Occasionally I consider that it might be useful to write helpful things about travelling and living in New Zealand. This thought can last anything between three and three-and-a-half seconds, after which I go back to writing film reviews that don’t tell you anything about the film and blog entries where I’m gazing so far into my navel that my back gives out and I have to lie down.
But not today! Today I forge onwards, overcoming all obstacles, determined to construct the first in a series of blog entries designed to help you, my beloved reader, move to New Zealand, just in time for me to not be here any more.
I have consulted a dictionary, and the word for this sort of blog entry is practical. I had to ask a friend what practical means in real life, because I have never attempted such a word before. He said that it was about doing things, which is apparently a weird state of action that takes place after thinking (what?), wherein you flap your limbs around in order to de-abstract your thoughts. Frankly it sounds painful, but here goes.
In New Zealand, there exist choices. Choices also sometimes exist in other countries, but in New Zealand, they are everywhere, like possums. Here are some choices you must make.
So you’ve been a good sensible traveller and unlocked your phone before reaching New Zealand. Now you have to stick a SIM card in it, and there are three major phone networks from which to choose.
2degrees try to get the march on the others by giving you a free SIM at various hostels. They’re also generally the cheapest of the three networks. Problem is, once you’re out of the towns, which is basically all of New Zealand, their coverage is as patchy as a pirate making a quilt.
Vodafone has better coverage and the benefit of an international brand, but they’re expensive, and – from my friends’ experiences – have pretty shitty customer service.
Spark, previously Telecom, have a somewhat mixed reputation, but they’ve been nothing but excellent since I walked into a Spark shop three hours after arriving in the country. Their network coverage has been excellent: Vodafone’s has the better reputation, but there have been numerous occasions when I’ve been in the middle of nowhere with signal, while my Vodafone-sporting friends have had fewer bars than a Scandinavian prison. They have great monthly packages, including my $19 (~£9) deal, that gives me free minutes, texts, data and free Spotify Premium. In addition to this, you have access to a huge 1GB/day free WiFi whenever you’re in range of a Spark Hotspot, which are in the centre of all towns and cities, not to mention a significant number of remote villages.
VERDICT: Spark. Easy.
Hostel memberships generally pay for themselves within about ten nights, so if you figure that you’re homeless for an entire year, this is a no-brainer.
Knowing nothing about the hostel network, I went with the YHA membership. They’re a reputable international brand, they have hostels in all major towns and cities, and their quality is high and consistent. The membership card can also be used internationally, which I exploited during my brief sojourn to Australia. The $25 card lasts for a year and gives you 10% off all your bookings (approx $2-3/night), as well as access to a range of backpacker-type discounts.
I’d get the YHA membership again if I repeated this year, but there comes a point where you’re sick of YHAs. They’re clean and quiet, but they’re all pretty same-y and often come under criticism for lacking atmosphere (although in my experience, when backpackers say ‘atmosphere’, they mean vomit).
With this in mind, it’s certainly worth considering an investment in a BBH membership. For just $30, you get at least $3 off each night’s stay in a BBH-affiliated hostel. And there are hundreds of them. It’s a network, rather than an organisation, so the quality, style, size and atmosphere varies as much as it would be possible for places to vary and still contain beds. This means you’ve got to be savvy in terms of researching the hostels in advance, but this membership gives you the advantage of choice. Whereas a town probably just contains one YHA hostel (if that), it’s probably got at least a few BBH ones.
VERDICT: Just buy all the hostel memberships you can. You live in hostels now, remember? If you want to stick with one, BBH gives you a lot more flexibility.
Work for Accommodation Membership
A few years ago, this was easy. WWOOFing was all that existed, and you can read more about it by clicking on this sentence.
Now though, a host of competitors have sprung up, noticeably HelpX and WorkAway. Unsurprisingly, both of these are technically cheaper than WWOOFing, although this is slightly misleading. They charge about the same – approx $40 – but your membership lasts for two years rather than one. This allows them to claim that they’re half the price, but not many travellers really need membership for more than a year.
HelpX and WorkAway both have a broader remit. WWOOFing is more constrained by its (unenforced) insistence that its hosts have links to organic farming. The others are happy for anyone to request help for pretty much anything, and are therefore better for finding opportunities in family homes and hostels.
However, WWOOFing has the advantage of name recognition and experience. As such, it has a bigger network, with more opportunities, and more structure and regulation. Its review system also helps both hosts and volunteers to avoid unpleasant experiences.
As a bit of cheeky advice, there are numerous ways to cheat the system. I’m not really condoning this – I think these are good initiatives to support – but certainly there are people doing some or all of the following:
- Use someone else’s membership to browse opportunities, then simply contact them yourself. Hosts are technically supposed to check your membership, but no-one ever does.
- Use the WWOOFing book that you can find abandoned in most hostels, or inherit from another traveller. This has all the contact details and, like I say, no-one’s going to ask you if you’re actually a member of the site.
