The Best Way to Travel New Zealand and How to Do It

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Sunrise in Matamata, North Island, New Zealand.

In preparing for [travel] I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. – Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Okay, I realize that the actual quote pertains to battle not travel, but I still think my translation holds true. 
Traveling is always a calculated roll of the dice. The best laid plans…and all that. Flights are missed, planes get delayed, baggage is lost, we get lost! We are all aware of this possibility and accept it as a hazard of travel; but even so, we hope, and even go so far as to expect, it will not happen! A massive panic and a sweaty, 1000-meter dash through the airport is not my idea of a good time. Although, let’s be honest, it does make a great story to tell.  “…Let me tell you about the time the alarm didn’t go off. We were late for our flight and ended up leaving our son back in Chicago…” (For those of you who didn’t catch it, that’s the plot of Home Alone.)  

Sitting in the airport waiting for our flight to New Zealand we had three things booked: a hotel for the first night, a rental car for the first two weeks, and a return flight three weeks from our departure… And it was the best trip we’ve ever had.

We’ve traveled a lot, but this time, it was different.

Ryan and I have traveled quite a bit together in the last 9 years. We have logged hundreds of hours on land, sea, and air. Through all of that, we have discovered that our favorite way to travel is without a set itinerary.  A perfect (or acceptable) example is our trip to New Zealand.

When we boarded our flight from the U.S. to New Zealand, we had two reservations on the books: 

  1. Our rental car 
  2. A hotel room for the first night there. 

That’s it. (Okay, we also had a return flight booked. If you’re doing strict math that’s three.) Now, the thought of doing anything in this manner might make some of you run away from the computer screaming and clutching your day planner. I get it! But others of you think, “Yes! Adventure! How did you do that?” Well, I am about to tell you! For, the low-low price of $39.95 you too can…nah, just kidding

WHY travel without an itinerary?

We can all agree that travel can be unpredictable. Things happen that can disrupt even the most “fool proof” plan. But what if we chose to embrace that unpredictability and let it surprise and delight us? That’s the amazing thing about “Itener-less Travel” – the freedom! Freedom to change directions at a moment’s notice and go where the wind blows you!

How tragic would it be to discover some gem of a seaside town. But we can’t explore because we have a hotel booked in some other town? Or to arrive somewhere and realize two days is not enough to see all there is to see. Or that one day was more than plenty? Perhaps, you have been chatting with a local (which we definitely recommend!) and they clue you in on a hidden treasure. Maybe there is a waterfall off the beaten path. Or an 8th wonder you somehow managed to miss in all your research!  

Ryan and I decided we didn’t want pre-bookings to dictate the velocity or vector of our travel; or limit our scope for discovery and adventure. We travel to experience other landscapes, cultures, and views of life – why limit our selves unnecessarily?  

New Zealand South Island Road side waterfall
One of the many unplanned roadside stops.

Are there drawbacks and conditions to the “Itiner-less” travel?

I want to say “no”. But I’m sure if we put our heads together and did some critical thinking we could find some. Obviously, there’s always a chance you could find yourself scrambling to find a room because a town has overbooked itself. And it’s overbooked because the Southern Mustang Owners Club is having its annual convention. So you end up driving an extra 30km to snatch up one of the very last rooms available on the Southern-most tip of the island. But, come on, even that in itself is an adventure. 

So what exactly did we do this time around?

When we took off for New Zealand we knew that we had a car for the first two weeks, a hotel for the first night, and a return flight in three weeks. The rest was open. 

Our first night in New Zealand, we got on the hotel WiFi. We looked at our list of things we wanted to see in the surrounding Canterbury-Christchurch area. We sketched out plans for the next day. That entailed locating and climbing Mount Sunday. So we picked out a likely stopping point for that next evening.

