Accommodation will take up a fair chunk of your money while in New Zealand, but the good news is that standards across all categories are excellent. Almost every town has a motel or hostel of some description, so finding accommodation is seldom a problem – though it’s essential to book in advance during the peak summer season from Christmas through to the end of March.
Kiwis travel widely at home, most choosing to self-cater at the country’s huge number of well-equipped campsites (a.k.a. holiday parks) and motels, shunning hotels, which cater mainly to package holiday-makers and the business community. The range of B&Bs, homestays, farmstays and lodges forms an appealing alternative, covering the whole spectrum from a room in someone’s suburban home to pampered luxury in a country mansion.
Since the mid-1980s, New Zealand has pioneered the backpacker hostel, a less regimented alternative to traditional YHAs, which have transformed themselves dramatically to compete. Found all over the country, hostels offer superb value to budget travellers.
Wherever you stay, you can expect unstinting hospitality and a truckload of valuable advice on local activities and onward travel. We’ve included a wide selection of New Zealand’s best accommodation throughout the book, and more detail can be gleaned from specialist accommodation guides.
Many places are now accredited using the nationwide Qualmark system (w qualmark.co.nz), which grades different types of accommodation – exclusive, hotel, self-contained, guest and hosted, holiday parks and backpackers – from one to five stars. Most fall between three stars (very good) and four plus (at the top end of excellent), but there is no way of knowing whether, for example, a four-star backpacker is superior to rooms at a five-star holiday park. Many places choose not to join the system, but may be just as good or better.
Accommodation guides and websites
AA Accommodation Guide w aatravel.co.nz. Annual advertising-based guide for the whole country; concentrates mostly on motels and holiday parks. Also a B&B guide and various regional variants. Available free from most motels and i-SITE offices.
BookABach w bookabach.co.nz. Many Kiwis own a holiday home (a.k.a. bach or crib), which they rent out when they’re not using them. Some are in superb locations next to beaches or lakes. Some have a two- or three-night minimum stay, rising to a week from Christmas to late February when rates rise dramatically and availability reduced. There are real bargains in winter. Holiday houses (w holidayhouses.co.nz) has a similar range of places.
Charming Bed & Breakfast w bnbnz.com. Glossy B&B guide concentrating on mid-range places but also country and farmstays. View online, download as one massive PDF, get the book for the price of postage, or pick up (often free) at B&Bs. Nominally $20.
Hotels, motels and pubs
In New Zealand, hotel is a term frequently used to describe old-style pubs, once legally obliged to provide rooms for drinkers to recuperate. Many no longer provide accommodation, but some have transformed themselves into backpacker hostels, while others are dedicated to preserving the tradition. At their best, such hotels offer comfortable rooms in historic buildings (for $100–140/night), though just as often lodgings are rudimentary. Hotel bars are frequently at the centre of small-town life and at weekends in particular can be pretty raucous, so you may find a budget room at a hostel a better bet.
In the cities and major resorts, you’ll also come across hotels in the conventional sense ($180–$350), predominantly business- or tour-bus-oriented places. Rack rates are generally high but many places vary their rates according to demand and bargains can definitely be had, particularly at weekends.
Most Kiwi families on the move prefer the astonishingly well-equipped motels ($100–200) which congregate along the roads running into town, making them more convenient for drivers than for those using trains or buses. They usually come with Sky TV, bathroom, some sort of kitchen and tea and coffee, but are often fairly functional concrete-block places with little to distinguish one from another. Rooms range from all-in-one studios, with beds, kettle, toaster and a microwave, through one-bedroom units, usually with a full and separate kitchen, to two- and three-bedroom suites, sleeping six or eight. Suites generally go for the same basic price as a one-bedroom unit, with each additional adult paying $20–25, making them an economical choice for groups travelling together. Anything calling itself a motor inn ($140–240) or similar will be quite luxurious, with a bar, restaurant, swimming pool and sauna but no cooking facilities.
B&Bs, lodges and boutique hotels
While families might prefer the freedom and adaptability of a motel, couples are often better served by a bed and breakfast (B&B; $100–250). This might be a simple room with a bathroom down the hall and a modest continental breakfast included in the price. But the term also encompasses luxurious colonial homes with well-furnished en-suite rooms and sumptuous home-cooked breakfasts. Those at the top end fashion themselves as lodges, boutique hotels and “exclusive retreats” ($300–2000), where standards of service and comfort reach extraordinary levels, with prices to match.
Rates drop in the low season, when these places can often be good value. If you’re travelling alone and don’t fancy hostels, B&Bs can also be a viable alternative, usually charging lone travellers 60–80 percent of the double room rate, though some only ask fifty percent.
