Road Tripping New Zealand’s South Island On A Budget

Every single activity I did in New Zealand, other than the lavender farm, was completely free.

Queenstown, New Zealand
Hiking Roy’s Peak. Photo: Kaitlyn Rosati

I left for a round-the-world backpacking trip in January 2019, and was in a constant debate with myself if I should include New Zealand on the route. It wasn’t out of the way by any means; I just had heard it was incredibly expensive, and it had never been a place I was too interested in going to.

I began the trip in Papeete, French Polynesia, and while looking for outward flights, the price difference between going to New Zealand or Australia was hardly existent, so I thought, “Why not?” and booked a flight to Queenstown.

I had heard time and time again that the only real way to get around New Zealand’s south island was by renting a car, which as a New Yorker, terrified me. I could probably count on one hand the amount of times I have driven in the last five years.

Queenstown, New Zealand
Lake Pukaki. Photo: Kaitlyn Rosati

But what would this trip be if I wasn’t going to constantly challenge myself? You don’t quit your job, sell all of your belongings, and leave everything behind if you don’t plan to get out of your comfort zone. I began researching car rentals and realized, while I could just rent a car for around $25/day, it seemed that sleeping in a camper van was a popular thing there, and something I had never done before. Go big or go home, I thought. This obviously meant the car rental would be more expensive, but I would save on not needing to pay for lodging (or paying less, which I found out later).

The cheapest option I found was a company called Wicked Campers, a company that has graffiti-laden vehicles for rent with quirky, but sometimes offensive sayings on the vans. After doing tons of research, I found that these vans are sometimes banned from public camping grounds due inexplicit content on the vans (sayings such as “Kissing is the second best thing you can do with your lips” to cartoon work of Bart Simpson smoking a blunt). It was extra attention that I definitely did not want, and why sign up for something that has a good chance of bringing issues?

After more research, I found a company called Jucy. They were next in line on most websites I looked at in regards to price. For seven days in a van, without insurance, it was $680 NZD, or $454 USD. That seemed like a pretty good deal to me, so I went forward with booking. I added insurance and after fees, it came to $800 NZD, or $535 USD. The van would include everything from a bed to a mini-kitchen. I entered my card info and bam, I had a camper van in New Zealand.

Queenstown, New Zealand
Jucy Rental. Photo: Kaitlyn Rosati

I arrived to Queenstown airport with sweaty hands and a fast-beating heart, thinking, “why am I doing this?” other than the fact that deep down, I really wanted to. I just didn’t necessarily trust myself driving, and don’t forget, New Zealand drives on the opposite side of the road.

I used my phone as a GPS, and as soon as I got in the car, I was given instruction to “turn left in 200 meters,” and thanks to America’s non-metric system, I out loud said “WHAT THE HELL IS A METER?” Oh boy, was I in for a ride.

After about ten minutes of driving and calming down, I realized, it wasn’t bad at all. The roads in New Zealand had arrows on them so you would often be reminded to stay left. It was tourist-friendly, to say the least. Once I got over the initial fear, I fell in love with road-tripping.

New Zealand is hands down the most stunning place I have ever seen. I had been in the car for maybe twenty minutes when I was treated to some of the most beautiful scenery. I saw herds of sheep, milky skies, mountains that looked like the product of Colorado and Mars, and that hardly scrapes the surface.

Queenstown, New Zealand
New Zealand sheep. Photo: Kaitlyn Rosati

Now, where to stay? I downloaded an app called CamperMate which tells you where the best campgrounds are. How camping grounds work is, you pay a small fee (around $8 USD/night) and you get to park on a secure camping site and use their facilities, such as showers, toilets, and kitchen. I found one in Wanaka called Wanaka LakeView Holiday Park and clicked book. Wanaka is about 45 minutes from Queenstown, so I thought that would be a good place to start.

