Our first day in New Zealand was frantic as we tried to decide how we were going to travel around. We had done zero research before we arrived.
We couldn't decide-- Should we get bus tickets? Or, should we rent or buy a campervan?
We realized we're not the only ones. This is every traveler's question:
How to Travel New Zealand? Should you Bus, Rent or Buy a Campervan?
We ended up buying a campervan and traveling for five months around NZ, but we went through this whole decision making process to get there.
To help you with your own trip, we created this guide to help you walk through the decision making process.
Your decision depends on:
And how much freedom you want while traveling.
Since you have your own unique situation, we’ll guide you through how we made our decision so you can make the best decision for your trip.
HOW TO DECIDE?
COST PER DAY
We didn't know how to make our decision, but we knew our biggest determining factor was our budget.
So we thought our decision could be determined by looking at the cost per day for our options.
We saw ourselves with four options:
Buy a campervan
Rent a campervan
Rent a small car and sleep in our tent
Bus around New Zealand
We snagged a coffee and a napkin at Starbucks on Queen Street, started researching, and scratched our estimated costs down in a table like this one. These are based on two people traveling.
Like us, you can see buying a campervan, renting a sedan and tenting, and busing are around the same cost per day at NZ$45 looking at staying for 90 days. Renting a campervan was double!
So, we decided to focus on those three options for our trip and remove renting a campervan as an option since it was too expensive for us.
While we were researching, we also realized other factors were affecting our decision. We had to figure out how long we'd be in New Zealand (our timeline), we realized each option had extra costs we'd incur, and we realized age can be a deciding factor for some people too.
Age may affect your options, so we wanted to cover this for you.
If you are age 16 or older: You can drive a vehicle in New Zealand.
BUYING A CAMPERVAN
If you are age 16 or older: You can also buy and register a vehicle in your name.
RENTING A CAMPERVAN
If you are 16 or 17: There are a limited number of rental companies allowing you to hire a vehicle.
If you are age 16 to 24: You may have to pay a young drivers’ surcharge. Look at the details of each rental company’s policies and if they require this extra charge.
If you are age 18 or older: Many of the popular rental companies will allow you to rent from their fleet. However, most companies require you to be 21 or older. When you’re researching rentals, make sure you look at the age requirements for each company.
If you are 25 or older: You have no worries renting from any companies. You’ll have heaps of options!
BUSING NEW ZEALAND
If you are 16 or older: You can buy a bus ticket to travel the country.
Age wasn't a factor for us, it was the cost. But first, we had to decide how long we planned to be traveling in New Zealand.
Your anticipated time in NZ is a big factor in your decision. Some folks only have three months for a road trip around the country on a 90-day tourist visa. For these people, the timing is set.
We had a different situation. We applied for and received one-year working holiday visas. Even though we had the opportunity to stay for one year, we really didn’t know if we wanted to stay that long. However, we wanted to leave the option open for ourselves. So, we planned to travel for at least three months with the chance of using the vehicle for up to a full year.
90 Days or More?
To be safe, we based all of our per day costs on being in the country for three months (90 days).
Looking back at our estimated costs, the bus looked like our best option at about NZ$3,900. However, on top of bus tickets, we knew we would also be paying 90 days worth of hostel fees for a place to sleep each night. That sounded expensive.
Looking at our two other options, we saw our Rent: Sedan + Tent option and the Buy: Campervan were the same price at NZ $4,000. With both of these options, we knew there were extra expenses to include like camping fees for each night and petrol costs.
Again, our deciding factor was our budget. But, at the beginning of our travels, we had no idea how to gauge how much these extra expenses would be for us.
Now that we've bought and traveled NZ for five months, we’ll show you what these extra costs really look like for your trip.
For each of our options, we'd have extra costs.
For busing, we'd have to pay for hostels every night. For buying or renting a campervan, we'd be paying for petrol and campsites every night.
After having experience road tripping NZ for five months, here's what you can expect on how much you’ll pay for the three main extra costs: campsites, hostels, and petrol.
1. CAMPSITE FEES
Campsites are all over New Zealand and easy to find.
There are three types of campsites:
Free: Yes! We love free!
Department of Conservation (DOC) Sites: These are between NZ$6 to NZ$10 per person per night. There are over 200 sites all around the country.
Holiday Parks and Private Campsites: These are “luxury” campsites and can be over NZ$30 for two people per night.
Note: In NZ, expect to pay for camping each night on a per person basis. We are used to paying a flat fee per group in the US per night, so this was a cultural detail we had to get used to.
How to Find Campsites
Use the app CamperMate! You'll find everything you need like campsites, showers, laundry, things to do, toilets, and anything else on there. It'll be your best bud in NZ!
Our Experience with Campsites
We stayed at free campsites every night we had the option (this was the majority of our nights).
If we weren’t near a free site, we found DOC sites. Again, there are over 200 sites, so there’s a good chance you’ll find one nearby.
The holiday parks and private campsites are upper-end sites, but have the lovely luxury of plumbing, showers, and laundry. Since we were on a tight budget, we only had a few nights when we were forced to stay at a holiday park. This was due to a lack of free or DOC campsites in popular cities like Queenstown, Auckland, and the Coromandel.
How we Saved Money
Since many free campsites and DOC sites don't have showers, we used the app CamperMate to find public showers and Laundromats instead of staying at nicer campsites and paying more just to use the showers and washer and dryer.
