New Zealand is stuck far down on too many travelers’ bucket lists. This island nation on the other corner of the globe is firmly engrained as an expensive destination.
What if it didn’t have to be? What if you could catch a killer flight deal for the long-haul journey? And what about keeping your costs down while exploring everything New Zealand has to offer, from rugged mountains to urban oases, on both the North and South Islands?
Take it from me: It can be done. After flying there and spending more than a week exploring, I’ve got your roadmap for a cheap trip to New Zealand.
Getting There for Less
Any cheap trip starts with a cheap flight. And that’s especially true for New Zealand.
These 13-plus hour flights can easily cost $1,200 or more round-trip, depending on where you’re coming from. But we’ve seen cash fares to New Zealand in the $500s via Thrifty Traveler Premium, our international flight deal service.
Thrifty Tip: To get the best fares, your best bet is to search from Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) – then book a cheap positioning flight from your hometown to hop on the flight to Auckland (AKL) or Christchurch (CHC).
But it can get even better. A once-in-a-lifetime flash sale from American Airlines last year meant I booked round-trip tickets to New Zealand for just 10,000 AAdvantage miles. Yes, just 10,000 miles for a bucket list trip across the globe. It was one of the craziest flight deals of 2019.
It might be one in a million – American’s award chart sets the price for round-trip flights at 80,000 miles. But it just underscores the fact that when you’re traveling somewhere that’s typically expensive, you should wait for the right flight deal to come to you.
To see as much of New Zealand as possible, you’ll want a rental car. Starting at roughly $50 a day, they’re cheap – and it may save you money in the long run versus spotty public transport or guided tours. You can also use Uber, with rates comparable to the U.S.
Read our guide to booking the cheapest rental car possible.
Your U.S. dollar will go far in New Zealand, as exchange rates have been steadily climbing over the last five years. And keep in mind that tipping isn’t customary throughout the country.
Thrifty Tip: Be sure to purchase your NZeTA, a visa-like document necessary to enter New Zealand. It costs about $30 and takes a few days – if not hours – to get approved.
Getting Started in Auckland
Odds are you’ll be landing in Auckland (AKL), so that’s where you’ll start. After your 13-plus hour flight, it’s time to hit the ground running.
You’ll quickly find that Auckland is beautiful. Escape the skyscrapers by heading for the bay for a view of sailboats with the bustling city in the background.
This urban hub offers plenty to keep you busy, from shopping to restaurants and bars to parks and mountaintops. Take a stroll in Cornwall Park, then head for Mount Eden for more breathtaking views of the city. Finish up your day at Dr. Rudi’s Rooftop Brewing Co. on the water overlooking all the glamorous yachts.
If you ask Lord of the Rings fans, no visit to New Zealand is complete without a stop at Hobbiton. While group tours can be arranged from Auckland, we found it was much cheaper to hop in your rental car and book tickets through the box office independently. At about $50 for a two-hour tour, it’s worth every penny to soak in this iconic (and stunning) location.
It’s surreal to walk through the familiar set and spend a day in The Shire. Bonus: Cap off your tour with a free beer at The Green Dragon Inn!
Start Heading South
It’s time to leave Auckland (and Hobbiton) and see the rest of the island.
Hop in the car to drive a few hours south where you’ll find a town called Taupo. As you try to cover the entire North Island, Taupo is a great halfway point between Auckland and Wellington. Located on the massive Lake Taupo, the city has every bit of a summer getaway feel to it. And with copious amounts of hotels, restaurants, and shopping lakeside, it would be hard to get bored.
It’s also a perfect spot to bed down for one night. And since you’re in New Zealand, it’s time to try something new: Glamping. I didn’t know what you expect but wound up loving every minute of it. At about $130 a night, our Glamping site booked via Airbnb was more than reasonable and easily worth the price for an unforgettable experience with delightful hosts, great recommendations, and fun amenities.
After a sunrise, free breakfast, and a hot outdoor shower, it’s time to make the long day’s trek to Wellington – about five hours south. It’s a beautiful drive, with small towns along the way that are well worth a stop. But we made our way toward Wellington to maximize our time there.
Well Well, Wellington
Wellington is just different.
With huge hills lining the outskirts of the city that slowly slope toward the harbor, the landscape is far different from the cities to the north. And Wellington just feels different: It’s got an open, progressive, and artsy vibe that makes it stand out.
Cuba Street is the main drag that is loaded with bars, shops, and restaurants – not to mention tons of live music and entertainment. Spending some time in Wellington felt like a great change of pace that was very welcome into an adventure in New Zealand.
