New Zealand is among the most well-known trekking regions in the world, emphasized by The Lord of the Rings Trilogies. Among the treks, or tramps as the kiwi’s call it, are 10 great walks. However, such notoriety draws tremendous number of visitors and subsequently makes a trip to New Zealand difficult to plan and expensive to undertake. This is especially the case during a major holiday season like the time Christmas and New Years. Housing, either paid or award airline tickets, transportation, and permits for the great walks are many of the obstacles that needs to be planned, and extremely meticulous so in order to keep costs down.
Because of the length and complication of our trip, this trip report is broken up into several entries and taking me a while to write. Learning to work with Lightroom also has made the process a little longer.
- part 1 – research & planning
- part 2 – trip report: getting in via Osaka, Wanaka, & Mt. Aspiring National Park
- part 3 – trip report: Whakaari, Routeburn, Milford Sound, & Te Anau
- part 4 – trip report: North Island, Turangi, & Tongariro Crossing
- part 5 – trip report: Maui with the parents & brother
- part 6 – final impressions & wrap up
research and planning
Through the last few years, we’ve traveled to a lot of places in the world and the main motivation has been driven by mistake fares or fare sales. At the same time, I’ve diversified our point totals for airlines, hotels, and banks. When a major airline devaluation came around to American Airlines in March 2016, it was time to burn through some points and take a look at my top to go list. That’s why the phrase earn and burn exists in the world of travel hacking. At the top of my list was New Zealand, one of the trekking meccas of the world.
The spreadsheet above has my complete itinerary as I planned from a pre-trip perspective. Activities are highlighted in green and flights are highlighted in blue. New Zealand is one of those places where we wanted to spend a good amount of time to explore since there is so much to do and difficult to get to. Since the winter holidays was the longest time we could get away, we had to book much more in advance to fight the Christmas and New Year tourism. In addition, the lack of availability for the Great Tramps made it even more imperative to organize ahead of time.
Before I get into my ridiculous and probably not the most efficient means of getting us to New Zealand, I figure I’d first share a few guides to using points to get there. The main issue with award flights from the US to New Zealand is that there are very limited award space for direct flights. Even with newly added flights by American and United, you still have to look for them early on 330 days out for your best chances. Most route through Asia or Hawaii, which is what I ended up doing. Check out some of these guides, but be aware about some of the dated information as they were written before United and American Airline devaluations:
The booking that started the entire trip was actually a flight that we ended up canceling. That was a first class booking on American Airlines from Seoul to our local regional airport. At the time, we had never flew in premium cabin, so I thought it would be a good finish to a trip full of traveling. Furthermore, the biggest AA devaluations, the first class fares involving the US to/from regions such as New Zealand, Australia, Southeast Asia, and North Asia. Since I was searching less than 330 days out, the only space I was able to find was from Seoul. With American Airlines lack of availability and many others aiming to take advantage of the devaluations, I should have booked when the awards first open.
Anyways, the positioning would have allowed me take advantage of the wonky (and now changed) United rules that would get us a roundtrip from North Asia to a South Pacific Island and a stopover in New Zealand for only 20k per person. Lastly, I’d just have to find a cheap flight from the US to North Asia.
That North Asia flight came in the form of a mistake fare from Taipei (TPE) to San Jose (SJC) with return, which lead to a short labor day trip over to see my dad. As for working to crack United’s fare rules, I gave it the good ole college try over the next few months and couldn’t find anything to work. By the time September rolled around, nothing had materialized with my United searches and AA changed planes so we didn’t even have our first class seats from the trans pacific flight. Fortunately, Delta provided an interesting award sale just in time.
My mom had wanted to get the whole family together on a vacation and I had suggested that Hawaii would be a nice and easy place to travel to. Meg and I were originally going to miss such family trip as I planned to be in New Zealand during the holidays. Shortly after talking to mom about the idea, Delta discounted award flights to and from Hawaii to 17.5k skymiles (down from 22.5k) except during the peak holidays. This was a good award pricing for flights from the east coast to Hawaii. If you live on the west coast, there are cheaper fare prices usually around $300 or award flights using 12.5k British Airways Avios one way. As I was putting together an itinerary for my brother and parents out to Hawaii with a stop in LA to visit my aunt (see bonus planning section), I realized Delta gave me a way to complete my New Zealand trip and spend a few days with my family.
