Two Weeks in New Zealand: Extremely Far, Cheaper Than You Think

Two Weeks in New Zealand: Extremely Far, Cheaper Than You Think

Last week I was telling my coworker all about my New Zealand trip. Then, just for fun, I asked her how much she thought it cost.

“I don’t know…$10,000?” she answered.

I almost spit out my tea.

I like nice things as much as the next person, but I’m also majorly frugal in lots of other ways. For example, I’m pretty sure that even if I was making $500k, I’d still be trying to hustle up deals.

So when I told my coworker that the entire trip cost the same as two roundtrip economy class tickets to New Zealand, it was her turn to spit out her drink.

I think a lot of times people assume travel is just “expensive,” and there’s no way around it. For those living paycheck to paycheck, travel will always be hard, but for the rest of us, lots of times travel is only as expensive as you make it.

In addition to understanding costs for a mid-range two-week trip, I want everybody to want to go to New Zealand! Guys, it’s such an overlooked destination. You don’t know how many people have no idea what to do there, or only think it’s for bungee jumping or The Lord of the Rings tours. Spoiler: we did neither of those things.

Mount Cook's Hooker Valley Track
The view after hiking Mount Cook’s Hooker Valley Track.
Franz Josef Glacier
Lush foliage around Franz Josef glacier.
New Zealand Alpacas
Our friends stayed in an Airbnb that had alpacas in the back yard!

It’s a country that’s blessed with landscapes that are not only naturally stunning, but amazingly diverse. You can drive the whole length of New Zealand’s South Island in about nine hours and see turquoise beaches, lush forests, glaciers, rolling hills, mountains, lakes, fjords, and the prettiest roadside weeds I’ve ever seen.

New Zealand Lupin Flowers
The famous lupin flowers.

So, here’s your 3000-word PSA for why you need to go to New Zealand. Since this is a money blog, I’m going to focus on the costs and value of the trip, and not a blow-by-blow account of everything we did. Because that’s what Instagram stories is for, y’all. 🙂

Want to just see how much we spent? Click to jump to the TLDR version.

Pre-Trip Planning

Lake Pukaki
Lake Pukaki. Is this blue color real?

This is where a lot of the money-saving stuff happens.

I knew I wanted to cut costs without staying in hostels or camping, so I turned to my old standby tactic: credit cards. PS: did you know that the perfect time to sign up for a new credit card is when you know you’re going to be spending a lot of money, anyway? Think big trips, weddings, furniture, paying taxes, etc.

Earlier in the year, I had my husband sign up for the Capital One Venture card, which was offering 50,000 points after spending $3,000 within the first three months. All in all we’d earn about 56,000 points, which meant we could shave off about $560 from our travel expenses.

Re: credit cards, I just want to reiterate that we have no problems meeting the minimum spends with our everyday spending because as I’ve recently discovered, to my dismay, we spend over $1000 per month on food alone.

But was one credit card the best I could do?

I also had hoarded $450 in cashback rewards from my Discover It card by strategically buying things like a Canada Goose jacket. At the time, Discover was offering 5% cash back on Amazon, so I bought $500 worth of Hotels.com gift cards and $500 in Airbnb gift cards. The gift cards would be used for the lodging, plus that spending earned another $80 in cashback, boosting total rewards from $450 to $530.

Using these two cards I could potentially “erase” over $1,000 in travel costs. Ka-ching!

Itinerary

New Zealand Pancake Rocks
Pancake Rocks in Punakaiki.

Deciding when to go was easy: December in New Zealand is their summer time and lined up with when my husband and I both have a week off from work. But next was the hardest task: picking where to go. It’s not like there’s one major sight to see. There are like, 30.

To make logistics more complicated, New Zealand is made up of two islands: The North Island and the South Island. Ever the optimizer, my first thought was, How can we do both? But most of what we wanted to see–epic landscapes–was on the South Island, so we sadly skipped the North Island entirely.

Our day-by-day South Island itinerary:

  • Day 1+2: Nelson
  • Day 3: Punakaiki, but decided to make a pitstop at Abel Tasman/Kaiteriteri Beach first.
  • Day 4+5: Franz Josef
  • Day 6+7: Wanaka
  • Day 8+9: Te Anau/Milford Sound
  • Day 10+11: Queenstown
  • Day 12+13: Mount Cook/Lake Tekapo
  • Day 14: Christchurch
  • Day 15: Fly home

New Zealand South Island Two Week Itinerary

Flights: The Most Complicated Flights I’ve Ever Had to Book

The flights. There were so many, it seemed.

