I’m not sure if this will be an interesting post or not, but I will describe for you the process of planning and booking my trip. I felt like since I was travelling alone, it was important for me to be a bit more pre-planned and pre-booked than I might normally be to save myself from getting lost or stranded somewhere along the way. I would definitely say that I was way more prepared for this trip than for any other trip I have taken. Last time I was in NZ I think we booked our car rental in advance, but literally nothing else. So this trip was much different. I’m glad I took the time to plan it out well, I think I used my time far more efficiently and saw and did a lot more because of it. I also had very little stress while I was on the trip because I did not have to worry about any of my accommodation or transportation.
Okay, so I should start out by saying that New Zealand is very likely one of the safest places in the world to travel alone. I am kind of a big chicken and also have never travelled completely alone before, so it seemed like a good fit. It would have been too intimidating to try and plan my first solo trip to a place that (1) wasn’t particularly safe, (2) I had never been before, or (3) where I didn’t speak the language.
Even still, the lead up to the trip was accompanied by, I guess not really a fear of something happening to me, but more just fears that I would be lonely, get lost, or just not enjoy the trip as much as I would if I was a friend. See, I’m not really a do things completely by myself person. Up to this point I was only ever interested in travelling with a friend. But that was not an option for this trip; it was either go alone or don’t go. I am getting better at doing things alone. Something about getting older, having more life experience, and generally liking myself/having confidence in my own abilities made it so that I was willing to consider a solo trip as an option. Also my heart has been literally burning to get back to NZ the last few years. And it all turned out very well. Turns out travelling by yourself is great.
The first thing I did was obviously to decide where in NZ I wanted to visit most. I knew I wanted to spend a full week in Wellington. I also knew I really wanted to go to Wanaka. It quickly followed that it would make sense to fly in to Wellington then work my way down the south island and fly out of Queenstown. Wellington to Queenstown is a short enough distance that it would give me the chance to move kind of slowly and stop for a few days in a few places on the way. I started looking up things that were going on in Wellington during my trip and realized that The Killers were playing there during the last week of my trip. So I very quickly decided to flip the trip around and fly into Queenstown and out of Wellington.
The next obvious step was plane tickets. There is no sense in planning anything until you know for sure that you are going and what the exact dates are going to be. This meant waiting until my vacation request was finalized at work and then monitoring flight prices for a month or two. I actually really lucked out and got some pretty cheap flights. What happened is that I had kind of forgotten about checking flight prices for a few weeks. Then one morning after a night shift in January I remembered and opened the Kayak app on my phone to do a quick search on the bus ride home from work. And what do you know, flights were $500-$800 cheaper than I had ever seen them. So when we got back into town, I got in my car, went directly to a travel agent, showed her the flights and asked her to BOOK THEM RIGHT NOW.
I have booked flights through a travel agent before. I have also just booked my own flights on the internet before. I decided to book with a travel agent this time for a few reasons, the biggest one being that when you book and insure your flights through a travel agency they give you a toll free number and then if anything goes wrong (i.e. you miss a flight, lose your luggage, etc) you just call the number and THEY FIX IT FOR YOU. I mean, I’m sure it’s not a flawless system. But knowing that I had someone who would rebook my flights, arrange hotels, etc should something go wrong was a nice assurance. The only difference in price between booking yourself and booking with a travel agent is a booking fee (at least at the travel agency I have used). In my experience this fee is between $30-$40. Then you have access to 24/7 assistance throughout your trip.
Also travel agents understand how airlines work better than me so I can just say “please try to get me a window seat on my long flight” or “could you see if you could get me on an earlier flight to cut down this layover?” and they know what to check and how to do it. I know I could probably do those same things myself if I wanted to. But $40 to have someone who knows what they are doing do it and ensure that it is all done correctly is worth it to me. Travel agencies often have deals set up with airlines and travel companies, so sometimes they have access to cheaper fares. In this case, she was able to find the exact flights I wanted and give me the same super cheap price I had found online. I literally took in my phone, showed her the flights I had found on Kayak and she went and found the same ones for the same price.
Last time I was in New Zealand there were three of us travelling together. We rented a car and split it three ways and it was pretty affordable. I looked up how much it would cost me to rent a car on my own and very quickly decided I needed to find a different option. I had heard the buses are pretty good in New Zealand so I did some research and quickly landed on the InterCity bus company. With InterCity you could book single trips or buy passes. They sell their bus passes not by length of time (ex. a month long pass) but by time spent on the bus (ex. a 30 hour pass). This meant that since I already knew the places I was going to need to travel between, I could buy a pass for almost the exact amount of time I would spend on the bus.
The pass I got was called a Flexipass. You decide how many hours you want to buy and the pass is valid for a year from the time you purchase it (obviously the more hours you buy, they better deal you get on those hours). You can pre-book all of your trips online and you can log on and make changes up to two hours before a trip. You can add more hours to your pass at any time. Also you can book Interislander Ferry tickets with your pass. Buying a walk-on ferry ticket from the ferry company costs $65. If you book your ferry ticket through InterCity, you just pay for the ride with hours same as you would if you were on the bus. The ferry trip is about three hours. A three hour top up to your Flexipass costs $35.
