I’m not gonna lie: I was nervous to travel to New Zealand. Not because of any inherent threats — it is one of the safest countries for women to travel in, and has no dangerous wildlife — but because of the cost.
I’m able to travel so much because I visit cheap destinations: countries where beers are a dollar and accommodations are no more than $20/night.
As I was planning my trip, the warnings from fellow travelers kept echoing in my head: “New Zealand is SO expensive.”
But I knew I had to get there as part of my quest to visit every continent before turning 30. I don’t have a strong desire to visit Australia, and besides, it’s even more expensive than NZ. So the cost of traveling there was something I was willing to bear. I saved for my trip for an entire year — and even had to postpone it once due to some unexpected medical bills.
As I’ve said before, in this career and in life, you have to be prepared to take steps forward and steps back; it’s all a part of the game.
My Travel Budget Breakdown: 3 Weeks in New Zealand
When my trip finally arrived, I was ready. I had saved $3,500, or about $300/month. My goal was to spend no more than $2,000 during three weeks in New Zealand, and another $1,000 during my two weeks in Singapore and Indonesia.
The extra $500 was an emergency cushion — I always recommend that travelers take at least an extra 10 percent to account for emergencies.
For this post, however, I won’t go into my spending in Asia; I’ll simply take a toll of how much I spent during three weeks in New Zealand. Note that the costs are in New Zealand dollars, though I’ll convert to USD at the end. (You’ll see that the strong US dollar really benefited me on this trip. Right now, the conversion rate is $1 NZ = $.70 US; so in essence, everything was 30 percent off!)
For most people, this is going to be the biggest budget item, since NZ is so isolated. Luckily, I’d racked up enough frequent flyer miles to pay for my flight. I am a huge fan of the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, which has a 40,000-point sign-up bonus and earns 2X miles/dollar on travel and dining (two of my biggest expenses).
I cashed in 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points on United, which got me the following flight: Los Angeles – Queenstown – Auckland – Singapore – Los Angeles.
If you’re interested in learning more about earning frequent flyer miles, check out this free flights 101 post I recently wrote. And you can also sign up for The Credit Card Fly, an email newsletter I contribute to.
Lodging: $603 NZ
For spending three weeks in the country, my lodging expenses were pretty low. That’s because I was lucky to have friends who live in New Zealand. I stayed with them in their van and with their friends for approximately six nights, which saved me a whole lot in lodging. On average, hostels (shared room and facilities) cost about $30 NZ per night.
Activities: $410 NZ
You can easily spend a fortune on activities in New Zealand. There are a million things to do, and few of them are cheap. Especially if you’re into adrenaline-pumping activities like bungee jumping and skydiving.
I can think of about 10,000 other things I’d rather spend my money on — a trip to the dentist included. (Paragliding in Colombia was scary enough!) Since I’m an outdoors lover, I preferred to spend my time in nature, which has the added bonus of being free.
My big expenses here included a cruise through Milford Sound and swimming with wild dolphins in Kaikoura (omg omg omg) — both of which were totally worth it.
Eating out: $242 NZ
Booze: $122 NZ
Groceries: $112 NZ
I’m categorizing these together, since they’re all related. Eating out is expensive in New Zealand, so I didn’t do much of it. I pretty much only ate at restaurants when I was with friends. (That being said, I did splurge on a fancy solo dinner in Wellington and ended up meeting some cool people at the bar — so don’t let traveling alone mean you never eat out.)
I cooked most of my meals: oatmeal, cereal, or eggs for breakfast; sandwiches for lunch; fruit and nuts for snacks; and pasta or stir-fry for dinner. As you can see, I didn’t spend much on food for three weeks, despite often having to buy from smaller touristy grocery stores — but those few meals I ate out really added up.
Drinks at the bar weren’t outrageous, but weren’t cheap either; I generally paid $6 for a vodka/soda or glass of wine. Bonus: Wine is delish in NZ, so even the house wines are a good choice.
Transport: $354 NZ
Remember that scene from Clueless, where Dion gets on the highway and absolutely loses it? That’s me. So though the thought of renting a campervan and hitting NZ’s open road is totally romantic, it was not an appealing idea to me as a solo traveler. (Are you a hot man interested in driving me around foreign countries? Please click on the contact page at your earliest convenience.)
Instead, I opted for a bus pass through nakedBus, and I’m so glad I did! I got a 10-ride nakedpassport that cost $254 NZ. I used it to get around both the South and North islands and found it to be easy and convenient. I loved that I only had to book a day ahead of time, and that I could do it all online (no need to print out tickets or anything!). Sure, you can’t get onto the more remote roads, but it’s a great option for those of us who don’t like driving.
There are other companies — like Stray and Kiwi Experience — that do hop-on/hop-off bus tours, but they kind of sounded like massive incestuous orgies, which I would’ve loved at 22, but felt a little too old for at 28.
Miscellaneous: $195 NZ
This category accounts for things like postcards, sunblock, and gifts. I don’t do a lot of shopping when I travel (or ever, actually — much to the chagrin of my stylish mother), but postcards can get expensive!
My New Zealand Daily Travel Budget
So, in total, what did I spend? $2,038 NZ.
With the current conversion rate, that amounts to $1,424 US, or $68/day. Woohoo! I totally stayed under my budget of $2,000, which is always a great feeling.
If you don’t have friends in New Zealand, have more adventure activities planned, don’t like to cook, or want to rent a car, then you should probably boost this daily budget to $80-100 US per day. To lower the daily budget, you could avoid drinking or eating out entirely, bring a tent and camp, or rely on Couchsurfing for lodging.
If you want to save money when traveling to New Zealand, here are my best tips:
• Get a fee-free debit card and credit card
• Choose time in nature over “adrenaline activities,” which can quickly crush your budget
• Pick a few special activities ahead-of-time (DOLPHINS!), so you’re not tempted to go bungee jumping with a group of people from your hostel when it’s not really your priority
• Stay at hostels, where you can cook your meals; if you really must eat out, try meat or veggie pies, which are a Kiwi staple
• Buy a bus pass with nakedBus, instead of renting a car
How Much Do You Have to Save?
New Zealand is expensive, but worth it. It is the most beautiful country I’ve ever been to, and I urge everyone to visit at least once.
If you estimate you’ll spend $1,400 on a flight, you could have a three-week dream vacation in NZ for around $3,000.
If you can use a credit card responsibly and sign up for a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or United MileagePlus Explorer, you could divide that number in half.
Whatever your dream trip is, make it a reality by starting to save today.
Wanna take a trip like mine? Save $250/month, or $65/week.
Set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to a dedicated savings account; you probably won’t even miss it. And next spring, you could be in New Zealand!
Have you visited New Zealand? How did you stick to a budget?