To New Zealand:
JFK → SFO → AKL → NSN

And back to New York:
CHC → AKL → SFO → JFK

Just typing that out I got exhausted.

I’ll admit: I griped at first about how far away New Zealand was from New York City, and how there were no direct flights. The best-case scenario from the East Coast is 18 hours of flying–6 hours to the West Coast, and then 12 hours from the West Coast to New Zealand.

Flight #1: New York City to San Francisco
Since we had no choice to but to stop in San Francisco, I thought, why not organize a blogger meetup while I’m there? I’m a maximizer, remember? So I booked us a long layover and had a lovely time lunching with my blogger friends before boarding the next flight.
Cost: 50k American Airlines points + $22.40 in taxes for two roundtrip economy tickets

Flight #2: San Francisco to Auckland
Since the flight from the US to New Zealand was over 12 hours, I was dead-set on booking business class lie-flat seats. Plus, my husband is a very fussy sleeper and I dreaded what kind of cranky gremlin he’d turn into after 12 hours with very little sleep.
Cost: 300k United Airlines points + $143.72 in taxes for two roundtrip business-class tickets

United Polaris Business Class to New Zealand

Flight #3: Auckland to Nelson in the South Island
I couldn’t find any points availability through United so we decided to just pay for the tickets out of pocket. The flight down was on Air New Zealand, and the flight back was with Jetstar.
Cost: $388.69 for two round-trip tickets on Air New Zealand and Jet Star

Pro-tip: Jetstar is a discount airline, and they have a max carry-on weight allowance of only 7kg, which is about 15 pounds. Considering most people’s luggage weighs about 7 pounds empty, make sure you read and understand the extra fees before you book. We paid $28 in baggage fees because our bags exceeded the limit.

Air Travel Total: 350k points and $582.93 in extra flights and taxes

Lodging: Dreaming of Campervans, but Facing Reality Instead

New Zealand Wanaka Airbnb
Found a breakfast tray in our Airbnb.

Ah, campervans. That’s classic New Zealand. When I first researched New Zealand I came across the adorable pictures in this blog post, which sparked visions of Volkswagen Kombi vans dancing in my head. I fantasized about sleeping in the back of the van, gazing up at the stars at night, and my husband making breakfast on the grill.

But then I had to come back down to earth, because there was one small detail we couldn’t ignore.

Campervans weren’t us. My husband and I aren’t big campers and we were scared the campervan life would get old really fast.

So we stayed in a combination of budget hotels and mixed it up with nicer Airbnbs. I’ve never cared much about nice hotels (because I almost never hang out in them, anyway), and prefer the character and the value of Airbnbs. With Airbnbs, you tend to get more amenities for your money, plus, having a kitchen makes it easier to cook and save money on food.

We did end up overspending on lodging a bit, because by the time we finished the itinerary, some of the budget-friendly places had already sold out (in Milford Sound and in Mount Cook), and we then got stuck with paying for pricier places that we didn’t even want.

Lodging Total: $1,908.27

Ground Transportation: An Epic RoadtripRoad Trip in New Zealand

Roadtrip costs were a small price to pay for the adventure we found along the way: from pulling over the car to take pictures of sheep, then running after said sheep who fled the scene once they saw us, to missing the turnoff and finding a town called Paradise, to missing another turnoff and ending up on a Lord of the Rings tour, to listening to Lorde over and over again because when in New Zealand you have to listen to Kiwi music.

Devil's Staircase at Lake Wakatipu
Devil’s Staircase at Lake Wakatipu
Tussocks
Driving from Wanaka to Te Anau.
Sheep in New Zealand
Stopping to take pictures of sheep never got old.

And after 26 hours of driving over 1,400 miles on the opposite side of the road we’re used to, I’m proud to say we were only flipped off once and beeped at twice. And when I say ‘we,’ I really mean my husband. He was a rockstar and drove the entire time since I’m a lazy tater tot and my driver’s license had been expired for months. :/

Our rental car for the two weeks cost $557.40, partly because we slacked off on locking it down for a few weeks (it was a few hundred dollars cheaper when we checked earlier, oops), and also because we picked up and dropped off at two different locations.

We also spent $285.71 on gas, or ‘petrol’ as the Kiwis say, which cost about $2.50 per gallon.

Ground Transportation Total: $843.11

Food: Paying $14 for Frozen Chicken Nuggets

Fiddlesticks in Christchurch

When I was first researching the trip I asked my husband, “Should we look up places to eat?” and I was relieved when he answered, “No. We’re going there for the scenery, not the food.” Thank you husband for reminding me that it’s important to understand your trip priorities so spending doesn’t get derailed.

