New Zealand's sweeping mountain vistas, pristine beaches, unique wildlife and fascinating Maori culture make it a dream destination for many travelers. But exploring the Land of the Long White Cloud doesn't come cheap. An expensive long-haul flight will take the first chomp out of your budget -- and once you arrive, you'll find high prices for gas, food and excursions.
To help make your dream trip a reality, we've gathered 25 secrets for saving money on every aspect of your New Zealand vacation. Read on to learn how to trim tour costs, find a cheaper flight and eat well for less.
1. Travel at the right time. New Zealand's seasons are the reverse of those in the Northern Hemisphere, so the busy summer travel season runs from December through February. Both international travelers and Kiwis swarm the country's most popular sights this time of year, and prices rise accordingly for everything from airfare to accommodations. Consider visiting during the quieter spring or fall shoulder seasons, or during the winter (where tourism is down everywhere except ski areas like Queenstown).
2. Focus your trip. New Zealand may not look like a big country, but if you want to take in the major sights on both islands, a week or two just won't cut it. If your time or budget is limited, concentrate on either the North Island or the South Island, not both. Staying focused will save you a mound of money on internal transportation; domestic flights or gas for long car trips can eat away at your vacation budget.
3. Look for airfare sales. Because of New Zealand's remote location, airfare is a pricey proposition for most international visitors. To help trim costs, keep an eagle eye out for fare sales on major carriers like Air New Zealand and Qantas. Both airlines offer sales and discounts by email; you can also sign up for fare alerts from your favorite booking site or airfare aggregator (such as Expedia.com, TripAdvisor.com/CheapFlightsHome, Momondo.com or Kayak.com).
4. Get creative with fare combinations. For American travelers, most sales on Air New Zealand and Qantas are for departures from Los Angeles or San Francisco. If you don't live near one of these airports, consider booking a cheap fare aboard a discount airline like Southwest, JetBlue or Virgin America to get you to and from California. The cost of that flight plus an LAX-Auckland sale ticket on Air New Zealand could be cheaper than booking the whole itinerary through a single airline.
5. Keep an eye on exchange rates. Along with fuel prices, currency fluctuations can have a noticeable effect on the cost of your airfare. I took advantage of this myself on a recent trip; I made my booking at a time when the U.S. dollar was strengthening against the Kiwi dollar, which resulted in lower fares from Air New Zealand.
6. Put it on plastic. Forget the old "cash is king" rule. The vast majority of hotels, restaurants, tour operators and shops in New Zealand accept credit cards. If you've got a card through a bank that doesn't charge you for foreign transactions, you can pay for nearly your entire trip without shelling out for ATM withdrawal charges or currency exchange fees. To learn more about no-fee credit cards, see The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas.
7. Skip the exchange counter. To get cash, use your ATM card to make withdrawals rather than changing your own currency at an exchange counter; by doing so, you'll get the interbank exchange rate, which is usually 2 - 5 percent better than the rates you'll find at the counter. Note that you'll probably have to pay a fee to make a withdrawal (charged by your own bank, the local bank or both), so we recommend taking out a sizable amount of cash each time to minimize extra fees. Just be sure to stow the cash in a safe place under your clothes. For more information, see ATMs Abroad and Money Safety Tips for Travelers.
8. Don't tip. Tipping is not customary in New Zealand, so you don't need to leave anything extra for your waiter, tour guide or bellhop unless the service was truly exemplary. Even then, 5 - 10 percent is plenty.
Attractions and Activities
9. Pick your poison. You could easily blow hundreds of dollars a day on tours, excursions and entrance fees, particularly if your New Zealand bucket list includes pricey once-in-a-lifetime activities like bungy jumping or helicopter flightseeing. If your budget hurts just thinking about it, we advise you to research, research, research. Read reviews from other travelers to decide which activities are absolutely worth the price and which ones you can live without.
10. Find some freebies. In between all of New Zealand's $150 dolphin encounters and $300 flightseeing excursions are plenty of free attractions to enjoy. It costs nothing to hike in most national parks, lie on a North Island beach, wander along the Rotorua Lakefront or stroll through botanical gardens in Queenstown. The Auckland Art Gallery is free to enter, as is Wellington's magnificent Te Papa museum.
11. Visit an i-SITE. Practically every city, town and village has one of these friendly tourist offices, which are staffed with local experts that can answer questions, hunt for accommodations and book tours. They're often a good source of discounts too. When we asked an Auckland i-SITE staffer for details about going to Kelly Tarlton's SEA LIFE Aquarium, she told us that we'd save 10 percent by purchasing advance tickets -- and she booked them for us then and there.
