How to travel New Zealand for free

September 3, 2012

New Zealand is a beautiful shape.  It’s not called the land of the long white cloud for nothing.  As NZ Poet Cilla McQueen described it, it’s just a long green spine, sticking out of the ocean.  The country is no longer than 15 hours drive from tip to tail of each island, and only 6 hours across.  As well as offering you beaches and mountains in the same day, it’s this geographical fact that can help you stretch your travel budget while in Aotearoa.

The key piece of knowledge to have about New Zealand is that most visitors travel from North to South.

All you need to do to relocate rental cars the length of the country for free is travel in the reverse direction.

Many overseas travellers who hire a rental car or campervan will do so at Auckland Airport and then make their way through the North and then the South Island before flying out of Dunedin, Queenstown or Christchurch.  This means that an awful lot of rental vehicles end up at the bottom of the South Island, and often need relocating back to their origin.  Sometimes rental companies even throw in a free tank of petrol or free accommodation (in the case of campervans).

This is great news for travellers with no firm schedule and a couple of weeks/months to jaunt around.  Be prepared to travel in short bursts, staying at free campsites along the way.  Between relocations you’ll have plenty of time to relax and explore local centres while you search for your next gig.  You can plan ahead by keeping an eye on what’s available near your current or future locations.  And if all else fails, catch a very cheap bus to your next location.

Thrifty, Omega,and Jucy are three good rental car companies that advertise upcoming relocation opportunities.   A more complete list of rental car companies can be found on Rental Car Relocation NZ (this list is good for just straight car hire as well).  And if you want to be really efficient, a good aggregate website  listing upcoming opportunities is Transfer Car.

As you can see from the oportunities advertised on the above sites, some rental relocations need to be completed in 24 hours – but since NZ is nice and compact, even 24 hours is a decent amount of time to get between locations. None of the trips I’ve seen have ever been more than 5 hours drive per day.  The best option of all is the relocation of a rental that gives you 3 calendar days for a short distance.

These short distance 2 or 3 day relocations are a particularly awesome way to travel between Queenstown and Dunedin/ Christchurch, or from Dunedin to Christchurch or Picton/wellington.  In early 2012 my boyfriend and I were in the last few days of a month long holiday in the South Island and needed to get to Christchurch for a flight back to Sydney.  We were staying in a small town north of Dunedin called Waikouaiti, but knew that we still wanted to go south of Dunedin to a stretch of coast called the Catlins, and then *somehow* make our back to Christchurch for our flight home to Sydney.

We searched a handful of car rental websites and and found a 3 day relocation from Dunedin Airport to Christchurch Airport with Jucy.  Perfect. We lured our friend Amy (and her car Henry) into a trip down to the Catlins for the long weekend and then picked up our cute wee Jucy camper on the way back to Dunedin.  All we did that first day was drive the hour and a half back to Waikouaiti to spend a last night with my family.  We drove the 4 hours up to Christchurch on day 2, stopping for lunch in Oamaru on the way.  On the third day we drove to Lyttelton for breakfast and a quick walk before dropping off the rental at the airport at midday – three hours before our flight.  With none of our own money spent on petrol, a fridge in the back of the camper for food/beer and a gas stove if we wanted to cook meals, it couldn’t have been more perfect. If we needed to, we could have spent two nights sleeping in the camper as well.

While we didn’t take the camper from Dunedin down to the Catlins, it definitely would have been possible to spend a night there and then drive to somewhere in Canterbury for a second night (Rakaia or Mt Sommers would have been great spots).  The options for spending a free night on the road in Otago and Canterbury are endless and the NZ Department of Conservation has a great list of free campsites and their amenities.

So as long as you’re flexible, have time to spare, and don’t have a huge bucket list of must-see destinations waiting to be ticked off, you’ll be laughing.  Your experience is probably like mine that it’s the small destinations that you encounter by chance that are often the best.  So take a bit of a gamble about where you’ll end up, and with decent chunks of time to relocate your (very temporary) home even if you get stopped by sheep on the road, you should still make your deadline (while getting the full cultural experience).

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