Bethaney and Lee from Flashpacker Family who did just that for us. We would not have our Thunder Pig without their help (lots of it, over many weeks, given with cheerful patience. We love these people, go check out their site!)
In our estimation, if you are staying more than a month, we would highly recommend you consider the buy-sell flip over the rental option.
My Dad is famous for looking at the one or two obvious answers to a question then stepping back, cocking his head to the side, lifting up the box, shaking it a bit, and seeing if anything else might fall out as a plan C. He calls this “applying strategy to the situation.”
So we found the Thunder Pig on TradeMe. It didn’t sell, we noticed, twice. With Bethaney’s help we contacted the owner and started talking about buying it for a rate lower than what he was looking for on the auction site, planning on a buy-sell flip.
Then it occurred to us that there was another option: Tony low-balled the guy with an offer to rent it from him for six months instead of buying it outright. As it turned out, this suited him perfectly, as he didn’t really want to sell it, but needed to get it out of the yard, which we were happy to do for six months. Everyone wins! For approximately what we expected to lose on our buy-sell flip, we have a private rental with none of the drama related to hoping it sells in our absence and wondering how much money we’ll get back. Of course the whole deal was contingent upon our inspection upon arrival, blah, blah, blah. Bob’s your Uncle.
Seems easy enough, right? It is! There are, however, a few considerations that we waded through the hard way just so you don’t have to:
- Insurance. Turns out that if no money changes hands, his insurance would cover us. The moment we pay him, it becomes a commercial venture, so the insurance gets crazy… like $47 a DAY crazy. After lots of hemming and hawing and trying to find a way around this (there isn’t a legal one) we drew up a gentleman’s contract in which he “sold” the RV to us and we agree to “sell it back” in like condition in six months. So we’ve rented it, but legally, we own it. This makes about a million things easier.
- The buying process is a piece of cake. You get a piece of paper from the post office that you fill out, with the seller, that says that you’re purchasing it, you return it to the post office and for $25 or so the vehicle is switched over to your name. You need an NZ address to do this, but it can be your hostel address.
- Registration remains the same as it was, so if it expires during the time you “own” it you’ll have to pay for that when it comes up ($100 ish)
Things to consider when looking at camper vans or RVs in NZ
- WOF- Warrant of Fitness, or Certificate of Fitness depending on the size of the vehicle. This is mandatory for every vehicle on the road and is performed every six months. It consists of a thorough check of the entire vehicle at a federally approved facility. If your vehicle does not have this, don’t even consider it. Period. If it expires while you have the vehicle, you will have to have the WOF done and any necessary repairs made, to keep it legal.
- WOEF- Warrant of Electrical Fitness: Any vehicle that is going to plug in to AC power at any time (in a campground for example) requires a WOEF. If you don’t have this, campgrounds will turn you away because they face a hefty fine if they allow you to plug in. Make sure your camper has this. Thunder Pig did not. We learned the hard way and had to pay well over $100 by the time all was said and done to get it done, about two weeks into our journey… after a campground turned us away.
- Self Containment Certification: Without self-containment certification, you absolutely won’t be able to free camp in NZ. This is required everywhere. It means that your vehicle has a toilet and a shower and that all waste water is captured. This sticker is renewed annually.
- Diesel Considerations: Diesel fuel is substantially cheaper in NZ, however, there is an additional road tax for diesel vehicles (because it’s not taxed at the pump.) This is paid at the post office based on mileage. The last one we paid out was $400 for 3,000 kilometers, it can be purchased in different mileage size chunks. If you buy a diesel vehicle, plan for this. There are hefty fines for NOT having this up to date. It is still quite a bit cheaper to run a diesel vehicle than a petrol one.
- Insurance: You will have a higher deductible if you are from a left-hand drive country. The premium is the same, so they don’t charge you more up front, but if you have an accident (which is more likely driving on the “wrong” side of the road) you will pay more. The term here is “excess,” not “deductible. Make sure you get the “no excess” rider for the windshield and headlamps, for whatever reason there are LOTS of rocks tossed up and windshields broken on NZ roads. Do your shopping, but we found the best company for insuring an out-of-country driver was Cobi. There is a substantial discount if you are an NZMCA member (more on this later). INSURE THE CONTENTS OF YOUR VEHICLE- this is a rider, it’s not expensive, but it makes all the difference if your van is broken into and something is stolen. OR… if something breaks. Our kids spilled a glass of water on a computer and drowned it while we were camped in Wanganui. This rider covered a brand new Macbook Pro. It’s worth it.
Why you want to join NZMCA
New Zealand Motor Caravan Association is open to anyone who owns his own camping vehicle in New Zealand. This, conspicuously, omits everyone who rents. Membership costs $200 but is very, very worth it. In fact, between the discount on our insurance and the discount on the cost of the ferry between the islands, it pays for itself.