Homestays and farmstays
Homestays ($120–200) usually offer a guest room or two in an ordinary house where you muck in with the owners and join them for breakfast the following morning. Staying in such places can be an excellent way to meet ordinary New Zealanders; you’ll be well looked after, sometimes to the point of being overwhelmed by your hosts’ generosity. It is courteous to call in advance, and bear in mind you’ll usually have to pay in cash. Rural versions often operate as farmstays ($120–200), where you’re encouraged to stay a couple of nights and are welcome to spend the intervening day trying your hand at farm tasks: rounding up sheep, milking cows, fencing, whatever might need doing. Both homestays and farmstays charge for a double room, including breakfast; some cook dinner on request for $25–75 per person, and you may pay a small fee for lunch if you spend the day at the farm or for a packed lunch.
Hostels, backpackers and YHAs
New Zealand has over 350 budget and self-catering places, pretty much interchangeably known as hostels or backpackers and offering a dorm bed or bunk for around $23–32. They’re often in superb locations – bang in the centre of town, beside the beach, close to a ski-field or amid magnificent scenery in a national or forest park – and are great places to meet other travellers and pick up local information. Backpacker hostels range in size from as few as four beds up to huge premises accommodating several hundred. Beds are generally fully made up (places discourage or ban sleeping bags to prevent the spread of bed bugs); you should bring your own towel, though you can rent one for a few dollars. Internet access (and increasingly wi-fi) is pretty standard, though a few rural places intentionally eschew such mod cons. Depending on the area, there may be a pool, barbecue, bike and/or canoe rental and information on local work opportunities. Many places offer cupboards for your gear, though you’ll usually need your own lock. Almost all hostels are affiliated with local and international organizations that offer accommodation discounts to members, along with an array of other travel- and activity-related savings.
Some hostels allow you to pitch a tent in the grounds and use the facilities for around $17 per person, but generally the most basic and cheapest accommodation is in a six- to twelve-bunk dorm ($23–28), with three- and four-bed rooms (also known as three-shares and four-shares) usually priced a couple of dollars higher. Most hostels also have double, twin and family rooms ($50–80 for two), the more expensive ones with en-suite bathrooms. Lone travellers who don’t fancy a dorm can sometimes get a single room ($30–50), and many larger places (especially YHAs and Base backpackers) also offer women-only dorms.
Around 25 places are classified as YHA hostels (w yha.co.nz), which have abandoned lock-outs, curfews and arcane opening hours, but maintain a predominance of single-sex dorms. Newer hostels have been purpose-built to reflect the YHA’s environmental concerns, promoting recycling and energy conservation. Non-members pay the price we’ve quoted but you can save 10 percent by joining and obtaining a Hostelling International Card, preferably in your home country before travelling. Alternatively you can buy a $42 annual membership in New Zealand, which includes one free dorm night.
Another 26 hostels are affiliated associate YHA hostels, where there is often a discount of a dollar or so for YHA members. You can book ahead either from another hostel or through the YHA National Reservations Centre and through Hostelling International offices in your home country.
YHA and associate YHA hostels are listed on the annual YHA Backpacker Map.
YHAs are vastly outnumbered by other backpacker hostels, where the atmosphere is more variable; some are friendly and relaxed, others more party-oriented. Many are aligned with the NZ-based Budget Backpacker Hostels (w bbh.co.nz), and are listed (along with current prices) in the BBH Accommodation booklet, widely available from hostels and visitor centres. The entries are written by the hostels and don’t pretend to be impartial but each hostel is given a customer percentage rating which is determined by an annual customer survey and by online voting. These are a reliable quality indicator, though city hostels tend not to rate as well as similarly appointed places next to nice beaches. Anything above 80 percent will be excellent: the few places rating below 60 percent should be treated with suspicion.
Anyone can stay at BBH hostels, but savings can be made by buying a BBH Club Card ($45), which generally saves the holder $3–4 on each night’s stay in either a dorm or a room. Cards are available from BBH and all participating hostels, and each card doubles as a rechargeable phonecard loaded with $20 worth of calling time.
Base and Nomads
Two Australasian hostel chains, Base (w stayatbase.com) and Nomads (w nomadshostels.com), each run half a dozen or so hostels across the country, in major tourist hangouts. Both offer discounts if you sign up to a card or accommodation package.
Holiday parks, cabins and camping
New Zealand has some of the world’s best camping facilities, and even if you’ve never camped before, you may well find yourself using holiday parks (also known as motor camps), which come with space to pitch tents, numerous powered sites (or hook-ups) for campervans and usually a broad range of dorms, cabins and motel units. You’ll find more down-to-earth camping at wonderfully located DOC sites.
Camping is largely a summer activity (Nov–May), especially in the South Island. At worst, New Zealand can be very wet, windy and plagued by voracious winged insects, so the first priority for tent campers is good-quality gear with a fly sheet which will repel the worst that the elements can dish out, and an inner tent with bug-proof ventilation for hot mornings.
Busy times at motor camps fall into line with the school holidays, making Easter and the summer period from Christmas to the end of January the most hectic. Make reservations as far in advance as possible at this time, and a day or two before you arrive through February and March. DOC sites are not generally bookable, and while this is no problem through most of the year, Christmas can be a mad free-for-all.
