While studying New Zealand for a trip we are hoping to take in the near future, I came across the fact that almost everyone flies into Auckland and rents a car to head south. Beginning there, this post will examine all the ways to get from the tip of the north island (Auckland) to the adventure capital towards the bottom of the south island (Queenstown) and uncover efficient and lucrative ways to take advantage of this knowledge.
When I see general movement trends like this one, I see two things:
- If most people are going this way, I should consider why they do it. Perhaps there are good reasons for using this particular routing. For example, most tourists travel north to south along the Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and Los Angeles so they are driving on the ocean side. There could also be silly reasons for a well-trodden route, like the absence of imagination; both the good and bad must be considered!
- If most people are going this way, there are probably opportunities to be had by breaking the mold.
The answer to the first part seems pretty basic to me, although a local's thoughts would be welcome. Auckland is the hub airport for Air New Zealand and the focus airport in New Zealand for every other carrier, so nearly everyone who visits New Zealand begins at AKL Airport. In addition, New Zealand's tourism industry has put a lot of emphasis on its Lord of the Rings and Hobbit-related destinations, most of which are just a few hours drive south of Auckland.
As we delve into all the options for visiting both Auckland and Queenstown, we'll also unearth the best opportunities for budget travelers and those who are interested in going against the grain, whether for profit, adventure, or my favorite: a profitable venture loaded with adventure!
Option #1: Paid ticket to Queenstown with stopover in Auckland
If you're planning to pay for flights, one option available is to stopover in Auckland on the way to Queenstown by booking a "multi-city ticket." For the test dates I used (November 2016 or the beginning of the high season), Air New Zealand was charging $1650 round-trip to fly from Los Angeles to Queenstown via Auckland, whether you just connected in Auckland or took a stopover. This means you can visit Auckland and Queenstown for the same air travel costs as just visiting Queenstown.
Note: A stopover is a stay of 24 hours or more, as opposed to a layover (think time between connecting flights), which is less than that amount of time. Typically, a stopover is taken to visit one place on the way to another. Understanding stopover rules is one of the biggest keys to maximize air travel value and something I cover regularly on this blog.
Option #2: Paid ticket to Auckland, then separate ticket to Queenstown
Flying LAX to Auckland costs $1150 round-trip for the same dates on Air New Zealand ($500 less than continuing to Queenstown on the same ticket). Then, the exact same flights to Queenstown used in Option #1 can be had for about $200 round-trip. That's a savings of $300 just for splitting the trip up into two tickets! You could either say this is a great travel hack or you could say Air New Zealand tried to rip you off...both would probably be at least a little bit true.
Note: While Air New Zealand has a monopoly on domestic flights, you do have the option to fly other airlines to Auckland. Fiji Airways and Quantas (both American Airlines partners based in the region) both fly to Auckland from LAX via their hubs, sometimes even for the same price as Air New Zealand. The only real advantage to Air New Zealand is that it has direct flights from LAX, but its partner United has recently announced they'll fly direct from SFO to Auckland so other options are coming.
Option #3: Redeem Miles for Award Flights
With United and American both announcing an increased presence in New Zealand and Australia, I'm hoping that more award travel will open up in what has typically been a pretty tough space to crack with miles. That being said, American, Alaska, and United all have some award availability (mostly coach) if you're able to keep your eyes peeled and book way ahead. You can find all the information you need for Option #3 by reading The Best Award Redemption for Traveling to New Zealand.
Option #4: Travel by Bus
If you want to travel by bus from Auckland to Queenstown (or vice versa), you have two options: regional bus or tour bus. Both have potential as viable ways of seeing large swaths of New Zealand, but they are very different from each other.
The regional buses go between larger cities, so it will be harder to get to those off-the-beaten track spots. One sample bus route is Auckland to Wellington (top to bottom of the north island), a trip that takes 11.5hrs and costs about 50 USD. This bus will also stop in Rotorua along the way, so it would be possible to base their for a few days to do a tour of Hobbiton and explores some of the active adventures for which the area is known. After taking a ferry across the channel, it's possible to travel from Picton to Queenstown (via Christchurch) for about 60 USD, but the journey will take more than 24hrs.
The tour bus option is much more expensive, but offers a more catered experience and the ability to visit more distant attractions. Kiwi Experience is one such company and they offer various programs, including a 17-day pass that will take you from Auckland to Queenstown ($300) and a 30-day pass whereby you can travel on their busses to your hearts content ($660). Another benefit to this type of transportation is that these busses seem like a traveling hostel common room; they'll be a great place for younger people to meet other travelers who might enrich the experience.
Option #5: Rent a Car or Camper and Drive from One End to the Other
For some, driving New Zealand is a no-brainer because of all the wondrous places that aren't found on the bus routes or near airports. Since driving the length of New Zealand takes about 20 hours and includes a ferry crossing between the two islands, it's not practical for most to return the vehicle to the same agency location. This creates both a dilemma and a gigantic travel-hacking opportunity.
You see, most people rent their vehicle in Auckland (again, that's where most people enter New Zealand) and return it in other major cities to the south. Doing this means paying a one-way rental fee, which if you've ever done before you'll realize is generally not a pleasant experience for wallets and bank accounts. Still, this is the option many people choose and God bless them.
Consistent one-way rentals headed south result in fleets that are constantly in need of reshuffling. You've probably seen extremely discounted rentals leaving Florida in the winter if you're willing to drive it somewhere north, right? Same deal here, except that there's a good reason people drive south to Florida in rentals in the winter, but there's no equivalent reason for doing the same in New Zealand during the summer!
If fact, by positioning south in Queenstown or Christchurch for the start of a New Zealand expedition, it's often possible to travel north for just the cost of fuel. Rental car companies will give you a vehicle for free or just a few dollars a day if you agree to take it to another destination to the north within a certain timeframe (usually 2-5 days, depending on distance).
One way to utilize this low-cost transportation would be to pick a car up in Queenstown that needs to go to Wellington and then pick up a new car there that needs to go to Auckland. In doing this, you can extend the amount of time you have with the free rentals so you're not rushed. The image below is proof that this crazy travel hack exists and here's the best website I found to search across many agencies for the cars that need to be relocated.
Option #5: Ride a Bike Across New Zealand
It wouldn't be my blog if there wasn't some mention of bicycle touring on a route so perfect for such an endeavor. While Johanna and I won't be touring New Zealand when we visit for the first time, there are plenty of others who've done it and love it. I have read a few blogs in the past about riding Queenstown to Auckland, but had trouble finding them again. For those interested in a bike tour of New Zealand, this website seems to be an excellent resource on the subject.
The Bottom Line
I've highlighted a number of solid options for traveling across New Zealand, as well as provided some ideas for reducing the cost of your travels. Personally, I am a fan of redeeming miles for flights, so we'll be taking some version of Option #3 to make the most of our trip at the best price. For those of you without miles, flying from the United States to Auckland and then continuing south on a separate ticket seems like your best bet, but if prices to Queenstown are comparable, consider jumping on that vehicle relocation gravy-train!
Perhaps most importantly, be sure to budget enough of your time in addition to the necessary funds; it has become clear to me that New Zealand has a lot to offer in the space between the adventure-capital of Queenstown and the destination hub that is Auckland.