When we got married a year and a half ago, we wanted to go on a honeymoon but wanted to delay it by about a year. There is so much excitement, exhaustion, spending and planning leading up to a wedding that we wanted to separate our big honeymoon from this. We did a US road trip after we got married but were glad that we saved the big one for a year later. We also wanted to go on the tail end of their summer, so we decided to go in March. We enjoyed New Zealand so much that we will surely be back.
After 12 days in New Zealand, I must say that we have never met so many genuine, beautiful and kind people in our life. It was refreshing to see a country filled with people who treat others with such respect, who (sure seem to at least) love their jobs and who seem to be accepting of all. Everywhere we went, this country seemed like a genuinely happy place.
Planning Our New Zealand Road Trip
After a lot of back and forth, we decided to explore the South Island. Originally we thought we could explore the north and south but 12 days wasn’t even nearly enough to even truly see all that the south has to offer. The south was so scenic and beautiful. I promise if you choose to explore the south, you won't regret a damn thing.
I wanted to share our experience and our New Zealand itinerary in case you are thinking about going, our thoughts on each place, what van life was like, and how much we spent. If we missed anything feel free to reach out!
Benefits of Doing a New Zealand Road Trip
We have heard that a lot of people explore NZ by van, and we thought that would be a super fun way to do it. And I’m so glad we did! Not only did we stay at places that didn’t exist in hotel form, but it also was cost effective and an all around fun experience. I definitely think we were able to cover more ground overall by renting a van since we had the flexibility to drive as far as we wanted in a day and sleep wherever we ended up.
Tip: We used Jucy to rent our van.
How to Find Campsites in New Zealand
We had to be careful when planning our New Zealand road trip, because it was common to get a ticket if you parked your van somewhere you shouldn’t. I originally planned a lot of campsites but wasn’t able to book them in advance. They kind of just said show up and put your money in a box or hope there’s a spot for you. I’m a planner, so I really wanted to have these mapped out and secured, but since I couldn’t book them ahead of time, we just said screw it, we’ll figure it out.
We used the Rankers camping app (they have a site and an app) to find all of our campsites for the trip. I can’t recommend this enough! The map showed us the free sites, the paid sites, the sites that only allow tents and the sites that allow self contained camper vans. Before we left home, I downloaded their offline mode map because I wasn’t sure how my cell service would be and it worked out great.
The first night, we slept in the van we had a pretty long day of driving. I directed us to the first free campsite near Queen Charlotte Sound, only to find out that it was full. There was another one on the map that was so overcrowded we couldn’t stay. There were no more free campsites and all of the road signs said NO FREEDOM CAMPING. I thought, good lord, if this is how every night is going to be, this is going to be really stressful.
Luckily, we took our chances to keep finding free sites and found that was the only night during our entire trip where there wasn’t room anywhere nearby. That night we ended up staying at Smith Farm Campground. We had to pay $30 to stay there. It was also very busy and kinda meh. But THEN they gave us warm muffins and a map of a walk on their property. We decided to take the walk in the morning and it was one of the most beautiful walks we’ve ever been on. Plus, we were able to feed their sheep! It was quite the amazing experience.
Paid vs Free Campsites
We got on our way and mostly followed the route we planned, though we didn’t end up staying at any of the campgrounds we pre planned. We ended up finding free sites near where we were staying for the night and I must say, the free sites were by far our favorite and honestly gave us a better experience than if we were to go to a designated paid site.
Not only were the destinations unique, but it would either be us or one or two other vans so we got to know other van travelers who had been on the road for months who were probably desperate for human interaction. So they were low-key, free, in incredible places and we met some really great people.
The two sites we paid for were full of people, so rationally you would think that’s the perfect opportunity to talk to people and hear their life stories, but in reality everyone kept to themselves. But the sites that we rolled up to for free, we actually sat, talked, and shared life stories with other people that we got to randomly share the night with. It was really a neat experience.
Why We Loved Staying at Campsites
We were usually one of the first people to pull up to the campsites for the day. We would usually show up around 5:30 or 6pm so that we could open the back of our van, cook dinner and watch the sun go down.
The introvert in me wanted us to be the only ones there for the night. I was hungry for a bit of isolation since our lives are always full of noise and we never stop going. I was eager to be in a place where nobody was around.
