A Few Thoughts On New Zealand

I recently spent 3 weeks on New Zealand’s south island. I could have easily been tempted to spend that time trying to explore the entire country, or at least all of the south island, but instead I focused on just the central part of the island around Queenstown, Wanaka, and Mt. Cook.

This trip wasn’t about vacationing; it was about immersing myself in the Kiwi life and waking up to the mountains every day. Getting a feel for what it’s like to live in New Zealand appealed to me more than trying to cram as many sights and activities as possible into my 3 weeks there. I also had to put in about 20 hours of work a week, which meant ensuring I had access to wifi and a decent working environment more often than not. I bookended any days spent camping or hiking off the grid with well-connected off days.

At first I felt like I wasn’t doing much and was maybe sacrificing too many days to the rain and my work, but when all was said and done: I climbed 3 mountains, took a scenic flight, went SUP-ing, cruised Milford Sound, and went on a few epic bike rides. I’d say that’s plenty of outdoor adventures, right?

Lake Tekapo NZ
Lake Tekapo.

Anyhow, I found myself accumulating all sorts of observations, thoughts, conclusions, and facts during my time in New Zealand, stuff that probably wouldn’t make its way into any other blog post but is still worth highlighting in case any of you are considering traveling to or living in NZ.

American accents everywhere

File this one under Things I Wasn’t Expecting. One thing I love very much about Australia is how infrequently I hear someone else speaking my same dopey accent. Somehow it makes me feel more exotic, more special – and who doesn’t want that?

But traveling in New Zealand, at times it felt like my fellow Americans were the majority. I’ve got a few hypotheses as to why this might be, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on why there seem to be many more Americans in NZ than in Australia – so feel free to comment below!

NZ coffee
One of the better coffees I had, in Greymouth.

Sorry Kiwis, your coffee isn’t as good as you think

If there’s anything I know well, it’s coffee. I was eager to sample copious flat whites throughout my NZ travels (you know, purely for research purposes), but I was largely disappointed by the coffee in New Zealand. Which would have been fine if I hadn’t had such high expectations based on what I’d heard about it beforehand.

But now that I’ve thoroughly sampled coffee around the south island, I’m utterly baffled as to how this claim was made. Even the good cups I had leaned more toward the bitter end of the scale. Maybe the north island is where the good coffee’s at? Wellington, I’m coming for you next time!

Sunrise at Mt. Cook
Sunrise at Mt Cook.

Thank God for the Vodafone Travel SIM Card

While wifi in New Zealand was categorically The Worst I’ve ever experienced on my travels, I had a surprisingly positive experience with Vodafone of all carriers (in Australia, they are not-so-lovingly referred to as Vodafail). I popped into a random electronics store early in my trip and picked up the Vodafone Travel SIM. For NZ$49 (about US$31), I got a one-month plan with 3gb of data and more than enough texts and minutes to contact others in NZ, Australia, and the US. I found I had good service in most every town I visited, even Mt. Cook village – but while on the bus between towns, there was no service at all.

I nearly managed to use up all of the data in my 3 weeks there because I used it to get online on my laptop whenever I didn’t have decent wifi. One of my favorite digital nomad hacks is turning my iPhone into a personal hotspot and connecting to it via my laptop. It’s the perfect solution for working at cafes that don’t have wifi, or at hostels that charge you to use their (epically slow) wifi. Having plenty of Vodafone data and good coverage meant I had wifi on tap whenever I wanted to work during my NZ travels. Brilliant!

NZ lake reflection
A lake at Franz Josef.

Want More Instagram Followers? Go to New Zealand

I’ve watched other instagram accounts go from average to booming once they started posting photos of the glorious NZ scenery, and I noticed a similar gain in followers as I began doing the same. Call it the New Zealand Effect.

Milford Sound
Milford Sound.

As Beautiful As NZ Is… I’m An Aussie Girl

While I was hanging out in New Zealand, I tried to imagine myself living there with the mountains on my doorstep. I love the idea of having epic trails just minutes away, making it easy for me to get my hiking and cycling fixes on the reg. And I’d have the opportunity to dabble in just about any other outdoor activity imaginable: mountain biking, stand-up paddleboarding, river surfing, skiing (to name just a few of interest).

But the one thing New Zealand (specifically most every south island town) lacks is the thing that trumps all else for me: BEACHES. I’d miss the beach too much if I lived in landlocked Queenstown or Wanaka. So if nothing else, this trip confirmed that I made the right decision in foregoing a year on the NZ working holiday visa in favor of a year living on the edge on the Australian tourist visa. What can I say, Australia has my heart.

Ben Lomond hike
Hiking to the Ben Lomond summit.