2. HOSTEL FEES
With busing, we knew this would be an extra expense.
Looking around online, we found dorm beds in backpackers’ hostels costing about NZ$25 per person per night. A double room costs about NZ$60 per night (NZ$30 per person).
When we saw how much hostels would be per night, busing quickly sounded way more expensive than camping.
3. PETROL COSTS
With renting or buying a campervan, another extra expense is your petrol.
Your overall costs for petrol depends on the current petrol price, how far you'll drive, how fast you are going, and so on.
We ended up buying a campervan and can say, from January to May 2015, we went about 420 km on each tank of petrol in our 1993 Toyota Estima minivan.
To give yourself the basics on petrol pricing, you can find the current petrol and diesel prices on either of these sites:
All right! Let’s get back to deciding between busing, renting, or buying.
Looking back at our cost per day estimates, we saw busing, renting a sedan, and buying a campervan were all about the same at NZ$4,000 we had to use another determinant to make our decision.
So, next we thought about our lifestyle with each option. We realized our freedom would be limited by a bus’ drop-offs and schedules. For the same price, we could have our own vehicle and have freedom to be wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. If we liked a spot, we could stay longer. If we didn’t, we could move on.
Then, we imagined our experience on a bus. We would be dropped off at a bus stop and have to walk everywhere or hitch a ride if we wanted to go further into town or out of town to a trailhead. Some of New Zealand’s best spots are off the beaten track, down mountainous dirt roads. We would never get back there with a bus ticket.
So, we decided to drop the idea of busing. We could have freedom to roam whenever and wherever we wanted with our own vehicle for a similar cost.
Yes! We finally cut our options down from three to two.
Now- onto deciding between renting versus buying a campervan!
RENTING VS. BUYING A CAMPERVAN
SEE BUYING IS AN INVESTMENT
Like I shared, we had our tent with us, so we looked at renting a sedan (the cheapest style of rental car we could find) and pitching a tent each night. Renting a sedan would have cost about NZ$45/day.
For three months of renting a sedan, we were looking at a rental cost of NZ$4,050.
However, we were seeing campervans with a built in bed for sale online on Trade Me (New Zealand's eBay or Craigslist) for the same price! At this point in our travels, we had already been tent camping for five months around the United States. At the same cost, a campervan with a mattress sounded a lot more appealing than a sedan and a tent.
On top of thinking about our comfort while sleeping, we looked at the long-term finances.
We finally decided to buy a campervan because we saw buying as a long-term investment. If we bought a van, we could hopefully make money back reselling it instead of just losing NZ$4,050 to a rental car company.
Our friends Sam and Jo inspired us with their buying experience. They bought a campervan for NZ$2,000 and resold it for NZ$4,000 just by making some small upgrades to the interior. Their success made us want to try!
TIME VS. MONEY
When we were deciding between renting and buying we also discussed the value of our time.
We knew buying and selling a van would take time and could be stressful. Since our timing was pretty flexible (we could be in NZ for up to a full year), we decided we were willing to sacrifice our time and take on the stress of buying and selling a vehicle to hopefully make money back when were going to sell the van.
It took us a week to find a vehicle and, at the end of our trip, we gave ourselves a week to sell the van. That time equaled to two weeks dedicated to buying and selling.
You may feel differently about your time.
BUY BACK OPTION
One time saving solution is getting a buy back deal from a car fair, dealership, or local Kiwi who sells campervans.
A buy back deal is when the person or company you buy from guarantees they’ll buy the vehicle back from you at the end of your travels for a discounted price. We saw car fairs, dealerships, and some local Kiwis selling campers and offering to buy the vehicle back for 40-60% of what they sold it for.
With the buy back deal, you cut out the stress of “what if I can’t resell?” You also save time by not having to find buyers and show the campervan. And, you are guaranteed a certain amount of money back.
We decided to buy cheap from backpackers to resell for more, like our friends Sam and Jo did.
You need to weigh your priorities. Do you want to spend more money to rent a vehicle so you have more time exploring? Or, are the potential savings worth it to spend the time buying and selling?
Think about the maintenance of a vehicle. Do you want to take on that responsibility yourself? Or, do you want the convenience of calling a rental company to take care of a problem for you?
OUR EXPERIENCE BUYING A CAMPERVAN
Like we shared, we decided to buy a campervan.
But, we were still nervous. We wanted to talk with someone about their experience to give us comfort.
For a glimpse into our experience, here are the numbers of our purchase price during the beginning of summer, our extra costs involved with buying a camper, and what we sold our camper for during the low season in winter.
As you can see, the overall cost of our van over five months came to NZ$1,800. This was roughly NZ$12 per day. Not bad!
This number does not include our nightly campsite fees or petrol costs.
Now that we've walked you through how we decided, we hope you feel confident in your decision.
If you want to see more details about our campervan buying and selling experience, we've shared it here.
We also wrote a guide on how to buy a campervan--- we learned too many lessons from making all the mistakes, we had to share the best way to do it with other travelers. You can see it below.
Ready to buy a campervan, but not sure how?
We've got you covered!
Get our step-by-step guide to save you money, time, and stress figuring it out yourself. Let's get you on the road exploring right away.
We guide on where to buy, how to get one on a budget, what to look for when test driving, tips to negotiate the price down, what government forms to complete, how to find free and cheap campsites, and heaps more.