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How to campervan on the cheap in New Zealand

Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand

It’s hard to believe that the 2016 Puddle Jumping fleet will soon be sailing into New Zealand for cyclone season. While some of you may be looking for work to fill the cruising kitty as we did when we sailed in nearly broke, others may be looking at a leisurely six months to explore these islands at the bottom of the South Pacific ocean. You’ll find out in Opua that New Zealand is not a cheap place to travel…unless you know how to travel cheaply here. Even if you arrive in NZ the modern way — via plane — here’s our top tips for travelling on a budget by motorhome in New Zealand.

Buy your motorhome or van. Renting an RV or campervan can cost upwards of $200 per day. For trips of a few weeks, that might be the easiest option. But if you are looking to travel for several months or more, it’s much more economical to simply buy one. Start your search on Trade Me. Look for a motorhome or campervan that’s got a recent Warrant of Fitness to avoid any upfront repairs. Make sure it’s Certified Self Contained (i.e. has got holding tanks) or you won’t be able to freedom camp anywhere. Buying any vehicle is simple in New Zealand: all you have to do is bring the registration to your local Post Shop or VTNZ and they’ll handle changing the vehicle into your name, a 5-minute process. When you’re ready to pass it on after your road trip, just pop another ad up on Trade Me and hopefully you’ll get a buyer straight away.

Freedom camping 10 minutes from Wellington's C.B.D.

Freedom camping 10 minutes from Wellington’s C.B.D.

Join the NZMCA. For less than $100/year you can join the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association. This is a great bunch of folks and besides their nonstop campaigning for motor caravanning rights, NZMCA provides very affordable motorhome insurance (sign up!), a bi-monthly magazine, resources for free or cheap places to park up (including NZMCA parks and park-over-property sites), discounts on services (Cook Strait ferry crossings, for a big one), an extensive travel directory, rallies, and a lot more. The NZMCA also has a brand new mobile broadband service offered for a fraction of the price cell providers charge.

There's not much freedom camping in Auckland. This NZCMA park in west Auckland was a life-saver during our time there.

There’s not much freedom camping in Auckland. This NZMCA park in west Auckland was a life-saver during our time there.

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Download the Wikicamps app. Get this on your phone or tablet — it’s the best app you’ll use your entire trip. Updated constantly by app users, it’s got all the freedom camping sites, places of interest like libraries and laundromats (including waste dump stations — you’ll use those a lot) and ratings and comments of all of the above. You can even save the data for offline use (and you’ll be out of cell range often so be sure to do that).

Get your DOC campsite pass. Your NZMCA membership includes the option to purchase the Department of Conservation campsite pass. Get one! With only a handful of exceptions, this pass allows your family to camp fee-free at over 170 DOC campgrounds around the country. It’s a bargain at $175 for the 2016-17 season, considering current DOC campground charges are $5 – $18 per adult and $3.00 – $7.50 per child, per night.

Avoid holiday parks. Sorry NZ tourism, but at NZ$50-$75 per night for our family to stay in a typical holiday park we avoided these like the plague. Not only are they expensive, but they are often crowded too. There are plenty of free places to park up and spread out. If you do need, or want, the luxuries of a holiday park (a shower or washing machine, perhaps), opt for an unpowered site to save a few bucks. We stayed in a few parks when winter temps dropped below freezing so we had power to run our electric heater; check your Wikicamps app for more affordable parks. There are some gems!

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Go swimming. If your fresh water reserves are limited — as ours was — you may start smelling a bit due to lack of showering. Luckily, New Zealand’s got plenty of lakes, rivers, and oceans to have a dip. Or, if you really need a shower, head to one of the many amazing swimming pools found all over. Our kids loved the water slides and giant waves! A real bargain for everyone.

Stay for the winter. I know, you probably plan to sail back to the tropics at the first sign of winter, but in our opinion, winter and spring (June-November) are the best seasons to travel New Zealand, by any means. Crowds are non-existent, off-peak rates apply, whitebait fritters are on, and you can even find some snow to play in. Saying we love winter here would be a stretch, but it’s a great way to stretch travel dollars.

Eat in. But you already know this, having sailed through French Polynesia, right?

 

Any other tips for cheap motorhome living I’ve forgot? Leave a comment and I’ll update this list.

Respect the signs please, protect our freedom camping rights.

Respect the signs please, protect our freedom camping rights.

We had the best beach in New Zealand all to ourselves last winter. (Wharariki Beach, South Island)

We had the best beach in New Zealand all to ourselves last winter. (Wharariki Beach, South Island)

Parked up at the Honest Lawyer, Nelson. Amazing coffee in the morning to boot!

Parked up at the Honest Lawyer, Nelson. Amazing coffee in the morning to boot!

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Freedom camping next to the Whangarei bridge.

Freedom camping next to the Whangarei bridge.

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We tried to visit the Coromandel one Easter weekend when we lived in Auckland. Last winter we had the whole peninsula to ourselves.

We tried to visit the Coromandel one Easter weekend when we lived in Auckland but the roads were gridlocked and we had to turn back. Last winter we had the whole peninsula to ourselves.