An Aussie’s Guide to Van Life in New Zealand
If you’re Australian (or not) and planning to move to New Zealand for an extended period of time for work or travel, you’ve come to the right place. The information I have shared below is specific to my experience with van life, but could still be useful for those just looking to travel to NZ.
To save you hours of searching, I thought I would share everything I’ve learnt and researched throughout my 12 months on the road. Hopefully, giving you all the information you need, to set yourself up for an amazing van life adventure. This post could also be a great resource for those of you who aren’t Australian, but please be aware of the different visa requirements for your specific country. For Australians however, we do not need to organise a visa and have the ability to stay and work for as long as we like.
Looking for a van
We started looking on the website www.backpackerboard.co.nz a few months before we arrived in NZ. This gave us a good idea of what was out there, what we were actually looking for and a rough price range. As we were planning on staying for one year, something small yet comfortable, was important to us. A good electrical system with solar, kitchen in the front/bed in the back and a fridge, were three of our ideal requirements. We were also looking for a certified self-contained van, as the ability to freedom camp was something we were interested in. There are many buy and sell Facebook groups to join with new campers going up every day, from multiple locations across NZ.
New Zealand Address
This is important to have. You will need an address for car registration, car insurance, IRD number and bank account. If you are planning to live life on the road for majority of your stay, you will see why having a permeant address might be difficult to come by. Ideally it would be great if you knew someone who lives in NZ, but depending on where they are located, will determine if it is the best option for you to use. For example, when opening a bank account you will probably need access to the mail you will receive or when applying for car insurance the address has a HUGE impact on cost.
You can also use campground or accommodation addresses but be aware of mail being sent to them. Try to be around when you are expecting mail and always opt for correspondence via email if possible.
If you plan to be in New Zealand for less than 2 years I would recommend investing in travel insurance. New Zealand and Australia have a health agreement where if you plan to live in NZ for more than 2 years you can access their health care system just as a resident would. For Australians who are staying under 2 years, you have access to free emergency health care only, otherwise you will have to pay the standard casual fees to see a doctor.
Another great reason for travel insurance, is it covers your stuff. Our personal items were covered with travel insurance but not with our car insurance. I know some people risk it without travel insurance, but I’m not one of them. I use Southern Cross Travel Insurance – they have always been reliable, easy to deal with and very reasonable prices.
We went with AA and chose third-party, fire and theft + glass cover. This came to about $370 for the year. Be aware of the address you put down for your car – for example, Auckland is busy and has a higher crime rate so therefore is much more expensive to insure in that area, whilst Queenstown was a lot cheaper.
A chip or cracked windscreen is inevitable on NZ roads, so the excess-free glass cover was important for us and actually saved us a lot of money. AA offered unlimited windscreen repairs, so, after we replaced the cracked windscreen we were able to claim again to fix a chip less than a month later. AA also had great customer service and made the whole claims process super easy.
Whether you plan on working or not, having an NZ bank account helps. After much research and reading reviews, we decided to go with Kiwi Bank. We loved them, but opening the account initially was a little more difficult than expected. This is because, to open most bank accounts in NZ they require proof of address in the form of a physical letter.
Scenario 1: For us, we applied for our IRD numbers online, using a campground address we knew we would be at in a couple of weeks. We could collect our letter and head to the bank from there. Please note, you want this address to be one you will be around for a few weeks as the postal service in NZ can be slow. After you pick up your initial letter and open your bank accounts, you will be issued an EFTPOS card on the spot. However, if you would like a visa debit card attached to your account as well, then they will send that card out to you in the mail to the same address.
Scenario 2: Rather than waiting for the IRD number to come in the mail (letter with proof of address), you can go into your closest IRD office (Inland Revenue) and get them to print the letter and hand it to you on the spot. This means you can go straight to the bank and open an account, but, be aware you will still have to wait a week or two for the debit card to arrive at your nominated address, should you opt for one.
Once both IRD number and bank/bank cards have been received you can login to your accounts and change your address to an address that is better for you (i.e. someone you know).
After talking to other travellers, I was told that ANZ is an easier bank to open an account with in terms of not needing the ‘Proof of physical address’ if you apply for a travellers account. I don’t know much about this process, but it seemed good from what I heard. My research led me to choose Kiwi Bank, however, if convenience is more important to you then ANZ might be a good option.
Westpac also operates in NZ, so if you are already with them, it might be good to contact them directly to see if you are able to set up an account in NZ easily. Westpac ATM's were also the best choice to get cash out from our Australian bank card, we were able to take out $2000 at a time without an ATM fee.
An IRD number is NZ’s equivalent to a tax file number in Australia. You will need this to work in NZ. As mentioned above, it also really helps with opening a bank account. It is super easy to apply for online or go into an Inland Revenue office near you.
We went with Skinny mobile. They had good data deals, decent coverage and great customer service. With rollover data we could top up with the larger data plans and then switch to the cheaper ($16) plans the following months until we ran out of data. We also received unlimited texting to Aus and free minutes to call home, which made keeping in contact with our families easy.
Okay, this is the big one. Budgeting depends a lot on how long you plan on staying, if you want to work or how much you want to work. We went to NZ with $40k saved between us. Our van took an initial big chunk of that money. After our first month I totalled our remaining savings and divided it by 52 weeks (1 year was the plan for us to stay), this gave us our weekly budget.
