A collection of tips & tricks for making your working holiday/vacation in New Zealand easier!
by stomps on June 1, 2008
New Zealand is very much a backpacker's country; this is obvious by the sheer number of hostels throughout the country. Even in some of the most remote areas, there are often one or two hostels catering to the travelers passing through. Because there are so many hostels--most of which have an average price range of $20-25 for a dorm bed--figuring out where to stay in NZ isn't nearly as easy as in other countries where you don't have much of a selection.There are three different hostel "loyalty programs" in New Zealand. The first, and most well-known outside the two islands, is YHA, or Youth Hostelling Association (and known as Hostelling International worldwide). There are approximately 50 hostels in NZ that carry the YHA label. Many of these are owned by the YHA, but a few are associate members that incorporate the YHA discount system. All YHAs have a $3 surcharge for any bed if you are a non-member; so, if you plan to stay in a YHA for more than 9 nights, it's worth buying the $40 card, especially since it also comes with a phone card worth $10. Also, many restaurants and activities offer special discounts to YHA members. However, you should do your research before you buy the card; I only ended up staying in one YHA for my entire trip because I'm not a huge fan. The hostels are always clean and pleasant places to stay, but I often find them too large and impersonal. Plus, they rarely provide non-pay phones, which is a regular occurrence at BBH hostels, so calling home/making phone reservations incurs a huge (~40c a minute) surcharge. One big upside to YHAs is that they nearly always have fantastic internet facilities that are reasonably priced and sometimes have USB connections/memory card readers. This is convenient if you want to use the internet in the evening, since you don't have to leave the hostel. Just be warned that the internet is all on a pre-paid system (you buy a code for a certain number of minutes from the front desk) and if you decide you want to use the internet after reception has closed, you're out of luck!BBH (or Budget Backpacker Hostels) is the largest association of hostels in the country. Boasting nearly 370 hostels spanning from Kerikeri in the far north to Invercargill in the south, you are likely to find a BBH hostel in nearly every place you want to go (for instance, I stayed in a BBH hostel in Punakaiki on the South Island's West Coast…a town that is 50kms away from both petrol and groceries!). I bought a $45 BBH card on my first night in NZ, because it pays for itself after about eight nights. This is because the BBH card gives you a $2-3 discount per night (depending on the individual hostel's policy) and comes with a phone card initially loaded with $20. This phone card was definitely the best investment I made in New Zealand, since most BBH hostels will provide the local phone number for the phone card and either have a non-payphone or have an exception so the phone does not charge if you are dialing the BBH number. I have explained more about phone cards in another entry in this journal. BBH hostels are only members of an association rather than hostels owned & operated by a specific group like the YHA. This means that the hostels vary widely in their upkeep and character. Most of the hostels are fantastic (although there are definitely dodgy ones as well), and they are often smaller and have a much friendlier atmosphere. The association publishes a guide to its hostels that it updates yearly; this guide is an absolute essential to any traveler in NZ. Everyone I met carried it in a convenient pocket, where it could easily be reached and pored over. This guide has all of the essentials for each hostel: its name, address, phone number, website/email, and a map, as well as more personalized content, including a short description and BBH rating. These ratings are mined from a survey filled out by everyone staying in BBH hostels on a certain night of the year (I gleefully filled mine in while staying at Wanaka Bakpaka in late February), so they aren't just an arbitrary score given by some reviewer. I found that the numbers were normally spot on, and I always knew that if I could get a booking at a hostel with a 90% or better rating that I would be in for a real treat. The BBH also provides its own website where BBH card holders can log in and contribute to "online ratings" without having to wait for the yearly survey. Often, most hostels only have 3-4 ratings online, but some of the comments can be helpful.The last loyalty program found in New Zealand is VIP. They, at least to me, seemed much less visible than the other two associations in NZ, even though they claim to be the world's leading hostelling association. They apparently have 70 hostels in NZ, but if I stayed in a VIP-associated hostel in my ten weeks, I was not aware of it. The VIP website isn't too helpful, so I don't know how much the card costs, but it says that you can get at least $1 off at any member hostel in NZ, which is significantly less than the other two cards provide.Overall, my recommendation for the most useful card in NZ is the BBH card, but you may have a different opinion. You don't have to stick to one card, either--buy them all if you want!
Everyone has heard, since the advent of sunscreen, that you need to cover up from the sun or else you'll get skin cancer. Nowhere is this more true than New Zealand, which receives some of the most direct sunlight in the world due to the convenient hole in the ozone above the country.When arrived in Kaikoura (which will be reviewed in another journal), I decided to take a walk along the peninsula walkway, so I lathered on the sunscreen and wore a jacket and long pants. I figured I was good to go, so I took off on the four-hour walk. It was a brilliant day, meaning the sun was out in full force, and I quickly had to take off my jacket…but forgot to put on sunscreen on my now-exposed arms. Four hours later, I found that I couldn't even touch my arms because they were so burned. Bending my elbow at all or slightly moving my shoulder caused me to scream in agony…so sleeping on my side that night was quite fun! Even worse, I found out all of the places that I missed because they had turned red as well. I had spots on my forehead and neck, and my ears were a shade of red normally seen in the capsicum (red pepper) section of the supermarket. I was quite a sight…and everyone in the hostel let me know that. Even worse, my skin started peeling just as I started the Queen Charlotte Track and was still peeling when I started the Abel Tasman Track a week and a half later!So, let that be a cautionary tale. Even if you feel that you don't burn where you live, you will in NZ. The first thing people commented on when they saw me after my trip was how dark I'd gotten--and I wore sunscreen religiously after the incident in Kaikoura! I kept a tube of SPF30 with me at all times, and made sure I coated myself in it, even if it was a cloudy day.Also, try to prepare yourself with clothes that will cover up more of your body. I made sure that my hiking clothes would cover up as much as possible without being excessive. I knew that only packing pants would be a bad idea, so I took some pants and some zip-off pants, which I could wear as pants until it got unbearably hot and then could convert to knee-length shorts. All of my shirts had sleeves (I couldn't deal with getting burned on my shoulders while carrying around my big backpack) and the majority of them had collars so I could keep the sun off my neck as much as possible. I always wore a hat to keep the sun out of my eyes and off of my face.The main point of this entry is just to make you aware that the sun is a serious risk while you're out and about in NZ, and as long as you follow the Australian "slip, slop, slap" mantra (so you "slip" on a shirt, "slop" on some sunscreen, and "slap" on a hat), you'll keep yourself as safe as possible.
