Travel Hacks for New Zealand

Winter in North America is prime time to travel to New Zealand. Whether boating, biking, fishing, hiking or just hanging out on some incredible beaches, November through April is the perfect time for New Zealand travel. Here are a few tips to help you get there and have a great time once you arrive.

Airline:

I love Air New Zealand, and living on the west coast there are great 12 hour direct non stop flights from both SFO and LA. Every winter they have fantastic round trip fares. Sign up for email alerts and book early as they increase prices as the season goes on. The flights are overnight and that is a huge plus as they arrive early am in Auckland which is one day ahead and about 3 hours behind Pacific time so jet lag doesn’t have to be an issue.

Regarding jet lag, a couple tips:

Get some good noise cancelling headphones—wireless are best. A sleep mask, earplugs and comfortable clothes that you can sleep in are a must. Either flips or soft shoes that you can slip into and out of easily are really nice too. Compression sleeves for your calves or compression socks really do make a difference on long flights. Some sort of sleep aid, either prescribed or over the counter is helpful. Melatonin; if you use it a few days before is a good over the counter alternative if you don’t want to go the prescription route.

Seats:

If you are traveling with another person, consider buying the third middle seat which Air New Zealand calls the Sky Couch for a discounted price. On our last flight it cost $500 each way but compared to the flights where we did not get it was well worth the cost, especially since the fares were so incredible to start with—$799 RT SFO-AUK. The three seats make into a small “couch/bed” so you can lie flat and there are various options for two to sleep relatively comfortably. This is cheaper than buying Premium Economy seats where you are only getting a bit more seat width and incline (not a lot) and better food. Don’t be tempted to pay any additional fees for the “premium seats” in economy class. They are exactly the same as regular seats and some are actually worse—like armrests that don’t move, tray tables inside the armrest, less foot room because of seat configurations, etc. We made that mistake once and it was depressingly horrible, especially when the fat guy wedges into that small middle seat you were hoping would stay empty. The days of empty seats are long gone. If you are only buying two seats, reserve the aisle and window and hope that the middle seat won’t book. The further back in the plane, the better your chances for that to happen.

Travel cards:

I suggest getting a credit card that does not charge foreign transaction fees which can add up quickly and use that for most of your purchases. A lot of these cards give you rewards on top of no fees which can get you some cool stuff like future tickets or gear. There are many options for free cards but apply early if your present card does charge you any transaction fees. Another tip is to get a debit card that charges no fees that you can use at any ATM worldwide. I use a Charles Schwab card—there are no yearly fees and no minimum balances. They reimburse all transaction and conversion fees at ATMs around the globe making it easy for them to be your only debit card. Since there are no fees and you can use any ATM you don’t have to worry about doing large transactions and carry large amounts of cash all the time—you can get money when convenient in smaller amounts.

Phones:

Most phones these days are unlocked and support both types of network protocols internally. You can keep your home plan and either pay a daily fee for any day that you use the phone which is usually really expensive or buy an international plan, equally pricey. I buy a NZ SPARK travel plan/SIM card at the airport that is good for one month—for $49 NZD (around 35 USD) you get 5 gigs data, unlimited minutes in country and you can even call the US for free with 200 minutes. They have a 1 gig plan for $29 NZD but you will eat through data as NZ does not have good internet speed or access for the most part. The South Island seems better set up for travel internet but the North gets better cell coverage so YMMV on how much data you end up needing or using. Purchase a sim card and plan before you pick up your luggage—they have a kiosk before you leave the incoming flight area and it takes about 5 minutes to set up. Outside of arrivals there is are regular SPARK and Vodafone stores but for some reason the prices are higher if you go there, plus the lines are longer so spend the time before you pick up luggage to get this set up if you want reliable phone access.

Speaking of data, download Google maps for the area that you are visiting at home so that you can then use the maps offline with no cell usage for getting directions. You don’t need to bring or rent a separate GPS device if you do this but remember to turn off the cell coverage while using the map apps offline and be sure and download the maps before you leave when you have good internet service.

Getting around New Zealand:

For a small country, getting around will invariably require either a rental car or camper van or the purchase of one if you are staying for any length of time. There are several good local Kiwi car rental companies and we have had good luck with APEX. They had great rates and new cars in good condition. There are rent a wreck companies but the difference in cost savings isn’t enough to warrant the lack of amenities that the newer cars have IMO.