NZ Hostels Get Booked Up Fast

I don’t know if this is the norm throughout New Zealand, but in several of the south island towns I visited you’d be screwed if you decided to rock up to a hostel without a booking. New Zealand is very popular amongst backpackers and young travelers, and there aren’t nearly enough budget accommodation options for them all. I found Queenstown to be the worst of all: this is a very popular and touristy town that’s short on housing overall, so what happens is the working holiday folks either can’t afford to pay rent on a proper apartment or just have trouble securing permanent housing for a short-term stint. So they end up living at the hostels in town, usually working there in exchange for a free bed. This would be fine if they weren’t taking up beds that proper travelers could be booking instead, or constantly taking over tables and common areas in the hostel with their fellow long-term stayers.

My week in Queenstown entailed a little game of musical chairs (or beds): I had to camp for a few nights when there were no free hostel beds in town, then I had to shuffle between different rooms and hostels for the remainder of my time there. Totally avoidable had I booked way ahead of time, but ah well – lesson learned!

I’ve heard that this is normal for Queenstown year-round, but other towns only book up at certain times in the year. During the second half of March, I found Franz Josef hostels to be nearly fully booked, Tekapo’s one hostel fully booked, Mt. Cook hostels with availability, and Wanaka hostels with availability before the Warbirds Over Wanaka Easter weekend event. Your mileage may vary.

Road to Mt. Cook
Road to Mt. Cook.

No Freedom Camping For Tents

I was really disappointed to find that my options were extremely limited for where I could pitch my tent in NZ. Freedom camping is restricted to certain areas in New Zealand, and usually only campers with self-contained vehicles are allowed to camp where they please – i.e. no tents allowed. What this means is that if you want to pitch a tent and camp in New Zealand, you typically can only do so on DOC campsites or in caravan parks. The DOC sites are more basic and immersed in nature, but you generally need a car to access them. Since I was traveling NZ by bus, I was limited to town caravan parks. It was beyond frustrating to have to pay $25/night just for a tiny plot of land squeezed between other tents or campervans, and access to things I didn’t want or need like proper bathroom blocks, laundry facilities, and kitchens. All I wanted to do was be alone with my tent and nature!

River surfing in NZ
Someone river surfing near Wanaka.

Traveling NZ By Bus Is Doable, But Not Ideal

If you’re a solo traveler on a budget (and/or shit-scared of driving on the left side of the road like I am), you can still travel New Zealand by bus. There are several bus companies that run between most towns and tourist attractions, so you can get around each island easily. The obvious downside is that you’re limited to doing things in or very close to town unless you join a tour or hitchhike.

On that note, it is so much better if you have a car to travel around New Zealand. Not only are you able to pull off and sleep in your car (or better yet campervan) most anywhere freedom camping is allowed, but you’re also able to veer off the main roads and away from towns to more thoroughly explore the country. There were so many hikes I wanted to do but couldn’t because I had no reliable/affordable way of getting to the trailhead. It killed me that I didn’t have as much freedom as I could have, had I been roadtripping New Zealand.

Next time I visit NZ, I’m vowing to rent a car or campervan so that I expand my options for camping and exploring. Who’s with me?

Cycling Queenstown
Cycling Queenstown.

The Queenstown vs. Wanaka Debate

I’d fully expected to join Team Wanaka after all I’d heard about this little town that gladly plays second fiddle to Queenstown. For whatever reason I just wasn’t feeling it, though. I loved paddle boarding on and walking around Lake Wanaka, hiking to Roy’s Peak, and cycling the Hawea River Trail, but I didn’t love the town of Wanaka itself. It felt too quiet and too rife with (North American) expats to charm me.

Queenstown took me by surprise, though. Yes, it’s uber-touristy, and most of the town’s residents are foreigners or displaced Kiwis (i.e. they come from elsewhere in NZ) who work in tourism or hospitality. But can you blame them? Queenstown is freakin’ beautiful and has the most accessible outdoor adventures of any place I’ve ever visited (or even heard about!). I wouldn’t classify Queenstown as a proper city, but it sure feels like one compared to Wanaka and consequently has more options for dining, drinking, and adventuring. Yup, consider me on Team Queenstown.

Lake Wanaka NZ
Lake Wanaka.

Watch Out For The Weather

With all the postcard-worthy photos plastered all over the internet, it’s easy to overlook that New Zealand is known as the land of the long white cloud. The weather does not always cooperate in this part of the world, and the landscapes don’t always look as magnificent as they do on picture-perfect clear days. I’d say it rained at least half of the time during my NZ trip: partly because I was traveling in early autumn (prone to more rain), and partly due to the El Nino effect (say the Kiwis). I was very glad to have allotted plenty of time in each place I visited, which was usually enough to give me at least a couple of semi-clear days to enjoy.

NZ sunset
Wanaka sunset.