InterCity buses also have wifi. Which was a huge selling point for me. Pretty much all my Instagram photos and stories were uploaded from either a hostel or a bus. It was so very convenient to be able to use bus rides to check emails, upload photos, and catch up with any messages I had.
Lastly, every driver I had was great. They were kind and helpful and most of them would sort of tour guide a bit as they were driving. Not talking constantly or anything like that, but they would point out things of interest as we passed and would sometimes give you a bit of the history of an area. As a tourist it was great. Also if I wasn’t feeling it I could just stick in my headphones and browse Instagram.
It was fairly easily plan out my route online. The only hiccup I encountered was when I wanted to go from Wanaka to Kaikoura. If I had a car, I could have easily done that trip in a day but it spanned three different buses so it was a bit more complicated to coordinate and I had to break the trip up over two days and take a stop in the middle in Christchurch. That was a relatively small issue though. Booking ahead of time with this pass gave me the peace of mind of knowing that I definitely had a seat on the buses I wanted but also the peace of mind of knowing I could change and adjust my trip at any time.
Before I went on my first Australia/New Zealand trip I had a friend recommend YHA hostels to me. Take this now as my recommendation to you. I have stayed at quite a few YHA hostels in New Zealand (Wellington, Queenstown Lakefront, Wanaka, National Park, Picton, Hamner Springs, Christchurch Rolleston House, Taupo) and I have had only good experiences. I know that when I stay at a YHA hostel I can expect it to be clean and safe. Every YHA I have stayed in has had a kitchen, laundry facilities, and secure storage. (Not all have secure storage in the rooms, which is best, but they all had somewhere secure you could keep valuables). YHAs also all have free wifi. Sometimes it is not the fastest connection (especially in the evenings when everyone is trying to use it) but you get 2gb per device per day and that is pretty great.
Once I knew where I was going and how many days I would be in each place, I started booking hostels. I felt a bit nervous booking and paying ahead of time. My brain was saying things like “are you sure you want to tie yourself down to such a rigid schedule” and “what if something happens and you get delayed.” But YHAs have a reasonable cancellation policy and I knew that if I did end up changing my plans I could get most of my money back. Also I would rather lose $30 than show up and have them tell me they have no rooms.
YHAs (and most hostels, I assume) have a number of different room options. You can book anything from a private room to an eight bed dorm room. Obviously, the more people in a room the cheaper the bed. Last time we stayed in a few hostels and since there were three of us we usually just booked out a three bed private room and split the cost. It ended up not being too much more than a bed in a share room. This trip that was obviously not an option and I was going for cheap, so I usually booked into the bigger share rooms. I stayed in four, six, and eight bed rooms.
The hostels that had storage lockers in their dorm rooms were my favourite. There is a locker for each bed, you bring your own lock, and voila! no more lugging all your stuff around so that it doesn’t get stolen.
I imagine that if you are a very light sleeper shared rooms might be a terrible option, but I didn’t really have too many issues. I did make sure that I brought a sleep mask and ear plugs. I never ended up wearing ear plugs, but I did use the sleep mask every night. Also, there was a snorer in almost every shared room I was in. Usually I got to sleep before them so it didn’t bother me too much. (If I can fall asleep initially, nothing can really bother me too much).
Staying in share rooms means being a bit more organized. If you are getting up early to leave for the day, you have to pack the night before. You do not have the luxury of waking up, throwing on the light, and figuring out what you need for the day. Technically you could do that, but I’m guessing that if you did, the other people in your room would physically pick you up and throw you out the window. If you are leaving in the morning, you need to have as much of your stuff as possible packed the night before and then do your last minute packing and bed stripping silently in the dark. Basically you just need to take some extra steps to be respectful and accommodating to the other people in your room.
I had very good experiences in all my rooms. I met some nice people and usually had the option to engage and chat with other travellers or just sort of keep to myself. Nothing of mine was stolen (I was pretty diligent about locking up my camera and laptop, but often left clothes, shoes, etc laying on my bed).
Staying in hostels also allows you to save even more money because you have a place to both store and cook food. Sometimes hostel fridges smell a bit funky, but YHAs have a pretty thorough kitchen cleaning schedule. The staff clean the kitchens every day and most seemed to clean out the fridges and storage areas weekly. They provide labels you were required to use that included your check out date. Any food that was not labelled or was past the check out date is thrown out. YHAs are also pretty environmentally conscious and all had extensive recycling facilities.
I bought a YHA membership. It costs about $25 for a year and it gets you a cheaper rate at any YHA hostel as well as discounts on some other tours and activities.
