If you tell people that you’re traveling to New Zealand on a budget the assumption is that you will be hiring a camper van.
When they find out that you aren’t renting a camper van their facial expression is that of someone realizing that the chocolate truffle they bit into has a weird fruity filling.
Camper vans and New Zealand go together like peanut butter and jelly, which is why I felt like I was breaking some unspoken traveler code when I opted to plan a New Zealand road trip, minus the camper van. Best decision ever. In doing so I saved money, slept better, used less gas, and discovered a more luxurious way to explore New Zealand on a budget.
In choosing where to stay in New Zealand I looked for places that had the possibility to cook, a private bathroom, and a separate sleeping area for our kids. I also set my budget at under $300 NZD ( approximately $200 USD). Hostels were eliminated due to the fact that I was traveling with young children. It seemed inhumane on the twenty-something crowd to bring our early morning wake ups and “stupid is a bad word” family vibes into a hostel.
I quickly learned that holiday parks offer a pleasant potpourri of budget friendly accommodation options, not just camp sites. Additionally, in a country known for it’s friendly locals, staying in an Airbnb turned out to also be an appealing alternative to renting a camper van.
Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of camper vans, holiday parks, and Airbnbs!
Is A Camper Van Really the Best Budget Option?
Coming from the United States where campgrounds are synonymous with smelling like campfire smoke and cinderblock bathrooms, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that holiday parks, aka campgrounds, in New Zealand are really nice. Picture sparkling clean bathrooms, hot tubs, walking distance to main attractions, and a range of accommodation options including two bedroom units.
Cost of Camper Van Hire Vs. Staying in a Holiday Park Unit
A quick google search found that you can rent a basic Apollo camper van that can fit four people for approximately $139 NZD a day, not including any extra insurance add ons. This would not be the giant tour bus sized RV’s that we are accustomed to in the United States but rather a large van type vehcile. However, the daily rate of renting the van doesn’t include the cost of the camp site at campground, which at the Hot Water Beach Holiday Park is $26NZD a night for a powered site. This brings the nightly cost of sleeping to approximately $165NZD. An “Ensuite Unit” at Hot Water Beach Holiday Park is $175NZD a night. This means for $10 more you can have your kids sleeping in their own bunk room, a private bathroom, and a BBQ on your deck!
If you’re thinking you’ll save money by forgoing staying in a holiday park and “freedom camping” make sure you do a little research before embarking on this plan. New Zealand has been limiting where people can freedom camp due to pollution issues.
Wondering what “freedom camping” is? In true, laid-back Kiwi fashion, freedom camping is camping in a not designated campground. Basically pulling over your van and sleeping on the side of the road or in a park with a bathroom. It’s a very minimalist approach to camping.
* This price comparison is based on a family of four traveling together. For couples who can rent a compact van, hiring a camper van might be the most economical budget option. Assuming your relationship is strong enough to withstand sharing a tight space together and embracing the van lifestyle.
Cost of Driving a camper van Vs. a Rental Car
Camper van enthusiasts will argue that one of the big ways that renting a camper van saves you money is that you don’t also have to rent a car. However, I found that car rentals in New Zealand are really cheap. For $20 a day you can rent a fuel efficient Toyota Prius.
Something that’s not cheap in New Zealand? Gas. The delectable cheeses and bargain wines might help you forget how much money you’re spending on gas on your South Island road trip but your credit card bill when you return home will remind you. If you’re going to be covering large distances getting the most fuel efficient car possible could save you a significant amount of money.
The Camper Van Comfort Factor
How excited are you to fall asleep listening to a symphony of snoring? Are you ok delivering an Oscar worthy performance of pretending to be asleep in your bed while you wait for your kids to fall asleep? There’s not a lot of space in a camper van. Chances are if you have young children there might be some exceptionally tough bedtimes and early wake ups.
Another thing to consider is how comfortable are you driving a large vehicle? Not only are you driving, and parking, a large unfamiliar vehicle, you are driving on the left-hand side of the road.
There are no shortage of holiday parks in New Zealand. Staying in a holiday park cabin is a wonderful compromise between the adventurous spirit of exploring New Zealand in a camper van with all the comforts of a boutique hotel.
Heated towel racks, panoramic views, and plush feather duvets were just a few of the amenities we enjoyed at the various holiday parks. My family loved being able to have that campy feel and socialize with other travelers in communal spaces, we were regulars at the giant inflatable bouncing pillows. Yet it was nice having a cabin as a peaceful, private space when we needed to recharge.
Below is a list of my favorite places we stayed and a few insider tips.
Holiday Top 10 Hot Water Beach
This place is amazing! The “Deluxe Family Villa” is a tiny home enthusiast’s fantasy. The space is used really efficiently and can easily accommodate a family of four without feeling cramped. The kids slept in the upstairs loft in twin beds while we had a glorious queen sized bed in the downstairs. (plush duvet, plenty of pillows, crisp white sheets.. not your typical “camping” sleep situation!) . The holiday park is an easy walk from legendary Hot Water Beach and has a store where you can rent a spade for digging your own oceanfront hot tub. The store also is well stocked with groceries and even sold reasonably priced bottles of wine from local wineries. So mom and dad can have a glass of wine on the beach while their children dig hot tubs in the sand. #Winning
Tips for staying at Holiday Top 10 Hot Water Beach
- Make your reservation early. There are a limited number of the larger accommodation options.