I spent nearly three of my ten weeks in New Zealand tramping in the backcountry. To me, this felt like the best way to see the scenery that the country is renowned for; how could there be a better feeling than getting to the top of a long, grueling climb to find a superb vista at the top that only those who make the effort to walk there get to see? Sure, there's scenic views everywhere you look in NZ, but I felt like I would appreciate it so much more if I had put in a serious physical effort to see them.The NZ Department of Conservation owns and takes care of all of the trails that I tramped on. They have a network of hundreds of tracks that range from "Great Walks" status (the biggest and most maintained walks, of which there are 9) to "route" status, where you need a compass, map, and lots of extra gear for when you get lost. The DOC are fantastic at what they do; because of their hard work, tramping has become accessible to so many more people.This entry will concentrate on "Great Walk" and "Track" grade walks, since these are the walks that I did. I stayed away from the less frequented/more remote walks as I was traveling on my own and felt much safer knowing that there were definitely other people on the track and often, wardens living at each hut. However, much of this information can be applied to the smaller tracks as well.The first step to doing a walk in New Zealand is finding the local DOC office. Most towns (especially those in areas known for tramping) will have one. You can locate the closest one to you here. The office will have staff on hand to answer any questions, and many have big displays of the local tracks as well. You can buy brochures, which describe a specific track (I have linked to the Routeburn Track brochure), possible weather conditions, and gear needed, for $1. If your track does not have its own brochure, or you feel the brochure isn't detailed enough, you can also buy maps.Two important points are made in all brochures--that you need adequate food and water for the entire track. There are very few tracks that have stores/restaurants along them (the Queen Charlotte is the only one that I can think of), so you need to bring in enough high-energy food to keep you going for at least 1 day longer than your intended stay on the track, in case something goes wrong and you get stuck. I recommend dehydrated 2-serving "Backcountry Cuisine" that is sold in most supermarkets. This weighs 165g and gives you a balanced dinner with little preparation (all you have to do is boil water and let the food soak in it for 10 minutes). I know it doesn't sound appetizing, but it's edible. Also, a stove with gas bottle is a must. Not even all of the Great Walks provide stoves, so you're better off bringing your own along unless it's explicitly indicated that the facilities are provided. And, while all huts do have a water source, not all of them are deemed to be "safe" by the DOC, meaning that you could get giardiasis (a fun intestinal parasite that causes "explosive and foul-smelling" diarrhea) if you drink water that has been untreated. A stove provides the easiest way to treat the water, since you simply boil it for 3 minutes. You can also bring along giardia-rated water filters or iodine tablets to purify water as well.The second piece of business you should take care of at the DOC office is that of huts. The huts are the only thing that the DOC charges you for whilst on the track. On all walks except the Great Walks--the Waikaremoana, Tongariro Northern Circuit, Whanganui River (which is actually a kayak, rather than a walk), Abel Tasman, Heaphy, Routeburn, Milford, Kepler, and Rakiura--you do not need to book a hut or campsite in advance. However, you will need to buy backcountry hut tickets. There are a few options for doing this; if you plan to do a lot of walks that are classified as "backcountry"--meaning they are not Great Walks during peak season--you can buy an annual pass for $90. Otherwise, each individual hut pass costs $5. This doesn't mean that each night in a backcountry hut will cost $5; some huts, depending on their level of upkeep and facilities available, will cost 2-3 tickets. You should be aware that since these huts do not require a booking, they may be full when you arrive (especially during peak season). Therefore, you might want to carry extra gear just in case, such as a sleeping mat or tent.Often, campsites are located proximal to the huts. Campsites are generally cheaper than the huts but don't provide quite the number of amenities. Often, toilets are shared between the huts and the campers, but campers are often not allowed inside the hut itself to use the stove facilities/sit under cover for a while. Cooking shelters are sometimes provided, as is untreated running water.I mentioned above that certain Great Walks have their own booking system. This booking system is online and can therefore be accessed before you've even arrived in the country; bookings become available for the next season around July 1 of each year. It is highly recommended that you check out availability for these Great Walks a while before you plan to actually walk them, since they can be very popular and the huts only hold about 40 people per night. The Milford Track, for instance, books out months beforehand; I booked in September for walking in March!The system is very easy to use; simply go to the DOC page about the track you wish to walk and click on "online booking." This page is an example of the booking form for the Milford Track. Before you start booking, you should research the track and decide which huts/campsites you would like to stay in, since there are sometimes many choices (in the case of the Abel Tasman Track, for example) depending on how far you'd like to walk in a day. In the Milford Track's case, however, you have no choice--you have to stay one night in each hut along the track.Once you have begun booking and have searched for the date you'd like to walk, a grid of availabilities is brought up for the week you'd like to walk in. All huts and campsites along the tracks can be booked here, and some tracks (like the Milford) allow bookings for transport to/from the track as well (and I have described transport in detail in another of this journal's entries). Space on these tracks is much more expensive than on the smaller backcountry walks due to high demand; huts cost between $30-40 a night and campsites cost about $12. After you complete and pay for your booking, you are provided with a confirmation number and a page listing exactly what you've paid for. Print this page and keep it handy; you will either need to show it to the hut wardens (on tracks like the Abel Tasman) to prove you've paid or give the reference number to your local DOC office so they can print your hut tickets (on tracks such as the Routeburn, Milford, and Kepler).The last order of business at the DOC office is inquiring about the trail conditions and extra gear you may need. While the brochures often provide a fairly comprehensive list of necessities, the staff have been updated on the latest conditions and may have other recommendations. As I have described in my "Weather" entry, you should always know the next few days' weather forecasts, because the weather can change exceedingly quickly and put you in grave danger if you are unprepared. One of the more dangerous effects of bad weather is that it causes river and stream levels to rise; many tracks have unbridged crossings that can become impassable when flooded, leaving you stranded in the wilderness or worse, attempting to cross a river and possibly drowning.This inquiry may also include filling out a form of your intentions. This is not needed on the Great Walks, but otherwise, you are better off filling out a form telling the DOC where you plan to go and how long you plan to be there in case something goes wrong. When you return from the track, you simply drop a slip with your details into a box at a DOC office and they know you are okay; if you don't do this, they will start a search for you.I know this is a lot of information to absorb, but don't be scared; I truly enjoyed tramping in New Zealand and found it to be one of the most fulfilling parts of my trip.
