As you know, we traveled to New Zealand last November, but what you might not know is that we spent most of our trip in a campervan. We agonized over this decision for a few months – getting bogged down with questions, pro/con lists, and budget considerations. Ultimately we decided to go through with it because we wanted to experience the magnificent beauty of New Zealand on the road unencumbered. Renting a campervan was one of the best decisions we made for the trip.
Exploring the country by campervan is a classic Kiwi pastime. With a population of only 4.5 million people spread out across 2 islands, it’s understandable that there is limited public transportation, and so to see the surreal landscapes you will need to drive. The country never ceased to amaze, with its incredibly diverse terrain from rolling green hills to snow-capped mountains to crystal clear lakes and glow worm dells. There is so much to see and a limited time to fit it all in.
We decided that we wanted to spend the majority of our time outside of the big cities immersed in nature. We mapped out a rough New Zealand itinerary, but also changed our plans along the way. It wasn’t peak season yet, so we didn’t need to book places to stay in advance, which allowed for a lot of flexibility. Some of my favorite memories from the trip happened spontaneously on the road, like pulling over to an empty beach for a picnic or hiking through rough terrain to a glacial lake with the most breathtaking views.
Before you make a decision on whether or not this is for you, this article will present some things to consider. As I mentioned above, we had a lot of questions before we started and I’ll try my best to break it down and answer as much as possible for you. Strap yourself in, this will be a long post.
1. How Much Does It Cost?
The main consideration for most people when renting a campervan is cost. Let’s dispel some misconceptions right off the bat: renting a campervan is not cheap, especially when you factor in the cost of gas and holiday parks. During peak season, a 4 person van can cost upwards of $250 per day. After doing the calculations, we quickly realized that the cost of renting a campervan is comparable to renting a car and staying in a hotel. So if you’re thinking about doing this for cost saving reasons, you should save yourself the trouble. In the end we decided to do it because it’s a unique experience that we wouldn’t be able to have elsewhere.
The sheer range of prices for campervans is staggering. Obviously the price dictates the size and amenities – but it helps if you put it in the context of cost per night. There are many websites like rankers.co.nz that help you compare prices and request quotes from the major companies; they also have independent reviews to help you make your decision.
Another way to reduce your rental cost is to consider Transfercar. This exists because a rental company sometimes needs to move a vehicle from one office to another to meet demand. In New Zealand, people usually fly into Auckland to pick up their van and drive down to Queenstown – like we did. In this case, the rental company has an abundance of cars in Queenstown, but more demand in Auckland. Their website will list out the dates for a FREE 1 way rental – you only pay for gas. The only drawback is that there are specific times when you need to drop off the car. If you have flexibility and can fit it into your schedule, then you get a campervan for free.
Pro Tip: One of the things that we can not recommend enough is buying the zero excess insurance policy for your rental. It is pricey, and we typically don’t purchase travel insurance since we have some basic coverage with our credit card. However, driving a campervan is different from driving a car. Since it’s bigger, there are more opportunities to get scrapes and bumps along the way, especially if you’re not used to driving a big van. We were debating it, but were really glad we did after a rock cracked the windscreen and we scratched the roof trying to get into a parking garage. Don’t let thousands of dollars in damage ruin your whole trip.
2. How to Pick the Right Van for You?
Aside from cost, there are many other considerations when picking a van. The main things to think about are size, amenities, and configuration. The size of the campervan is a big deal since it’ll be your home for the next few weeks. The bigger vans will have the more bells and whistles that will increase your comfort, while the smaller vehicle will have ease of maneuverability making it easier to find parking, get to harder to reach campsites, and drive around the windy mountain passes. Everyone driving a luxurious 6 berth van would probably rather drive a smaller vehicle, but everyone overnighting in a small 2 berth van would rather have the comfort of a 6 berth van. It all comes down to the trip that you want and finding a van that fits your needs.
I will say from experience that you don’t really need a full size motorhome when you’re travelling around New Zealand. Most of the campsites will have all the amenities you’ll need like a kitchen, shower, and bathrooms. The communal areas are more convenient for cooking and a great place to meet fellow travelers. Since it was just the two of us, we opted for the smaller model that could fit both of us comfortably inside. The bench seat folded down into a comfortable bed at night and the table was the perfect place to eat, play games and watch some movies. With the higher gas prices, we were glad we were not driving a giant house around the country.
