So, what is it like living in a van in New Zealand? I’ve watched #VanLife videos on YouTube for nearly forever. I can’t lie, I would happily live in a van full time and on the road if I could. Unfortunately, at the moment, that is not an option for me, but it is definitely in the plans for the future. I want to share my experience living that #VanLife for 2 months while travelling all around New Zealand.
It’s not unknown that New Zealand is the spot for living that #VanLife. It’s a popular spot for tourists and travellers who want to live on the road, get back into nature and move at their own pace. We started and ended our #VanLife in Auckland and drove around the entire north and south islands doing hikes and feeling free!
Choosing a Van in New Zealand
Ok, so you’ve booked your flights, things are getting real. The next thing you’re going to want to do is organise your van. When it comes to choosing what kind of van you will get in New Zealand, there are a lot of options and factors. How many of you will there be in the van? What budget and how long will you be there and should you buy or rent?
Buy or Rent?
For us, we knew we’d be there for under 2 months and had booked our flights out before we arrived (you have to do this for your standard NZ holiday visa – the visa is on arrival and for 90 days) so we decided on renting. Some people go there for 2+ months and buy a van which they then sell on when leaving. If you are going for more than 2 months, it might be a better price option to choose to purchase over renting. If you are planning on buying I’d suggest checking out some forums and blogs of people who have bought and know a lot about buying there. You need two certifications for vans in New Zealand, WoF (Warrant of Fitness) and Rego (Vehicle Licensing). Some places for finding a van are Backpackerboard or Trade Me (NZ’s version of craigslist).
We quickly learned that renting camper vans in New Zealand is EXPENSIVE, however, this did not stop us from getting a very good deal 😉. You need to consider a few things when it comes to renting your van….is a toilet essential? Do you want a big open space van? Big bed? etc. We wanted to get the cheapest van possible, and looking back, the only thing I would change would be to have gotten a camper with a porta-potty, just so we could camp in more places (also, I have a bladder about the size of a peanut).
Camper vans in New Zealand can range from $5K-$15K for 2 months!! That’s crazy and more than we budgeted for our entire 8 months of travelling! Luckily, we did a lot of research beforehand, reading blogs, watching YouTube videos and TV specials. We got our van for a total of ……… $2,500 NZ Dollars (€1,500 // $1,700 US// £1,280). That price included the extra collision damage waiver and a fee to add an additional driver.
That is an amazing price, however, please keep in mind our van was tiny, had a pullout bed and did not have a toilet. But if these are things you can live with, you can certainly get a van for cheap in New Zealand.
We got our Economy Campervan from Rental Car Village. We were given a Mazda Bongo, I’m not sure what year it was, but it was definitely quite old. Fortunately, in New Zealand, they drive on the same side of the road as Ireland (most islands drive on the left), so that was nice. Our Mazda Bongo was an automatic (I wish it had been a manual) and had 3 seats in the front. It was kitted out with a pullout bed (😩), two portable gas stoves, an extension tent, a table with 2 chairs, a small fridge/cooler box, a portable water tank, a pull-down table/cupboard, a lightbulb and an extension lead (for plug-in campsites).
Yes, we really lived in this van for nearly 2 months. We spent a lot of time outdoors, adventuring and exploring. Now as vans go, this was probably the cheapest basic van you could get. However, if you’re happy to live in this over some fancier vans, it can make a HUGE difference to your budget. I’m talking about costing you $2,500 (€1,500) vs costing you $6,500 (€3900) or much much more.
It’s also worth noting that because or van was cheap and old, it did use a lot of petrol/gas and this is $$$$$ in New Zealand.
Toilet & Showering, Living in a Van in New Zealand
Our van did not have a toilet or shower. A quick note to say the Campermate app has public toilets and showers listed, and that is how we found all/most of our toilets & showers. There were just a very few handfuls of times we didn’t have an option for a shower nearby (Ughhhh, of course, one of these times was after we did the Tongariro Crossing – I can’t even think about how hard it was to not shower until the next day after this 🤮). There are showers in most villages, towns and cities. Some libraries even had showers. Most are paid and can range from $0.50 to $5 for a hot shower. There are some completely free showers located around the place, however, most tend to be cold water. The only thing to note is some showering options close at 5/6 pm so plan your showers earlier in the day if possible.