Last minute bookings

We didn’t actually book anything until the next day after we were done exploring. It had been raining quite a lot. We knew it was feasible that the whole venture could end up a bust. Beforehand, we only had a rough idea of where we were heading so there were multiple possible outcomes. We could drive out to the mount only to be turned back. Or we could spend so much time out there that we would need to stay in Christchurch another night. Another possibility was that we could wake up and just head south hoping to get out of the rain.

Everyday is different

However, the Edoras Excursion turned out to be a success in more ways than one. We found satisfaction and still made it back out of the valley with time to spare. So we decided to leave Christchurch and head south. When the gravel road turned back to tarmac, we checked our list of places we wanted to see. Then we did a quick internet search and found a couple of seaside towns in the direction we wanted to go. We logged on to booking.com, found a hotel in that general area and booked it. 

This was the general process we repeated everyday of our trip and it was amazing. We booked lovely and fascinating hotels in fantastic locations. Most of them we never would have found had we done it in advance from home.

Farthest point south on New Zealand. Bluff, South Island, New Zealand directional sign.
One of the stops we would have never made had we preplanned our whole trip. Southernmost point, Bluff, South Island, New Zealand.

You’ve convinced me, what do I need to travel this way?

1. A sense of adventure

You need to be willing to trade in the comfort and security of having a ready booked room every night for the possibility of finding a hidden waterfall off the beaten path.
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to. – J.R.R. Tolkien

1. Flexibility

While yoga is definitely a good idea, I am referring to mental and financial flexibility. We approached New Zealand as a “bucket list trip”. Something that might happen only once in a lifetime. To be clear, now that we have been there, we are definitely hoping to make multiple return trips. However, we wanted to be sure that we had budgeted enough money to have some freedom to enjoy all there was to be offered. We wanted to be able to eat what looked good, and go where adventure pointed us without always worrying about the cost.

Because of this kind of planning, we experienced one of the highest points of the trip. That was an overnight cruise on Milford Sound. If we had not been flexible with our time, planning, and funds, we might have driven all the way into the sound and left without ever seeing the true wonders this area has to offer.

A note about finances

I will point out that just because Ryan and I saved and budgeted for this trip does not mean that we lived the “high life” while we were on the islands. He and I are both fairly frugal people and don’t like to spend our money willy-nilly! We purchased our airline tickets on sale and flew coach. We stayed in hotels and hostels that were usually under/around $70 NZD a night. These accomodations had either an in-room kitchenette or a shared kitchen. Most mornings we had eggs and toast, or crumpets and yogurt for breakfast. We went grocery shopping frequently (Pac n’ Sav!). We also ate a lot of picnic lunches consisting of fresh rolls, greens, deli meats, kiwis (so many delicious kiwis!), tinned tuna, and cheese & crackers. 

3. Travel during the off season

“Itener-less” travel can provide a lot of latitude in areas of adventure and exploration. It can, however, limit when you can travel. This one is often determined by where you are traveling. In New Zealand, our travel style worked out well because the height of the tourist season was still a few months away. So, we were still able to book hotels the day before without much hassle. But as the tourist season approaches, hotels book up and become harder to find last minute. Although, if you are flexible, last minute bookings can be found. Some people say it can even save you money. We planned to travel to New Zealand sometime between September and November. The shoulder season between winter and summer. Then we just kept an eye out for flight deals. When a deal came along that we just couldn’t pass up we pulled the trigger.

4. Good cell service

Our cell service is through T-Mobile and it worked really well in New Zealand. T-Mobile offers unlimited texting and data in over 200 countries. We used it for maps and hotel bookings almost everyday. Before we left, Ryan looked into how much coverage we would have. It turned out we were covered almost everywhere. It, in part, made this kind of travel possible for us.  Making calls is charged at their international rate. But, we found that if we called using WiFi calling, T-Mobile treats the call as though it originated in the U.S. So the call was free! That came in handy more than once! 

5. Internet access

We relied pretty heavily on our mobile phones, but finding good WiFi was always welcome. Especially in those rare cases when we didn’t have cell service. Find a place that offers free WiFi to customers. Buy a coffee at a cafe and stay a while (you won’t regret it). Or try a town center like a rec. hall. Even some of the grocery stores, such as New World, offer internet access to their customers.