Once you have a rough idea of how much you want to spend and how big of a van you’re comfortable driving – you’ll want to get the most amenities for your dollar. The main ones are electricity, gas/water, and toilets – which most all camper vans will have some variant of. Electricity can vary from a basic battery powered fridge and a few USB ports to full-blown power outlets where can charge all your stuff. For gas/water you might have a small tank of water that you’ll have to pump by hand with a little gas stove, or a large water reservoir and sink with full-size propane gas grills. Toilets might be an actual fixed toilet/shower, or a tiny porta-potty you store under the bed. Make sure that your van is self-contained certified if you want to try freedom camping – more on that later.
One of the major downsides of choosing a small van is that not all plug into the powered campsites. We found this out the hard way when we picked up our van. It went something like this:
Me: Can I rent an extra heater for the van.
Britz: You can’t rent a heater because there is no outlet.
Me: What do you mean? I asked your representative on Facebook and they assured me that this car can be plugged into a powered campsite.
Me: But what do we do when it’s cold out?
Clearly there was some miscommunication, but we were stuck with a non-powered van for the duration. Not having heat on a cold day, and no proper outlets to charge our laptops and cameras was not ideal, but we made the best of a bad situation. We were forced to be very creative with what we had, and supplement with extra blankets that we bought along the way. Not being able to charge our laptops gave us the perfect excuse to unplug and go off the grid.
Maui, Jucy, Britz, Mighty, and Discovery NZ are a few of the big campevan rental companies, but there are many other smaller ones. Each company has a variety of campervans that come in all shapes and sizes, depending on what you’re looking for. Just remember the month of December to February is high season, so unless you book early, your choice of campervan can be quite limited.
3. What’s in Your Campervan?
We ultimately decided to go with Britz because they had a campervan available in our price range. The Action Pod is a 2 berth model that the company just introduced. The good thing is that these vans are brand spanking new, the one we picked up only had 58 km on the speedometer, the bad news is that there was not much information about the van available online. That’s all about to change, because we’ll give you a breakdown of everything it came with.
The Action Pod is basically a pimped-out minivan that sleeps 2 comfortably. In the back is a small table, and two benches that come with a lot of storage room underneath. At night the benches are converted into a full size bed. Britz provided all the bedding like sheets, pillows, blankets and towels. Since we didn’t have a heater, we found that extra blankets came in handy on cold nights. Since our van is self contained, it also comes with a porta potti stored underneath the bed.
The kitchen is located in the back of the van, and comes with a self-pump sink, a small gas stove, a battery powered fridge, and all the kitchen supplies you could possibly need like dishes, utensils, pots, and pans. Since the kitchen is located in the back, the only way we can get to the fridge or wash our hands is from the outside via the rear hatch, which can be annoying when you’re surrounded by an army of sandflies. Again, this is one of the drawbacks of having a smaller van. Here is our walkthrough of the van:
Britz also thoughtfully provided curtains, dish soap, sponges, bean bag chairs, and a small dustpan – all the things that you’ll need on the road. After you pick up the campervan at the rental office, make sure you check out their leftover cabinet. It’s where people leave unwanted non-perishable food like oil, salt and sugar, and other leftovers from their trip. It’s a great place to pick up additional supplies before heading over to the supermarket.
Reminder: Things moves around in the van when you drive, so make sure all the loose items are secure before heading off.
4. What to Pack for the Trip?
Aside from the usual things that we normally pack for a trip abroad, we weren’t sure if there was anything specific that we needed to bring on this trip. Not knowing what the van came with, we didn’t know how prepared we should be. We settled on a big suitcase and 2 midsize travel backpacks. It turns out we didn’t even need that much. Most campsites have washing machines, so you don’t need to pack more than a week’s worth of clothes. The van also came equipped with all the bedding and kitchen utensils, so you don’t need to lug that stuff around. Anything else that you don’t have, you can probably buy at the stores. Keep in mind that soft luggage is easier to stow away.
