The Pros and Cons of Campervan Travel in New Zealand
Even before we had chosen New Zealand as our first destination we had heard it was a great place for camping. With so much vast and beautiful green space there is more than enough nature to spare. I had heard about campervan travel as being a popular option and having always had a love for tiny homes, van life and small living, I was excited to have the opportunity to actually try it.
I did quite a bit of research on the different options; buying versus renting and comparing rates and reviews for all the rental companies. Since we only planned to be in New Zealand for about a month we opted to rent, since we didn’t want to worry about paying for maintenance, car repairs or the stress of selling it before we left. If we had been there for a couple months, buying would have been much cheaper.
As for the rental companies, well they all had mixed reviews, both glowing and scathing. We went with Spaceships, one of the cheaper options, and overall it was a fairly positive experience with some frustrations, which I will explain later. But most of all we loved being in the van and no poor service could change that! So without further delay....
The Great Things About Campervan Travel in New Zealand
There are hundreds and thousands of camping sites all over the country, with a variety of amenities depending on your needs. This means you can explore further and into more remote areas, whereas someone taking the hostel or B&B route might be limited to more regional or high traffic areas. PLUS, if you are in a ‘self-contained vehicle’ (your vehicle has a toilet and grey water tank), your options increase that much more!
*We found our camping sites using the app CamperMate and loved it!
In addition to camping sites nearly being everywhere, they can be incredibly affordable. There are many free sites, but most have low fees of $5-10. Some of the parks in more ‘picturesque’ locations will have higher fees of $12-16 and private holiday parks can be quite expensive at $18-40, but they are usually loaded with amenities, we are talking laundry service, swimming pools, game rooms, etc. We stayed at two holiday parks over the whole 5 weeks and they were reasonably priced options and offered things like free laundry service or unlimited wifi (which was actually really good too!), otherwise free or low cost camping was a regular for us. Again, if your vehicle is self-contained you will have many more free camping options.
No Packing and Unpacking
Everything you have and need is with you all the time. You set up and organize your space as you like and you don’t need to pack and unpack everyday. Do not underestimate how awesome it is to not lug bags around, clothes and groceries alike.
A campervan covers all your basics of travel; it is your mode of transportation, the roof over your head and the restaurant you eat at. Of course, that also means if something goes wrong with the vehicle you’ve lost all of those things (which we did have issues with once or twice in our five weeks). But that still doesn’t change the ease of it. Having everything with you requires less planning, which means you have that much more time to just be in the moment, and that is a sweet sweet thing.
Ease of Driving and Parking
This is more specific to campervans. Since they are essentially a mini-van or about that size, they are easy to drive and maneuver on narrow and windy roads and they are easy to park. We saw many people tugging along in bigger RV set ups, struggling on the windy mountain roads and having a hell-of-a-time parking. And because it is the size of a standard passenger vehicle they are cheaper on the ferry crossing as well.
There is more room for spontaneity when you don't need to book accommodations every day. We would look at our map or guidebook for ideas on the day ahead and just go. We didn’t need to plan anything. Of course, there were times when we DID have to book a particular activity a day or two ahead if it was popular or busy, but these were rare. That being said, we were there at the end of spring (November) so it was just before the high season. My understanding is that booking things (including some popular campsites) can be required during high season.
This is probably the first and most important reason! If you were a kid who loved building forts, sleeping in tents, building igloos or took joy in creating small spaces to have fun in, then you will probably love this too! I loved driving through beautiful places, parking in the middle of them and setting up for the night. I loved that I could convert our comfortable and cozy nighttime set up into a moderately functional daytime set up. I loved that we could pop the trunk and cook outside the back. There were moments that it didn’t always feel like fun, but overall I really really enjoyed it.
Of course there are a few drawbacks, and it wouldn’t be fair for me to write about all the pros without considering the cons. While they may be ‘cons’ they are really just inconveniences – inconveniences that you just workaround and figure out. I have only traveled in a campervan in New Zealand, but I imagine these could apply anywhere.