I feel kind of bad saying this now after our 10 days living out of a van, but every time we looked up and saw another van pull up all I could think of was ugh. I just want a night to ourselves, nobody in sight where we can have silence and not feel obligated to talk or introduce ourselves to new people. Sometimes it can just be a lot of mental energy to be nice and engage others in a conversation, you know?
But now I’m incredibly grateful for the times that a van would pull up. After the first night of feeling this way, we chatted with a German guy for hours. We shared life stories, talked about the journey we were on and what was next in life.
The second night, another German couple rolled up and we also talked late into the night about similar things. Then the two girlfriends who were going through a midlife crisis. Then the English people. Then the couple from Southern California. Then the old couple taking a holiday from the UK. Then the French couple.
Looking back on the trip now, these conversations were some of the best parts of our trip. I went from feeling annoyed that we couldn’t just be alone to feeling excited about the conversations we were about to share with the next van that rolled on up. We connected with them to continue following their journey as many of them will be living out of a van for months, or years.
The last day, I was excited to see who we would meet last so we could hopefully give them the rest of the food we couldn’t eat. A nice French couple were grateful to receive what we had left.
I was inspired by all of them. It’s interesting because we live in a sea of people, we are always surrounded by many, but the best conversations we’ve ever had with strangers came about from both driving up to a campsite, not knowing what to expect and embracing the experience of the present.
Our Full New Zealand Itinerary
We planned our route ahead of time but knew it might get off a bit or that we might want to be spontaneous at times. Our lives are so busy that we sat down to plan our route based on what other bloggers and travelers said were must sees and partly chose to go places just to see what they looked like.
Beyond that, we didn’t do a ton of research. We knew we needed to do a level of research if we were going to go to a place so beautiful, we didn’t want to miss out on anything if we had the chance to go. I enjoyed not knowing too much about a place because it made rolling up that much sweeter.
Day 1: Christchurch
Flew into Aucklund, then transferred to Christchurch. Arrived in Christchurch at about 11AM and stayed at a nearby hostel, Jucy Snooze so that we could recover from jet lag before driving right away in another country. We took this day to get groceries for the van, cash from an ATM and booze, cuz duh.
Day 2: Up the east coast to Linkwater
We picked our van up right down the street and excitedly hit the road. We drove up Highway 1. Drove through wine country, along the coast, through Blenheim, Picton and spent the night at Smith Farm in Linkwater.
Day 3: North Coast through Nelson approaching Abel Tasman National Park
Damn this area was pretty. Everything was green. Other than the cities, it felt so open and looked like such pure, untouched land. We were amazed by all of the sheep. Literally millions of sheep.
We slept in Motupipi. I thought we were rolling up to a beautiful field but it was a damn parking lot. But the drive there was unbeatable and we met a nice German couple.
Day 4: Abel Tasman, Nelson Lakes National Park, Paparoa National Park & Barrytown.
The camp spot in Barrytown was our favorite. It was right on the beach, had a beautiful grassy field with a mountain in the back. We shared it with probably the coolest people we ever met. A German couple traveling in a van for a year before starting their medical careers.
Day 5: Barrytown to Hokitika Gorge, Mount Aspiring to Wanaka Lake
We woke up fairly early, connected with the German couple on Facebook and got on our way to Hokitika. The town was cute. I had on my list to go to the gorge without any expectations but I figured it was on my list so we should go. We drove about 30-40 minutes to the gorge and pulled up to a parking lot that lead us on a short walk. We walk through the trees and then BOOM! The water.
We had a long drive ahead so we ate lunch there and drove to Mt. Aspiring. I wish we had more time to stay here but we kind of had to hustle along. I would allow more time here than we did if you go.
We started driving along Wanaka Lake knowing we had to get to Milford Sound in the morning. I really liked stopping at our sleeping site before dark so we could cook and watch the sun go down. It was getting a bit late and we noticed we could freedom camp off the side of the road here. We found a wide open pull off and slept there for the night. Sand fly-free.
Day 6: Milford Sound through Fiordland National Park
We set an alarm for 4:45 AM to get to our Milford Sound tour. I woke up at 6:30 (SHIT) because my alarm was set for 4:30 PM. Tanner got in the van and hauled ass to Milford Sound. I knew we were going to be late. I was still on our bed in the back, slowly waking up as he drove. I called the tour company and of course I panicked over nothing. They said it was no big deal to get on the later tour.
