An American’s COMPLETE Guide to Backpacking New Zealand

Everything you need to know for a successful working holiday



First of all, there are two ways to go about this depending upon how long you wish to stay in New Zealand.  This is probably a loaded question as it all ties to multiple other questions – how long you have off work, how much savings you’ve built up, how long you wish to be out of the country, etc.


Tourist Visa

The first way of touring New Zealand is by getting a regular old tourist visa.  This visa costs nothing and is good for travel up to three months around New Zealand. Many Americans tour the country in 10-14 days (however Kiwis say this is way too rushed for such a beautiful country and I’d have to agree.  I have met many people who have toured the country in 3 months.  It’s definitely better than two weeks and gives you a bit more time, however, you might be exhausted by the end and you’d still just be hitting the highlights.  Again, this all depends on how much time you have and how much savings you’ve invested in the trip.  If three months is ideal for you then a tourist visa may be your best bet.


It’s also worth mentioning that when your three months is up, a simple vacation to Fiji, Australia or the Cook Islands would be enough to satisfy visa requirements to avoid deportation.  After your holiday you can safely return to New Zealand on another tourist visa and your three-month countdown is reset.  The only downside is with a tourist visa you are not allowed to work in the country.  If you’d like to work while you travel, keep reading.


Working Holiday Visa


The most popular way to backpack a country is through what is called a Working Holiday Visa.  As an American, you’re allowed to do this in five countries: Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and South Korea.  All of which allow you a specific amount of time in the country and the right to work temporarily while you visit.  Australia and New Zealand are the only 2 out of the 5 who don’t require you to be a student or recent graduate. The kicker?  You have to be under the age of 30 to apply. (Hence why Tyler and I made a quick decision to skip the pond right at the turn of Tyler’s 29thbirthday.) 


In any of the above-mentioned countries, working holiday visas are very common and you will definitely meet other young people from all over the globe doing the exact same thing. (Note: Different countries have different rules for this visa.  For example, your foreign friends may be allowed two years in the country on their visa, whereas Americans are only allowed one.) 


It’s really quite interesting because most locals willingly understand and embrace the “backpacker” culture that comes with Working Holidays.  Freedom camping is one example of this and so is the plethora of hostels and farm work.


To apply for a working holiday visa, simple visit and fill out a form. It’s wise to allow 6-8 weeks for your visa to be processed, so be sure and do this well before entering the country.

Once approved, you have two years to enter the country and your one year working holiday begins when you set foot in the country, not when you receive approval for your visa. 




Booking a flight


It’s safe to expect a $1200 one-way flight to New Zealand from the States, however that’s an average.  Tyler and I watched flights for months and found a super great deal for just $423 from San Francisco.  By the way, cheapest flights are going to be on the west coast, with Los Angeles probably being your best bet.  For an Oklahoma girl like me, I had to spend an extra $300-500 to get to California before flying out to both Australia and New Zealand.  Plan ahead and save enough money to comfortably get yourself there.


There are lots of great apps and websites that will track cheap flights for you.  I recommend beginning to track flights 2-3 months in advance, but you can book as late as one month before your trip before the prices rise really high.  Also, Air New Zealand is my preferred Oceania flight program.  Their crews are super friendly, the seats are very comfy and overseas flights include a sanitary pillow and blanket to borrow.  


(Note: Don’t skimp on the flight.  I’ve done 15-hour flights on budget airlines and even as a young, broke, backpacker, it’s just not worth the pain your bum goes through and the lack of comfort.  Go for a good airline.) 


My favorite app for tracking flights is Hopper.  It’s free, easy to use and sends you notifications on flights you’re watching. I usually keep multiple trips on watch and set it and forget it.  Periodically I’ll get notifications that my flights are in a great price range and if it fits my budget, that’s when I book.


As for websites, I personally use and recommend Google Flights above everything else.  It’s my baseline website for getting a pulse for how much flights are going for, plus I love that I can check dates super far out and see what prices are cheaper and what are higher.  You can even put watch alerts on trips here too and get email notifications when flights are cheap.


A few others I use and recommend are:



Let’s think about where you want to fly into when you arrive in New Zealand.  But first, a quick overview of some odd facts you need to know about kiwi country.