12. Get a repeat discount. Some tour operators will knock a few bucks off the sticker price for travelers who book multiple tours with them. For example, Real Journeys, which offers a variety of cruises and adventure activities in the Queenstown/Fiordland region, will take 20 percent off the cost of the lower-priced tour if you book more than one.
13. Consider a city pass. Both Auckland and Wellington offer discount passes that will get you into multiple city attractions for a set price that's cheaper than the cost of individual admission. The catch is, of course, that you'll have to visit most or all of the attractions to see any savings. If the pass dovetails with your sightseeing plans, it could be a great deal.
14. Zig when others zag. You can often save big by traveling when others aren't. For example, one of New Zealand's most popular activities is a scenic cruise on Milford Sound (it's actually a fjord, but who's counting?). Thanks to an influx of day-trippers from Queenstown, lunchtime sailings are the most crowded -- and most expensive. Aim for the first or last cruise of the day to enjoy discounted rates.
15. Be a deal hound. Do a little sniffing and you're sure to find ways to trim your trip costs. Start with local tourism sites, which often have "deals" or "specials" sections. On Rotorua's tourism site, RotoruaNZ.com, there are currently dozens of deals in a variety of categories such as "Culture" and "Spa Indulgence." Another great way to save? Search for coupon codes. I saved 10 percent off a booking on the Interislander Ferry (which runs between the North and South Island) just by using a promo code I found on the Web.
16. Take the bus. Car rentals are pricey in New Zealand, as is fuel. Avoid these costs by taking New Zealand's local buses, which offer inexpensive rides from as little as $1 NZ to a network of destinations around the country. InterCity and Nakedbus (no nudity is involved, we promise!) are two of the more popular services.
17. Look to the locals. While New Zealand is served by most of the big-name international car rental companies (think Thrifty, Hertz and the like), you'll often find better rates by booking with a smaller local company. A few to consider: Ace, Apex, GO and and Jucy.
18. Consider a clunker. Not too picky about your wheels? Many car rental companies offer older vehicles at bargain rates. For example, Jucy's "El Cheapo" cars have clocked 200,000+ kilometers (more than 124,000 miles).
19. Buy a used vehicle. For long-term travelers who will be in the country for a few months, it may be cheaper to purchase a used car or campervan than to pay for a rental. As a bonus, you can sell the vehicle again at the end of your trip and potentially recoup most of your costs; some dealers will offer a buy-back guarantee.
20. Go to the grocery store. Make like the locals and get most of your food from grocery stores rather than restaurants. Grab some bread, hummus, yogurt and fruit for a quick picnic lunch. Better yet, use the kitchen in your hostel, rental cottage or campervan to cook meals for yourself each night.
21. Get happy. Alcohol can be pricey in New Zealand, but many bars and pubs frequented by young backpackers offer happy hours with bargain-priced drinks.
22. Drink from the tap. Tap water is potable throughout New Zealand, so you don't need to waste money on bottled water, especially in restaurants. Bring a reusable bottle and refill it from the faucet before you head out each morning. (Do take normal precautions when drinking from streams out in the wild, though. See Drinking Water Safety for more info.)
23. Brave the backpackers. New Zealand has a wide network of extremely affordable hostels (typically called "backpackers"). Don't want to bunk with five or six other people? Not to worry. Most hostels have at least a few basic private rooms on offer, often with ensuite bathrooms. In addition to affordable rates, they usually have kitchens available for travelers' use, so you can further trim your budget by cooking a few meals for yourself.
24. Be a happy camper. Caravanning and camping are very popular in New Zealand. There are official Department of Conservation campsites as well as privately owned holiday parks, most quite affordable, but "free camping" is also legal in some places. (See Camping.org.nz for more information.) A word of caution: Free campers have gotten a bad rap with the locals -- not to mention some hefty fines -- for leaving litter behind. Be sure to keep New Zealand's countryside as pristine as you found it.
25. Stay on a farm. You can stay for free on an organic farm in New Zealand if you're willing to get your hands dirty. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) organizes volunteer opportunities on farms around the world; see wwoof.co.nz for New Zealand listings. If you'd rather not work on your vacation, you can still often find affordable farmstays and homestays at RuralHolidays.co.nz. For more alternative lodging ideas, see Ditch the Hotel: 10 Cheaper Ways to Stay.
-- written by Sarah Schlichter
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.