- The nearest large grocery store is a 30-40 minute drive so stock up on produce before you arrive (the camp store was a little limited on fresh fruits/veggies.)
- Definitely spend a few days if possible. There are plenty of other beautiful beaches to discover!
- There are numerous Holiday Top 10 Holiday Parks throughout both the North and South Islands. They offer a membership that provides members with a discount. If you are going to be staying at other Top 10 parks this can save you money.
Queenstown Holiday Park & Motels Creeksyde.
In all honesty this was the most underwhelming of all the holiday parks we stayed in. Our two bedroom cabin was large and had a well stocked kitchen but was a little bare bones and didn’t have much charm. The park itself is really crowded, it feels like staying in a parking lot, however it is walking distance to downtown Queenstown for a fraction of the cost of other similarly located hotels. So if you’re just looking for a budget Queenstown accommodation option and don’t need an insta-worthy bedroom then this is a good option.
Tips for staying at Queenstown Park & Motels Creeksyde
- Consider walking rather than driving to downtown. It’s not far and the traffic/parking is so bad in the downtown area that it’s quicker to walk!
- Take advantage of the nearby grocery store/kitcehn to save some money and cook a few meals.
Getaway Te Anu Holiday Park
With lakeview private hot tubs set in a magical little garden, the Getaway Te Anu feels more like a boutique hotel than a campground. The location is unbeatable, across from the lake and adjacent to a grassy park that includes a fun playground. It’s also easy walking distance to a variety of restaurants. On top of that our unit was tastefully decorated and had family friendly features such as a pretty little backyard space and bunkbeds.
Tips for staying at Getaway Te Anu
- To use the hot tubs you must make a reservation. I’d recommend taking a soak around sunset and watching the sun sink into the mountains behind the lake from the comfort of your own private hot tub.
- The glowworm tour by Real Journey’s is walking distance from Getaway Te Anu and was one of our favorite tours of the trip.
Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park & Motels
Coming from the immaculate Getaway Te Anu my initial impression of the Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park was that it was a little worn down. Our cabin was dated (a few sections of wall paper were peeling at the base of the wall, a cracked window, old carpet..)and the location didn’t have the same convenient walkability that we’d grown accustomed to. But once I looked past the outdated interior I was able to appreciate the beautiful view. Really it was the large grassy lawn and the sweeping views that made the place noteworthy. In the evening we’d have dinner outside, open a bottle of sauvignon blanc and watch the wild rabbits grazing on the lawn.
Tips for staying at Wanaka Kiwi Holiday Park
- The hot tubs are indoor and require that you pay a small fee to access them. Being indoor there’s not much ambiance and you might notice the smell of chlorine in the air. But if you’re body is wrecked from climbing Roy’s Peak it might be a welcomed option.
- Rent bikes from the office and ride into town/explore the bike path along the lake. They even have kids bikes!
- There are several absolutely stunning hikes in the Wanaka area. Read my article on the best short hikes in New Zealand to learn more.
AirBnb’s in New Zealand
We stayed at a few Airbnb’s on the North and South Island during our New Zealand vacation. And I have no complaints about them. How can you complain when you’re perched on a cliff overlooking Raglan’s most famous surf break? And gazing at the starry night sky from the porch of a loft in Lake Tekapo is pretty magical. But there were some disadvantages to staying in an Airbnb compared to a holiday park.
Cost of Airbnb Vs. Holiday Park
With all the booking and cleaning fees that get tacked on to the cost of the Airbnb rental it really doesn’t save you money to stay in an Airbnb for a short period of time. And chances are if you are road tripping around New Zealand you will only be staying in one location for a few days.
Of all the places we stayed the Airbnbs were the most expensive option. Clean, charming, a bit more spacious than the holiday park units but that came at a cost. On average the nightly rate at the Airbnbs were about $50-$70 USD more than what we paid at the holiday parks.
Staying in an Airbnb
One of the things that makes traveling special is the opportunity to interact with other travelers. When you’re staying in an Airbnb rental it naturally isolates you. While I’m past the stage of wanting to play ping pong at 2am in the common room at a hostel, I still enjoy having the occasional random conversation with a newly made acquaintance.
These random conversations with locals and tourists can steer you towards a hidden bakery or simply offer the opportunity to laugh with someone new. When you stay in an Airbnb chances are you’ll have more space and privacy but at the cost of less opportunities to joke around with the friendly Aussies in the cabin next door.
The Bottom Line: Don’t assume that if you’re traveling New Zealand on a budget that a camper van is the best or only option. Holiday Parks have many of the same perks as camper vans for a similar cost but with more comforts.