Everything is backwards



First of all, everything is backwards here.  Our winter is their summer, so if you plan on coming in June-August, be prepared for cold, winter weather.  Kiwi winters are typically much milder than the states, but they are in fact cold and rainy with short days and early nights.  We arrived in July and were greeted with low 60’s during the day and mid to low 50’s (F) at night.  It rained every other day and the sun set at 5:30 p.m. and didn’t rise until 7:30 a.m. This was a bit of a shock, even though we knew to expect all of this.  


Mentally, we had just spent six months in winter back home – lots of hibernating inside, movies at night, chai teas and thick wooly socks.  When I left Oklahoma on July 2ndit was over 100 degrees.  Tyler’s hometown in the central valley of California was also over 100 degrees.  We spent our last few days in the states swimming, camping and grilling burgers. You can imagine, then, the shock that your body goes through when it lands in the middle of winter.  


Again, this is mostly a mental thing that you have to overcome.  I thought I packed winter clothes before I came but when I arrived, I remembered just how cold natured I am and wished I would have dug out the big oversized sweaters and long johns for under my clothes.  The day time is fine but nights can get cold if you’re camping.  Even if you aren’t’ camping you should be warned that most New Zealanders do not have central heat and air, so layering up under a warm blanket is how winters are spent here.  It’s fun and cozy, yes, but only if you have enough warm clothes on your back.


All this to say, New Zealand’s winter takes place from June-August and its summer is from November-January.  There are good and bad in traveling during each of these times.  In winter the tourism is super low and therefore you can see much of the country without crowds.  This was also a great time to buy a van in Auckland, as all the backpackers were leaving for search of warmer weather.  The downside is that you won’t be doing much swimming and that makes for a different beach experience altogether.  We have enjoyed brisk walks on the beach throughout the day but we definitely haven’t swum any this winter.  Most hiking has been phenomenal in the winter weather though, I can’t complain about that. Also, if you plan to camp you can go longer without showering because you won’t be sweating much at all!  It sounds gross, but later you’ll totally understand.


Summer may be better for swimming and sight-seeing but a huge influx of tourists surely comes with it. This means more crowded camp-sites, beaches and eateries.



Warm Weather 

So, this is a crazy little fact that makes a big difference.  In America, we typically think “go south for the winter.”  Warm weather is always southward, right?  That’s because the equator is below our country.

When you flip hemispheres and go to New Zealand, the equator is above you, meaning the warm weather is now northward.  This is an important fact to keep in mind while planning your trip.  Tyler and I arrived in the middle of kiwi winter (July) so we planned our trip from north to south.  The South Island is colder than the north, because it is closer to the south pole so we wanted to wait until spring or early summer to explore it. Meanwhile, the tippy-top of the North Island is as warm as you can get.  It’s only a 4-5 degrees warmer in Kaitaia (a main city in the Far North) than it is in Auckland (a typical place to fly-in), but it was enough difference that we decided to go northward before moving back south.  In July, the South Island was about 5-10 degrees cooler than the North. 



We’ll go more into driving and cars later, but while we’re talking backwards, I wanted to mention that New Zealanders drive on the opposite side of the road here as well. Not only do they drive on the left side, but their steering wheels are on the right side of the car too, which makes us Americans feel wacky as all get out for the first few weeks of driving. It’s nothing you can’t get over with a little practice, but don’t get started on a major highway without first trying out your ambidextrous driving skills.


Round-a-bouts are also common here.  If you’ve never had much experience on a round-a-bout, I suggest reading up a bit on these as well. Spoiler Alert: The round-a-bouts move counter-clockwise too!  You’ll go to the left and stay on the left side of the circle, just completely bass-ackwards of how we do it back home.  Just something to note!



Like most of the rest of the world, New Zealand is on the metric system.  Get ready to trade miles for kilometers, yards for meters and inches for centimeters.


An easy way for non-mathletes to figure out distance in kilometers is by taking the kilometers, dividing them by two and adding a little back on top.  For example, if a place if 50 kilometers away, you can divide that by two (25) and add a bit on top (30ish).  So, the place is approximately 30 miles away.  This isn’t scientific, nor exact, but it gets you close and it’s easy to do.


As for meters, remember that a meter is basically a yard, so something that is 300 meters away, is about 300 yards away or 3 football fields if that’s easier.  (A standard American football field is 100 yards.)