Like in Hawaii, the food in New Zealand is expensive. I expect food to be expensive in cities, but not in more remote areas. But the remote areas were exactly where the food was the most expensive. Because you don’t have any other choices. Sometimes the nearest grocery store will be 30 miles away, so of course that pub down the street will charge you $14 USD for some frozen chicken nuggets (it happened to me). Some of these restaurants we ate at would have been shoo-ins for that Gordon Ramsey show, “Kitchen Nightmares.” I didn’t even want to think about how the cooks were preparing the food.

Since most restaurants felt like a rip off, whenever we saw a grocery store, we made a point to stop and stock up. Despite the efforts, we still spent a lot of money on food.

On the last night, we spent $100 on a nicer dinner (in the pics above), although looking back, it totally wasn’t necessary.

Groceries: $177.73
Eating Out: $664.16

Food Total: $841.89

Activities: Or Should I Say, the Lack of Activities?

Milford SoundOK, so now it’s time for the most controversial category. Activities–the category that busts most people’s budgets. There’s the $400 helicopter rides over glaciers, $80 cruises through Milford Sound, wine tastings, and not to mention hundreds of dollars on Zorbing and bungee jumping and all kinds of adrenaline-raising activities. It all adds up. And if New Zealand is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, don’t you want to do all the things?

Sure those activities sound exciting, but guess which activities don’t cost any money at all?

Enjoying scenery and hiking. The nature is exactly why we chose to go to New Zealand.

Kaiteriteri Beach in New Zealand
Kaiteriteri Beach
Hiking Along Routeburn Track
Hiking through Routeburn Track
Hooker Valley Track
Mount Cook

When we first told people we were going to New Zealand, the questions were inevitable:
“Are you going to Hobbiton?”
“What about bungee jumping?”
“And the Milford Sound cruise?”

Then we met a lady on the plane who’d been traveling to and from New Zealand for years, and surprisingly she asked us the same questions.

Forget all that. Seriously.

When it comes to activities, I urge everyone to reconsider what “must have” means to you. Is a $400 helicopter ride over glaciers really worth it if you aren’t truly passionate about glaciers?

Maybe the more “worth it” activity for you is this: making flower arrangements from the bushes around your Airbnb, while your husband is trying out an outdoor pizza oven for the first time, all while deer are grazing in your front yard and the sky is turning that swirly kind of pink you don’t see that often.

I’m a big believer in not doing things just because it’s what everyone else is doing. I know it’s easier to do the popular stuff; things are popular for a reason, but really questioning whether something is right for you is never a bad thing.

So my husband and I thought about who we were as people, and let those observations drive which activities we did. Time for some new age-y self-reflection:

  • We don’t like feeling “trapped” in enclosed spaces. Especially with big groups of people. You know, because groups of people tend to be loud, and loudness takes us out of our happy places. You should see how my husband gets on a crowded subway in our home city.
  • And more importantly, we’ve never had an amazing time with expensive tours and activities. We did parasailing and stand-up paddle boarding once, and the whole time, we were like, I feel like I should be having WAY more fun than I’m currently having.

You can have just as fun a trip with free activities as you can doing all the paid activities. Both are valid and worth it, but don’t get sucked into paying for stuff if it’s not important to you.

Activities: $0

Shopping: Trying and Failing

I was excited to shop…but I sadly didn’t find much to buy. Most shops we saw were tourist gift shops, and I felt like the merchandise was overpriced for the quality. Those were easy to avoid.

But after being in rural areas for almost two weeks, and then finally being in a city again (Christchurch), I started getting the shopping itch. I don’t know what it was–the familiarity of the big buildings, the graffiti, the ethnic restaurants lining the streets–but the urge to buy was strong. A department store? Why yes, let me dump my things in the hotel and walk there immediately.

I passed by a makeup store–the first one I’d seen in weeks–and was intrigued by the Kiwi skincare line Antipodes. The packaging was elegant but minimal, reminding me of the familiar-to-me brand, Aesop. I even asked friends on Instagram if they had any intel on Antipodes. Most of them said they loved the products and assured me they’d be good buys. But at the end of the day, I hadn’t done enough of my own research to spend $30 on a face cream. I’m glad I let it go.

I generally don’t buy gifts or souvenirs for people, so the only things we bought were a stuffed lamb for my husband’s son and a couple chocolate bars from the grocery store.