It's hard to write an entry about weather across the entirety of New Zealand, so please don't expect this to be a detailed analysis of weather patterns for the whole country (that can probably be found here, along with day-to-day forecasts and any other weather information you may need). Instead, I will highlight a few regions that have weather patterns that will greatly impact your trip and also point out some of the extreme hazards that weather creates for travelers.Some areas of New Zealand seem to have fantastic weather year-round, like the Nelson and Marlborough regions. Others seem to be constantly under a pall of rain--especially the West Coast and Fiordland on the South Island. This weather is a blessing, though, because it has created the astounding landscapes there today; still, the Kiwis like to blame any rainy day on the Australians. This is because all of the hot air that flows off of the arid continent of Oz flows across the Tasman Sea, picking up water vapor as it goes. When it reaches New Zealand, it hits the wall of the Southern Alps and has to rise quickly, causing that vapor to turn into torrents of rain. Many areas of the West Coast and Fiordland receive over 5 meters(!!) of rain per year, which falls on 2 out of every 3 days.As I've said, the rain has helped to shape these two regions. The West Coast is largely temperate rainforest, which makes the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers all the more amazing, since they are two of only three glaciers in the world that flow into rainforests. Milford Sound in Fiordland is supposedly even more beautiful in the pouring rain because its sheer walls turn into massive waterfalls. However, the rain can also spoil many well-laid plans. I have had two vastly different vacations in New Zealand in the past three years. The first seemed to be completely covered in fog (after all, New Zealand is the land of the long white cloud) and pouring rain. We planned too little time at Fox Glacier and ended up not getting to do a glacier walk at all because it was raining so hard that it was causing boulders to fall onto the glacier. On this recent trip, I managed to spend over three weeks in Fiordland with only two days of rain (although this summer was a very dry one). So, you never know what to expect in these areas, but I would definitely not be on a tight schedule while you travel through them; otherwise, you'll end up missing activities (or putting yourself in danger!) and going home disappointed.This volatile weather--and the higher you are/further in the backcountry you are, the more volatile it becomes--can very easily kill if you put yourself in the wrong situation. Often, people set off on day walks thinking that it's sunny, so all they'll need is a shirt, shorts, and a water bottle. This is never a good idea. I saw people on the Tongariro Crossing (on the North Island in Tongariro National Park--another area that has very changeable weather) with this gear that were shivering with cold at the top of Red Crater, where a cloud had descended on us and dropped the temperature by what seemed to be nearly ten degrees. It is always advisable to take wet weather gear (raincoat, rain pants, pack cover and a watertight bag for inside your pack), warm clothing (Kiwis swear by their polypropylene thermals, which are light but very warm), extra water, and plenty of food. I also carried an emergency bivvy bag for wrapping up in if I got stranded/lost. If the cold, wet, and wind don't get to you when you are unprepared, it is likely that the trail conditions will. Even the best-kept trails deteriorate quickly in adverse weather. Only weeks before I walked the Milford Track, people had to be airlifted over sections of the track that had been completely flooded; I also heard a story from another traveler who had all of his electronics (iPod, camera) ruined after he had to wade through shoulder-deep water on the Milford and didn't have a proper waterproof bag. I got stuck at Welcome Flat Hut on the Copland Track because Shiels Creek, the closest creek to the hut and the only major crossing with no swing bridge, rose to dangerous levels and could have swept me down a mountain face had I tried to cross it. If a river looks dangerous, don't cross it. Either take a flood crossing or wait it out!Even if you aren't walking in the backcountry, the weather should always be a concern. Nowhere is this more the case than on the Milford Road in winter. The Milford Road, which covers the 120km between Te Anau and Milford Sound, is one of the most fantastic roads I've ever been on. Even though it's windy and I got a bit carsick, I loved it because there was new, glacier-carved scenery around every corner. The road is a tourist attraction in itself, but in winter, it is often closed because the sheer cliff faces that make for such delightful viewing are also a perfect breeding ground for avalanches. This road is carefully monitored and closed if the conditions get too treacherous, but other rural roads may not be so well-kept-up, so conditions should always be checked before travel.
