Buy or Rent a Car or Campervan in New Zealand?

Should you buy or rent a car or campervan for your New Zealand trip? New Zealand offers backpackers a diverse number of transport options. With such a plethora of choices, determining the best mode of transport can be a bit daunting. Before considering all of the different modes of transport however, it is first necessary to understand your priorities. To do so, answer the following questions.

  • How long will I be in New Zealand?
  • How much money do I want to spend on transport?
  • Do I want to travel alone or with friends?
  • How flexible is my travel itinerary?

Although no magic formula can help you determine the best New Zealand transport option, understanding your priorities will help to determine your ideal form of transport.

Rent A Car vs. Buy a Car
jucy rental car

It is possible to rent a small car for as little as $30 a day. ($210 a week). Backpackers staying in New Zealand for less than a month often find that renting a car provides ample flexibility and freedom. A rental car empowers backpackers to experience parts of New Zealand, at their own pace, not covered by the bus network – if they have time.

Buying a car, although a bit scary at first, offers the same flexibility as renting a car. Backpackers who purchase a car usually remain in New Zealand from 1-12 months. The amount of time they spend in New Zealand makes renting a car impractical because used cars are cheap. For example, it is possible to rent a car for $210 per week or $840 for a typical month. A backpacker who spends $2,000 (a reasonable, if not slightly expensive price for a used car) and spends 3 months in New Zealand will have spent $666 a month on their transport. In theory, a backpacker who purchases a car will be able to sell the car at the end of their journey thus earning back a substantial portion of their investment. Although attractive on paper, buying a car for a 3 month holiday comes with inherent risks (What happens if it breaks? What happens if it does not sell?) that discourage some backpackers from pursuing this option.

Travel By Car: Pros

For backpackers who like to stay in hostels, traveling New Zealand is heavenly. A car allows for ultimate flexibility and spontaneity, provided that a hostel with an empty bunk can be found at the end of the day. To help set off the cost of petrol, some backpackers will pick up hitch hikers, generally other backpackers, (charging them petrol money) and/or split the costs with newly made friends.

Travel By Car: Cons

No matter how a backpacker chooses to see New Zealand, the cost of petrol is unavoidable. At an average price of $1.65 a liter (and rising) driving the forever curvy and mountainous roads of New Zealand can quickly grow expensive. During the busy season (December – March) hostel bunks and other budget accommodations can be in short supply. As a result, although traveling by car will empower a backpacker with spontaneity, the need to make reservations 1-2 days ahead of schedule may serve to dampen down the impulsive tendencies which led to acquiring a car in the first place. Moreover, some picturesque locations simply do not have budget accommodation. It is possible to see the location, but many backpackers find themselves forced to move on sooner than desired in search of a bunk. (If a backpacker is willing to camp in a tent or sleep in their car, it is possible to maintain a large amount of flexibility. Camping and sleeping in a car however, add their own complexities that may make these options undesirable.)

Rent A Campervan vs Buy A Campervan
spaceship nz

Campervans in New Zealand come in all shapes and sizes. It is possible to rent a large monstrosity the size of a rock band's tour bus, or a small van more typically associated with suburban mothers than camping minded backpackers. The amount of backpackers sharing the van, and the desired amount of comfort, will serve as an adequate guide for most backpackers when selecting a campervan.

Thanks to New Zealand's cultural acceptance of van dwelling (living out of a van), and the cut throat competition of the campervan rental agencies, it is possible to rent a campervan for as little as $266 per week. Backpackers who intend to stay in New Zealand for less than a month, typically find that renting a campervan provides the ultimate level of flexibility. Although living in a small self contained unit can be uncomfortable, the amount of freedom it offers typically makes up for the majority of discomforts.

Buying a campervan, offers the same flexibility as renting a campervan. Although purchasing a campervan will cost more than buying a car, the same principle (explained above) still applies to backpackers who travel New Zealand for more than a month.

Travel By Campervan: Pros

For backpackers who do not like hostels, traveling New Zealand in a campervan is wonderful. New Zealand is littered with holiday parks (really nice campgrounds), serviced campgrounds (bathrooms and running water) and unserviced campgrounds (a field). In many parts of the country it is possible to find a free location to park for the night, provided the inhabitants are okay with peeing outside. Most campervans have a double bed, a sink, water tanks, a refrigerator, and a hot plate or cooker. With a nice dose of ingenuity, backpackers who travel by campervan can avoid ever paying for accommodation. What is more, campervans allow backpackers to freely roam the most remote parts of New Zealand with as much spontaneity as they can muster.

Travel By Campervan: Cons

Campervans don't have showers. Campervans usually do not allow a backpacker to stand up. Campervans can quickly morph from a great idea to a claustrophobic stink bomb. It is possible to find free public showers, especially on the North Island, or to work a cheap deal with a holiday park or hostel for the use of their shower facilities. It is also possible to bathe in lakes or rivers. These options can quickly become tiring and will inevitably force a backpacker to spend the occasional night in a hostel. Spending more money to buy or rent a campervan leads some backpackers down the road to bitterness when the need to stretch their legs and take a shower forces them into a hostel.

Whether buying or renting, cars and campervans represent an excellent way to see New Zealand. Don't worry about the details and simply allow your personality to push you in the right direction.

Not convinced about buying or renting a car or campervan? Check out the ever popular options of bus travel and hitch hiking.

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