Is A Van The Best Way To Travel New Zealand?
Congratulations! You made it to New Zealand. Are you already thinking about getting a van to live out of? The van is by far is the most popular way to travel the two islands, offering the mobility of going where you want, when you want, and you can sleep out of it. Just because it’s popular, is it really the best way to experience New Zealand? Whether the upkeep, the fuel costs, the limitedness of where you could park, depending on your situation, traveling by van may not be the best choice for you.
TL;DR; if you’re willing to sacrifice adventure for comfort, you’re short on time, or rich, and you don’t care about your footprint, then yes, a camper van is probably the best way for you to experience NZ. If not, all of the above, there’s certain drawbacks you miss out on by traveling via vehicle vs hiking and/or hitchhiking.
I came to New Zealand with no semblance of a plan, other than seeing mountains, writing, and continuing to figure out what I’m doing with my life. I never planned to buy a car. Compared to the States and Europe, I didn’t realize just how cheap and easy it is to buy one here. If you’re very lucky, you can find a car for less than a grand with minor problems, and unlike the States, you don’t need to be insured. Most people sell their cars at the end of their stays. Sounds like a steal doesn’t it? Not to me. In my four months traveling the country, I’ve hiked, I’ve hitchhiked, and I’ve traveled with other people for days at a time, and I can say I’m glad I never bothered getting a car. With that said, I hope to inform you of the cons of owning a van, and offering an alternative.
Alternative travel is anything that’s not owning, or renting your own vehicle. There are alternatives to buying your own car. Hiking and hitchhiking are both free, which allow you to get around everywhere in the country. It will obviously take more time, however I’ve seen as much as any car owner did with the 120 plus rides I got. New Zealand is a very safe country to hike and hitchhike. You’re more likely to die by getting lost in the wild than from crime, or a dangerous animals. There’s plenty of ways to see the country, free, cheap, or requiring your 1970’s unicycle, and there’s so much to see that you shouldn’t expect to see all of it.
Do Vans Give Freedom?
When I asked people why they bought a car, the response I got the most was, ‘I want the freedom to go where I want.’ I could understand why they wanted that, especially if they didn’t have all the time in the world, like I did. Compared to not having a car, you have to buy a bus ticket, rely on other people to drive you somewhere, or walk for a very long time to get somewhere. In Spain last year, I remember wanting to the see the northern most cliffs, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, but when I got within 5-kilometers of it, I was so exhausted from walking the entire day, and I couldn’t find a ride there, so I gave up. Had I my own car then, I would’ve visited it. On the other hand, earlier that day I hiked along steep coastal trails, which I would’ve missed had I been traveling by automobile.
If you only travel by car, you limit your perspective to the domain of traffic. With a car, you are free to travel anywhere there are connecting roads, as long as you follow the rules of traffic. If there’s a road that says one-way, you cannot freely use it. If there’s a person illegally crossing, you have to stop. If you’re lined up behind other cars at a busy intersection, you must wait until the cars ahead of you cross. If you’re at a crowded parking lot, you must either go elsewhere, or further clog the lot with your giant block of metal.
The times I traveled with people who had their own cars, I felt just as confined as I did free. Like a buffalo being shepherded down a fenced road. I felt confined to the roads and parking lots designated for drivers. Vans are bulky and hard to hide, when you’re trying to camouflage into the environment. I like to camp in nature, and hike off the beaten track. Traveling by car, I was frustrated we couldn’t leave the car wherever we wanted to, to go for a hike. Furthermore, we’d usually be on a featureless road, built for getting from point A to point B, with efficiency in mind, not enjoyment. Compare that to when I hitchhiked, I was usually confined to the smaller roads, which often led me to see things I would’ve otherwise missed.
When I travel by foot, or by thumb, I feel free. Like cars, I can go by highway, or walk a more scenic road or footpath, albeit slowly. I can wait for someone to pick me up and ask the driver to drop me off on the side of the highway and hike off (something a bus driver is not likely to allow), and I won’t have any car obligations, like finding parking.
