Deciding how to travel New Zealand is a difficult decision. The two most popular options are either by taking a bus tour or hiring or buying your own camper van. The former is allegedly brilliant fun, a great way to meet people and conveniently involves little to no thinking and planning time. You pick the route and time-length you want, the tour company chucks you on a bus with a group of young and rowdy travellers and with an often quirky and knowledgeable kiwi bus driver/tour guide you’ll stop off at your opted destinations around NZ. However, having your trip planned for you sounds like a wonderful stress-free way of travelling, but, jumping off at each destination, being given a set time to return to your coach and having all your activities and accommodation pre-planned (potentially not the cheapest in town) sounds far too much like a frantic school-trip. Who wants to fly to the other end of the earth to rush around a country like a headless chicken? Furthermore, it seemingly removes one of the beauties of travelling…being spontaneous and living each day as it comes. If you like somewhere, you stay longer, if you don’t, you move on. Admittedly, you can do this with the bus tours by staying longer at a chosen spot and waiting for the next bus. But what happens if the next bus is full? And, what if you don’t want to leave a bus full of all your new friends? On the contrary, what if you’re stuck on a bus with a group of people you don’t happen to gel with? Having said this, my judgements are purely based on assumptions and word-of-mouth, I have been on no such bus tours. But, these were some of the questions I posed to myself when making my decision about how I should travel the country.
Thankfully, the camper van overcomes all these potential problems. It offers freedom, you choose who you’re travelling with and it’s your accommodation and travel rolled into one! Speak to any Kiwi about travelling NZ and their first piece of advice will be: “the best way to see NZ is by Campervan”. This is because New Zealand’s landscape is consistently breath-taking. Everywhere is a ‘scenic route’. You might be driving from Fox’s Glacier to Lake Wanaka, with no expectations of what lies in between when all of a sudden you find yourself winding through snow-capped mountains overlooking a vast reflective lake. Thankfully, as with everywhere in NZ, there’s a lookout point! And, thankfully, being in a camper van, you don’t have to hope you’re stopping or ask a bus driver for permission to stop, this is YOUR camper van and if you want to make a stop and look at the scenery without looking through a thick sheet of glass…you can.
‘Well don’t you have to camp your ‘camper-van’ somewhere?’ I hear you ask. Yes, you do. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation know this too and encourages travellers and locals alike to affordably enjoy their beautiful country in an eco-friendly manner. This is why they offer ‘Freedom Camping’ for self-contained vehicles so that you can pull up your camper-van in a prohibited spot overnight, for nothing! Finding these can be extremely tricky though, especially when you’ve left it to the end of the day to find somewhere and trust me, NZ gets dark early. Print off the map from the DOC website, have a torch and a back-up plan. When you’re not passing through any prohibited areas it is likely that they’ll be a DOC camp ground which is extremely cheap (around $3-$5 a person). But if you’re someone who likes to shower daily and your mobile battery is dying then DOC camp grounds often lack power supply and showers. Checking into a proper (and pricier) campsite every so often for a wash, refuel and clean clothes is a good idea.
However, by the end of a camper van trip, you do wonder though, have I saved any money by doing my own driving and putting in that extra effort each night to find a place to pull up? I’ve still paid for petrol and some pricey campsites. So, if you’re choosing a camper van purely to tighten the purse strings, think again.
Meeting new travellers is also very difficult in a camper van, meeting people in a hostel and on a bus is by far a more sociable experience than a campsite. Furthermore, when you’ve finally reached your campsite, often in the darkness, everyone else is either eating dinner or going to bed. Expect to not see a new face for a few days, especially when travelling through the deserted West Coast of the South Island. But if you’re already in great company, then what’s the fuss?
So what’s the verdict….? Think first: ‘what do I want out of my New Zealand trip?’. Are you happy to sacrifice the freedom for an easier life and a coach load of new friends? Or are you a couple or a group of friends who are content with each others company, want that added sense of adventure and don’t mind putting in that extra mileage to soak up NZ in your own time?