Tip: There’s a great app for converting literally everything in every different country.  I use it every time I travel.  It’s called Converter+ and can be downloaded here.


Filling up with gas you’ll be looking at the price per liter, rather than per gallon.  It takes close to four liters to make one U.S. gallon. Be forewarned: gas here is very expensive!  We paid an average of $2.50/liter.  That would basically be $10/gallon back home.  Although these are New Zealand Dollar prices, so everything is automatically a bit higher than US prices. 



Getting Around

When I went to Europe having a car would have been a bother.  The public transport went through every visible city, it was affordable and it was relatively easy to use.  If you plan to come to New Zealand and use public transport though, you’re in for a nightmare.  Major cities have small metros and bus routes but outside of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, you’re on your own.


Most of New Zealand is very rural, very untouched (this is what we LOVE about the country!). Picture the Midwest part of the states – the best way to get around is by owning your own car.  Sure, you can rent one, but you’re asking to take on a huge investment with nothing in return.


Buying a vehicle is much easier than you’d think in New Zealand.  In fact, it was crazy scary how easy it was to put a vehicle in our name – and it seriously only cost us $8 to do so!  


I’ve written a separate article on how to purchase a campervan or vehicle in New Zealand you can check out here.


Seriously though, if you’re staying more than 14 days, buying is where it’s at.  You’ll be in control of your trip and you can sell back your car when you’re done to other backpackers itching to get started on their own epic adventure.


Note: It’s cheapest to buy in the winter season in Auckland.  Everyone is leaving for the winter and ready to get out of town. This makes for some great bargains. Also, it’s harder to sell in Christchurch and there is a smaller selection of cars as most people tend to fly in and out of Auckland.  



Cost of living in New Zealand

At the time of writing this, the American dollar is stronger than the New Zealand Dollar. Specifically, $1 USD is equivalent to $1.49 NZD.  This is to your advantage – as long as you are spending the money you made in the US. However, as you begin working and earning money in New Zealand, you’ll slowly switch over to spending NZD, meaning if eggs cost $5 NZD, you’re actually spending $5 NZD, not $3.35 USD like you were before.


This is good and bad. The minimum wage in New Zealand is $17.70/hr., which seems much higher, but everything is higher so it really balances out to average west coast American prices.  That’s right, California prices, not Oklahoma prices – so, highish but doable.


One great priced item in New Zealand is WINE!  I immediately found a fantastic brand (Cleanskin) for only $6.97 a bottle and man, oh man is it delicious!  There are multiple brands at around $6-10 NZD that taste fantastic.  


I also noticed a lack of boxed wines here.  After doing the math I figure it is because bottled wine is just as cheap as boxed, so you might as well enjoy four different types of wine for the same price as one type of boxed wine.


The craft beer is amazing here too and while the prices seem higher, they translate roughly to the same you’d be paying in America.  Be prepared though, a 24-pack of Waikato (a Coors-light equivalent) is a whopping $30 NZD.



Camping in New Zealand

Once you have your own vehicle, getting around is a breeze.  If you can drive like a lefty, you can make it anywhere!  


When purchasing your car, make sure it has a blue Self-Contained sticker so you can camp at more campsites.  You’ll also want to make sure it has an up to date Warrant of Fitness or, WOF.


Fortunately, there are lots of apps for camping New Zealand.  Our favorite is Rankers, but we’ve also been told good things about CamperMate and Spaceship.


In order to keep costs low, Tyler and I searched out what are called Freedom Camping Sites. These sites are just like they sound, FREE.  If you have a self-contained vehicle you can stay at these basic camping sites.  Most have a toilet but no shower and no water. Fortunately, most campervans provide these for you.  Our little Vanita was perfectly capable of providing water for 5-6 days and by that time we definitely needed a shower.  That’s when we would look for paid camping sites or Helpx work (more on that later). 


Note: Most sites have a maximum number of vehicles they can hold so in busy summer months, come early to save your spot!  


We’ve stayed at some of the MOST BEAUTIFUL camping spots for free and enjoyed the views and the price. 


Other Places to Stay

Aside from camping there are lots of places to stay while you play in NZ. Here are a list of some of my favorite alternatives.

  • HostelWorld  - Hostels are fantastic way to make new friends and stay in a nice place for DIRT CHEAP! I have spent as little as $8/night at hostels around the world. Most waver around $12-20 but it all depends on where you’re at and what you want! Definitely check out Hostel World for more info.