Working for Fuel
If you only have a short time to squeeze in a vacation, I understand renting a car. If on a yearlong working holiday visa also, and you’d rather not waste money for no reason, then by getting a car, you will spend a lot of money on fuel. Whatever the price of fuel is, you are exchanging hours of work for fuel, and other car costs. If you enjoy your temp job, or you’re working for the experience, then good on you, but if you’re working a mind numbingly boring job, then consider you could be hiking or hitchhiking on your own time instead.
To give an example, let’s say you’re driving from Auckland to Wellington (640 km). Let’s assume you found the cheapest fuel I saw, $2/liter and assume that you’re van gets 10 km/liter. With that logic, you’ll pay $128 (even more in the South Island where gas is often $2.30/liter). That’s over 8-hours of work, earning minimum wage just to pay for the fuel. Compare that to a hitchhiker for whom it takes several hours of waiting on roads to reach Wellington, who pays nothing and arrives with a few stories to tell from all the people who picked em up.
Aside from the fuel costs, you’ll likely have to pay for maintenance and repair costs, and don’t forget the time you’ll spend doing running these errands. If you also want your money back, you’ll have the burden of selling your car, all of which takes time away from enjoying New Zealand.
Not to Mention…
Aside from the obvious arguments against a van, there are the less obvious ones. For one, by hiking or hitchhiking, you’re not adding to the existing road clutter, and polluting the airs. It’s obvious that automobiles are bulky; the more there are on the roads, the worse the traffic and the worse the breathing air. By not driving a car, you won’t have to worry about causing an accident. Furthermore, by not driving myself, I haven’t had a single instance of road rage (though you may have to listen to other drivers lash out from anger).
Another hidden bonus of walking, or hitching, that makes a difference on my appreciation, is a result of alternative travel being more difficult than driving somewhere with your own car. Who do you think will feel happier and more appreciative, someone who drives to a beautiful waterfall, or someone who hikes there? Let me simplify. Who will enjoy a reward more, someone who works for it, or someone who gets it effortlessly? From my experiences traveling with car owners, arriving at attractions felt more like checking off errands off a list, compared to the sense of completion I got when I had to work to get there. When you arrive somewhere with your own car, you’re likely not thinking about all the hours you worked at your job to pay for the fuel to get there. Your memory of that work has passed and feels separated, whereas when you hitchhike somewhere, the hours you waited, the people you met who brought you there is recent, and usually more memorable.
Another point, loneliness. I met many lone travelers who picked me up and told me they’d been driving alone for weeks sometimes. If that’s you and you’d enjoy the solitude of your vehicle then awesome. If not, consider that you may get lonely. The alternative, hitchhiking resulted in countless friendships with locals and other travelers. I wish the people riding cross-country buses would consider this, because on a bus, everybody has their headphones in and there’s no conversation, compared to hitching a ride with someone.
If you read to the end of this and don’t like having to, yet you still believe you need a car, let me remind you something. By buying into it a reality you don’t like, you are reinforcing it. The more people drive, the more nature gets destroyed to make more car infrastructure, and the more dependent on it you become. The United States is a prime example of a country where you likely need a car. On the other hand, if more people traveled via alternative methods, the more demand there’d be for infrastructure around that. Look at the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain. There’s tons of pilgrim infrastructure, like cheap albergues and safe footpaths.
In conclusion, vans are good for providing a home to live out of, while on the go. I’ve seen some cozy ones with nice gas stoves. As a traveler going by foot, I have to set up camp every night, and I can’t carry nearly as much food as a van owner can. In the end, no one mode of travel is the best. You must weigh what’s important to you. I value the freedom of being able to walk off the beaten track and eating simpler meals than a van owner with a kitchen who values comfort more. The best I can hope to do is to teach you that buying a van is not the only way to experience New Zealand. You can see everything a vehicle owner can see without owning a vehicle, and more. Regardless what you choose, enjoy!