Laundry Living in a Van
An amenity that should not be overlooked. While some campsites have washers, we also found laundromats in most towns. In the 6 weeks we were there, we did laundry 5 or 6 times (every week or so). Because we did not bring a lot of clothes and spent a lot of time hiking, we found ourselves doing laundry quite a bit. Washers cost around $3-4 NZD per load and the same for the dryers. However, we found the allocated time for dryers did not always fully dry our clothes.
Eating & Cooking Living in a Van
*I know I have caged eggs in that picture, we had gotten them by mistake instead of free-range
Eating and cooking in the van was easier sometimes than others. The main thing is ventilation if you cannot cook outside the van (i.e. you have a stationary cooker in your van or if it’s lashing rain).
We had two portable gas cookers, which was great as we could cook in different spots. I would suggest not cooking things like potatoes or anything you need to boil for more than 20 mins, as it uses your gas up so fast.
These nachos (mine are veggie of course) and wine were one of our favourite meals to have, as it was quick and easy to cook and tasted yummy, of course! Our fridge was a fridge/cooler which plugged into the van, and was charging/cooling whenever the van was running. This fridge/cooler also kept cold for some crazy amount of hours after turning off the van.
Why Explore New Zealand by Camper Van?
I have to say I truly think ‘vanning’ it around NZ is the best way to see the country. There are a good few areas which do not have accommodation but do have campsites. The freedom of being able to go where you want, when you want, at the drop of a hat really is important. Say you planned to spend 3 nights in a particular town, but as soon as you arrive, you hated it. Well, you can just drive off to the next place! If you’ve booked accommodation, this is not so easy.
As well, it’s probably the cheapest way to see travel New Zealand, given the number of free campsites.
There are a few types of campsites & grounds around New Zealand. Here is a list of each type and what you need to know about them:
- Holiday Parks. $15 – $26 NZD per person per night – typically the most expensive option. They have a lot of amenities, toilets, showers, washing machines, kitchens, power, water & dumping, etc etc.
- Private Campgrounds. $5 to $15 NZD per person per night. They tend to have similar amenities to holiday parks but are privately owned. Prices and quality vary.
- DOC Campgrounds. $5 to $15 NZD per person per night. The Department of Conservation (DOC) have more than 200 sites around New Zealand. Usually, they have basic amenities: toilets, water and sometimes rubbish. There is a $25 NZD per person weekly pass you can get, but not all sites are included, and there are some areas with none of these nearby.
- Free Campgrounds. – $0 NZD. As noted above, there are many free campsites all around the north & south islands. Most are run by the DOC and have a toilet available. I would say the only issue was that a few campsites filled up pretty quickly, while there were also ones we stayed in that were quite empty.
- Freedom Camping. $0 NZD. Freedom camping is basically the same as free campgrounds. There are certain areas/locations which have freedom camping available. There are specifications around this and often no amenities. Your camper van usually has to be certified self-contained (have a toilet & grey water tank)
What time of year to visit New Zealand?
The time of year to visit New Zealand is important. Many people think of it as weather similar to Australia, but it’s NOT. During the winter it can be quite cold, especially on the south island. We visited in November/December which is the end of spring/beginning of summer. Personally, I loved the time of year we visited. I found the crowds to be not too bad, the weather was very nice for the most part, and there were plenty of beautiful flowers all around.
Pros & Cons of Van Life in New Zealand.
There are pros and cons of living in a camper van. It really depends where in the world you & your camper van are. Fortunately, New Zealand is designed for camper van living! So things such as getting a hot shower are quite accessibly and easy to find (most of the time).
- Freedom. A lot has to be said for freedom when travelling. Don’t like this town? Move onto the next one right now!
- No unpacking constantly. If you’ve done any sort of travel long term, or where you have multiple locations/destinations in a trip, you’ll know the hassle of unpacking & repacking. This is especially the case if you’re living out of a backpack and have to carefully pack everything back in to fit. When you have a camper van, most of your stuff is in specific places already and you don’t have this hassle.
- Cook your own meals. Ok, this is a great one in my opinion, especially when travelling long term. Sometimes you just don’t want to eat out and prefer to make your own food. You don’t always have this option in accommodations, so it’s nice to have the option all the time.
- It’s cheap. It is an arguably cheaper way to see the country. Our van was a budget van and quite affordable. If you were to rent a car you may be looking at slightly less expensive but similar tier pricing. Public transport in New Zealand is not great and definitely not the best option, if you can have a vehicle. Many of the best places to visit are only accessible by your own vehicle.