I basically just booked into YHAs in every town I was visiting. The only time that wasn’t an option was Kaikoura. Even over a month in advance, there were no hostel rooms available at the YHA in Kaikoura for the nights I wanted to spend there. I broadened my search, but it turned out there were no rooms in any hostel for those two nights. I realized I was going to have to either skip Kaikoura or book into a BnB of some sort. I love Kaikoura and skipping it wasn’t going to happen so I started looking on AirBnb. I decided I could handle the higher price of an AirBnb for one night, but not two. So I changed my bus trip and increased my stay in Christchurch from one night to two (thank goodness for this or I never would have gotten to hold that lemur’s hand). Then I found a nice little BnB on the point. It actually ended up being so perfect. I was the only person booked into the BnB that night so I got the entire guesthouse to myself. Kaikoura was about half way through my trip and I didn’t realize until I got there how much I had missed having my own sleeping space. I lounged around, turned the light on and off when I wanted to, and played music while I fell asleep. It was so so restful and refreshing.
So at this point I had flights, transportation, and accommodation booked. Before I started booking I was worried that by doing so I would lock myself in too tightly to a schedule. I thought that I should leave more of my time open so I could decide in the moment where to go and where to stay. But honestly, so much peace of mind came from having these things booked. It was calming to know where I was going to go and that I had a place to stay. Also, at this point, everything I had booked could be cancelled or rebooked with very little loss to me.
By this time I had known I was going to NZ for months. As a result I had sort of gotten my heart set on a few activities in the places I knew I would be. Some of them (i.e. climbing Roy’s Peak) required nothing more than simply showing up in the areas and doing the thing. But some required booking a spot on a tour. Again, I was a bit worried about locking myself in too rigidly to a schedule and not leaving days open to do things as they came to me. I figured out what I needed to book ahead of time by looking at each activity and asking myself how devastated I would be if I showed up to try and book it on the day and they said it was full.
I had printed out a calendar page for April and had all my flights, bus trips, and accommodation drawn on to it. It was easy to see which days I had available in each place. This helped me figure out which activities would be more time sensitive (like there would be only one day where I would be able to do a certain thing) and which ones could fit into a variety of places.
Things I pre-booked:
- The Killers concert: by the time I had flights, this concert was already sold out. Once I knew I was going to be in Wellington on the night of the concert, I started obsessively checking the certified ticket resales on the ticketmaster site. A few months later a general admission ticket came up and I jumped on it. I paid almost double the initial ticket price, but you know what, it was 100% worth it.
- Hurricanes game: when I planned my time in Wellington, I made sure to schedule it so that a rugby game fell on one of the days I was there. Turns out that this game did not sell out and I could have bought a ticket on the day, but still, I knew I would be crushed if I had missed out.
- Milford Sound: we didn’t do Milford Sound last time and it is kind of a NZ classic. I booked this tour from Queenstown. I picked this company because they had a backpacker rate and therefore ended up being cheaper than anything else. The bus portion of my tour was on an InterCity bus (wifi and charging stations!) and the cruise was through Jucy.
- Wine Tour: I decided I really wanted to do a wine tour this trip and I found this company. They offer a full day wine tour for significantly cheaper than any other company I found. They also had good reviews. I only had one full day in Picton and I quickly realized I would be very disappointed if the tour on that day filled before I got there, so I booked.
- Glenorchy: I knew I wanted to try and get to Paradise and I found this small family run company that offered tours. I put off booking this one for a long time because it wasn’t quite as burning “I need to do this” activity. But since it was out of Queenstown and within a few days of the the start of my trip, I did end up booking it in advance.
Everything else that I did I just booked while I was there or walked up on the day. Really, the only other thing I booked at all in advance at all was the lemur/meerkat experiences at the Wellington Zoo. I think I booked those a week or so in advance. I often had a vague idea of things I wanted to do in a place and just sort of played it by ear once I got there. Like I knew I wanted to go to Te Papa and to a play at Circa, so once I was in Wellington I sort of felt it out and picked a day and went and did them. When I was in Christchurch I knew that there were some museums and galleries around my hostel. So when I woke up I wandered around to a few of them. Then when I didn’t have anything to do in the afternoon, I wandered down to the iSite to browse through some activities and ended up at Willowbank feeding grapes to lemurs.
I feel like I had a good mix of pre-planned and spur of the moment activities. The part of my trip on the south island, when I was moving around every few days, was more strictly planned. This allowed me to ensure I would see the things I wanted to see and not waste any more time than necessary in moving from place to place. My time in Wellington I left almost completely open (I just had concert tickets and rugby tickets). This allowed me to settle in to Wellington and tackle all the things I wanted to do in an order that made sense once I was there and let me take things like weather and how I was feeling into the equation each day. When you only have one day in a place, you will do an activity (i.e. Milford Sound tour) rain or shine, sick or well. But when you have a whole week you then have the option to wake up and say, it’s really cold today, perhaps I will hold off on the outside activity and go to the museum instead. It worked very well.
I’m sure there is much more I could talk about but that feels like a good summary. If you ever have any questions about things I did or how I planned them, or if you are ever looking for New Zealand recommendations, seriously come talk to me. I will never get tired of talking about travelling there.