Here are a few of the things that we found came in handy for the trip:
- Extra battery for your camera – this is especially helpful if you don’t have a powered campervan
- External battery for your phone
- Flashlights or headlights
- International coverage phone – a lot of campsites offer wifi service, but they are slow and costly
- Hiking shoes – only needed if you are attempting the more difficult trails, otherwise running shoes should suffice
- Sunscreen and bug spray – I only include these because they are expensive
- Hand sanitizer
5. Where do I get my Food?
One of the joy and challenges of living out of a campervan is the ability to make your own meal. It’s incredibly convenient to not have to worry about where to eat. The challenge is of course, where does one buy all the food? Since we were planning on staying away from the big cities, we weren’t sure if there were grocery stores out in the wild. Let me assure you, we did not have any problems finding a store. Most towns have a Countdown (a National grocery store chain, that sells fresh produce, meat, liquor and snacks – owned by Walgreens apparently), a great one stop shop. Even the tiniest 1 horse town will have a convenience store for you to stock up on supplies. Prices tend to be cheaper in the North Island and in bigger towns, but don’t feel like you need to fill up your car.
Here is a list of farmer’s markets around New Zealand, another great way to shop for ingredients. While driving around, keep your eyes open for fruit stands along the road selling fresh produce from local farms.
6. What’s it Like Driving Around New Zealand?
Now that we got all of the basics out of the way, we can talk bout the fun things like driving around this incredibly beautiful country with its wild landscapes. First things first, don’t forget they drive on the left side of the road. It will quickly become second nature, but in case you forget, our van had a helpful sign with a giant arrow reminding us to keep left, located right on the windscreen.
The roads are very easy to navigate and very well labeled. There are usually plenty of signs well ahead of any curves or one way bridges. What is a one way bridge you ask? In New Zealand, there are these small bridges that are only wide enough for 1 vehicle at a time. So before you approach, you should see if you have right of way, indicated by the bigger black arrow. Also make sure you approach carefully in case there is already another car crossing.
The roads in New Zealand are treacherous. They are usually narrow, two way roads separated by a dotted white line and a mountain or cliff on the other side. In the South Island where you’re going through mountain passes, there are many windy switchbacks, some without guardrails. Make sure you pay attention at all the times and do not get distracted by the stunning New Zealand landscape and the livestock that wanders onto the road. If you want to see something, pull over, there are lots of lookout points throughout the road. It’ll be safer for you and the other drivers on the road.
Reminder: If you’re driving slow, be sure to pull over and let the faster cars pass, it’s only courteous.
7. Where Can I Camp?
Once you have your car sorted out, the next big question is – where can I camp? Lucky for you, New Zealand is the perfect place for this kind of tourism. There are many campsites around and they vary in both cost and amenities. The 3 main types of camps are: the more expensive holiday parks that come with powered sites and well maintained facilities, the mid-range DOC sites that come with basic facilities like a long drop toilet, and the freedom campsites that have no facilities at all. After three weeks on the road, we became an expert at comparing the campsites. All three types have their pros and cons and we’ll try to break them down for you.
The idea that you can pull over to a secluded spot by a lake, have the place to yourself, be surrounded by nature, but with all the comforts of home in your van is incredibly appealing. And the best part is that it’s FREE. This was the main reason why we decided to rent a campervan. Freedom camping is allowed around most of New Zealand. However, due to increased tourism and disrespectful foreign tourists, freedom camping has become quite controversial in New Zealand in recent years.
Before you pull over the side of the road and set up camp, make sure you follow the protocols. The most important thing to have when you go freedom camping is a certified self-contained campervan. Self containment NZS 5465 is a sticker that’s used to show that a campervan can contain water waste for up to 3 days which includes having a toilet or porta-potti on board. Be respectful of people’s private property and don’t camp outside someone’s beachfront house or on a private road. Towns will put up “no camping overnight” signs in a public area to let you know that it’s not allowed. It’s better to confirm that it’s a designated camp area before you settle in. A hefty fine is incurred if you’re caught freedom camping without the right van or in a restricted area.