I then worked out how much money it cost us to live – campground fees, food and fuel. If you don’t want to work, then make sure this amount is less than your weekly budget. For us, this came under the weekly budget by $90/week and meant we had excess savings to pay for things such as car services and expenses, phone bills, tourist attractions and other one off costs. I put all of this into an excel spreadsheet to keep track of our weekly spending and to make sure our money would last the year.
Keeping track of our money meant we knew how much we could spend roughly each week without having to stress about work. The more we free camped the more we could treat ourselves to dinners out or a bottle of red and still come under our weekly budget.
You could do this similar calculation for any amount of money with any time-frame. If your cost of living is over your weekly budget then you will need to find work at some stage. Keeping track of your finances is a great way to reduce stress, knowing you won’t run out of money.
For those of you who would like exact figures:
I allocated $35 per night for a campground. This was not always the case, costs went up and down depending on the area and the facilities. I found $35 was a great guide to finding reasonable accommodation and would very rarely go over this amount.
I allocated $150 per week for food. We love food and were prepared to pay a bit extra for quality and buying in bulk. In saying this, we had a fridge so were able to store food for longer. We also ate predominately plant based so did not have the extra expense of cheese and meats. It is important to note, NZ food prices are generally higher than in Australia.
I allocated $75 per week for fuel. Depending on how much travel we did each week would depend if we went over this allocated amount. Sometimes we doubled it, other weeks we didn’t come close, but this price was a good estimate for us. We also had a diesel van so our fuel price was considerably less than petrol prices (Anywhere from 60c - $1/L cheaper). Although, diesel engines are required to pay a fee called road user charges (RUC’s) which you purchase at any post office for around $75 per 1000kms.
Budgeting is very much based on the individual - you could easily spend much less or far more than we did. You can always make it work with what you have.
'It’s the place to reconnect with nature, and reconnect with yourself'
Freedom camping is the way to go to save money. First of all, I would really recommend downloading the app ‘WikiCamps – NZ’. It does cost a few dollars but it was definitely worth it. This was the most accurate app we used for camp locations and information, community reviews and many free camp options.
A lot of the time free camps are for ‘self-contained’ vehicles only. If free camping is going to be your preference then I would highly recommend purchasing a van that is certified self-contained. This is a strict and well enforced government regulation to keep the environment and free camping locations clean and tidy. Please abide by the free camping rules and respect the area and locals you are sharing the space with. Always take your rubbish with you if there is no bin to put it in, and always use the public toilets if available or the toilet in your own van. There are some incredible free camps across NZ and it would be amazing to keep it that way.
It is definitely possible to travel NZ in a non-self-contained (NSC) vehicle, however your freedom camping options are limited.
DOC (Department of Conservation) sites are also generally low cost campgrounds with all the basic facilities.
We signed up to the website – www.kiwihousesitters.co.nz and found a place to stay for the Winter. This was a life changing experience for us as we scored the perfect location, beautiful dog, and amazing owners. It was also a great way to save money on fuel, accommodation and food. We saved a total of $2500 in the 9 weeks we house sat, purely because our general cost of living was reduced.
Talk to your fellow travellers, they have the best contacts. They will be able to tell you who is hiring, who is worth it, who treats you well, how much you will get paid, what you can expect and how to contact them. If you’re struggling to meet fellow travellers, pull up at a free camp, and speak to your neighbours. You can also find job adverts on www.backpackerboard.co.nz.
North vs South Island
We started in the South Island for the first half of our trip. From March to October we experienced ALL of the seasons. It was hot like summer at home for a lot of March but when the seasons started to change, we knew about it! I always say that the South Island was where I found myself. It was where I learnt to slow down, properly.. I was forced to learn a lot about myself that I had otherwise run away from. We were secluded, with minimal social life or social interactions. We didn’t meet a lot of travellers, or if we did it was only ever the small kitchen talk. We kept to ourselves, read books, walked a lot, meditated, learnt new recipes and hid from the rain. The landscape, the mountains, the waterfalls, the fairy garden rainforest walks, it was all like a dream. The South Island is the place to be for unimaginable beauty. It’s the place to reconnect with nature, and reconnect with yourself. If you have the time, take it slow here, we spent a slow 7 months and could have easily taken longer if we weren’t worried about missing anything on the North Island.
When we drove off the ferry onto the North Island, it actually felt like a different country. Wellington was our first ‘city’ city. Our first multi lane highway, with high-rise buildings, one way streets, beeping tunnels - the lot! We forgot what it was like to be in a big city, and we got out of there ASAP. As we moved up the west coast we fell in love with the pockets of nature and countless walking tracks. While the North Island had a different vibe to it, there was still an abundance of natural beauty. Cities meet national parks, meet oceans, meet mountains, meet lakes - not to mention the Forgotten World Highway (an absolute must do!!), as you head inland from Mt Taranaki. The North Island was our social island - we connected with people from all over the world, not just with travellers but locals as well. The beaches on the North Island are the place to be when Summer shows up, endless waves and sand that changes colour depending on the side of the country you are on. Be aware of their sun though, even for an Aussie, it burns in just minutes so please don’t forget to slip, slop and slap!
If I haven’t overloaded you with enough information already and you’d like to know more, or there is anything I haven’t touched on, please leave a comment below or feel free to message me directly!
Love, Han xx