We had a reservation made for Milford Sound lodge since I wanted to stay in the area for the night and I figured we needed a good shower. We were able to fill our water tank whole we were there. I really liked this place for a paid campsite (but once again the free ones were better overall). It poured so hard all night long, more than I've ever seen.
Since we had to open the back of our van to cook, I was thankful that we had a lodge to stay at to cook our food and chill inside. We liked this place. I normally find rain soothing to sleep to, but it was raining so hard that it was hitting the van so loudly I didn't sleep well.
Day 7: Milford Sound to Queenstown to Jackson's Picnic Area
It was still raining when we woke up so we made a good breakfast inn the lodge before heading out. Driving through Fiordland after a long night of rain brought all of the waterfalls out and it was gorgeous on our drive back. It was foggy and so damn pretty. We just worked our way back down but apparently bridges up there broke and people were stranded the day after we left. We got lucky because we were able to continue along our way.
We stopped at the modern Scandanvian style shopping center to get some more groceries. We had to hop on the wifi in the parking lot to do some work so we tried the Domino’s pizza there. It was so much better than what we eat here in America and was also cheaper.
We ventured off to another free campsite, Jackson's Picnic Area that had good ratings but I didn't know what to expect. It was another beaut. It was off the highway but felt hidden and was right off of a lake. There was one other van but it was so spread out that we felt alone. I wish we got here earlier because it was a really nice spot to hang out and also didn't have any bugs. We were able to have a nice drink by the lake and sat outside until dark.
Day 8: Jackson's Picnic Area to Dunedin to Moeraki Boulders to Patiti Point
We woke up way before sunrise. We didn't mind cooking breakfast in the dark, but it was a really windy morning so we decided to just hit the road to head to the east coast. We found a nice place to cook breakfast when the sun came up and had our eyes set on making it to Dunedin. Didn't know anything about it but we knew we needed to connect to send some things off and it was big on the map so I figured we could find something.
We drove through Dunedin. Got more gas for our stove (which was really hard to find for some reason, but we needed it to cook) and sat down to connect to Wifi and work/check in with our family for a few hours.
We stopped at the Moeraki Boulders, which kind of cracked me up. It was an entire tourist attraction for rocks on the beach. I didn't understand the appeal, but it was pretty busy. We got to feed alpacas and a domesticated deer.
We then headed up along the east coast and stayed at Patiti point, another free camping spot that I didn't know what to expect but ended up being really nice. We sat on a cliff overlooking the water for hours until bed. We had the best night’s sleep here for some reason. We slept until 8 AM, which was the latest we slept the entire trip.
Day 9: Patiti Point to Lake Pukaki to Mount Cook to Lake Pukaki
The goal of today was to go to Mt. Cook. I saw some lakes on the map that were along the way and I just figured cool. Another lake. We drove past Lake Tekapu, which was very pretty and seemed to have quite a few nice houses and accommodations. We kept driving since we wanted to see Mt. Cook before it might rain.
We then approached Lake Pukaki and were BLOWN AWAY by the color of the water (pictures kind of can't do it justice). We had to stop to get some pictures. We met a nice couple from California who we chatted with for a while.
We pulled up to our campsite at Lake Pukaki and thought oh how lucky we are to have an afternoon spent by this beautiful water. We arrived early today —by about 3PM — and just sat by this water, embracing the beauty we might never see again. The sunset was beautiful but the color of the water definitely changed as it got darker so we were so glad we could see what it was during the day.
The California couple told us that they wished they were staying nearby because they heard the stars were pretty, so I knew we needed to see them. It got cold faster than any other night when the sun went down. We ended up sitting in the van under the covers with the back open. We lit the citronella candle to keep the bugs out and watched as the night got darker.
When it was completely dark, we went outside to look at the stars and holy cow, we have never seen the sky like this. I would recommend this place for that alone. We were very cold this night though. So cold that we struggled to sleep. It was all worth it though.
The best part about this day was that we had no idea we were going to stay here when we woke up that morning and this ended up being the best one.
Day 10: Lake Pukaki to Christchurch to Sumner
I was looking forward to having breakfast in this spot again, but we were so cold that I was not going to be happy eating there. We hit the road and found a nice picnic spot a few hours down the road. We then ventured to Christchurch. The stupid GPS took us to the top of a hill, very far from Christchurch, but since we didn't know where we were going we just kept on our way. Once we realized we were wrong but that we were in a beautiful harbor, we pulled off to a picnic spot along the water and then were going to figure out how to actually go to Christchurch to see the city.