The first thing I did was cancel my AA award flight at no cost due to the change in product. Then I booked 2 tickets from Maui (OGG) to Raleigh (RDU) for Meg and I using 35k skymiles total during the first available discounted days in January just after the holiday travel season, matching my parent’s flights out. Meg also has the Amex Delta Gold card at the time, so we wouldn’t have to pay extra for checking luggage at the end of our trip.
At this point I already had a flight from SJC to TPE via Osaka (KIX) and a return flight from OGG to RDU. To re-position across the country from RDU to SJC, we were able to take advantage of our companion pass for the last time over the past 2 years with 2 one way tickets for a total of 10,273 Southwest points and $11.2. I booked a couple days ahead of our SJC flight to give me a few days to catch up with some friends in California that I haven’t seen in a few years.
Next on United’s website, I found one way award flights from KIX to Auckland (AKL), but it was only available in business class (40k each) around the day we were looking for. Being that I needed to get the trip planned, I didn’t mind spending a little more to pamper ourselves on some long legs of flying. Since I hadn’t research the trekking and activity portion of the New Zealand yet, I booked the ticket through to Christchurch (CHC) on the South Island since the award flight would cost the same as AKL. Again United has changed its award routing rules recently, but Drew Macomber has you covered over at Travel is Free,
That brought us to connecting from New Zealand to Maui. Air New Zealand runs a regular service from AKL to Honolulu, and a ticket ran around $400 on way. We booked it using 62,414 Citi Thankyou Points for 2 tickets at 1.33 cents per point. This last part wasn’t the best of redemption, but it needed to be done. Lastly, we went through Hawaiian Airlines for 2 interisland flights for $148 total to go from HNL to OGG to meet my parents to finish the loop.
There was one more flight that we ended up purchasing during our time in New Zealand, but it was part of planning around activities in New Zealand and I’ll discuss it in the activities planning portion below.
Overall, the total amount I used for 2 people was $687.25, 10,273 Southwest Miles, 80k United Miles, 62,414 Thankyou Points, and 35k Delta Miles. The total December valuation of all the points I used via ThePointsGuy was $2772.72.
tramps and activities
The name for trekking in New Zealand is tramping and that is the main reason for the trip. True to that sentiment, there seem to be an endless network of trails and the Department of Conservation’s websites is as good as any guidebook you can find. What the DOC site might lack are the many buzzfeed style pictures and descriptions you might want in your decision process. For that, there are plenty of sites that can get you an idea like here, here, here, and here. As you can see from these sites, the Great Walks are the center point of trekking in New Zealand.
The Great Walks are the 10 most well maintained and famous tramps in New Zealand. These tramps are a medium between the European hut to hut hikes than the US backcountry treks. You won’t need a tent or cooking setups (if you are staying in the huts), but will need to carry a sleeping bag and food. This site provides a quick summary of what to expect on the Great Walks. Of course, the DOC websites and visitor centers will provide you with all the information you need.
Since the great tramps are very popular and all the campsites and huts need to booked in advance. The DOC website is where you can check for availability for huts and campsites on the 10 Great Walks. The opening to book for the following Great Walk season is usually during May and announced a couple month in advance. For the most popular tramps like the Milford Track, you’d want to book the exact time it opens. Don’t worry if you don’t get your date right away. The slots are reserved for 30 minutes, so some slots will be free again 30 minutes after the initial rush (pro tip from a fellow trekker who did book ahead of time). Since I didn’t know the exact days of when we would be in New Zealand, I didn’t start looking until a couple month ahead of time in September. At that time point, it is too late for me to book the more popular treks such as the Milford Track. There is a paid website that will notify you when opening becomes available. A couple friends we met on our trip also mentioned specific chat group lists that may track openings. However, don’t expect much notifications until a few days before. If you are flexible, you maybe able to jump on last minute cancellations.
Before getting into the specific tramps and activities I planned, I should address the rent/buy a camper car/van. The New Zealand roadtrip is a popular and affordable way of seeing the island. Not only that, it provides you the freedom of a roadtrip in that you can go however you want and you always have a place to crash in the van. Furthermore, you can purchase a van and sell it without much of a loss as there are always tourists looking for the same thing. There are many reselling sites, car auctions, and even several facebook groups.
I decided against that idea for a couple of specific reasons. The first was that the cost of just renting a car for a week was already around $600 when I looked. In The second was our time limit, we had about 2.5 weeks so we didn’t have the time to spend on buying and selling a car. The main reason was that the main reason we were in New Zealand was to trek and spend time in the backcountry. Each tramp would take a few days, which means we were going to stay a while around specific areas and not going to see all the island. That was further confirmed from my preliminary research on the thorntree forums, driving between areas can take a while. Furthermore, some of the tramps were thru hikes meaning we’d have to hire someone to move the car. There were also reports of thievery at trailheads, so that would have been another worry.
