New Zealand Part Two: a frugal family road trip

Our arrival in New Zealand (which involved secret snacks, a customs interrogation and a beagle) turned into a post all by itself. This is about the beginning of the adventure we did plan: a New Zealand family road trip.

If you have a big family, a New Zealand road trip can seem out of reach. It’s the kind of thing that retirees and twenty-something backpackers do, right? Either you have enough money to “do it right” or you’re young and flexible enough to cram yourself and your meager belongings into a rolling rust bucket and take your chances. Things get exponentially more complicated with every child you add to the mix.

And yet a New Zealand family road trip is a bucket-list experience. It almost didn’t happen for us, mainly due to cost considerations (traveling for a year induces some penny-pinching). But, at the same time, we’ve had pause to rethink a lot of things, including how to manage our finances. Bottom line: we would make New Zealand happen (and we would do it right) . . . as cheaply as possible.

Budget road trip = campervan, right?

Our first idea was to rent an RV (campervan). After some research, we found that for $300/day, not including campsite fees, we could pack ourselves like Turkish commuters on an Istanbul bus into a 21 foot RV like this. At that price, once campsite fees, fuel and insurance were factored in, we wouldn’t be saving any money. Besides, even though we’re a pretty close-knit family, thirty days of seeing, hearing and smelling every little thing every one of us does every minute of the day is not our idea of a good time (not to mention no wifi – argh!).

So, we went with Plan B.

Plan B: one month road trip – on the cheap

  • For $60/day we booked a minivan rental from Christchurch on the south island, to be returned one month later at Auckland airport on the north island.
  • We arranged eleven different Airbnb’s: seven on the south island over twenty days and four on the north island over nine more days. Nothing fancy. Two to a bedroom, a kitchen and decent reviews.
  • We bought a cooler, ice packs, ziplock bags, containers and a stockpile of food and water that we kept in cardboard boxes. That way we could take our food with us as we traveled from place to place and wouldn’t have to go to restaurants. By the time we left the country we had eaten out exactly once – on our first day at a mall food court!
  • Aside from a few museums and an art gallery, the two paid excursions we indulged ourselves in were a trip into the glow worm caves in Te Anau and a boat tour of Milford Sound. Everything else was free (mainly hiking, and playgrounds).

The best part is the driving

I’m sure bungee jumping and jet boats are a blast, but driving New Zealand’s well-signed and well-maintained system of highways and roads is a thrill in itself. Traveling in this country is not just a means of getting from A to B, it IS the experience. Sure, gasoline is expensive (about $2CAD per liter), but certainly more affordable than the myriad adrenaline-inducing activities that we bypassed as we spent the month roaming the epic landscape.

The beginning

We arrived in Christchurch too late to pick up our rental car and check into an Airbnb, so we crashed at a sketchy airport motel our first night. Sometimes you just need a safe place to sleep.

I’m sure Christchurch had more to offer, but for us it was a staging area. Pick up our chariot, provision for the first leg of the journey, and recover from our jet lag. But no city visit would be complete without checking out the local playground situation and Christchurch did not disappoint with the Margaret Mahy playground.

Margaret Mahy playground in Christchurch, NZ

On the road, at last

Two days later we were on our way. Rolling out of the city, it felt so good to have a set of wheels – our ticket to discovering this place we had heard so much about. It was like the first pull on the ribbon of a present – what would we find inside?

(Perhaps the excitement affected me a little more than I realized at the time because two weeks later I got an email from the car rental company informing me that I had incurred a speeding ticket on our way out of Christchurch. Learn from my mistake: New Zealand has a lot of hidden traffic cameras and the tickets are expensive!)

The lakes

Image result for turquoise stone

Just a few hours out of Christchurch, the land started bunching up into hills. Turning west at Geraldine, the mountains of the interior materialized in the distance. Rounding Burkes Pass, we came upon our first two “Wows” of New Zealand – first, Lake Tekapo, then Lake Pukaki. Here the gods had liquefied turquoise stone and filled two valleys with it. Like a huge necklace with gemstones cradled in mountainous fittings, connected by a delicate strand of highway. The colours of nature are often subdued – not here. (The water gets it’s colour from suspended “rock flour”, created by the grinding of ice on stone)

Lake Tekapo
Lake Pukaki with a view of Mount Cook
On the highway beside Lake Pukaki (Linds made me do it)

Our first bach and some epic walks

Our first few nights would be spent in the town of Twizel, just south of Lake Pukaki. The Airbnb was a “bach” (pronounced “batch”), the equivalent of an Ontario cottage – a holiday home, usually small and simple. From there we took a day trip up to the area of Mount Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain. A short hike took us to see New Zealand’s largest glacier – Tasman Glacier. Although it was cool to see icebergs floating in the muddy lake below the glacier (and the kids were gobsmacked to be able to touch one), it is shocking that this gigantic hunk of ice is shrinking by 400-800 metres per year (click the pictures below to make them larger).

Moving on

From Twizel, we hit the road again pushing further south. Our next stop was Te Anau – our most southerly destination (the same latitude as Patagonia), the gateway to Fiordland National Park, and home to a species of glow worm found nowhere else on the planet . . . but that’s for next time.

View from the Red Tarns trail, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park


  1. Don’t feel too bad, after several months in New Zealand and Australia we had 2 speeding tickets waiting for us in the mail when we returned (gulp…).

    Glad you are all enjoying New Zealand, the scenery reminded us of a spectaular mini-Canada filled with friendly people.

    Really enjoying the blog.

    1. I felt REALLY bad the day I got the email – mostly because there was a delay of two weeks between the infraction and the notice. So, I had no idea how many others were in the pipeline! Fortunately, we seem to have escaped with just that one.

  2. Gorgeous! Will definitely have to do the NZ trip some time.

    No worries about the ticket. Got one from Calgary for doing 45 in a 30 zone. Checked Google Street View and the 30km/h sign was behind a tree and it was only a small section of the road. What city has a 30km/h zone?!

    1. A New Zealand road trip is a big commitment but you can be sure of the payoff. Perhaps it’s best to view a few speeding tickets as a somewhat unpleasant means of donating to their beautiful country.

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