In the travel enthusiast game, it is all about jumping on opportunities. This specific opportunity we took advantage of were a couple of one way flights from Auckland, New Zealand to the U.S. for 6000 American Airline Miles each, which is as close to free as you can get. The final result was my first visit to Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reefs and a return to the south island of New Zealand over the winter holidays. Reflecting now on that trip, which took place just before the 2020 pandemic and the travel restrictions, the notion of jumping on opportunities to travel when we can do so safely again in the future seems all the more important. For now, all I can do is to reflect on our adventures down under.
This is the first entry of our Australia and New Zealand trip series covering our pre-trip planning (1). You can navigate to the other parts in the index below as they are posted.
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The decision was made for us when American Airlines introduces their variable pricing reward redemptions in the form of web specials. One of which was 6000 miles for a one way or 10000 roundtrip tickets between the U.S. and Auckland, New Zealand (Frequent Miler). These flights were essentially free at these prices so it doesn’t hurt to book speculatively even if we never took them. By the time I searched, the only flight that work for us were a one way flight from Auckland (AKL) to Los Angeles (LAX) in the middle of January 2020. Even though we have visited the islands on a previous trip, it is a destination well worth returning to.
As to how we decided on incorporating Australia into our travels was determined for us based on available award space to that region of the world during the busy holiday travel season. We did have latitude over the specific area in Australia we would visit. While hiking is typically what I look for in a location, I couldn’t ignore what come to mind first when I think of Australia, The Great Barrier Reefs.
The bad news to consider in our decision making was that Meg only could take one week off in January. So we planned for her to meet me in New Zealand for the last week of my travels. Fortunately, the award availability were much better to New Zealand in January. The good news was that Mark was able to join me for the first portion of my trip.
Lastly between the Great Barrier Reefs and my return to New Zealand, we would make a stop in Sydney. My parents were looking for a pace to visit as well during the holiday season and the open award space to Australia meant Sydney was a convenient place for us to meet up.
The easy part of all the flights was our initial flight deal from AKL to LAX. Piecing the rest of the flights togethers was the difficult part. Luckily, I had some previous experience from our previous trip to New Zealand and the guys at Frequent Miler published an article as a follow-up to the deal to go with their previous writeup on the topic. The main takeaway is that business class awards may take a pit stop in Asia, but economy may be easier. Unfortunately we were also looking for award space during the peak holiday travel season coordinating multiple travelers, which was the most difficult aspect of our plans.
For most of the award booking, we had to utilize a destination outside of New Zealand and only economy flights. This is how we ended up visiting Australia since most of the awardspace were to Sydney (SYD), Brisbane (BNE), or Melbourne (MEL). The best availability during the time was on Star Alliance and United Airlines (40k one way), specifically my no-fee Chase United card (downgraded from the Chase United Explorer card to avoid the annual fee after getting the sign-up bonus) gave me access to expanded saver awardspace (thepointsguy). While we didn’t have a lot of United Miles to start with, we did have plenty of Chase Ultimate Points (UR) to transfer to United. The flexibility of bank points is one reason that makes them so valuable. The reasonable redemption value (Frequent Miler) for a one way flight was USD$600 (1 UR = USD$0.015) not including fees. Below are the exact award bookings for each of the travelers.
The last flight we actually booked was my flights to Australia. After determining our first destination of Australia and our activity of diving the Great Barrier Reefs, I had found an alternative award flight using Alaska Airlines Miles flying via Qantas metal. Being on Qantas would also save me booking an extra flight within Australia to reach Cains (CNS; nearest airport to dive the Great Barrier Reefs) unlike the United Award. An economy class seat was 42.5k Alaskan Miles, but I found one available business class awardspace during Christmas day for only 55k (Frequent Miler RRV: USD$0.013 per mile, USD$715 total value) and USD$57.1 in fees. So I would be in business class on Alaska metal from IAD to San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX). I had a long overnight layover at LAX before my Qantas business class flights to BNE before finally connecting to CNS.