- Camp spot anxiety. This is real! Depending on where you’re travelling around, this is a legit issue. While New Zealand is a big place for living that #VanLife, you cannot simply pull up on the side of the road and sleep for the night. With so many travellers heading to New Zealand to travel by van, they have strict guidelines around this. Fortunately, there are plenty of free campsites/parks to park your van in for the night. However, in some places that are very popular, you’ll need to arrive early to secure your spot.
- You have to clean constantly. When you’re living out of a confined space it gets messy VERY quickly. So you are pretty much tidying up constantly. I suggest cleaning as you go along.
- SANDFLIES [NZ specific] I’m sorry but I have to include this one if you’re going to be driving around New Zealand. This is especially bad on the south island and when you’re near water. There is a massive amount of sandflies and they seem to go for any skin! David doesn’t usually get too many bug bites, but they destroyed him too. The second we’d pull up in an area, the van would be covered by them in minutes. We actually couldn’t get out of the van a few times because there were so many and they all come into the van. These are probably the worst insect bites in masses I’ve ever got. I literally had 100’s on my legs at one stage and we ended up going through a serious amount of bug spray on the south island. You can read more about Sandflies in NZ here.
- New Zealand is expensive. I always heard people talk about how expensive Australia is, and to be honest, it’s really not that expensive, especially when compared to New Zealand. As you move to the south island, things become even more expensive (gas prices, etc). The reality of it is, they have to charge a lot because pretty much everything is imported, and imported from a far distance. There’s literally NOTHING near New Zealand, apart from Australia.
Free & Cheap Resources
“How did you have internet?” “What about your laptops?” There are many great, free & cheap resources around New Zealand. The country knows that #VanLife & tourism are a huge part of their economy and they cater to that!
- Nearly every city, town or area in New Zealand has a library. These libraries sometimes have showers too! They have plugs & free internet. This is all you need for an hour or two stop to charge up your devices, download some movies or do any work you may need to get done! However, be warned in some places the WiFi might be slow. I’ve heard many people complain about the WiFi being bad in places etc. We only experienced this a handful of time.
- We got local sim cards. The sim cards we got were about $59 for 60 days and there was 10GB of internet on them. We also got an extra 1GB for messenger apps included so it was really 11GB. There was also an option for $49 to get 5GB. This made life a lot easier, as we were always able to Google local shops etc. One thing to note is there are some places on the south island where you’ll want to have reception (Milford sound).
- Campermate app. Honestly, if you are going to New Zealand or Australia and living on the road, this app is a LIFESAVER, and it’s Free! So not only does Campermate have campsites, maps and hospitality listings included, it also has activities too! One thing we loved is that it had nearly every LOTR & The Hobbit filming locations listed! It literally was how we found all our campsites, potable water & restaurants in New Zealand! The best part is the app is completely free, although it does take up a lot of space (like 600 MB) on your phone so keep that in mind.
- Free campsites. As I mentioned above, New Zealand is strict on camping rules and you cannot simply pull over on the side of the road and make camp for the night. Saying that, one great thing is that there are A LOT of free campsites. And if you’re a self-contained camper (have your own bathroom) there are even more free ones. We used the Campermate app to find free or cheap campsites all around the north and south islands. You can filter by free/price and self-contained/not self-contained campsites, so they make it very quick and easy.
- Free activities! I have to say, so much of what we did in New Zealand was free. Part of that is because we spent a lot of time outdoors hiking, swimming and adventuring. While there are many things you can pay for, of course (and we did pay for some things we wanted to do), so many of the main attractions are free. Seeing Penguins – free, tracking the Tongariro Crossing – free (however we did pay to have a bus drop us at the start and collect us from the end), many museums are free, etc etc. There were many free & cheap things to do in Auckland, the capital city.
- Gaspy App. We didn’t know about this app but basically, it tells you gas prices all around NZ. I would suggest, when you find cheap gas, to fill up your tank because the next station could be much more expensive!
Conclusion on Living in a Van in New Zealand
To conclude, is #VanLife worth it? To me, absolutely yes! Freedom while travelling, waking up to epic views, slumming it adventuring and spending more time outdoors are all things that make me extremely happy! I really do want to buy a proper van and do a full camper conversion! I will say the main thing I’d change or suggest to anyone vanning it, would be to get a camper with a toilet & shower.
Although these vans are not as cheap, if you can afford a higher-end van, it’s definitely worth it! Saying that, there’s not much else I’d change about our trip to New Zealand! There are a couple of things I did not get to cross off my list (seeing the glow worms & some epic hikes – there are a lot of them in NZ!), but I certainly plan to visit once again, once I have a few other things ticked off the bucket list first.
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