Getting to the actual planning of our activities, I decide on 3 possible areas/tramps. They were the southern alp area around Queenstown with the Routeburn, Kepler, and Milford great walks; the beach great walk in Abel Tasman; and the volcanic Tongariro Circuit (which some had as the best tramp in New Zealand). When I check on the availability for the Great Walks (during September for the holiday season into the new year), the Tongariro Circuit had openings after the new years. And that was good timing because our flight leaving New Zealand was out of the north island. There were good opening on the Kepler as well, but the lack of glaciers on that route made it less appealing to me. The Abel Tasman and Routeburn had spotty openings, meaning we’d have to do double days at certain points. There was nothing for Milford for the rest of the season and I didn’t want to shell out the big bucks for a guide tour with lodging at the private huts on the trail. At this point, I was also unsure about the possibility of spots opening up so started a lonely planet thorntree thread with a hypothesized itinerary.
From the responses and more research, there seem to be many more treks in the Fjordland regions around Queenstown other than the Great Walks such as Greenstone, Caples, Hollyford, and Dusty. Since this region is such a must do for trekking, there were many different options, and I wanted to flexibility to really explore the area well, I decided to focus my research and planning on the tramps close to Queenstown. Afterward we would head to the north island for the northern Tongariro circuit while dropping the Abel Tasman. We were going to be Hawaii anyways. While researching some of the alternative tramps, I came about an interesting route through Mt. Aspiring National Park on the thorntree. The OP of the thread outlined a route that would go over a couple difficult passes and take around 7-10 days. While doing research, I found a nice website that allows you to pull the GPS track of the segments from past users. Another user on the thorntree has a suggestion for topomaps. The DOC webpage also provides nice topomap of all it’s routes and there are open street maps for garmin devices.
From googling images of the different sections on his route, I settled on a route from Raspberry Parking lot over the Cascade Saddle and finishing on the other side at Rees River Trailhead. The Dart River Trailhead was not an option because of a section on the Dart being out. The total allotted time was 6 days and 5 nights, allowing an extra day for possible weather delay going over the Cascade Pass. I’ll get more into my detailed trip plans in the trip report.
The cool thing about the route through Mt. Aspiring National Park was that it ended in the town of Glenorchy, where I can continue onward to the Routeburn Great Walk. At the time, there was one camping availability on the Routeburn at Routeburn Flats. What that meant was a couple days off in Glenorchy, followed a very short day to start the Routeburn before 22km the next day to finish the great walk at the Divide trailhead. We’d have to get to the Divide at 5:45pm for the last shuttle of the day to Te Anau.
The town of Te Anau is the launching point for the Milford and Kepler Great Walks, but it would be at the end of our the planned trek in the Fjordlands. Te Anau is also the launching point for many tours to Milford Sound. With the full day on the South Island, a trip out to cruse the sound seemed like a relaxing time. There were many companies with large boats, but kayaking was another option. The best option and highest rated kayaking company was Rosco’s. While researching the option on Tripadvisor, I ran into a lesser known activity at Milford Sound, diving. With the interesting mix of salt and freshwater that exists in Milford Sound, the biodiversity that exist there are usually at much deeper. Since we had our scuba masks for Hawaii already, diving the sound seemed like a much better option. The only tricky thing is scheduling the shuttle and being aware that possible decompression risks that comes with the road that leads to Milford Sound.
That brought us to the end of our planned time in the South Island. Because of our planned dive, I booked an afternoon flight from Queenstown (ZQN) back to AKL to allow for the 18 decompression recovery. The cost of 2 domestic Air New Zealand flights with one checked bag was NZ$296.00. From AKL, we would catch a bus toward the Tongariro Circuit with a night in the town of Taupo. With the camping sites and a night of hut stay all booked, all we had to do was organize the transportation to and from the circuit. I followed the recommend itinerary here from besthike. After that it was a night bus back to Auckland and an optional day in the city to end our plans in New Zealand.
After New Zealand, we spent 4 days in Maui with my brother and parents. Since Maui is a separate location all together, I’ll wait to write about the plans during that section of the report.