After Mark and my time diving the Great Barrier Reefs, we planned to fly to the South Island of New Zealand (Christchurch, CHC). However, we would have about a 21 hour layover to meetup with my parents in Sydney. The last minute nature of booking this flight for Jan 3 meant it was expensive, USD$474.55. We were ok with the cost since we decided to a lot more time for New Zealand. This turned out to be the better choice with the wildfires in Australia.
Next, I needed to book was a repositioning flight from the South Island (CHC) to Auckland (AKL) for Meg and I to connect with our American Airlines award flight that was the genesis of the trip. The total cost was USD$202.07 total for 2 tickets on Air New Zealand with 1 checked bag. Again we paid a little extra to for the last minute booking to allow for the most flexibility and most time on the South Island.
Our American Airlines award flight from AKL to LAX cost a total of USD$79.5 in fees and 12k points (Frequent Miler RRV: USD$0.013 per mile, USD$156 total value) for 2 tickets.
Lastly, Meg and I repositioned back to Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI) from LAX on Southwest Airlines for 6290 miles (Frequent Miler RRV: USD$0.014 per mile, USD$88.06 total value) and USD$11.2 in fees and utilizing our Southwest Companion Pass (Frequent Miler guide).
The total out of pocket cost for my flights were USD$638.29, 55k Alaska Airline Miles, 6k American Airline Miles, and 3145 Southwest Miles.
Mark’s plans for the trip was to fly into SYD a few days earlier before flying to CNS to go diving with me. We would travel together to the South Island of New Zealand and spend a little more than a week there together before we parted ways. During our time together, our flight itinerary were the same. He would fly to and spend a couple days in Auckland before heading home. The 2 main award flights he would utilize are from Roanoke (ROA) to SYD via Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Houston (IAH) and from AKL to ROA via HNL and ORD. Both were United Award flights in economy for 80k miles total (UR transfer; Frequent Miler RRV: USD$0.015 per UR, USD$1200 total value) before tax. Priced out flights at the time was around USD$2000, so it was well worth the UR points.
Meg was only able to get a week off from work, so she would fly directly to CHC and meet me on the South Island of New Zealand. We would spend a little more than a week there before we flew home together. Her only extra flight was to CHC from IAD via LAX and AKL on a United Award flight (USD$28.80 in fees & 40k UR transfer; Frequent Miler RRV: USD$0.015 per UR, USD$600 total value). Since Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance partner, she could connect to the South Island without additional costs. Since she was traveling more than a week after New Years, there was more award availability. After meeting me, our travel itinerary were the same.
visas & electronic travel authority
Australia requires a visa from all visitors except for New Zealand citizens. You can apply for a visa ahead of time online with a few day turnaround, my specific visa was the electronic travel authority subclass 601. Fees can be found on the Dept of Home Affairs website. At the time of this publication, there is a COVID FAQ available from the Australian Embassy.
Since my last visit to New Zealand, we had to apply for an electronic travel authority (NZeTA) as USA passport holders ahead of time online (see NZeTA waiver list). This is different than a visa, which USA passport holders are part of the visa waiver list. The cost of the NZeTA is NZD $9 on the free app (apple / android) or NZD $12 if completed online. There is an International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL) of NZD $35 at the same time as the NZeTA fee.
Be careful when searching for these visa and eTA applications as there are many 3rd party websites that will charge you an exorbitant fee.
diving the Great Barrier Reefs
The Great Barrier Reefs cover a large area along the coast of the state of Queensland in north east Australia.
While there are many diving boats that travel out to the reefs, we had heard the day trips typically went to the inner reefs or were limited in the number of dives on the outer reefs due to travel time. So we opted to try out a liveaboard for the first time. We didn’t have too much experience and went through an OTA for liveaboards (liveaboard.com) to book ahead of time.
We ended up booking 4 days and 3 nights on the boat Ocean Quest out of Diver’s Den (tripadvisor) in Cairns. They were among the lowest priced with decent reviews, though we didn’t spent too much time researching it since we had no previous liveaboard experience. For USD$631.20 per person, we were in our own room for 2 with our own private bathroom, meals, and equipment rental. Guide for diving and alcohol were extra. I would recommend booking directly with Diver’s Den or search for the specific dive shop that operates your desired liveaboard for better pricing options.