The Not So Great Things About Campervan Travel in New Zealand
The Toilet Situation
Unless you have a toilet on board you are going to have to find somewhere to do your business. There is no private home-base toilet for you to hold it until you get home, so you’ve got to get comfortable with shared toilets. That being said, we had zero issues finding public toilets, if anything they were plentiful! All attractions have them, but most towns also have free public washrooms at parks and rest stops. You just start to take advantage of toilets when you see them. Admittedly, the drop toilets at many of the campsites we went to were atrocious – we are talking hold your breath, close your eyes and get in and out as soon as possible. But fear not, we encountered quite a few flushing toilets as well!
The Shower Situation
I think it’s safe to say that if you are traveling in something like a camper you are probably not going to be showering quite as regularly as you might have otherwise. That’s not to say you stink, but not every campsite has shower facilities – that is especially true for the free ones. And often when the site did have showers, they were cold. We had a variety of experiences here – we had a few cold showers, we had a good number of hot showers (for a small fee) and we had a few ‘natural baths’ in streams and rivers. It’s all part of the experience, and to me at least, it makes for fond memories.
When you have pleasant weather it is amazing; the van doors are open, you cook and eat freely outside and life is good! When the weather is shit it just makes those things more difficult. Good luck lighting and keeping a camp stove lit in gale-force winds, and staying dry and keeping the inside of the van dry is a challenge with rain. We were lucky enough to have an awning with our rental, which was amazing for the rain – but many people did not have this set up. Obviously if you are in a camper van set-up that has been specially equipped for indoor cooking you are golden, but most economy options don’t have this.
Usually the days with poor weather we opted for quick and easy food options that required minimal use of the stove, and sometimes we just had to suck it up.
I thought mosquitos were bad, but sandflies are the worst. When you are travelling in a campervan there is just no escaping them. Travelling in a van is about being outside all the time, so bugs just come with the territory. We definitely had some learning curves with how to manage the bugs.
We learned the hard way on our first night at a beautiful campsite. We left the windows down an inch to allow for some airflow, and as I lay in the dark falling asleep I could hear a faint buzzing at my ear and ‘ouch! There’s a mosquito in here’. We turn on the lights and there are mosquitos EVERYWHERE! We closed the windows and spent the next 40 minutes squishing them one by one. There were squished mosquito marks on the roof of the van the rest of the trip. See, fun stories, right?
After a few nights sleeping a bit hot in the van without air circulation we got creative. We went to the local hardware store, bought some vinyl screening and masking tape, and literally taped the screen to our windows in the evening every night. This allowed us to sleep with the windows open without getting eaten alive. It wasn’t pretty looking, but it worked.
Theft and/or Fear of Theft
To start we had no issues with theft, but it is something we heard a lot about. Almost immediately we were advised by a local that rental campervans are easy targets for theft. We took precautions and never left valuables in the van, but it was something we were definitely conscious of. Unfortunately most of the rental companies like really loud and flashy paintjobs, which make your vehicle stick out like a sore thumb. Just be smart, hide your things and keep your valuables with you.
Breakdowns and Maintenance
I love that with a campervan everything is in one place, your transport, your bed, and your kitchen. And that’s all great until you have car issues. Hopefully this won’t happen to you, but it did happen to us. You can’t just drop your vehicle off for the night and pick it up the next day; you need to sleep in it! So you’ve got to wait around for repairs. In New Zealand everything shuts down at 4 and 5pm and no one is working on Sundays, which poses a bit of a challenge if roadside assistance can’t help you. We did have to sleep in an alternative rental car for a night, which was neither ideal nor comfortable, but it was fine – it just adds to the experience, right?
And to me those are the only downsides of campervan travel. But I think they are well worth it. I honestly think that attitude is key – just like any method of travel there may be inconveniences along the way, but you roll with the punches and don’t allow small things out of your control ruin it. We admittedly had some frustrations with the rental company on several occasions throughout our time there, but looking back it doesn’t taint the experience.
I am super keen to travel in a campervan again. While I haven’t gotten to the point of buying a campervan myself (oneday!), we have picked up a small little pop-up trailer. It’s not a campervan or a tiny home, but it’s pretty damn close!
How did you travel in New Zealand?
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