For more information, see DOC campsites for information about responsible overnight stops outside official areas.
Holiday parks are typically located on the outskirts of towns and are invariably well equipped, with a communal kitchen, TV lounge, games area, laundry and sometimes a swimming pool. You should bring your own pans, plates and cutlery, though some places have limited supplies and full sets can be rented for a few dollars a night. Non-residents can often get showers for around $2–5. Campers usually get the quietest and most sylvan corner of the site and are charged around $13–20 per person; camping prices throughout the guide are per person unless followed or preceded by “per site”. There is often no distinction between tent pitches and the powered sites set aside for campervans, but the latter usually cost an extra $2–3 per person for the use of power hook-ups and dump stations.
Most holiday parks also have some form of on-site accommodation. Sheets and towels are rarely included at the cheaper end, so bring a sleeping bag or be prepared to pay to rent bed linen (typically $5–10/stay).
Holiday parks are independently run but some have now aligned themselves with nationwide organizations that set minimum standards. Look out for Top 10 sites (w top10.co.nz), which maintain a reliably high standard in return for slightly higher prices and a degree of identikit sameness. By purchasing a membership card ($40) you save ten percent on each night’s stay and get local discounts; the card (valid 2 years) is transferable to Australia.
Holiday park accommodation options
Tent site ($13–20/person). Usually a patch of grass with a tap nearby.
Powered site ($15–23/person). Patch of grass or concrete with electrical hook-up and a dump station nearby. Fancier places charge a minimum of two people per site.
Lodge ($20–25/person). Dorm accommodation, often 8–12 bunks.
Standard cabin ($50–85 for two, plus $10–15 for each extra person). Often little more than a shed with bunks and perhaps a table. They sleep 2–4 and bedding is usually extra.
Kitchen cabin ($70–110 for two, plus $10–20 for each extra person). Like a standard cabin but with cooking facilities, table and chairs, and pans and plates provided. Often sleeps four and bedding is extra.
Tourist cabin/flat ($80–130 for two, plus $15–25 for each extra person). A kitchen cabin but with your own shower, toilet and maybe TV. Sometimes known as a self-contained unit, it typically sleeps four, and bedding is sometimes included.
Motel unit ($100–195 for two, plus $15–30 for each extra person). Larger than cabins and probably with one or more separate bedrooms and TV/DVD. Bedding and towels included.
Few holiday parks can match the idyllic locations of the 250-plus campsites operated by the Department of Conservation (DOC;
w doc.govt.nz) in national parks, reserves, maritime and forest parks, the majority beautifully set by sweeping beaches or deep in the bush. This is back-to-nature camping, low-cost and with simple facilities, though sites almost always have running water and toilets of some sort. Listed in DOC’s free North Island and South Island Conservation Campsites booklets (available from DOC offices), the sites fall into one of four categories: Basic (free), often with nothing but a long-drop toilet and water nearby; Backcountry ($1.50–6), with perhaps a cooking shelter and/or fireplace; the more common Standard ($5–16, typically $6), all with vehicular access and many with barbecues, fireplaces, picnic tables and refuse collection; and the rare Serviced ($7–19), which are similar in scope to the regular holiday parks. Children aged 5–17 are charged 25–50 percent off the adult price, and only the Serviced sites can be booked in advance.
One of the pleasures of driving a campervan around New Zealand is the ability to sneak the odd free night in wayside rest areas or in car parks beside beaches. This freedom camping has never been strictly legal, but when numbers were small nobody worried too much. However, the sheer popularity of the privilege and indiscriminate littering took its toll and a new law now gives councils the power to hand out instant fines (minimum $200) to people found camping where they are instructed not to. No Camping signs have sprung up in likely spots all over the country, forcing freedom campers to quieter places between towns.
Freedom camping is definitely getting tougher but the approach varies throughout the country. Almost everyone takes a dim view of freedom camping in vehicles without a plumbed-in toilet. Full self-contained campers (marked with a green diamond sticker) have more options. Some councils impose a blanket ban on freedom camping within 10km of town, other places designate specific spots for freedom campers. DOC have responded to the changes by opening up more Conservation Campsites (some free, but mostly $5/person), usually in pretty areas close to towns. There’s also Native Parks (w nativeparks.co.nz), a scheme where travellers in fully self-contained motorhomes can stay free on hosts’ property. When you join ($75) you get a guidebook outlining around 90 member properties spread all over the country.
We’ve listed many of the best and most convenient camping areas throughout the guide but there’s lots more information out there. Consult w camping.org.nz for guidelines on freedom camping and a link to a site marking all camping areas throughout the country. There are also useful apps; try the free one from w campermate.co.nz showing camping spots, toilets, budget accommodation and wi-fi hotspots all over the country, and the paid app from w rankers.co.nz/respect, which focuses on the camping but has deeper coverage.