How I Spent A Week in New Zealand for Under $500 (Airfare Included!)

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*Cue soapbox here*

This post is for those who think they can’t afford to travel** For the broke students, the starving artists, the struggling parents and people stuck to their day jobs.

This post is also for those who may have excess money, but prefer to be frugal. Regardless of how much I have in the bank at any given time, I still try to get the best deal for my funds. Why spend more if you don’t have to? Just think for a sec- more leftover money = more future voyages. It just makes sense (cents?) to save.

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The beautiful west coast of Auckland

Before you get too concerned, budget travel does not mean giving up comfort either. At this point in my life, I have learned to be okay with pretty basic amenities throughout my journeys. I’m 21- I don’t mind roughing it as needed. (Although I do also enjoy small luxuries- a private room with a shower, a morning coffee from the local cafe).

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Soy flat white and vegan blueberry chocolate-chip cake from Midnight Espresso (Wellington)

That being said, you don’t have to follow suit. You can take my own experiences as inspiration, and modify them as needed to suit your own travel desires. There are still plenty of ways to travel that aren’t quite as meagre, yet will still save you money. Just determine where your standards lie and go from there.

It’s about balance and going with the flow (which is crucial while traveling).

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Street art (aka museums for poor people) in Taupo

I spent the end of September in New Zealand (via Australia) and had an amazing time while still spending less than $500 USD (including my flights) the entire duration I was there. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn impressive. I didn’t deny myself while away either- I had plenty of food, cosy accommodation, and did tons of sight-seeing.

First, here’s the itinerary I followed:

(For times’ sake, I stuck to just the North Island for this go around).

Flew from Melbourne to Auckland ($119 through Virgin) and spent 2 nights there ($0)

Travelled to Taupo ($0) and spent 2 nights there ($48)

Travelled to Wellington ($31) and spent 2 nights there ($0)

Flew from Wellington back to Brisbane ($210 through Qantas)

The prices included above are just for transport and accommodation- totalling $408. This means that I spent less than $90 the rest of the time on food and experiences.

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Wondering how I managed this? I just followed these self-imposed guidelines and was well on my way to a week of wallet-friendly, island living:

-Look for flight deals (ASAP)

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There are tons of great student flight sites that will give you a special deal if you are enrolled in school, from elementary all the way up to graduate. You also get discounts if you are a teacher OR under the age of 26 (even if not enrolled in school). These two are the best, in my opinion:

If none of the criterion for these student deals apply to you, don’t fret. Airline search engines like SkyScanner, Hipmunk and eDreams take the work out of deal-searching for you by compiling the next best fares from all across the web. Sometimes they’re even better than what I’ve found on the student sites.

Three things to keep in mind when searching:

  1. The sooner you book, the better the deal (usually). I made the mistake of waiting too long to get my flight back to Australia- I had seen some a few weeks earlier for less than $200. Sometimes you can find inexpensive last-minute deals, but they are few & far between, so I wouldn’t risk it.
  2. Change the website home page to the country you are departing from. (On most sites, you can do this from the upper right-hand corner of the page). For instance, when looking for a flight from New Zealand back home, search using the New Zealand version of the website (airnewzealand.co.nz vs airnewzealand.com). This often pulls up better deals when you factor in the exchange rate from the origin country’s currency back to your own.
  3. Clear your cookies before buying tickets. Apparently, your computer keeps track of past flight searches you have made and somehow relays them to the search engines, which results in higher prices when you go to book??? (IDK how this works; I am not good with technology).                              I have mostly heard strong arguments for this cookie-clearing practice, in addition to a few opinions that are overwhelmingly neutral. But there’s been nothing to say that clearing cookies hurts the process, so it’s worth a shot. I have gotten good deals after doing so. Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but you won’t hear me complaining about it. Oh, and watch out- deleting cookies also deletes web preferences, so favourite sites, passwords, etc. won’t pop up automatically anymore.

-Bring your own food

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$6- not worth it ):

I am, embarrassingly, that person who gets pulled aside for additional security screening because I have a bag of coconut flour in my carry-on. Or a papaya. Or a tupperware full of salad. (All real-life examples). But whatever, I own it. Because 1. airline food is fucking expensive and 2. there are few things I hate more than food waste, so I’m not about to let my unused veggies go bad in the time that I’m gone. (Bonus: veggies saved = money saved = see above example).

It does pay (literally) to be cautious with what you try to bring, as some countries (*cough* NZ *cough) have pretty harsh customs policies regarding food. Typically, dry goods and cooked food are safe while anything fresh/raw is not. If there are must-have items that may be more expensive in the country your going to, those can be good to bring with you.