6. A reliable international booking service

We discovered booking.com a few years back when we were traveling to Yosemite National Park. It had been a long day and we left much later than we had planned. We decided it would be safer to get a hotel for the night and start fresh in the morning. We liked the website so much, that we now use it pretty much exclusively for booking hotels when we travel.  It has some of the best deals on a wide range of hotels, motels, inns, resorts, etc.
With the extensive amount of photos and reviews it’s easy to compare different locations. Quick bullet points on the site inform on room size, bed size, location of the room. Also, if breakfast and/or parking are included show in the details. I also really liked that my credit card is used to lock in a rate and reserve a room, but isn’t charged until we check in.

The cancelation policy is also a gem – offering free, un-hassled cancelation up until 48-24 hours before the reservation. Also, if you create an account you get insider deals and membership discounts! We used booking.com every day in New Zealand to book anything from hostels to nice hotels. We even booked an Airbnb-style lodging when we couldn’t find a hotel near Lake Taupo. When one hotel was, unfortunately, overbooked booking.com helped us find a different hotel and paid for the difference in price. 

7. A certain amount of planning

The New Zealand trip was something Ryan and I had talked about for quite a few years.  During that time, I was compiling a list of places that I wanted to see when we finally made it there. Pinterest was a huge part of that planning. Typing “New Zealand” into the search bar brought up a lot of results. These ranged from “Top 10 Must See Places” to “How to Pack” to “How to see everything in two weeks!” 

P.S. – you can’t, I repeat, you cannot “see everything”. Even if you had two months and endless funds, at the end of your trip there would still be reasons to return to New Zealand. Start yourself a “New Zealand” Pinterest board and you are off to the races! 

A word about “Top 10” Lists.

Lists that tell you what locations/items are “Must see” should be taken with a grain of salt. “Must see” is in the eye of the beholder. A lot of the “New Zealand Top 10” lists included vineyards/wineries. Ryan is diabetic, so we don’t do a whole lot of alcohol intake. Or they include big cities for their shopping (not exactly why we traveled half way around the world!). Those items weren’t a must see for us. However, as I looked up the places on these lists I did discover some great regions to explore! 

I also Googled “New Zealand waterfalls”, “New Zealand travel”, etc and then clicked on the “Images” tab. Anytime a picture jumped out at me, I did research to find out where it was. I also looked into what it took to get there. Some locations are National Parks and have maintained trails. Others you discover are fenced off and might take a little sneaking around to get to (which we are not recommending you do). Thus, you can roughly determine what places are “do-able” and what places might end up being a waste of time. 

A list, but not bookings

Eventually we had a solid list of places to visit. That list became a chart that was divided between the North Island and South Island. That’s when a map comes in handy. You can start locating all the places you want to go. Then figure out the best route to see as many of them as possible. You can also use a program such as furkot to help plot a route. It helps plan a route that includes all your points of interest. 
Research the travel methods available at your destination so you have a good idea of how you are going to get around. Does the country have good rail service? Do you need to get on a boat? If you rent a car, where can you pick it up and drop it off? What are the roadways like? New Zealand is unique in that there are not a lot of highways. So a drive that may take 45 minutes here in the states could take half a day in New Zealand.

Single land winding road in New Zealand. Dunedin, South Island
One of the many single-lane winding roads that we came across in New Zealand that can slow a trip down.

Bottom line: Planning is definitely required, making plans is optional. This was by far our favorite trip so far. We attribute a good portion of that to the adventure of no itinerary.

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2 Comments

  1. New Zealand is definitely on my bucket list! Among other stops, I want to honk from Hobbiton to Mordor! Thank you for sharing your trip!

    1. We have three weeks worth of photos we are going through. We’ll be posting more for sure. New Zealand was definitely our dream trip. It’s on our list of return trips for sure.

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