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Van Life: How much does it cost to explore New Zealand?

Paul Ryken and Sandra Rosenau Afford your trip, New Zealand Leave a Comment

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Those of you who followed us for a while know that we keep track of and publish our cost of living all around the world. In this article, we share with you what it cost (us) to live and travel (in a campervan) in New Zealand for a 12-month period in 2018. This is our final update for van life expenses as we sold the van in preparation for our next adventure.

Why could this be of interest to you? By publishing our budget and our actual monthly costs, we hope it will:

Freedom camping at Papamoa Beach
Freedom camping at Papamoa Beach, New Zealand
Van Life: Your Home on the Road
  • Hardcover Book
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 256 Pages - 10/10/2017 (Publication Date) - Black Dog & Leventhal (Publisher)

We believe van life is a reasonably affordable way to explore New Zealand. That said, everyone has different priorities and lives differently, making budgeting a highly personal thing. Our numbers here reflect who we are. We are not pensioners, and we want to continue our lifestyle for as long as possible. So we have been frugal in some of our choices, and we live a simple life.

We purchased our campervan in early November 2017 and made some improvements to it before hitting the road in January 2018.

Where We Travelled

Accommodation and Utilities

This category includes campground fees, laundry costs and utilities (including potable water purification tablets, grey water chemicals, and black water chemicals, mobile phone and wireless broadband internet charges, as well as the costs for our Private Box mail service. We mostly stayed at free or cheap campsites (including those provided by veterans and sports clubs, the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association and private park over properties). Our accommodation costs ended up almost 2/3 less than we had budgeted for.

Given our 300-watt solar panels provide more than enough power for our appliances, we didn’t need to plug into mains power during the warmer months. During the colder months, especially during the New Zealand winter (officially June – August), we either house sat or stayed at powered campsites as our (water) heater only worked off mains power.

To be totally transparent: In 2018, we stayed in the following accommodations:

A weekly task - doing our washing at a laundromat
A weekly task - doing our washing at a laundromat

Groceries and Dining

We spent (a bit) more on groceries and dining than we had budgeted for. This is not due to us going out for dinner all the time (we hardly ever do). It’s actually our groceries that we have been overspending on (despite being very conscious shoppers). Groceries in New Zealand turned out to be even more expensive than in Australia. We had an inkling it would be like that but seeing it in black and white was still a shock.

Given the limited storage in our campervan (both in terms of cupboard and fridge/freezer space), we needed to go groceries shopping twice a week. We did save money on our groceries though by shopping in cheaper supermarkets and local greengrocers (which have the added benefit of providing fresher fruit and veggies without the packaging).

Dinner is served in our campervan
Dinner is served in our campervan

Make the most of your time (and budget) while travelling around New Zealand with the help of these essential travel apps for your New Zealand road trip.

Transport and Travel

This category includes on-road-costs (such as fuel and road user charges, which all Diesel vehicles incur at a cost of 6.8 cents per kilometre), vehicle maintenance costs, as well as parking fees and road tolls. In 2018, we travelled just under 13,800 kilometres. The map above shows where we travelled.

Fuel Costs

We used Gaspy, a user-maintained smartphone application that shows fuel prices at the different gas stations around the country. Our budget for fuel was NZD1.35 per litre, and we stayed within budget for the majority of 2018, despite fuel price hikes that saw diesel go up to NZD1.92 at Queenstown gas stations at one point. Thank you, Gaspy.

Vehicle Maintenance Costs

Vehicle repairs and maintenance cost us just under NZD9,800, almost six times our budget of NZD1,640 for the year. Something to be mindful of when you buy an older vehicle as we did: you may save upfront, but you pay as you go.

We had to replace the indicator and window washer storks, all four tires and two ball joints. We got a full service of the vehicle in February and paid for 12 months of vehicle registration. In April 2018, MJ had to undergo quite extensive rust repairs, which were necessary to get our Warrant of Fitness. In May 2018, our radiator hose needed to be replaced. In November 2018, MJ had to undergo further repairs to be WOF compliant (including further rust repairs, a new exhaust pipe and repairs to the brake system). And just before we sold the van in December 2018, we had the front brake pads, sway bar bushes and air filter replaced. Ouch!

Parking Fees, Road Tolls and Other

We hardly ever incurred parking fees or road tolls as we always looked for free parking (for example, supermarket car parks are usually free, at least for 90-120 minutes) and given we were not in a rush, we used roads that don’t charge tolls.

In February 2018, we travelled across from the North Island to the South Island on the Interislander Ferry, and in March, we took the ferry to/from Stewart Island.

All in all, we spent about double on transport and travel than we had budgeted for.

Do you travel long-term/full-time (without fixed abode)? Find out how to still have an address and what to do with your physical mail.

Washing our campervan
Washing our campervan was a two-monthly task


This category includes the costs of doing touristy things (such as entry fees for tourist attractions and day tours), entertainment (for example, going to the movies or buying a new book for our Kindle) and hobby related expenses.

Despite doing a caving tour in Waitomo, our leisure costs in January were well under budget. In February, we visited the Southward Car Museum on the Kapiti Coast, the Lego Exhibition at Te Papa Wellington, the Edwin Fox Museum in Picton, the Nelson Wine and Food Festival and the Buller Gorge Swing Bridge – plus countless free attractions.

