The Frugal Traveling Pensioners

If you’re interested in the details and logistics of our trip to New Zealand, read on!  I thought perhaps our experiences might help someone else who’s planning a trip to this amazing country.

Everyone has their own idea of what’s important to see and do when traveling.  Eric and I had one basic mission, which drove the planning process:  see the natural beauty of the country while staying within a very limited budget. Our goal was to avoid the pricey activities, while still soaking up the essence of New Zealand.

Seniors in New Zealand are called “pensioners”, so Eric and I adopted the term.  We asked ourselves “What would a frugal pensioner do?” when faced with a financial decision.  This helped keep us on track!


Using the internet extensively as a research tool, I learned that the South Island is where most of the magnificent natural beauty is.  Travel experts recommend scheduling at least three weeks in the country:  one week on the North Island, and two weeks on the South Island.  I googled “Top Ten Must See Sights New Zealand” to find out more specifically where to go and what to see.  Then I created a personal Google map where I pinned all the recommended places, so I could have a visual to help plan the route.


We decided to use our frequent flyer miles with United Airlines to keep costs down (flights were $3,000 round trip), which limited our flight options to arrival in Auckland, a major city on the North Island.  Eric wanted to visit with some folks in New Plymouth and Wellington, both on the North Island, so we knew we would spend at least a few days there.  But, after analyzing the locations of the “must see” sights, we decided to head south as quickly as possible.

We considered traveling by bus, but after comparing the costs of individual bus tickets with renting a car and splitting that cost, and considering the lack of freedom with a bus, we chose to rent a car.  One thing we did NOT consider when making this decision was the price of gas – we were stunned to find when we got there that gas was about $5.45 per gallon!!

We decided to pick up the rental car at the Auckland airport, and return it in Christchurch on the South Island, where we could catch a flight back to Auckland and then take the return flight home.   By doing this, we avoided the drive all the way back to Auckland.  Our route ended up being three nights on the North Island and the remaining nineteen nights on the South:

Planned drive around the South Island, New Zealand
Planned drive around the South Island, New Zealand


I used TripAdvisor to help choose places to stay – I’ve used it for many years and it’s always served me well.  I sorted each town’s options by price, and then chose from motels with the lowest price which had a user rating of 4 or above.  Challenges included the busy time of year (I was booking only two months in advance, and many desirable places were already booked), and our requirement for two beds in each room.  Ultimately, we stayed at twelve different motels ranging from $59 to $175 per night, at an average of $100 per night – which we split, so it cost each of us about $50 per night.  We were not disappointed by any of them!  If you go at a different time of year, and you only need one bed, you could probably do even better than that.

Something very different about New Zealand motels is that they all provide milk in the room for your coffee or tea!  Sometimes it was in a little pitcher, sometimes in a small bottle, and sometimes in little plastic single serving containers.  Never the powdered stuff!

How cute is this?!?
How cute is this?!?


We were quite surprised and pleased that ALL of the motels had a small kitchen in the room, except for one, which had access to a shared kitchen.  We bought a little cooler, which the Kiwis call a “chilly bin”, and bought food at supermarkets for breakfast, lunch and snacks.  We made our own iced tea to drink rather than buying drinks along the way.

We tried to limit our dining out to dinner only, at a maximum cost of $15 per person.  This was very do-able by ordering entrees only – no appetizers, dessert, or drinks (just water). If you know me, you know I like my wine!  I found perfectly acceptable wine in the supermarket for about $6-$7 per bottle, so I had my wine in the room before dinner.

One of the fun meals to have in New Zealand is the daily or Sunday “Roast”. The type of meat varies (beef, pork or lamb), it comes with “mash & veges”, and it’s often on special.  We ordered it numerous times for anywhere between $10 and $15 a plate.


We enjoyed hiking, taking scenic drives, and going to any free activity we found.  We didn’t pay more than $25 for any activity except for a ferry ride at Abel Tasman Park ($50 each), and a cruise on Milford Sound ($88 each); there was no other way to see these two natural landmarks.  We had endless temptation, from helicopter rides to the glaciers, to penguin and albatross tours, jet-ski rides on the beautiful lakes, a visit to Stewart Island, and the opportunity to observe the night sky at a professional observatory.

We had to keep reminding ourselves that we’re frugal pensioners, and we couldn’t do it all.  We were just thankful to be in New Zealand!  We have yet to tally up the exact costs, but I’m pretty sure that we’ve done a 22 night New Zealand adventure for perhaps $3,000 each, all in.  That’s about the same as the typical cost of a flight there.

Next Time

Here’s a link to our RV life: we had no idea that in New Zealand, renting a “camper van” is a thing.  Everywhere we went, there were dozens of RV’s on the roads and in campgrounds (“holiday parks”).  It’s definitely something to consider for next time – I’ll bet it would cost less than renting a car and staying in motels!

Love the bright colors!
Love the bright colors!

If we did it again, we might go directly to the South Island, and skip the North Island entirely.  And, we would avoid the month of January, when it seemed like the entire country was on holiday.  Other than that, we thought the itinerary worked out extremely well, and we would make only a couple of minor changes here and there (like one less night in Invercargill).

If I can help you in any way to plan your own trip there, don’t hesitate to ask!

One thought on “The Frugal Traveling Pensioners

  1. Chris, so clearly written and helpful to those even considering traveling to New Zealand! “The Frugal Traveling Pensioners” would be a great travel guide series if you ever decide to publish! Helpful hints throughout – love the pictures of the milk and van! Map helped to understand your route and what you would do if making the trip again.


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