Lastly, the Great Barrier Reef is a protected Marine Park in Australia we paid AUS$20 per day for access on top of our liveaboard cost.
New Zealand transportation
The total time I would spend on New Zealand was 15 days. Having relied on public transportation on our previous trip, I had learned that the flexibility of a car rental is well worth it and isn’t that more expensive considering the high cost of transportation for multiple people.
Our main search and booking was done with just under a month before we would arrive in New Zealand, this provided much cheaper options. We first started by using autoslash.com and then checking other OTAs for price comparison. For once we found a lower priced option on other OTAs, rentalcars.com. As for the specific car type, we found the cost to upgrade to a SUV wasn’t too much at around USD$100-200. It would pay for the different if we slept in the car one night. Having previous #vanlife experience in an SUV, I knew that a SUV would fit two people sleeping in the back.
We did explore a built out mini RV or RVs (i.e. motorhomerepublic.com), but the cost jump up was much higher. Additionally some of the roads around the trailheads aren’t in the best of shape, so the higher clearance and four wheel capability was something I preferred. Lastly, we also explored cheap relocation rental websites such imoova.com, but their days allowed limit ended up too restricting.
New Zealand activities
I can’t describe the difference of visiting a place for the first time versus returning to a place.
Our primary goal for our visit to New Zealand was to hit the trails and do some tramping (New Zealand for hiking). From our previous trip, I had a good sense of the hiking scene and trail systems in New Zealand. Specifically, almost all the information you want to find can be found on New Zealand’s Department of Conservation Website (DOC). There are regional visitor centres that can give you additional information on hikes and recommendations. Ofcourse, the rangers that work here are going to be conservative in terms of their recommendations since they don’t want to send novice hikers into situations they aren’t prepared for. They also sell topo maps and hut “tokens” for the backcountry.
When tourists think about hiking in New Zealand, most think of the Great Walks (DOC). These multi-day tramps are world renowned, are extremely popular, and the crown jewels of the trail system. As such, they are very well maintained trails and suited for novice to moderate hikers, in my opinion. There are now 10 different great walks in New Zealand. On our previous visit, we were able to hike the Routeburn Track over the course of 2 days and day hike a section of the Tongariro Northern Circuit after inclement weather prevented us from doing the whole thing.
There are a few negatives related to the Great Walks however. First, recent legislation changes have increased the costs of the Great Walks for international visitors in efforts to raise funds for maintenance (DOC). While I completely understand and support putting money into these public parks and trails, it does make the Great Walks a costly affair. The more restrictive aspect of the Great Walks are the limited reservations at campsites and huts during the Great Walk season (New Zealand summer), which can get booked up as the reservation system opens typically during May (announced a couple month in advance). No reservations are needed outside of the Great Walk season, but it is not recommended to hike some of these trails since they may be under snow. Each Great Walk is also different for their reservations, so check with DOC website for specific booking informations.
The last minute nature of our trips meant we would have a harder time finding reservations for these Great Walks. While I do want to hike the Great Walks, it wasn’t a necessary priority for me. So I kept an eye on the availability online during our travels, but had a good idea of other tramps I wanted to do.
While the Great Walks get all the attention in New Zealand, they are only a small part of the trail system there. In fact, you can often head to the next valley over from a Great Walk and find views every bit as amazing, or even better, than the Great Walks. This was a lesson I learned from our previous trip as we visited the West Matukituki Valley of Mt. Aspiring National Park. All of these trails and the information about them can be found on the DOC webpage.
One thing I have learned about the information there is that they do not lie about the difficulty of a hike. An advance rating from the DOC means it is a tough hike for me and an expert rating has the possibility of being beyond my skill levels where turning around is a reality. They don’t kid around with trails once you are off the Great Walks.