One of the first orders of business for the working holiday maker is to open a local bank account. However, even for someone that is staying for a shorter period of time and not planning to work very often, a New Zealand bank account can be very handy…and, even though the banks claim you need a permanent address, they will often let you use the address of the hostel where you are currently staying, or even the address of the bank where you are applying. I spent about a month in New Zealand without a local bank account before I got sick of the fluctuating exchange rate (the US dollar had, at this point, lost 6c per NZ dollar since I'd arrived) and the excessive bank fees. Unfortunately, these days it is very difficult to find a bank or credit card provider that doesn't charge a foreign exchange fee; in my case, I was getting charged about 3% extra per transaction. These fees appeared separately from the original charge on my bank statement, so every time I checked my account, I could see all of the money that I was losing.A local bank account has none of these drawbacks. Once you withdraw the money from your home account (which I did regularly, as the ATMs would only dispense $800/day) and deposit it into your local account, you know the exact amount of money that you have and don't have to worry about it slowly disappearing because the US dollar is worthless. Also, there are no fees for normal transactions in stores and no ATM fees provided you use your bank's ATM. I found that an added bonus of having a local account was that I could use the EFTPOS facilities in stores, meaning I could use my PIN number rather than having to press "credit" and then sign.There are a number of banks to choose from. If you are a Bank of America customer, I recommend going with Westpac, who partner with Bank of America and do not charge BofA customers any fees for using their ATMs. Westpac accounts normally incur about a $3/month fee, but if you stop paper bank statements, the account is free. They are also one of the largest banks in the country, meaning that most towns have their ATMs. The only bank that I saw with more ATMs than Westpac was the Bank of New Zealand. A simple everyday checking account with BoNZ costs $5/month. ANZ also has quite a few branches throughout the country, as do ASB, KiwiBank and HSBC.An important note for Australian travelers: Westpac and ANZ may have the same name as banks in Australia, but they do not operate under the same banking system, so even if you have a Westpac account in Australia, you cannot go into NZ Westpac branches and make deposits, etc. However, you can use a Westpac ATM without paying any extra fees.
by stomps on June 4, 2008
Internet access in New Zealand is definitely not hard to come by. Even the smallest towns--those towns with hostels but no other amenities like food or petrol that I have mentioned in other reviews--will generally have at least one establishment that offers internet, whether it be a dedicated internet cafe, a restaurant, or your hostel itself.The quality of these computers & internet connections and the price you will pay for them varies greatly throughout the country. In the bigger cities, like Christchurch, Nelson, and Queenstown, you will easily find internet cafes that offer prices as low as $3/hour (either post-pay or by buying a pre-paid card for a set number of hours). These cafes are generally pretty well-equipped; many will either offer USB access on all computers or have special computers set aside where users can connect to USB and burn CDs or DVDs. In Nelson, for instance, the internet cafe that I found had 6 computers with this special access, all of which were first-come, first-served. The connections here can sometimes be slow, depending on the load (many cafes have upwards of 30 computers), but they are the fastest you'll get in the country.Outside the cities, internet and computer access are a whole different kettle of fish. You'll count yourself as lucky if you find anywhere that offers access for $4/hour; many places charge $1/10 minutes, or $6/hour. I even saw one place--the only lodge on the Abel Tasman Track--that offered access for a whopping $10/hour (although why you'd be on the internet when in Abel Tasman National Park is beyond me). Also, the facilities are always a lot smaller; many hostels will only offer one computer (although YHAs normally have a bank of around 4 computers, for which you buy blocks of time from the reception counter), so you often have to spend a bit of time waiting around while the person before you finishes their business.Many public computers--especially those in hostels--have protections on them so they cannot be easily destroyed by malicious users. However, these protections come at a cost to the normal user. Often, USB ports are completely blocked, since owners make the CPU unit inaccessible and sometimes do not provide USB extension cords. This means that you can't upload your pictures at all, which is frustrating if that's what you've signed on to the computer to do! It's always best to ask if any computers have USB access or card readers before choosing one. Other protections put on computers include blocking the user from easily accessing Explorer (again, making it difficult to view your pictures) and only allowing users to have one IE window open at a time (making it difficult to multi-task and minimize dollars and time spent online). Even with these restrictions, though, I still managed to find enough computers that allowed me access to USB to back up my pictures onto my iPod relatively regularly, meaning I never worried about losing all of them. I also backed pictures up to DVDs (which I bought at OfficeMax at a price of $8/5 DVDs--much better than the $2/CD price offered at internet cafes) while in Nelson and Queenstown, since I knew this sort of access would be limited in other areas.Overall, computer access throughout New Zealand is widespread; you won't have to worry about being out of contact for long periods of time unless you go out into the backcountry. This means that there is no need to take a laptop, especially if you're concerned about its security in hostels or space in/weight of your pack. Also, wireless often costs just as much as using the computers at the internet cafe, so you're still going to have to fork out for internet access.