-Get in touch with local contacts

I am not encouraging you to mooch. I am promoting normal, social contact with anyone you know in your travel destination. If they extend an invite for dinner or a place to stay, great! But if not, they may still be willing to show you around, fill you in on the best local deals, pick you up from the airport, etc.

-Couchsurf

I’ve used this site a couple of times now- mostly for short-term stays when passing through cities. It’s 100% free (although it’s nice to offer something when staying with a host). Maybe cook for them one night, wash dishes, bring flowers, share stories, something. It’s just common courtesy.

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Beach hiking in Auckland with my Couchsurfing host

In addition to being an awesome money-saver, Couchsurfing is cool because it allows you to meet locals who often have similar interests. I always check out people’s profiles before requesting to stay to make sure we would mesh well. Some hosts literally just want to provide accommodation without social interaction, while others are offended if you don’t want to chill with them, so be sure to do your research beforehand. I like talking to hosts to hear about their own travel experiences and get tips on what to do in the city. Just like your local friends, they might also have insight into the best deals around.

-Hitchhike

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Small-town New Zealand

I know this one is a bit controversial. I won’t deny that there have been many horror stories about hitching (on both the hitchers’ and the drivers’ ends). All I’ll say is that I hitched in New Zealand (from Auckland to Taupo) and it was a great experience. Granted, I was with someone else. I’m not sure if I would have been comfortable doing it alone.

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Bubbling mud geysers, courtesy on my hitchhiking saviour

Hitching to Taupo was quick, easy and allowed me to meet so many cool people who I never would have otherwise. One sweet, sweet woman even drove me to several tourist destinations and foot the bill of one! If you need even more convincing, hitching often takes you through smaller towns that mass transit wouldn’t stop at. You’ll get a real feel for that local culture. From what I’ve heard and experiences, NZ is one of the most hitching-friendly destinations. As always, though, trust your gut if something doesn’t feel safe.

-Stay at budget hostels

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Ah, hostels. The haven of dewy-eyed, alcohol-fuelled young travellers from all across the globe. For some reason, hostels have gotten a pretty bad rap over the years. Can’t quite put my finger on it. But then again, hostels can be great, depending on where you choose to stay. Personally, I like ones that are on the smaller and quieter side. These ones also tend to have a wider age range, albeit fewer social activities.

If you’re lucky your hostel may provide free coffee/tea, bread, or (gasp) maybe even towels! Most of them give you a handful of local coupons upon arrival, as well as a map of what free attractions are within close proximity. Like I said before, you can alter the experience to meet your needs. Pay premium (which is still pretty cheap) for a private or double room, or go with the bare-minimum 10-bed mixed dorm. Just be sure to bring earplugs and an eye mask.

-Cook yourself (and split costs if possible)

If there’s one thing that can suck your wallet totally dry, it’s eating out. A typical meal in any Western country will probably be between $10-20. Often times, I can make that same meal myself for a fraction of the cost. Sure, the ambiance in my hostel kitchen may not be quite as nice, but is the vinyl restaurant seat really worth 8 extra dollars because it’s making my back hurt anyway. And don’t get me started on the poor choice of lighting.

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For vegan fare, it’s especially economical to cook at “home” versus eating out. Beans, rice, potatoes, etc. cost next-to-nothing. Buy in bulk and cook with a partner and suddenly the price decreases to *practically* nothing. (My go-to: rice noodles + in-season veg + oil/seasoning stolen from the hostel pantry + maybe some tofu if I really want to splurge –> thrown in a pan and stir-fried to perfection).

I’m not a big drinker, but the same definitely applies for alcohol. If you want it, buy it at the store- not at the bar.

-Take a budget bus

In New Zealand, this will probably be Naked Bus or Mana Bus. (Pro: Mana has free in-bus Wi-fi! Con: The Wi-fi is shit- don’t trust it.) Wireless or not, these buses are the best bang for your buck (with the exception of hitching). Once again, book early for a better deal. If you book months ahead (props to you if you know your itinerary that early), then you can even snag $1 fares.

-Find local resources

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I like to hit up local classified ads, Meetup.com, or event sites like TimeOut before heading somewhere new to find low-cost or free things to do while I’m there. For eating, Groupon and LivingSocial deals can be a good bet (if you still insist on that restaurant experience). You can also eat for totally free through Food Not Bombs or similar community meals.

While you’re at FNB, chat with your anarchist friends about some local squats for you to hang at, gigs and/or rallies and/or protests to attend or free stores for you to cop shit you from.

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Wellington hot spot feat. library, bike repair workshop, etc.

**This is not to say that travel is cheap, necessarily. I realise that affording plane tickets, meals out, transportation, or simply time away from home is a privilege that not everyone has. But I will stand by my methods as inexpensive forms of travel in comparison to standard trip fees.