After our previous visit, there were several tramps I had in mind for when I returned. The top being the Rees-Dart track (DOC) in Mt. Aspiring National Park, which was on the other side of the Cascade Saddle pass we were hoping to do on our last visit. Fortunately for us, the slip that closed the Dart section of the trail during our previous visit was fixed this time around. My second tramp in mind was in the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, which was the Ball Pass Route (DOC, Halfway Anywhere). However, we found out from the DOC that it was closed due to a large slip just beyond Husky Flat during our visit in January 2020. Given the hike is mostly off-route anyways, YMMV. As a backup in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, heading up to Mueller Hut (DOC) is a pretty solid constellation.
These were just a couple of the tramp ideas I had in mind for our couple weeks in New Zealand and I’ll get into the details of how we prepared for our actual hikes in detail in the upcoming sections. There are plenty of other hikes, both multi-day and day hike, you can find on the DOC website. It’s not something anyone can do during one trip and “seeing it all” isn’t a feasible goal you should have regarding the trails of New Zealand. For me, the goal was just to see some cool things and I’ll be back to see more.
I really didn’t research too much into other activities previous to our trip and we went with more flexible see as we go mentality.
The only thing I had in mind was inline with our diving activities in Australia, scuba diving. Specifically diving in Milford Sound with Descend Diving (tripadvisor). I had planned this our last visit, but the weather had different ideas.
Otherwise, there are plenty of other activities you can partake in such as white water rafting, bungee jumping, kayaking, wine tasting, and etc. In a tourist city like Queenstown, there are plenty of places looking to sell you on activities.
We didn’t find any specific avenue of house beneficial over another during our time in Australia and New Zealand. We mixed in stays in hostels, hotels stays on points, nights in the back of our rental SUV, nights in the DOC backcountry huts, a night in our tent, and a few nights on our liveaboard. Mostly, we booked places as we needed and didn’t plan anything ahead of time other then our first nights and our liveaboard. Hotels and hostels aren’t cheap, especially in a popular city like Queenstown. Ofcourse, the more we camped or stayed in the DOC huts, the cheaper it was.
Our plan was to backpack and scuba dive, so my loadout was pretty typical with the expectation for some rougher trails. With the multiple flights, I tried to minimize my luggage with my backpacking gear as a check bag and a travel weekender bag for everyday clothing, laptop, and electronics. Below is my estimated loadout.
One caveat you need to be aware of is traveling with outdoor gear to New Zealand (nzpocketguide.com). The customs is very strict about preventing invasive bugs and plants coming into the island. My recommendation is to wash or clean your hiking shoes, gaiters, or anything with dirt on it before arriving. Mark was stuck in customs for a while as they checked all his gear for stink bugs and on our previous visit, they took our tent for disinfection.
Credit card were accept pretty much everywhere, even on our liveaboard. The only cash we used was to tip guides, laundry, the night market in Cairns, and fruit stands in New Zealand. Otherwise, it was left over money to spend at the airport.
Seemingly everywhere outside of the US we go now, the credit card terminals were equipped with contactless/tap to pay technology allowing me to use Google Pay or Meg’s Apple pay on our phones. Our mobile payment in conjunction with my USBank Altitude Reserve Credit Card meant I even netted 4.5% back (Frequent Miler guide) on all purchases.
All of the trails in New Zealand we hiked were well signed. They are also well labeled on any app that uses Open Street Map (OSM – links to different map download options). I used a combination of Wikiloc and Alltrails, but mostly to track my own coordinates.
If you are looking for a paper topographical map, they are sold in all the DOC information centers. I bought them as a backup on the trail. Though they never saw the light of day on the trail.
My Google Fi (referral link) plan worked as well as any local cell phone and data plan. Even on the liveaboard boat in Australia, I had intermittent reception.
Since I didn’t know what our backcountry plans were before I headed out, I activated a month of my Garmin InReach Mini (Amazon affiliate link). It did not see the light of day and was just extra weight for me to carry in the end, which is good. Do note that the cost of such devices go beyond the device itself as you have to subscribe to the satellite service.