Even New Zealand isn't perfect. Sure, the landscape is stunning and the crazy Kiwis offer you pretty much every adventure sport you could ever want to do in the aforementioned remarkable scenery, but there is one large problem. This problem is the evil creature known as the sandfly. This little creature and his swarms of buddies will find you anywhere (especially on the West Coast and in Fiordland--they live anywhere where there is a decent source of water) and will leave you looking like a pincushion.Maori legend even explains the existence of the sandflies. It says that when the god Tu-te-raki-whanoa finished creating the landscape of Fiordland, it was absolutely stunning...so stunning that it stopped people from working. They just stood around gazing at the beauty instead. The goddess Hinenuitepo became angry at these unproductive people, so she created the sandfly to bite them and get them moving.Protection from sandflies is absolutely essential if you want to enjoy many parts of New Zealand…otherwise, you'll just have memories of jumping around, slapping yourself, and swearing about "the little sons of b****es." This is one of many names I heard (and I myself called) the annoying little creatures, even though this name isn't quite correct, since the only sandflies that bite are the females. The females do this because they need the blood to incubate the eggs they are about to lay; the men just lounge about all day getting drunk off of tree sap. So, this provides yet another reason to protect yourself from sandflies, because if you don't, you're essentially helping to create up to five more to drive future tourists up the wall!All outdoor shops and supermarkets stock varying levels of bug repellant. Often, you'll have a choice between herbal bug sprays (with citronella so everyone in the region can smell you) or bug sprays with different amounts of DEET. DEET scares me a little, since it's so strong that it can actually eat away at fabrics, and I recall having a bad allergic reaction to some forest-strength DEET while at a powderpuff football practice in college. Therefore, if you are going to buy a strong DEET spray (they come in concentrations between 20% and 99%), it's best to try wearing it before you go out into the wilderness and have many less facilities to help if your body doesn't react well. I stuck with 40%, which didn't keep away all sandflies, but it didn't make me puff up and turn bright red either. The only person that I met that was using 99% was an Irish girl on the Abel Tasman Track who was allergic to sandflies!Once you get bitten (and trust me, you will) there are plenty of remedies that people claim will stop you from itching. The first (and best) remedy is exposure to them. When I first arrived in NZ and got bitten, the bites itched for nearly a week. By the end of my trip, my body was used to the toxin that the little buggers inject and the bites would stop itching in an hour or so. However, there are much faster approaches to making that itch go away. One tour guide told me that if you dig a fingernail into the bite as soon as it happens, it stops itching. This worked to an extent. There are also lotions that you can make yourself, such as Dettol and baby oil mixed together. At one point in my trip, I got so desperate that I bought a "Click that Itch" from an outdoors store. This device costs $25 and, when clicked, gives a small electric shock to a bite. I clicked it about 4 or 5 times into each bite, and it actually had an effect. The bite still itched a little bit, but it no longer had that nagging, have-to-scratch-this-constantly itchy feeling. I don't know if this device works because it deadens the skin with the electricity, or the electricity stimulates more blood flow to the area, or what…but it helped me make it through Fiordland without going insane, and that's all that mattered!
by stomps on June 7, 2008
The plethora of transport options available in New Zealand is almost overwhelming to the person that has just begun researching a trip there. In fact, there are no less than eight categories that these options can fall under. These categories are listed and described below.Air TravelThis is by far the quickest way to get around New Zealand, but it is also one of the more expensive options. The worst part of air travel, in my opinion, is the fact that you completely miss large portions of the country that you would at least get to see fleetingly on other modes of transport. That said, air travel definitely has its benefits. My international flight (like most not originating in Australia) landed in Auckland, but I only intended to travel the South Island; therefore, a flight from Auckland to Christchurch was very handy.All of the major cities have airports that are serviced daily by at least Air New Zealand, but anything outside of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch is more expensive to fly into--especially Queenstown! It's often hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly to Christchurch and rent a car for a week than it is to fly directly to Queenstown. The smaller towns sometimes have Air New Zealand outposts as well; for instance, Hokitika flies a little 20-seater to Christchurch.Fortunately, Virgin Blue has just started flying between Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. While they don't often offer the $8 tickets that were available when they first launched services, they will still provide much-needed competition for Air New Zealand and Qantas and will hopefully bring fares down. I got lucky and found an $80 one-way red e-deal (Qantas special) ticket from AKL-CHC; these tickets often cost around $120.Bus TravelThis was my chosen mode of transport throughout the South Island. While it was certainly less convenient than having my own car at my disposal, it was by far the cheaper option; I didn't have to pay for a car, insurance, registration, or skyrocketing fuel prices! And, while the schedules didn't always sync with the times I wanted to leave/arrive in different places, the extra time that I had to allot allowed me to explore many places much more in depth than if I had had the option to jump in a car and drive to the next big thing.There are four main bus services, a seat reseller, and quite a few smaller bus lines that operate within the South Island. The first and most expansive network is Intercity/Newmans. These two bus lines are separate entities, but you can book spots on either using the Intercity website. Intercity is the commuter bus line for NZ, like Greyhound is for the US, but I found it to be considerably more reliable. Since they use Greyhound-sized coaches, they generally have the most space per route. Their pricing is on a tiered system; if you book early enough, you can get "web savers," which are often 50% or less of the normal adult price; otherwise, there are student, YHA/VIP member, senior, and child tickets, just to name a few. Intercity also has a Flexi-Pass, which you can buy with a certain number of hours for all of your travels throughout NZ. The more hours you buy, the cheaper each hour becomes. If you buy 5 hours, they cost $11/hour; once you work your way up to 60, you're only paying about $9.75/hour. However, I found that buying web saver tickets was actually cheaper than using a Flexi-Pass; this allowed me to not feel locked in to only using Intercity as well. The main advantage of the Flexi-Pass is that it allows you to fly by the seat of your pants and book the day before you travel, while I often booked tickets about a week in advance.Intercity Coachlines take their job of getting people around the island safely very seriously. If you miss a bus in a town, they will probably just mark you as a no-show; however, I found myself reported missing when I missed the bus (and again failed to show the following day) at the head of the Copland Track! So, I would recommend that, for whatever bus line you travel, if you miss a bus from a remote area you should let them know that you've made it back safe and sound, or else a full-scale search might be launched for you. Atomic Shuttles is the second largest bus line on the South Island. Since they concentrate their services on this, more lucrative, island, they have a few more routes than Intercity--most notably, the road from Christchurch-Greymouth through Arthur's Pass. Unlike Intercity, Atomic doesn't have a tiered pricing schedule or specials if you book ahead of time--you get the price that is marked in their fare table. Even though they have a tendency to be a bit more expensive, your money won't be badly spent; Atomic, like Intercity, is very reliable and I don't recall any bus departing anything other than on time (although it does happen!). Also, they have well-kept buses that often have DVD players; on one ride between Queenstown and Christchurch, we got to watch three movies! Atomic also has their own version of the Flexi-Pass, called the U-Choose Pass. This pass will