Here’s the big thing:
Members have access to hundreds of camping spots that non-members do not. Many of them are free, or extremely cheap ($10 a night for all six of us). Many of the free spots are centrally located in towns and villages instead of sticking you way out miles from where you want to be. All of these places are helpfully indexed in a map book that only members have access to, which lists all of the amenities at each spot, from the free for all sites, to the Department of Conservation Sites, to the public, for profit campgrounds, to the NZMCA only secret hideaways! This book has saved us thousands of dollars over six months.
It also has a list of all public dump stations, which is key.
Every listing includes GPS coordinates, members can download GPS files from the website.
Daily Considerations Camping in NZ
Dump Stations: The not so sexy part of the adventure. There are ample dump stations in NZ. You’ll see signs for them in virtually every town. Most, but not all, have potable water as well. The NZMCA lists which ones are free and public vs. which ones you’ll pay a small fee to use. If you dump anywhere that is NOT an approved dump station, you may be heavily fined and there will be a special circle of hell reserved for you. It’s just not cool. This is the primary reason that there is very little free camping in NZ now, as opposed to ten years ago.
Showering: If you are like us and are trying to stay free as much as possible this means that showers are at a premium. Our camper is fully self contained, but there are six of us. We can’t get through six showers on our water tanks. What’s a big family to do? The solution is simple, but easily overlooked: Pull into a dump station that also has fresh water, fill your fresh tank, take three showers. Dump your grey water. Fill your fresh tank: take three more showers. Dump and refill again and you’re on your way.
Groceries: The cheapest big grocery store in NZ is Pack-N-Save, next cheapest, Countdown, more expensive, New World. Choice and quality is also in ascending order. There are LOADS of fruit and veggie shops that have excellent and inexpensive produce. Look for these and load up. Roadside vendors are even better.
Connectivity: We are sad to report that, in general, New Zealand has horrible internet. It is, literally, the end of the world, so that’s fair enough I guess. Don’t expect free wi-fi anywhere. McDonalds has it and libraries have it but it’s often so slow that it’s pretty much unusable for any real work. If you are traveling you’ll be using cell phone data plans. The cheapest is the Two Degrees plan, however coverage is mainly around cities. The broadest coverage is through NZ Telecom, but it’s substantially more expensive. Since we are working as we go, we must maintain a certain level of connectivity, so we purchased both plans and swap them out with the micro-SIM cards pretty much daily, depending on where we’re at. There is a massive difference between the availability on the North and the South Island. The vast majority of the population is on the North Island, connectivity reflects that. The exception: Dunedin. They have a great city-wide free wifi network.
There are two major types of campgrounds in NZ: the chains (dominated by the TOP10 parks) and the mom-and-pop privately run ones.
These are heavily advertised and often have lots of amenities, like fancy playgrounds, big kitchens and reliable wifi. You’ll find free directories in every iSite listing their locations, nationwide; they are in all of the “big” places to go.
- They are clean
- Reliably consistent (they’re a chain, after all!)
- Big kitchens and lounge areas
- Excellent wifi (this is on purpose and chain wide, so if we REALLY have to have good wifi we know we can get it here)
- Nickle and Dimey (everything costs extra, even pots and pans in the kitchen)
- Tend to be full of tourists who are responding to the ads
There are so many of these, in every little corner of NZ. The joy, and the risk, is that they’re all different, and nothing is standardized, so there are gems and there are holes. Personally, we’d rather spend our money into smaller, local businesses like this than into a big chain.
- Local feel and local people
- The extras are often free (showers, kitchen equipment, sometimes even laundry, homemade bread or eggs!)
- More likely to be filled with Kiwis holidaying
- MUCH cheaper than the TOP10 parks most of the time
- You never know what you’re going to get
- Don’t expect good wifi
- Finding them can be an adventure
For comparison’s sake, the best TOP10 park we stayed in was the Shotover TOP10 Holiday Park in Queenstown. It is blissfully out of the crazy city center. It’s well run, we needed great wifi for work that week and we had it. We also had a beautiful room with a fireplace to work in, a playground for the kids, and it had free showers. We stayed almost a week and we loved it. Rack rate for our family would have been $90 a night.
The best private campground we stayed in was Waitaki Waters Holiday Park, near Oamaru. Derek Chapple is a stand up guy who is committed to doing this campground thing right! He’s won awards for his work from AA (the NZ travel gods.) We were walking distance from the beach and great fishing, there were two fantastic, fully stocked kitchens, showers were free, even laundry was free (we left a donation) and prices begin at $11 per night per person with rates reduced for longer stays. He gave us a great deal, way less than half of what we’d paid at the Top 10.
This is not cheap. There will be a per vehicle cost, based on length and per person cost, based on how many kids you were crazy enough to have. The NZMCA will provide a substantial discount. You can book online, or you can just roll up to the docks and make your reservations for the next day in person. There are often “deals” on the two competing ferry company websites. In general it’s cheaper to sail at night, but prettier during the day.
We’ve done our best to cover everything we can think of related to the process of buying/renting a camper and then the daily logistics of touring NZ in an RV. I’m sure we’ve overlooked some things! If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to email us and ask, we respond to every contact we get, in person!! We hope you enjoy New Zealand as much as we have!