Shopping Total: $15.18

The Full Cost Breakdown

Costs for Two Weeks in New Zealand
Category (Highest to Lowest) Raw Cost Cost with Credit Card Rewards
Hotels $1908.27 $1098.53
Eating out $664.16 $664.16
Air travel $582.93 $582.93
Car rental $557.40 $557.40
Groceries $177.73 $177.73
Gifts $15.18 $15.18
Alcohol $11.23 $11.23
Activities $0.00 $0.00
Gas $285.71 $0.00
TOTAL $4202.61 $3107.16

So, all in all, we spent $3,107.16 total, or $1,553.58 each, for two full weeks in New Zealand, which I’m really happy about. From New York City, round-trip economy flights cost about $1,500-$1,600 alone. That’s some people’s budget for an entire trip! Plus, the business-class seats to Auckland were a great redemption and much-appreciated luxury.

OK, So How Do You Get Those Sweet Flight Rewards?

If you want to use points for flights to New Zealand, the first thing you need to do is start planning a year out. I’m serious. The options are few and far between for Americans, so planning ahead is half the battle.

To go to New Zealand for the cheapest way possible, you can get there with about 80,000 reward points for a roundtrip, economy flight. Here’s a chart I made detailing how many points you need and which airlines you can fly, if you’re from the US. I looked up tickets last night and found some availability for all these airlines for December 2018/January 2019.

Four Ways to Use Points to Get to New Zealand
Airline Points Flight One-Way Economy One-Way Business Transferrable Points Pros/Cons
United SFO to AKL 40k 80k Chase Sapphire The easiest to book
Alaska Airlines LAX to AKL 40k 55k via Fiji Starwood Cheap biz class seats but only on Fiji
Japan Airlines NYC to SYD 35k 70k Starwood Difficult to earn JAL points
American Airlines LAX to SYD via Qantas 40k 80k Starwood Need to get from Sydney to NZ

United isn’t the nicest airline, but the flying time was the shortest (instead of routing through Asia), and I found the points the easiest to redeem.

Good to Know

Here are some mistakes we made, so you don’t have to:

  • If you’re cost-conscious, design your itinerary so you’re picking up and dropping off the car in the same place. It cost us a few extra hundred dollars to drop off our car at a different location, but we were willing to pay the premium to get the exact itinerary we wanted. And lock that car down as soon as you have your itinerary set.
  • Don’t assume wifi is free and plentiful. Many cafes and restaurants, especially in remote areas, will charge you for wi-fi with a pitiful amount of data. If you need free-flowing internet where you are, then don’t book an Airbnb that has no wifi, like we did.
  • Lock down lodging for popular places, like Milford Sound and Mount Cook, in advance. Otherwise you’ll get stuck with crappy digs that are expensive and far, which is the worst.
  • Bring a tripod. I never regretted not having a real camera before, but I definitely did on this trip. Because wow, the stars in certain towns were so vibrant.
  • Don’t count on amenities and variety. I didn’t bring shampoo and conditioner because I assumed hotels and Airbnbs would have it. Then I’d go to the pharmacies, and I kid you not, there were only one or two shampoo options.

Other Itineraries

You may not be the same type of traveler as me: I travel fast, with a DIY mindset, and prefer the off-the-beaten path versus the tried and true.

Here are a few other resources from my blog friends:

  • NZ Muse is actually from New Zealand, and has tons of resources on what to do there. Tapping a local’s perspective is invaluable.
  • For more of a trip report, check out all the wanderlust-worthy pics on The Frugal Hackers’s blog.
  • If you want to see another set of costs, Leigh was in New Zealand for three weeks and detailed how much she spent.

Final Thoughts

For the cost of two roundtrip economy tickets to New Zealand, we got ourselves what I consider to be a bargain trip without sacrificing creature comforts: Business class flights. Lounge access. No hostels. No campervans. No couch-surfing. To summarize, here’s how we did it:

  • Use credit card rewards to offset flight and hotel costs. Have a credit card strategy well in advance of the trip. That way you’re not struggling to earn bonuses under a time crunch. The further ahead you plan, the more choices you’ll have, the more likely you’ll spend less.
  • Remember why you’re there. Set 1-2 priorities when planning the trip so you avoid overspending. If you’re going for the food, maybe you camp to cut back on lodging costs.
  • Don’t give into the hype. Avoid paid activities if it feels like you’re only doing it because you’re “supposed to.”

Have you ever been to New Zealand? If so, what were your highlights? Did you think we missed out by not doing the paid activities?

Images: The Luxe Strategist

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