  • AirBnb - Always a great way to travel, AirBnb allows you to experience local living at a fraction of the cost. Sometimes you have the place to yourself, other times you have fantastic hosts that make you feel right at home. I love AirBnb and recommend it as a great way to travel anywhere!

  • WWOOFing - Looking to work on an organic farm in exchange for free room and board? WWOOFing is a great way to do this AND meet some wonderful local farmers in New Zealand!

Groceries in New Zealand

Let’s talk a minute about buying groceries in New Zealand.  This was something we ran into snafus about several times before figuring it all out.


First of all, KEEP YOUR PASSPORT ON YOU AT ALL TIMES!  Not only is this a good safety measure, but it’s also the only way you’ll be able to buy alcohol anywhere, but especially at grocery stores and liquor stores. Keep in mind, even if you are only accompanying someone who is buying alcohol, you BOTH need to have your passports in order to complete the purchase.  


In Auckland, Tyler was buying wine with his credit card and his passport and because I didn’t have mine, they wouldn’t complete the sale.  Keep in mind we were 28 and 29 at the time.  I showed them my US Driver’s License complete with my date of birth but it was a no-go for them.  Even after I offered to walk off and leave the store entirely, they still wouldn’t allow Tyler to make the purchase.


Another crazy thing that gave us difficulties is our blasted American credit cards.  At the time I am writing this, the majority of Americans use debit and credit cards that require a signature for authentication after the purchase.  (Though I’ve read our country is soon doing away with this step, for now, this is the norm for us.)  In New Zealand, signatures aren’t very common, so they take extra steps to make sure you aren’t being fraudulent.  This can be very frustrating if you aren’t prepared, but with a few quick steps you’ll be fine.


  1.  Sign the back of all of your cards now.  Take a sharpie and sign the back of all your cards.  I really don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone do this except overseas, but the little light-colored stripe below the magnetic strip on the back of your card is meant for your signature.  Kiwi checkout workers look here first to verify that the signature on the receipt matches the signature on the card.  (Head’s Up: They WILL NOT let you sign the card in the store, as you are making the purchase.)   Even if your transaction goes through, it’s common for them to hold your groceries and cancel your payment until they have a verified signature.  A driver’s license signature might work, but it’s better not to risk it.

  2. Again, KEEP YOUR PASSPORT ON YOU AT ALL TIMES.  Never leave home without it.  They like to see this at the checkout too for varying reasons.  If you have it on you, you should be good.  Several times when buying groceries, I had to show my credit card, driver’s license and passport.  It’s a bit much but hey, it’s for your own safety.



There was a time in the Far North when I ran in a store to quickly buy a few groceries while Tyler kept watch over the van.  He handed me his credit card to pay for the purchase and off I went.  


A five-minute stop quickly turned into 30-minutes.  Even after showing the clerk Tyler’s driver’s license, passport and cell phone with the credit card information on it (yes, this took multiple trips back and forth to the van), they still would not allow me to sign the receipt because I was not, in fact, Tyler.  I even tried telling them it was a joint account (it wasn’t really, but it was worth a try) and I told them he was my boyfriend and he was in the car a mere 30 meters away.  Still, they insisted that Tyler come in and sign if we wanted to take our groceries with us.  That being said, USE YOUR OWN CARDS.


The best places for groceries in New Zealand are:


  • New World – This would be my vote for best selection at a range of prices.  They had both high-end and house-name brands which was really helpful for our taste in groceries.

  • Pak N Save – It’s super cheap with a pretty decent selection.


Random, but Tyler and I both found canned veggies hard to find, especially green vegetables. Tomatoes and beans were plentiful but green beans, peas and asparagus were hard to find and cost twice what tomatoes and beans cost (about $2 NZD per can.)




Gas ‘N Groceries

Both New World and Pak-N-Save give you discount vouchers for purchasing gas at their gas pumps if you buy groceries first.  Usually they are about 6 cents off per liter (that can add up!)  The problem we ran into at first, was that signature cards (see above) are not typically accepted at these locations.  BP Gas stations were fine because you pay inside, but Pak-N-Save and New World are pay at the pump and they want a PIN Card in order to work. 