In March, we really splashed out in this category: With Sandra having a special birthday this year, we decided to celebrate with a flight over Aoraki/Mt Cook and the surrounding glaciers. We also paid for a 2-hour cruise along Milford Sound (plus a visit to the Underwater Observatory) as well as for mountain bike hire on Stewart Island and a day trip to Ulva Island.

We also weren’t the most frugal in April: While in Dunedin, we spontaneously decided to go to Ed Sheeran’s concert, we did a train trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway, and observed Royal Albatross and Blue and Yellow-Eyed Penguins on the Otago Peninsula.

May through August was way tamer. We checked out the annual Steam Punk Festival while travelling through Oamaru. During winter, we did more indoor activities like watching movies, Paul replaced some of the warmer layers in his running gear, and we joined a free tour of Pic’s Peanut Butter Factory in Nelson.

With Paul’s running accident in August and our focus on getting Tirohanga Lodge ready, our Leisure activities ground to a total halt in September and October. In November, just before Tirohanga Lodge launched for business, we took a day off and did some touristy stuff, including a trip on the TSS Earnslaw, a coal-fired steamer that is as old as the Titanic and still takes passengers across Lake Wakatipu on a daily basis. And finally, in December, we went to the movies to watch Bohemian Rhapsody.

Thanks to free activities, 2-for-1 deals and Paul’s injury, we didn’t even spend half of what we had budgeted for in this category,

Waitomo Caving tour with Glowing Adventures

Health and Hygiene

The health category includes the costs of doctors, dentists, and other medical professionals. Paul injured himself in January 2018 while training for a 10km running race. When his pain didn’t improve after two weeks, he finally went to see a physiotherapist. He also had to pay for KT tape, bandages and medication.

In August 2018, Paul injured himself (again) while running on Queenstown Hill on an icy morning. Fortunately, given it was an accident, the Accident Compensation Corporation paid for a large part of his treatment. His visits to the Emergency Rooms in both Queenstown and Invercargill were free, as were his appointments with a Sports Medicine Specialist and Surgeon. We only had to pay for an initial visit to the Medical Center, his pain medication and top up where the ACC payment only covers part of the treatment costs (for example, physio treatments).

The hygiene category includes the occasional haircut, manicure/pedicure and massage – again mostly used by Paul to relieve running-related issues.

Overall, we stayed well within budget in this category despite Paul’s injury and treatments (including his back surgery in a private hospital in December). Thank you, ACC!


During our year in New Zealand, we paid for private hospital insurance (which worked out to cost about the same as our travel insurance). We also paid for vehicle and contents insurance.

Several mainstream insurance companies we spoke to couldn’t handle the concept/risk of us living in the vehicle full time. They wanted to know where the vehicle would be located for the majority of the time, and our answer somewhere in New Zealand didn’t amuse them. In the end, we went with Covi (underwritten by Lumley, a business division of IAG New Zealand Limited).

In September 2018, we incurred additional insurance costs in Australia to keep our private medical insurance there suspended for another two years (which gives us the option to return if need be without incurring higher costs from then on). We hadn’t taken this into consideration when creating our budget, hence we were slightly over in this category.

Travel Costs Summary Table

The table below contains our actual expenses from 01 January to 31 December 2018. Given that we are in New Zealand, the amounts quoted below are all in New Zealand Dollars (NZD).

CategoryBudget (NZD)Actual (NZD)
Accommodation and Utilities32.9111.08
Groceries and Dining17.3117.68
Transport and Travel10.7521.59
Health and Hygiene2.901.91
Clothing and Other Purchases7.133.46
Gifts and Donations0.730.41
Bank Fees and Government Charges0.270.37
Purchase, Improvements and Resale of Campervan0.0014.84
Total expenses per person per day84.8979.49

Lifestyle Cost Comparison

Having now lived four different lifestyles, our daily cost of living compare as follows:

LocationExpenses per person per day (USD)
Corporate life in Sydney102.11
Backpacking in the Americas79.25
Van life (with the occasional house sit) in New Zealand including Travelling around New Zealand in a campervan for a year53.35
Backpacking in EuropeData to be published in the first quarter of 2020

Our cost of living in Sydney and New Zealand were converted to USD using the interbank exchange rate as at 30 December 2018 (USD1.00 = AUD1.4197 / NZD1.4899).

SaleBestseller No. 1
Van Life: Your Home on the Road
Hardcover Book; English (Publication Language); 256 Pages - 10/10/2017 (Publication Date) - Black Dog & Leventhal (Publisher)
Bestseller No. 2
How to live in a van and travel: Live everywhere, be free and have adventures on a campervan or motorhome – your home on wheels
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Hardcover Book; Lonely Planet (Author); English (Publication Language); 256 Pages - 11/20/2018 (Publication Date) - Lonely Planet (Publisher)
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What is your daily budget (per person)? What expenses have you found hardest to manage? Please leave a comment below or send us an email.

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Do you plan to explore New Zealand in a campervan and wonder how much it might cost? Check out our budget and actual expenses.
Do you plan to explore New Zealand in a campervan and wonder how much it might cost? Check out our budget and actual expenses.
Do you plan to explore New Zealand in a campervan and wonder how much it might cost? Check out our budget and actual expenses.

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