We started cooking freeze dried lasagna (yum....) and then these older men pulled up after a morning of fishing. They asked if we liked fish. Tanner does, but I'm not a big fan. The man gave him fresh caught fish that was already cut into filets. We had been eating a lot of easy cheap meals so he was thrilled to get some fresh fish.
We were honestly in no mood to deal with city parking so we just drove through and really wanted to find a place to chill by the beach one more time before we left. I remember looking at a town called Sumner on the map but knew absolutely nothing about it. But we said hey why not let's go there. So we did and fell in love.
We didn't know where we were going to sleep that night since there wasn't anywhere for free on my map in the area and I really didn't want to get fined our last night. We found a nice spot in Sumner to pull off to make some tea and journal a bit.
A French man knocked on our van while Tanner was gone and I thought "this is how I get murdered." Then was like chill the hell out, Taylor he's probably fine and it’s the middle of the day. I rolled down the window instead of opening the door and he very kindly just asked if he knew we could camp there. I had no idea, so he asked around and all the locals said it was okay since surfers park there all the time.
We said screw it and just stayed there for the night. We watched the surfers, Tanner made us a gourmet charcuterie board and we packed our bags and went to sleep.
Day 11: Sumner to Christchurch to Auckland
We had to finish packing, make breakfast, and clean the van up before returning our van. We woke up around 5:30 so that we wouldn't be late returning our van. I wish we could've kept It all day long so we could have one more day to explore before our 8PM flight, but we couldn't.
We had some calls and emails to catch up on, so we chilled at the Christchurch airport until our flight. We went to Auckland and waited about 2 hours before taking off to LAX. We were so tired at this point and just wanted to crash.
Day 12: Auckland to LAX then Unexpectedly to Oakland, CA
We waited up for our "supper," which wasn't served until something like 4:30 AM our time. We tried to sleep after that but honestly couldn't really sleep on the plane. We landed in LAX and had about an hour to get to our connecting flight home to Denver.
We hustled to get to our connecting flight home to Denver. We were so damn close and ran up to see the door shutting and the plane get on its way. We tried so hard to make it on time and after a 13-hour flight with little to no sleep we felt a bit defeated. Though we figured we could just hop on the next flight.
At that point we figured worst case we spend the night in LA and fly home in the morning. We talked to the ticket agent and she chuckled, like the damn I feel bad for you kind of chuckle. She told us that every flight for the next 6 days were oversold with long standby lists. We thought, how could this be?? We had to find a flight home. No way could we be stuck in LA, right? Wrong.
Our family jokingly said “come visit us in the Bay Area!” We thought no way, we will just get on standby and go home. We waited and there was no chance we could get home them and probably realistically not in those next few days. We thought, ugh if only we had those 5 minutes.
We decided to head up to Oakland to visit the best sister ever, who gave us a clean bed, a shower, wine, and the comfort you just need from your sister after a day like that.
Then I called mom and dad just to keep them in the loop and maybe the kid in me wanted advice because we really had no idea how we would get home. They didn’t even hesitate and said we’ll drive you home. We thought it was ridiculous because it was a 20-hour drive there and back for them. But we didn’t know what else we would do so we accepted their offer and were so grateful for it.
We met up with them the next day after being able to see granny, who was so excited. Being able to see her out of the blue meant so much. We unexpectedly got to see more family before we got on our way back to Denver.
We ended up being able to unexpectedly see a bunch of family that dropped everything to get us home. We got to tell them about our trip and tell them the excitement of our trip while our memories were still fresh. We’re grateful we got stuck and love the memories that came from it.
New Zealand Road Trip Costs
I don't have a problem mapping out what we spent so that you can decide if a trip to New Zealand will be next on your bucket list! All prices are in USD.