get you a minimum of 10 hours on Atomic buses for $9/hour (which is cheaper than the Intercity rate). Again, you should think before buying this pass as it locks you into using one bus line (at least for the number of hours you've purchased).The Southern Link K Bus runs smaller buses on most of the major routes around the South Island, although there are some notable omissions (like the West Coast). I never booked a ticket on the K Bus, even though I ended up riding on their buses quite often, since nakedbus.com, which I have described below, resells their seats. The K Buses, as I've mentioned, are smaller and a bit less comfortable; most importantly, I found that they rarely ran on time. I rode on one bus that was nearly 2 hours late to pick me up...but I couldn't complain much, since I only paid $1 for the ticket (again, through nakedbus.com).Tracknet operates in the southern regions of the South Island, from the West Coast route, through Fiordland, to Invercargill. True to its name, it offers transport to many of the tracks in the region, including the Routeburn, the Milford and the Kepler. The DOC seats sold online for the Milford Track are actually on a Milford Sound-bound Tracknet bus as well. They sell their seats at a set price noted on their website, but nakedbus.com also resells their seats, meaning it is possible to find them for a substantially reduced price. I found that Tracknet was much more on-time than the Southern Link K Bus in the north. Nakedbus, also known as nakedbus.com, is, as I've mentioned many times, a seat reseller (although on their website, they show pictures of nakedbus buses, which I've never actually seen). Nakedbus.com has made its name by selling $1 tickets on nearly every route they offer. It's obvious to wonder how in the world they could make any profit at all by selling tickets for $1. They certainly don't sell all of their tickets for this price--only the first ticket on each route per day. So, if someone's bought a ticket from Picton to Nelson for $1, you won't be able to buy a $1 ticket for Picton-Nelson or any of the subroutes, like Blenheim-Nelson. Each ticket sold after this goes up slightly in price, so the second ticket costs around $7, the next around $15, etc. This is why it pays to book early; I found that if I looked about 2 weeks in advance on routes I knew I would cover, the $1 ticket was still available. And, if you realize you don't want to travel that route any more, you only lose $1 (although nakedbus does offer the ability to change your ticket for a small fee plus the difference in fares). Also, as I've mentioned above, you're paying a fraction of what it normally costs to travel, and this often means added inconvenience. Nakedbus only sells tickets on one or two services per day (even if K Bus/Tracknet offer more than this), so you'll often find yourself traveling at times that don't quite suit your schedule; also, I wouldn't expect the buses to always be on time!This entry is continued in Transport, Part 2.
by stomps on June 24, 2008
This entry is a continuation of my Transport, Part 1 entry, which described air and bus travel within New Zealand. There are quite a few more options for transport within New Zealand described below.Organized Bus TravelBy "organized bus travel," I mean buying tickets on a bus line that organizes all transport, accommodation, and activities for the duration of your stay in New Zealand. There are three major companies that do this in New Zealand: Kiwi Experience, Magic Bus, and Stray Bus. If you have limited time in the country or don't want to bother with the hassle of planning every next move, these buses are for you. All you have to do is pick which pass you would like--essentially, whether you'd like to travel the North Island, the South Island, or both--and everything else is sorted out for you.However, as the saying goes, things that seem too good to be true normally are. These buses cater to mainstream tastes and therefore miss many of the destinations that are "off the beaten track." If you want to see any of these places that your itinerary misses, you have to plan it all yourself. I met many travelers that were having extreme headaches with this; many were just trying to figure out how to fit a hike in and then getting back to a place that the Kiwi/Magic/Stray Bus would pick them up and were having serious problems doing so. Another problem that arises with these buses that I heard about many a time is how crowded they are. One group of Irish guys on the bus to Fox Glacier had literally just abandoned the $900 they paid for their Kiwi Experience tickets because they called up in Nelson trying to get a bus down the West Coast and were told that the next available bus was in a week and a half!Also, being on a planned itinerary in a bus means you're grouped together with the same people for the entirety of your stay in NZ. This is okay if you get along with everyone...but does this always happen? No. That was the great thing about independent travel--I could stick with people I liked if I wanted to, but I could also easily get away from people that drove me up the wall!The Kiwi/Magic/Stray buses tend to cater to a certain kind of traveler as well. I'll be kind and not write what the common conception is, since I met quite a few nice people that were traveling with these bus lines (although the vast majority of the people I met had gone out of their way to book into hostels away from their buses--you are allowed to do this, apparently--and spent much of their time lamenting having ever bought their bus ticket in the first place).Let's just say that many BBH hostels point out that they are NOT where the "party buses" book in. I know that any hostel that was a known Kiwi Experience stop was a hostel I avoided at all costs (especially Base Backpackers). Sometimes you can't avoid it--say, when there's only one hostel in all of Fox Glacier--but then, that's where I had a drunken girl try to climb in my window at 3am...Boat/FerryThe main mode of transport across the Cook Strait, which separates the North and South Islands, is the ferry. There are two choices here: the Interislander and BlueBridge. I wrote a short review of the Interislander Ferry after my previous trip to New Zealand in 2005. The Lynx, the catamaran that we rode on, is no longer in service; instead, there are three traditional ferries to choose from, all of which take about 3 hours to make the trip between Wellington and Picton. Tickets on this line cost as low as $52 one-way if you book ahead and grab the "web saver" fare; if you book closer to the date, your ticket could cost as much as $72. Vehicles are also allowed on all ferries, but this service is also quite expensive; the cheapest web saver for 1 person and their vehicle is $165.BlueBridge seems to me to be a bit cheaper, although they have not posted their fares for the high season yet. In low season, you can travel across the Cook Strait for as little as $35, although if you add a vehicle the price evens out with the Interislander. Bluebridge also does not have a tiered pricing system based on when you book, so you'll get the same price whether you book months or hours ahead.People also choose to fly across the Cook Strait (although the more adventurous fly part of the way and then skydive the rest)--however, this means missing the scenic beauty of the Marlborough Sounds, which the ferry traverses for about half of its trip. These are definitely a must-see and if you're not planning to do a hike in the region, the ferry is the best vantage point you'll get!TrainTranzScenic operates three passenger rail lines within New Zealand: the Overlander, which travels from Auckland to Wellington, the TranzCoastal, which travels from Picton to Christchurch, and the popular TranzAlpine, which travels from Christchurch to Greymouth. All of these services are more expensive than riding on the equivalent bus route (the cheapest train ticket from Auckland to Wellington, for example, is $46, while the cheapest bus ticket is $10). A low season ticket from Picton to Christchurch will cost you upwards of $100, and the TranzAlpine, being the most popular and the most scenic, will cost nearly $150 in the peak of high season--for one way! You can get much better deals during the winter--with an adult return on the TranzAlpine costing a measly $114--but a bus is still the much cheaper option. Trains do have their benefits though. First of all, you can get up and walk around as much as you like. There's a windowless observation car where you can jostle all of the other snap-happy riders for that perfect spot to take a picture of the Southern Alps. There's also a concessions car where you can buy overpriced food and drinks (although you can bring your own as well). However, after having ridden the TranzAlpine, I think I'd rather just take a bus/car and stop an extra night in Arthur's Pass with the money I saved!This entry is continued in Transport, Part 3.