Boy, did I make the right choice. I loved Wanaka. There were lavender fields, the campsite was directly on a beautiful lake (wake up to that every morning and try going back to the city!), and it was close distance to Roy’s Peak which I knew I wanted to hike at some point.

Queenstown, New Zealand
Wanaka Lavender Farms. Photo: Kaitlyn Rosati

Like I mentioned, the van included a mini kitchen, and Jucy Rentals supplied everything from pots and pans to glassware to an extra gas cylinder. I had a sink with fresh water, a fridge, and a mini stove to cook whatever my little heart desired. I headed to the grocery store and decided I would strictly cook and not eat out to save money. I bought four lamb steaks, some peppers, cabbage, broccoli, carrots, instant coffee, cauliflower, bread, and eggs. Oh, and some red wine, of course. This only cost me about $26 USD, and just about lasted me the entire time (I had to do one more run for little things, which I believe I spent $10 USD). That means in 7 days of eating, I spent $36 USD. Eating at restaurants in New Zealand is expensive, and that price would hardly cover two meals. Waking up every morning to beautiful views, drinking instant coffee, and cooking eggs out of a van became one of the most peaceful things I could’ve done for myself.

Queenstown, New Zealand
Cooking lamb out of a van! Photo: Kaitlyn Rosati

After my two nights in Wanaka, I headed to the Aoraki/Mount Cook region, about a three-hour drive from Wanaka. Driving from point A to point B in New Zealand was one of the most fun parts of having a car. There are several lookout points where you can pull over and take in the views. What was supposed to be a three-hour drive turned into six hours because I stopped so many times to enjoy the scenery.

While driving, I turned a corner and was suddenly greeted with this beautiful vision of blue; I remember my jaw dropping because it was like nothing I had ever seen before. I found out I was at Lake Pukaki. Fun fact; the water is extra blue in a lot of New Zealand’s lakes because of “glacial flour,” aka finely ground rock particles from the nearby glaciers! I found the closest camping ground, Glentanner Camping Grounds, and booked four nights.

Queenstown, New Zealand
Wanaka Lake. Photo: Kaitlyn Rosati

The beautiful thing about camping in New Zealand is other than paying camping fees, almost everything around you is free; from hiking to swimming in one of the many lakes, to driving around and exploring cute new towns.

In my time in the Aoraki region, I visited Lake Pukaki, Lake Wanaka, hiked Mount Cook’s Hooker Valley trail, and discovered a town called Twizel.

Before I knew it, it was time to head back to Queenstown. Throughout this entire journey, I only had to fill my gas tank once, and then bring it to full for the rental-return. The most expensive thing other than the car itself was gas. It is not cheap there! To fill the tank cost $92 NZD, or about $62 USD.

In total, for a seven-day road trip in New Zealand’s South Island, I spent (in USD):

  • Car rental: $535
  • Gas: $102
  • Groceries: $36
  • Camping Ground Fees: $48
  • Lavender Farm entrance fee: $4
  • Ice cream in Twizel: $2
  • Ice cream in Wanaka (I like ice cream): $4

Total: $731

I reiterate that every single activity I did in New Zealand, other than the lavender farm, was completely free. The van included everything I needed for sleep (pillows, blankets, sheets) plus two towels, and like I said, it had fresh water and all necessities for cooking, so none of those outside purchases were necessary. I assumed renting a car throughout New Zealand, a notorious expensive country, would be a minimum of $1500. With proper research and cutting costs where you can, I am a strong believer that anywhere can be done on a budget. And now that I know that it’s possible, I can’t wait to go back.

Kaitlyn spent seven days on her New Zealand South Island road trip.

Kaitlyn Rosati


Originally from New York, Kaitlyn was a musician/bartender before she left it all behind to embark on a solo round-the-world backpacking trip. She is passionate about preserving the environment, learning about gender equality throughout the world, eating anything that’s placed in front of her, saying hi to every animal she meets, and jumping off of cliffs into pretty blue waters.

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