Below is a list of the equipment we took with us on our trip. The majority of the equipment was our basic backcountry gear seeing how we were going to spend majority of the time outdoors. I did have my new Surface Pro 4 (2 in 1 laptop) since we had a good amount of down time and a lot of traveling. It turned out to be a superb replacement for my broken Apple Laptop Pro since it weighed slightly over 2 pounds with the keyboard.
An unique aspect of our plans was that we really never returned to the same area twice other than flying in and out of AKL. So, we didn’t really have the option to store our non-hiking stuff with a hotel. The result was that we minimized our traveling materials along with our trekking gear. This last part was also crucial for keeping our bags at the carryon size since we were planning to skip a leg from KIX to TPE to connect with our flight to New Zealand. We didn’t want our stuff ending up in Taiwan.
One important note about bringing hiking gear into New Zealand is that you need to declare it. However, it wasn’t really a difficult process. We had washed our hiking shoes and fanned out our tent before we begin our trip. During customs, they did find a bug still hiding in our tent, so they sprayed it down and returned it to us in a plastic bag. It was no problem as long as you declared everything.
Lastly, New Zealand imports much of it’s outdoors gear so it is much more expansive to buy gear there. In fact there are companies that will buy things for you in the US and ship it to you. Our new friend Eric said he would buy all his gear anytime he traveled to the US.
The biggest portion of planning outside of flight and activities was the transportation within New Zealand. There are 2 major bus companies in new Zealand, intercity and skybus. Intercity offers backpacker packages that may save you some money if you are touring the island. For transportation to the trailheads and between the towns, there are many small shuttle companies based out of the many different small towns.
I will talk about them in the specific trip report sections. I spent a good amount of time ahead of time looking at published time tables to link up the many activities. The usually reliable Rome2Rio didn’t have the local shuttles, making it less so. However, booking as you go is pretty reliable and flexible since they are set up for high tourism. The cost for transportation did add up however.
Housing in New Zealand is relatively easy to line up, but also relatively on par in terms of costs to first world nations. There are very nice hostels in all the towns equipped with kitchens so you can save money by cooking yourself. The only issue is that if you are looking to book during the holiday season, book early. The number of tourists during holiday season by far outnumbers the accommodations. There were no vacancy at hostels during Christmas or New Years. That’s part of the reason why spending time in the backcountry huts and camping works out well.
In line with most of the western world, there are several different supermarket chains like New World. We had no problems in Te Anau, Wanaka, or Taupo buying both camping dehydrated dinner or typical groceries.
There were no visas needed for a 90 day tourist stay and customs was very fast as a US citizen in New Zealand. It was so efficient that they didn’t even need to stamp our passports, which was kind of disappointing actually.
This was the first trip where I was on Google’s Fi plan. The reception and internet speeds were very good whenever we had downtime. Of course, there is no reception for cell plans while we were in the backcountry. Having a phone plan right off the plane turned out to be very useful as I’ll get to in my trip report. However with Fi, I can’t report the process of acquiring temporary travel service in NZ.
bonus: flight planning for my parents
For my brother and parents, below is the the booked itinerary.
The first booking was a Delta flight for my dad to go from Shanghai (PVG) to Detroit (DTW). Availability for Delta was surprisingly high and it was easy to book a week ahead of Christmas. The booking was 35k skymiles and $36.47. Here are some of the best delta redemptions, mainly because of the availability in comparison to the other airlines.
Next was finding a flight for 3 from DTW to Los Angeles (LAX) for my parents to visit my aunt and uncle. I ended up just booking a Southwest one way flight for $273.98 each as it was difficult to get to find anything cheaper by the time I looked. Being Southwest allowed me to keep an eye out for sales.
From LAX to OGG, I was able to get 3 one way tickets using ultimate points through British Airways avios redemption that only costed 12.5k avios each for a total of 37.5k. BA avios uses distance flown calculation and west coast to Hawaii falls under the 3000 miles. Availability is usually spotty, but I found new years day wide open for my parents. Since we used Chase Ultimate Points, the redemption wasn’t as valuable. Here is Milevalue’s series on Chase Ultimate Reward redemptions. Ultimate Points are one of the most flexible currencies out there due to it’s transfer partners, including Korean Airlines and their roundtrip redemption to Hawaii for 25k.
From Maui, my mom and brother flew back on Delta with the award sale I mentioned earlier costing 17.5k delta skymiles each or 35k total. For my dad, we bought a one way ticket from OGG to PVG on Hawaiian airlines. Reward space going from Hawaii to China all had layovers on the west coast of the US. With so many China Airlines, continental US to China are become very cheap to fly.