This entry is a continuation of my Transport entries, which have described air, bus, ferry, and train travel within New Zealand. This last entry describes modes of transport which give you much more freedom, namely having your own car or bike.Car RentalRenting a car in New Zealand, just like in any other part of the world, is expensive. However, if you need the flexibility that only a car offers and you don't have enough time in the country to justify buying a car, this quickly becomes your only option. I found that while some companies do offer rates as low as $25/day, you often won't be eligible for these special deals, since they are for rentals on the second Sunday after the first full moon of the apocalypse or some other rather odd time period. When I looked for a week-long rental to pick up in Queenstown and drop off in Christchurch, the lowest rate I could find was $50/day for a manual (without the insurance fees!). Granted, this was around Easter so it was quite busy, but you will end up paying a lot for the convenience of a car no matter what time of year it is. To top it all off, petrol prices aren't exactly low in NZ--they were significantly more than those in the US and I'm sure they have continued skyrocketing since I left.The most popular rentals in New Zealand are campervans, which are beds & kitchens on wheels. Campervans are everywhere in NZ, and they are very noticeable given that many of them are painted with all sorts of obscene slogans. Campervan rental is quite expensive as well, but if there's two of you who plan on sleeping on the bed in the back in campgrounds it saves you quite a lot of money on accommodation. The main downside to having a campervan is that you don't get the hostel experience; it just seems a lot more insulated.One important aspect of renting a car is the need to make sure you are aware of the driving conditions in NZ before you get behind the wheel. First of all, roads in New Zealand are not great--while they are kept up for the most part, many are windy and dangerous if you do not take proper precautions. In more remote areas, you'll have gravel roads and fords, so you should look into the conditions of renting and make sure what the company will and will not allow you to drive on. Also, the national speed limit is 100 km/h (60 mph), and there are plenty of cops around that can and will nab you as soon as you inch over that limit, and the fines quickly add up! I talked to at least three people that had never had a traffic infraction before in their life and had racked up multiple ones in their time in NZ.As I was never able to rent a car or campervan, I cannot give more detailed information than that, but there are a few sites that can help.For campervans:Maui RentalsEscape Campervans (these are the ones that are always brightly painted)Spaceship CampervansFor cars:Jucy RentalsApex RentalsEzy Car RentalsBudget Rent-a-CarAvisFor both:Backpacker CampervansBritzBuying a CarMany of the people that I met in New Zealand had bought their own cars, since they were going to be in New Zealand for a period of time that made renting a car infeasible. These cars were bought through backpacker classifieds or simply just ads that were posted on message boards in hostels. There are loads of cars being offered from $500 and up, depending on the quality and size of the vehicle. Most of the cars have a huge number of miles clocked up on them because they've been on the backpacker circuit for years, but there are definitely some quality vehicles out there--you just have to take the time to look for them. I'd say that if you're planning to look for a car in a city like Auckland or Christchuch that you should plan on being there for at least two weeks so you can scope out the ads and get a good inspection done on any prospective car before buying.Along with buying the car and petrol, you will also have to register it (although some of the cars on sale have been registered for 6 or more months after the sale date) and get insurance. This isn't something I can help with, however, as I never intended to buy a car.Other concerns to do with having your own car (in addition to those already detailed in the rental car section) are parking and transportation between the islands. Some hostels do not have abundant parking, especially those close to the centre of cities like Queenstown. It was miserable trying to find a car park at Deco Backpackers, and once we found a park we left the car there for three days just because we didn't want to go through the hassle again! Also, if you are going to be going between the north and south islands, you need to consider the price of the ferry crossing--at least $190 for just one person and a car.A few good resources to start your car hunt are the Backpacker Board noticeboards and the BBH noticeboards. Each individual hostel will normally have its own noticeboards as well.BikingI met a few hardy souls that peddled their way around the entirety of New Zealand. They bought bikes and trailers upon arriving in the country and then travelled up to 150kms a day across the very-not-flat terrain of the country. I did not envy them at all, especially the British backpacker that had to pack his bags and cycle in a downpour out of Murchison! Like hiking, biking would definitely teach you the value of every vista you see and you'd appreciate the landscape a lot more after having to madly peddle uphill with your life in a trailer constantly trying to pull you backwards...but I couldn't have done it. I feel like I would have spent all of my time either on the bike or sleeping once I arrived at my destination, rather than enjoying my time there. However, there are clearly people that enjoy this because we were constantly passing bikers on the highway!I recommend checking out the noticeboards that I posted in the "buying a car" section if you're looking for a bike. If you're looking for a new bike, I can't offer much help, but there are quite a few bike shops in all of the major cities in NZ.