If you’ve set up your New Zealand bank account and have money in it – great!  Use this and you’ll have no problem.  Otherwise, your American cards are pretty much ruled out and your discount is unfortunately worthless.  Sad day, and it happened to us plenty of times.


Shopping in New Zealand

Shopping in New Zealand is a bit different from shopping in the states.  For starters, no Wal-Mart.  The Warehouse is your best bet as far as bargain bin everything goes.  We really enjoyed the store but it just doesn’t hold a candle to the US giant alternative.


Amazon addicts get ready for rehab.  The affordability, reliability and convenience of two-day shipping at your fingertips isn’t happening in New Zealand.  While Amazon has served New Zealand and Australia since 2018, the GST (taxes) and shipping costs blow the costs through the roof.


After arriving I sat out to find an iPhone tripod.  I had one back home that cost $20 on Amazon and was great quality.  I searched both bargain bins and specialty stores all around the North Island, including Auckland and had no luck.  The closest thing I found was going to cost me around $200-$250 and that was to walk out of the store with it that day.


I finally resorted to Amazon.  I found my same $22 model which was much more suitable than anything I’d seen in New Zealand and opted for Prime Shipping.  The cheapest shipping was $9 and would take 5-10 business days. Because we were moving fast, I paid close to $33 for expedited shipping and was promised delivery within 2-5 business days.  That made the shipping and tax more than the actual cost of my item, but at $55, I was still well under $150 from what I would be paying in any store in New Zealand and at that high of a price I still wouldn’t have had what I really wanted.  



Safety throughout the country

We’ve been told by multiple locals that a general rule of thumb for backpackers is: the farther north you go, the more safety-conscious you need to be.


In the Far northland, Tyler and I took extreme precautions before leaving our van. This means closing the curtains all the way around, locking all doors and covering up any objects left inside the van.  Of course, we always took our passport and valuables with us, occasionally even doing hikes with laptops on our back if we had them in the van.


Another fun idea is to tape a sign to your window that says “No valuables here.”  We were told by a cop that it was a good idea but were also told that most thieves cannot read – we thought it was worth a try anyway.



Finding Work / Free places to stay

Finding backpacker work in New Zealand isn’t too hard at all, depending on what you have your hopes set on.  The New Zealand government is really well organized in that after I received my visa via email, I continued to periodically receive emails with tips and tricks for backpacking their country.  This included a list of helpful sites for finding work such as:



Tyler also found a great site for temporary work in major cities.  It’s called Sidekicker and is a great way to get short term gigs in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.


I managed to make a few bucks uploading my travel photos to Shutterstock Contributor, which can be downloaded as an app. It’s free and easy to apply and after you get started uploading, it kind of feels like a game to fill out the description and hope they accept your entry. 


But perhaps our favorite way to well.. not make money, but save more money, is by volunteering our time with locals around the country.  The website is called HelpX and it has been an amazing way for me to travel in both Australia and New Zealand.  In fact, the site is used in most countries worldwide and has some fantastic offers.


Typically, this means trading 1-5 hours of volunteer work a day in exchange for food, accommodation or a combination of both.   Through HelpX we stayed with some really lovely people and our work consisted of cleaning, gardening and sometimes even hospitality.


Because we have our own van, accommodation isn’t always on top of our list but things like warm showers, unlimited WIFI and free meals are.  This is especially helpful after camping for multiple days out in the wilderness.


I cannot say enough good things about HelpX.  It’s been the most fun way to travel in my experience.


To read a few first-hand stories about our experience HelpX-ing, click here.




I hope this article helped answer a few questions you may have had about backpacking New Zealand, and maybe even answered a few questions you didn’t know you had!  We have had nothing but blissful adventures in Kiwi country and I totally recommend making your own trip if it’s something you’re even half-way interested in.  Take six-months off of all your subscription services, brew your own coffee instead of going to Starbucks, and lay-off concerts, mani-pedis and new gadgets.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll save the money you need for this epic, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.  And remember, you won’t be able to do this again after age 30 – so why not!


If you have further questions about backpacking New Zealand, please feel free to email me at  I’d be happy to help answer what I can.  


I’ll also offer extended help and resources for those who’d like a peace of mind throughout their travels.  If this is something that interests you, inquire about these services in an email and I’d be happy to discuss price and details with you.


Here’s to great adventures!