- Advantage: Stunning location, no cost
- Disadvantage: No facilities, no WiFi, sandflies
In New Zealand, the DOC campsites are owned and run by the Department of Conservation (DOC) and are usually located in more remote, and stunning locations. It costs about $10 – $15 per person per night, just a step up from freedom camping. The campsites usually come with basic, but well maintained facilities. All the bathrooms, even the long drop toilets are usually spotless. If you want to be close to nature, but don’t have a self contained van, this is a great option.
- Advantage: Stunning location, low cost
- Disadvantage: Basic facilities like long drop toilet, no WiFi, sandflies
Holiday parks are the Cadillac of camping, and they don’t come cheap. Overnight costs range anywhere from $15 -$30 per person and come with a wide range of amenities like power hook ups, laundry facilities, ultra clean bathrooms, hot showers, full kitchens, TV and games rooms, Wi-Fi, and dump stations. Some even come with hot tubs and swimming pools.
Since we didn’t have a shower or outlets in our small van, we had to make sure to stay at a holiday park once every few days. When we were there, we took full advantage of the big bathrooms and the luxurious hot showers. You don’t fully appreciate these basic amenities until you go a few days without them. The communal kitchen is another bonus. The bigger space makes cooking and cleaning up much easier. We usually made the most of our time at these places, making sure our batteries were topped up before we headed back out into the wild again.
- Advantage: Hot shower, communal kitchen, lots of other amenities, WiFi
- Disadvantage: Mundane locations, no privacy, high cost, sandflies
Pro Tip: You can download Rankers app, that will give you give you all the information about campsites, dump stations and attractions along the road. The app uses satellite, so you don’t even need internet to access it on the road if you download the offline information beforehand.
There were a few nights, especially after grueling hikes that we decided to rent an AirBnB or a guesthouse. They cost about NZ$150 –NZ$200 per night.
8. Is it Difficult to Maintain a Van?
We had a small van, so there was not much to do, aside from a few routine jobs. The main tasks are to empty the waste tank and fill up the water tank. The van comes with a set of instructions in case you can’t figure out how to do something. Some towns have public dump sites, but most holiday parks will also have a ‘dump station’. They are clearly labeled with signposts. Whatever you do, DO NOT dump your waste in non-designated areas.
The toilets or porta-potties empty into self-contained cassettes about the size of a briefcase that can last for a few days. To empty them, you slide the cassette out and pour the water into the hole in the ground. Same thing goes with the sink wastewater, you can slide out the waste tank and dump the water in the same place. Most of the dump sites also come equipped with a water faucet and hose so that you can fill up your tanks. Make sure you dump out the ‘grey water’ whenever you have access to a dump station. If you leave it a few days, it can start to smell, especially in the small space of a van.
Another obvious bit of advice when you’re on the road is to make sure to fill up the gas tank whenever you can. Even though our camper was on the smaller size, it still guzzled up quite a lot of gas. We went through about 1/2 tank every day. One time driving out of Wanaka, we decided that it was too expensive to fill up in town so we were going to wait until we saw a station further out of town. As luck would have it, the next station only accepted pin debit cards, no cash or credit, so we were stuck with a quarter tank and over an hour to go to the next gas station. We barely made it! Learn from us and fill up gas when you can.
Cars can breakdown, even through no fault of your own. In these circumstances, there is a toll free number that you can call to get roadside assistance. Even if it’s just something not working properly, you should give them a call so they can help you resolve the issue. A few days into the trip we noticed that our fridge was not very cold. We chalked it up to the fact that we hadn’t driven enough to charge the battery. But after a full day of full driving and still was not working, we decided to call the Britz helpline. They were really responsive and were able to send us to a garage in the nearest town. The mechanic quickly figured out that we blew a fuse. He gave us a new one with a backup and sent us on our way in less than 30 minutes.
One campervan, 2 people, 4,000 km equals one unforgettable trip. But it’s not always peachy. Spending 3 weeks with another person in very tight living quarters will ultimately create friction – it’s inevitable. It takes awhile to adjust to living life in a van, but the experience we gained and the things we saw outweighed all the negatives. There is really no words to describe the feeling of falling asleep listening to the pounding rain and waking up to see mountains and lakes right outside your window. Check back each week to read more about our once-in-a-lifetime road trip around New Zealand.