You will be driving on the left side of the road and if you are not familiar with round-abouts, it will take a few days to figure these things out and it helps if your passenger keeps reminding you to “stay left” whenever you stop or pull out onto a road. Roads for the most part are narrow, windy, and slow going and if someone is following you, pull over and let them pass—especially if you are in any rented vehicle. Don’t be a “tourist”. Kiwis for the most part are incredibly friendly except when they get in a car.

Van Rentals:

There are what seem like hundreds of camper van rental agencies and we learned through multiple trips that you get what you pay for. All cars and vans come with basic insurance covered in the price. If you have the patience to read through the small print and understand the system, this might be enough for your comfort level but they don’t call it the “I feel lucky” plan for nothing. There are usually a couple other levels that cost extra and the price can escalate so figure out how lucky you feel in terms of wanting liability coverage. Most US credit cards will cover some liability for cars only. They do not cover ANY liability for vans or motor homes so don’t think you are automatically covered like in the US when you rent.

There are sales agencies and auctions that sell cars and camper vans and some will even buy them back at the end of your trip. If I were staying for months at a time I would consider this option.

In terms of camper van rental places, do your homework and read reviews really carefully. Don’t go by price alone or you will end up with something that you will hate. Ask me how I know this. Most companies offer price matching with similar vans. If you have the patience to haggle back and forth for days this is an option. Most companies will knock something off the initial price if you ask for their best price at the start—this will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run. Most quoted prices are in NZD so factor that in if it seems really high, but regardless, it will be high compared to US standards. All rentals include some liability insurance. Spend the money to get an upgrade. Most of the included plans are called “I feel lucky plans” so you get the idea about how much they cover. Credit cards do not cover liability for vans in New Zealand so don’t depend on paying with them to feel safe.

Camping:

Most Kiwis and tourists stay in Holiday Park campgrounds Two good apps for finding everything you need for your van travels including spots to camp for free are Campermate and Rankers. The campgrounds vary from free or low cost with very few amenities to full service ones which tend to be crowded and lacking in local color. The mid priced ones range from 50s style camping to ones with full modern amenities. All places have a communal kitchen that is kind of a fun gathering place. Most have hot showers and all have bathrooms. If you have rented a “self-contained” camper (one with at minimum a portable toilet and water) you can theoretically legally camp off the grid but finding these places can be really hard and some are not in super desirable places-like right in towns, pastures, non scenic sites, etc. For the times where you find a really awesome free camp spot—and you will, the self contained campers are worth the extra price to rent.

New Zealand is a country filled with fit people who take pride in their outdoor heritage. You won’t see litter even on the most remote road or trail. There are a lot of tourists and remember that you are one yourself so be extra kind to the Kiwis that you meet along the way.

Stay as long as you can!

How long you stay is another factor. While small in size, New Zealand can’t be fully appreciated in a short time. If you only have 2-3 weeks, pick one Island or the other and you will still wish you had more time. Don’t try to hit all of the famous spots on either Island or you will spend all of your time in your car. Take it slowly and if you find an awesome place, spend some time there. The North Island is famous for beaches and they are world class. At many you will be the only people around and almost every town or road has well maintained trails to explore. The South Island has the rugged mountainous scenery that New Zealand is famous for and most of the famous hiking tracks are on the South Island. Again, almost every few miles are signs for local tracks and trails and many are equally spectacular as the more famous ones.

Resources:

I am not a huge fan of guide books but the one I do like for New Zealand is Scott Cooks New Zealand Frenzy—one for the North, and one for the South—he covers a lot of out of the way and lesser know places. Most guide books will get you to the crowded places but take every opportunity to ask locals about where to visit. New Zealand has a detailed web based information site and lots of I-Site information buildings that can give you local information including maps, tide tables, etc.

So there are a few tips to help you get there. Whatever adventure you plan to do, you are guaranteed to have a great one in New Zealand. In the spirit of the newly launched jacksonadventures.com, get out there and enjoy our world with whatever sport you fancy!

Happy paddling (and fishing, and hiking, and biking),
Hilde