by stomps on June 25, 2008
Phone calls in New Zealand are not cheap. Unlike in America, where cell phones with unlimited night minutes and free national calls are ubiquitous, you pay for every minute in NZ. This applies to both phone cards, which I used to call internationally, and mobile phones, which I used for domestic calls and the occasional international call when I could not find a landline.Phone CardsThere are a plethora of choices greeting the weary traveller in the international airport who just wants to call home and tell her family she arrived safely. Asking about phone cards and having a stack of pamphlets forced at you can be overwhelming; I just gave up thumbing through them and asked the clerk which one had the best rates to the US. He recommended GoTalk, which offered 2.7cent/minute calls if calling from a landline to the local access number. This is where all phone cards in New Zealand get your money, because it is often not possible to use a landline or call a local number if you are not in one of the major metropolitan areas. I cannot find or remember the exact surcharges, but calling the nationally-available number (0800 or the like) from a payphone attracts a surcharge of 40-50c a minute (which adds up very quickly!). Surcharges of about 45c per minute also apply when calling from a mobile.If you are planning on staying in many BBH hostels at all, the BBH phone card (offered by TelstraClear) will definitely be the most useful phone card of all. Besides the fact that your BBH membership comes with $20 of free phone calls, all of the member hostels make it very easy to access. Most phone cards only come with published local numbers for the major metro areas like Christchurch, Queenstown, Auckland, etc. The BBH card also comes with this same, generic list; however, even the most remote hostels (the Punakaiki Beach House, for one) post the local access number for the BBH card next to the phone so you won't attract the national-call surcharge. On top of this, many hostels offer free landlines, and those that do not often have a special button to press on the pay phone that bypasses the paying mechanism and therefore avoids the other surcharge. The only downside is that most hostels only have one of these phones, so you might have to wait a while/conduct your conversation in a public area, but at least it's cheap!Mobile phonesThere are two major mobile phone companies in New Zealand: Vodafone and Telecom. I bought a Vodafone prepaid SIM card for my unlocked quad-band phone in the Auckland airport for $30 (which was much more expensive than I expected, given that a prepaid SIM in Australia costs only $10). On top of that, I bought $20 of credit so I could actually use it once it was activated.The main reason I bought this SIM card was as an emergency backup plan. If I got stuck somewhere and had to get in touch with the outside world, it was possible; this certainly put my parents' minds at ease for when I was in the more remote areas (although I didn't actually have mobile reception there anyway!). It certainly wasn't something to be used for calling people daily, since the rates are through the roof--I believe it was around 80c a minute just to call other Vodafone members! I did use it quite often to call free national numbers (the equivalent of 1800 in the US), but as I mentioned in the above section, if you are calling your phone card, this attracts a surcharge. I mainly used it to TXT message other travellers (which was much, much cheaper than calling) within NZ and call internationally when I didn't have access to any other phone. Still, I found myself topping up my credit quite often.I was very lucky to run across the Super Buzz phonecard in an internet cafe in Nelson. Apparently, this is sold in over 7,500 retailers all over NZ--so essentially, every convenience store that sells phone cards. This phone card allows users to call from Vodafone mobiles with no charge to their mobile account. The rates aren't as low as some other cards, but the added convenience of being able to use your mobile more than makes up for this extra expense. You can call specific countries like Australia, the UK, and Korea for 7.5c with increasing rates to other countries (the US is 50c per minute, for example). This deal is ONLY available to Vodafone customers.
Unlike Australia, New Zealand does not make all travelers apply for a visa before arrival in the country. If you plan on staying for three months or less and will not be working (which includes WWOOFing or any other schemes where you receive something in exchange for work), and you are from one of the visa-free countries, you can simply arrive in the country and have your passport stamped with a three-month visa. If you intend on working or staying for an extended period of time, you must consider other options.I chose to apply under the United States working holiday scheme. New Zealand has a different scheme for all countries that are eligible for working holiday visas, which sets out the requirements for applicants as well as the term they are allowed to stay in the country. Most schemes allow travellers to stay in New Zealand for one year with the notable exception of the British working holiday scheme, which allows travellers to be in the country for up to 23 months. Applying for this visa was exceedingly easy--all I did was fill out an online form with my details and history (which was mainly health & criminal record questions) and within a day, it was granted. In addition, my visa fee (which I expected to be about $120NZ) was completely waived! The only downside to the visa is that once it is issued to you, you are never allowed to apply for another working holiday visa again. Therefore, I feel that I wasted mine as my plans changed after my visa application was made, and instead of working and traveling around the country for six months as I originally intended, I only traveled for 10 weeks. However, it gave me piece of mind that if I got in a bind and really needed the money, I could legally work, and if I ended up staying in New Zealand for a prolonged period of time because my Australian work visa took a while to be approved, I wouldn't have to worry about becoming an illegal immigrant.The other main form of visa that travelers in New Zealand could be interested in are work visas. These visas allow you to work on a more permanent basis, rather than taking short-term work in agriculture/retail/etc. However, there are much more stringent requirements to be granted one of these visas; the most important of these is whether your chosen occupation is on the list of "occupations in demand" in New Zealand. The one that I find most interesting is the work-to-residence visa, which allows you to work temporarily in hopes of later becoming an NZ resident. I met at least two backpackers that plan on returning to the country and doing just that!This was just a quick overview of the many visa opportunities that New Zealand has to offer; the main NZ immigration website has many more details than I could ever explain with my limited experience with the subject!
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