As Usual, Lifestyle Trumps Adrenaline

I could have jumped off a ledge, soared over a lake, or raced down a river, but what did I do instead in New Zealand? I hiked and biked, the same things I do at home and try to do wherever I travel. These things always bring me joy and provide a full day of adventure, and I’m the kind of girl who tends to opt for those guaranteed hits of happiness. When I find something I like, I stick with it. So really, I guess it’s not surprising that I opted to skip the short-lived thrills that all the popular adrenaline activities in New Zealand provide. If I’d had more time (and, er, money), I’d have tried paragliding or mountain biking – but my favorites take priority. I wouldn’t change a thing!

Travel New Zealand

How Much Does Traveling NZ Cost?

And because no Frugal Frolicker trip recap is complete without some mention of money, I spent a grand total of US$1541 on 3 weeks of travel in New Zealand. My return flight from Sydney was about $300, and my average spend per day excluding flights was US$59/day. For such a pricey destination, I’m pretty happy with my expenditure.

What do you think about New Zealand? If you’ve been, anything to add to this random thought list?

Lindsay Buckley is the photographer and travel blogger behind Frugal Frolicker. She's a New Yorker currently based in Sydney, Australia, documenting outdoor travel experiences Down Under and beyond. Follow along with Lindsay's travel photography on Facebook and Instagram, and be sure to sign up for the monthly Frugal Frolicker newsletter!

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  • Petra

    A Kiwi here… It’s a shame you didn’t get to visit the North Island – that’s where you’ll find the best beaches (Northland, Auckland, Coromandel, Bay of Plenty…) and the best coffee (Auckland and Wellington). Wifi is average in places, but it’s not bad at all compared to some other countries (have you been to the Pacific Islands?!). Agree that you definitely need a car to travel NZ properly, especially if you’re into hiking/camping etc. Definitely get a car/campervan next time (driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road isn’t that scary!). And regarding freedom camping, it’s a good thing that you have to be in a self-contained vehicle to freedom camp – so many travellers sleeping in their cars crap all over the ground and leave rubbish everywhere, so that’s one rule that I most definitely support!! Hope you come back to our beautiful country and explore a bit more :)

    • Hey there! I do agree re: freedom camping – I totally understand the reasoning behind it, just a shame that some lazy folks had to spoil it for us considerate campers :(

      And word – I’d heard the north had the better coffee and beaches. Sounds like I’ll be making a dedicated trip there at some point! Knowing my very specific interests, it’s kind of strange that I opted for the south island instead – guess I just wanted a taste of something different!

  • Katie Bell

    The North Island is where all the beaches and awesome coffee is at! I think you just had bad luck with the weather. NZ has an undeserved rep for bad weather just like Australia has an undeserved rep for good weather all the time – the truth is somewhere in between for both countries.

    • Gah, I’d heard that! Def need to make a separate trip to the north :) And excellent point about the weather – Aussie aint all sunshine, that’s for sure!

  • Haha, The New Zealand Effect on Instagram is SO REAL. (I have also observed an Iceland Effect and Norway Effect… haha.)

    And, as a couple others have already said, the good coffee is on the North Island! You’ll definitely have to hit up Wellington and some other places next time. :)

    • Bahaha, somehow that doesn’t surprise me! Maybe the trick is to always go to absurdly beautiful places and instagram the bejesus out of them! :P

  • Lindsay

    Hi! Loved reading through this post as I am also an American who has been living and exploring New Zealand for a year now. Interesting you say there are many Americans here, as I have only ran into a handful over my year here! Three weeks being such a short time span and possibly just by chance you ran into quiet a few Americans? Queenstown/Wanaka area are also both HUGE tourist areas and when I’ve made trips down that way I have met people from all over. Also wanted to not discourage anyone looking for a beach to not travel to New Zealand. If beaches are what you’re going after, the smack middle of south island is, of course, not where to go. Come up to north island, google “Cathedral Cove” “Ninety Mile Beach” or “Raglan”. I’d beg to differ in that I truly believe New Zealand has some serious gorgeous beaches!! (And this is coming from a born and raised Californian). Coffee was another interesting one. I’ve had visitors from all over and everyone seems obsessed with the coffee here. Anywhoooo……Just don’t want to discourage anyone from a trip to New Zealand from this post!! Maybe more than 3 weeks was needed to get a better grasp of what kiwi life is truly about. Cheers :)

    • Hey there! Yep, you’re spot-on re: beaches and coffee (as discussed in previous comments). I think the North Island does these things better! I didn’t go to the south island for the beaches, but I DID expect to find better coffee than I did there so that was a little disappointing.

      And re: Americans – SO MANY were around when I was, seriously. Probably had something to do with it being around Easter when study abroad students probably decided to do some traveling around. I also took the bus regularly to get between towns, plenty of Americans on those. But what surprised me the most is how many Americans I encountered working here. I guess it kinda makes sense that they would want to work in Wanaka and Queenstown of all NZ towns, but I just wasn’t expecting it!