Flights for two adults: $2922.40
- Denver to Los Angeles — $22.40 (Just the fees for Southwest taxes since Tanner is my free companion and I used points)
- Los Angeles to New Zealand — $2900 (We flew Air New Zealand and upgraded to the Skycouch)
Jucy van rental for 10 nights: $960
Milford Sound Tour: $70 for two (Jucy gave us a discount because we rented the van)
Campsites: $60 (2 campsites. One in the middle of the trip to refill our water tank and because we liked the lodge)
Groceries (Including booze from the grocery store): $170
Gas: $450 (roughly)
Our New Zealand Packing List
We pack real light because we honestly both hate hauling shit around. Here's what we made sure to bring on top of our everyday basics:
National Geographic Map —I got this kind of one a whim but this is one of the best things I brought. Not only was it helpful to see our route but it was really nice to look at the big picture map to get an idea of where we really were in the country. I analyzed the shit out of that map and feel like I know the country like the back of my hand now
Mountain Khaki VSSL — We used this flashlight every night, used the compass and although we didn't need our first aid kit and water purifier that was inside, we did have it handy if we did need it
4 Water Bottles — We didn't know how often we would be able to refill with fresh water so I'm really glad we did. When empty, they are light to bring
Our Citronella Candle — This kept the bugs away every night which made our nights so much more enjoyable
RUMPL Blanket — This has become my best travel companion! I love how it collapses to be pretty small but also how it keeps me incredibly warm which was great for sitting outside at nights and to stay warm in the van
Topo Designs Klettersack — We both have one and we loaded these with our goods by putting them in every strap you could think of.
Away Carry on — We love these suitcases. They limit how much we bring but always have just enough room. They are a good size to keep in a van and easy to travel with. Just make sure you have the ejectable battery (which is standard now but wasn't when I got mine)
Our own Topo Designs Cups — There's something about having your own cup to drink out of. We each brought our own.
Cafe Emporos drip coffee — Oh how we're glad we brought these! We love how they sit on the cup. All you need to do is have a kettle (provided in the van) and you can have pour over coffee pretty quick.
Fujifilm XT-20 Camera — Great camera for quick shots. We also brought an older film camera for fun.
5 external batteries — The van charger was reallllyyyy slow at charging anything so we're glad we brought these external batteries. We also brought a car phone charger and an adapter that we used when we went to coffee shops or stayed at the lodge.
Books — I read How to be a Badass and How to be a Badass at Making Money
Journal — I wrote about our experiences every night at the end of the day. I think I will enjoy reading it in 10 years
Turtle neck pillow — We found this to be much comfier than standard neck pillows. I slept pretty solid on the plane because of it
Freeze dried camp food — We have gotten a lot of free sample packs at Outdoor Retailer so we figured we'd bring them along. We enjoyed them on the nights that we parked close to dark because they were easy to make. Our bags were lighter coming home because we ate it!
Sandals — Oh how we thanked ourselves when we were at the camp showers. Also nice when we were near water (obviously)
Hats — Easy to collapse, water resistant and comfortable when sweating
Dry shampoo — This made us feel a lot better about ourselves
What We Ate in New Zealand
We enjoy cooking good meals at home, but wanted to keep it low-key this trip. Our fridge was little so we couldn't get a ton of perishables.
- Tried to eat bacon but it was like floppy ham
- Freeze dried camp meals
- Various pasta dishes
- Cheese Supreme Doritos (Like nacho cheese but better)
- Domino’s Pizza
- Tanner got fresh fish from a fisherman so he loved that (I don't love seafood so more for him)
- (Not so) Gourmet charcuterie boards
- Fresh fruit
- Local muffins
The Benefits of Disconnecting
Before we left, I made sure to bring my business journal, motivational books, homework from our business advisor and downloaded days worth of podcasts and music. Tanner brought all of his drawing stuff because we both thought we would get bored on the plane, bored at night and that we would need something to listen to in the car all day.
Our gears are always turning, we're always talking about business and what's next. I mean always. But I think we were incredibly desperate for silence from the noise of our everyday lives but didn't realize it. Our service wasn't great most places so I couldn't look at email If I wanted to.
As the days went on, we found ourselves either embracing the silence or just talking to each other about things non business related. We just weren't interested in talking about work.
We ended up listening to about 3 podcast episodes and maybe one playlist. I did enjoy reading the night it rained but other than that, we sat, listened to nature, watched the water, journaled about our trip and kept things simple. Damn it was nice. I read a quote in my book that said "focus on the present." It's simple but all too often we think about the stress of the upcoming week back at work without focusing on the moment we're in.
I knew my inbox was growing, orders were stacking and my to do list was multiplying but I didn't focus on that. I focused on where we were, what we were enjoying and how incredibly lucky we were to be where we were. Incredibly, I didn't feel stressed about all of those things.
The second we got back we were excited to get back to work but I think the silence from our noisy lives was necessary. We needed to step back and truly recharge so that we could come back refreshed and excited for what's next.