- Use the free section of the HelpX or WorkAway site to browse opportunities, then use a bit of clever Google-Fu to locate the hosts, and find the contact details on the Internet. For example, if HelpX is advertising an anonymous hostel in a particular town, just go on Hostelworld and find the photos that match. It’s possible I might have done this once, but you’ll never prove it. (This doesn’t work for WWOOFing, as the whole site is behind a membership wall.)
VERDICT: I have no regrets about WWOOFing, but if you’re a determinedly indoor person, maybe it’d be worth researching one of the other options first. Then again, if you’re desperate to stay inside, what are you doing in New Zealand?
Sure, maybe you’re a millionaire and you’re going to buy a car. Or maybe you’re extroverted enough to hitch-hike absolutely everywhere. For the rest of us, there are coach companies. The good news is that – compared to the UK – they’re astonishingly cheap. In fact, there really are no comparisons. I travelled from Napier to Wellington (300km) for 50c (~25p). And although that might not be typical, $10-20 (~£5-10) fares are, and try doing that in Britain.
There are two major NZ-wide coach companies, InterCity and Naked Bus (although Naked Bus have just been bought out by Mana Bus, so watch this space). Both of them offer fares from $1, by which they mean the first bought ticket for any bus will be $1, and then it will jump to the regular price. This leads to a somewhat ludicrous situation where you can buy a ticket for $1, and if your friend wants to get on the same bus, they’ll have to pay $60 a minute later.
InterCity are more established, and have the benefit of more frequent trips and more route coverage. This is especially noticeable in the South Island, where Naked Bus destinations and itinerary are frustratingly sparse. However, Naked Bus is generally quite a bit cheaper.
Both organisations offer an insane litany of deals. For example, here are all the current Naked Bus deals: 3 trips for $99, 5 trips for $151, 10 trips for $254, 10 trips plus two inter-island ferry trips for $289, 15 trips for $318, 17 trips for $331, 19 trips for $349, 22 trips for $396, 25 trips for $431, 30 trips for $491, unlimited trips for $597, 10% off all trips for $6, 20% off all trips for $10, 30% off all trips for $21, and 50% off all trips for $56.
My advice: don’t get the block trip discounts unless you’re such about how many trips you’re taking (unlikely if you’re in New Zealand for a year). The percentage deals offer you better value for money if you have uncertain plans and you want flexibility. I get 50% off all Naked Bus journeys, and have easily made back the money I paid for that pass (this also accounts for my 50c fare).
Atomic Shuttles are a South-Island-only alternative. They have more South Island routes, and although they may appear more expensive, that’s mostly because South Island fares always are. However, my only experience of Atomic Shuttles was when they turned up three hours late because someone put diesel instead of petrol into the tank. So I’m not sure how much I can recommend them.
Like a lot of things in New Zealand, do watch out for additional fees. All the companies charge about $5/booking (so it makes sense to book more than one trip at once), while Naked Bus also charges $5 for you to stow your bag, which is a necessity as a backpacker.
Do get a pass though. Coaches in New Zealand are great. They’re cheap, comfortable and clean, and mostly have friendly drivers. They usually have free WiFi and are almost always quiet, so you have your own personal space.
There’s a completely different approach you can take to bussing around New Zealand, which is to buy a pass for one of the backpacker bus services: Kiwi Experience or Stray. There are benefits to these, for sure, especially if you’re looking to make friends with teenagers, but it’s so not my cup of tea that a cup of beetles would be more my cup of tea, so I can’t really comment.
VERDICT: If money is your main concern, buy a Naked Bus pass, and take InterCity on the odd occasion when Naked Bus doesn’t get you where you need to go. If you’re more concerned with convenience, maybe just go with an InterCity pass instead.
ALL THE BANKS ARE THE SAME. This is a nightmare if you’re a logical person, because it’s almost impossible to find a rational way to make the decision about which bank to go with. There are frigging loads of them, the main high-street options being ANZ, ASB, BNZ, Kiwibank, TSB and Westpac. All of them will charge you for using a competitor’s ATM, but all of them have roughly the same number of ATMs, so this isn’t that helpful, unless you’re going to live in one place for the whole year, and one of the ATMs is much closer than all the others.
Lonely Planet suggests you choose Kiwibank, because it’s Kiwi-owned, and therefore Kiwis will like you more for it. This is a typical piece of patronising guide-book nonsense: none of the Kiwis I’ve met even have a Kiwibank account themselves. However, Kiwibanks are part of Post Offices, which means they’re sometimes easier to find, although also have longer queues.
If you’d like to adopt my method of choosing a bank, then do the following. Walk into Kiwibank because their cards are green, and you want a cool, green card. Walk out after they tell you that a hostel letter won’t suffice as proof of address. Resolve to start an account with the first bank that will let you use a hostel letter as proof of address. Walk into the next bank you see. It’s ASB. Start an account with them.
Do watch out. Banks charge fees for the most ridiculous things (like sending you a statement), but you can avoid almost all of them by being sensible (and telling them to stop sending you statements). I’m happy with ASB. Their Smartphone banking app works great. Then again, the other ones probably do as well.
VERDICT: Oh, whatever.
There, I imparted knowledge. I hope you’re all happy now. 🙂