Start a solid day in Wellington by booking one of the many brilliant and cheap Airbnbs scattered across the city that come with free breakfast. Read our guide to booking the best Airbnb every time.
After finishing your coffee, stroll down toward the water for the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. This is New Zealand’s national museum, a showcase of its history, culture, and heritage. And it’s completely free. You’ll want to give yourself a couple of hours here at least to walk through multiple levels, each with fascinating exhibits. My favorite was the World War I exhibit highlighted by gigantic clay sculptures illuminating the stories.
After the museum, take the short walk to the cable car. A roundtrip ride to the top will only cost you $5. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore after you reach the top. There is a cafe overlooking the city, along with tons of paths that lead to the gorgeous rose garden and botanical garden – all very beautiful and very free to explore.
Cap off your day with a tasty dinner on Cuba Street and a nightcap at one of the many bars and breweries. I’d recommend grabbing some Thai food at Aroy Thai and then swinging into Hey Day Brewery.
Hop to the South Island
To cover both of New Zealand’s islands, you’ll want to hop in a plane. And trust me, you want to see the South Island.
There are multiple flights daily between the major cities on each island, and enough competition between Jetstar and Air New Zealand to keep prices competitive. We purchased a one-way flight from Wellington (WLG) to Queenstown (ZQN) for roughly $60.
As we prepared to touch down in Queenstown after an hour or so in the air, it didn’t take long to realize: We weren’t on the North Island anymore. Almost everywhere you look in Queenstown, you’ll see beautiful mountains in the backdrop.
A rental car for the South Island is a must. There is so much to see and do around Queenstown and you don’t want to be at the mercy of expensive cabs or even more expensive tours. Plus, you’ll treasure the freedom to explore this beautiful area.
Rather than Glamping or staying at an Airbnb, we shook things up and stayed at the Hilton Queenstown Resort and Spa. At just $130 a night during our stay, it was comparable to any Airbnb in the area. But it made even more sense thanks to the free breakfast courtesy of Hilton Gold Status with the Platinum Card from American Express. It’s one of the best perks of the automatic Hilton Gold status, and the savings can add up fast. Add in a free room upgrade for a view of the water, and it was well worth it.
There are so many things to do near Queenstown, it’s tough to figure out where to start. Hop in your rental car and venture around the outskirts of the city to get your bearings. The scenery is picturesque, and the area is full of fun small towns to explore.
Don’t skip a quick, 20-minute drive to Arrowtown. This quaint city has a small-town feel to it with a fun main street loaded with shops and restaurants. On your way back to Queenstown, head up to Coronet Peak. To reach the top you’ll follow a steep winding road that seems to never end, but once you hit the summit you’ll want your camera ready to snap as many photos as you can. This is one of the best views of Queenstown.
Looking to feed your adrenaline? Queenstown is New Zealand’s mecca. Whether it’s hiking, mountain biking, bungee jumping or skydiving, all your thrills can be had in this electrifying city. I sprung for a ride on the jetboats. This half-hour ride through the canyons was filled with scary moments. The 360-degree spins within inches of canyon walls were absolutely thrilling. These wild activities do not come cheap. The jetboat ride was $100, yet worth every penny. Be diligent about what activities you want to do – especially if your budget is thin.
Thrifty Tip: Head to Fergburger to a delicious burger. There will most likely be a large line outside, for good reason. In the mood for Pizza? Make your way to Fat Badgers, it won’t disappoint you. Wash down the tasty food with a cold brew at Canyon Brewery.
Venture Beyond Queenstown
Once you’re ready to leave Queenstown in the rearview mirror, take the gorgeous drive to Glenorchy.
Your route will take you next to Lake Wakatipu, with tons of opportunities to make that Instagram pit stop. Continue on to Paradise – yes, the town is literally called Paradise. It’s more of a large swath of land than an actual city, but the name suits it well.
Pure New Zealand Beauty
We saved the best for last.
Milford Sound is known as one of the most beautiful places on earth, and for good reason. It lives up to that hype.
You can drive yourself here (at least when the roads allow it), take an arranged tour via coach or shuttle, or fly. After saving so much money on our flights from the U.S., we decided to splurge for an unforgettable flight through the Milford Sound on a Cessna Caravan – plus an hour boat ride at Milford. The total cost for a five-hour tour by plane was $350, versus a 13-hour tour via coach for $150.
If you can swing seeing Milford Sound by plane, don’t hesitate. Pull the trigger.
Flying through mountains and valleys for a bird’s-eye view of this serene spot was easily the most memorable day of our trip.
Put the sticker shock to rest and move New Zealand to the top of your bucket list. You can see both islands for much less than you think – and this phenomenal country is a must-see for any traveler. I know I’ll be returning.