Sophie Donnelly describes how a month traveling New Zealand in a camper-van is a must on everyone’s bucket list

Written by Sophie Donnelly

I remember the day my future became indeterminate forever: July 18th, 2017. My month-long bus tour of New Zealand began. Almost immediately, I thought back to five-year-old me carrying that gut-wrenching feeling that Dad did not love me anymore because I misunderstood the words: ‘Sweetheart, earn some money, go to New Zealand and never come back.’ Sitting on that bus, my first thought was regret. How many years had I wasted thinking he was old and hypocritical having never been himself? Now three years later with a bus tour, a solo camper van trip and absolutely no savings under my belt, my advice to any student is to – with a pinch of salt – listen to your senior. Whoever that may be: parent, grandparent or a coach – that person you look to for advice about life and all it could encapsulate, because a quarter of a century in, I can honestly say that Dad was always right. 

However, back on the bus somewhere along its feasibly package-priced itinerary, it becomes clear you would do an international and solo ‘finding-yourself’ trip a little differently. The travel agent can remove almost every financial and safety worry you have when flights, fuel, just over half your meals and even some activities are included in the price you pay before leaving the comfort of your own home. Also, the array of bus tour companies offering varied destinations and timings is amazing, enabling travellers to choose thee type of trip they would like. 

But the overwhelming feeling of the package trip can often be tiring and underwhelming. For example, one day may be spent in what easily becomes your favourite place by the end, yet three days are spent in a place you could have done without. Perhaps the continuous early mornings to travel to the next hostel, sometimes 200 km (124 miles) away, combined with late nights, makes you ill. You may miss all opportunities in one location because of it. While a bus tour is advantageous for many reasons, your globetrotting experience should be plotted and planned precisely on your terms. 

In contrast, a camper vanning trip can seem intimidating. There is so much more to think about in preparation for a trip to the exact same location(s). Road laws, insurance, food storage and, of course, budgeting it all, to name just a few. Providing you know the places you wish to see, should it be booked all at once? Not only setting time limits upon yourself, overlooking the fact changing your mind is pretty much inevitable. But also the myriad of potential road issues you could face along the way. Your own pressure to do everything quickly entices mistakes. Should the trip be left unplanned, only booking days ahead at a time? Now you spend some days worrying you will have nowhere to sleep, exposing yourself to higher cost hotel bookings at short notice. Or worse compromising your safety to risk catching just a few hours on route to your next destination. 

Camper vanning is achievable on a budget and with only a little bit of itinerary planning, this is a part of the fun after all!

Here are your go-to tools to achieve just the trip.

Most of us have used Google Maps before. So take a few minutes to download the map of New Zealand beforehand to feel safe in the knowledge that wherever you choose to go whilst there, you can get from A to B. Minus the fear of crippling phone charges. Gaspy is a free app that allows the user to select the type of fuel they need, search for the nearest stations and compare prices. It is updated constantly by travellers confirming or adapting the price to give you the most honest account of where to stock up for hours or days at a time. CamperMate is another free map app, again downloadable in advance, depicting a myriad of campsites (and the odd driveway) to book by phone or online, cheaper than comparative hostels or hotels. It also contains lots of freedom camping (free locations) to pitch up and catch some z’s before setting off to the next spot, with real-time updates on weather conditions and road closures. 

Without these apps, or a good old Lonely Planet travel guide just in case technology should fail, I would never have had the uniquely personal opportunities to learn about this beautiful country or see first-hand so many beautiful sights never mentioned on popular websites, or ironically bus tours. They should be a requisite for this kind of excursion, or their equivalents anywhere in the world. My only advice would be to consider getting a self-contained campervan rather than a non-self-contained one. While there are enough campsites and freedom camping spots for everyone, there are much more freedom camping spots solely for the former. You can read more about campervans here:

As for budgets, make the obvious choices. Just like at home you would go to the cheaper supermarket to buy the same goods, in New Zealand do the same. Avoid New World’s because they are closer in price to our Waitrose; find a Pak’nSave because they are our Tesco. Avoid low fuel gages in big cities; fill the whole tank in a rural destination where prices are cheaper. Avoid hefty payments for activities; take your gadget to get your own photographs. On this note, check your phone contract and check it again. Add ons are worth it in the long run because you never know just how off-grid you might go. At the same time, avoid your phone and look up: take in where you are, what you see and how you feel because the snaps you get never quite do the real thing justice when showing friends back home. It sounds obvious but get over your fear of public toilets. Quickly. This is a trip on the road. But for peace of mind, they are generally much better and not dingy, like home. And finally, my biggest tip… 

Write it all down. Take a journal. Set up notes on your phone. Anything. No matter how rejuvenated you feel on the flight home to take things slow, on return, life becomes a blur again. Memories fade at any age. Write it down. Write everything down. 

Still unsure? For those readers still here (and undecided), New Zealand has been the favourite country amongst The Telegraph readers six years running. Any fear your outstanding questions, in the dozens, are wrong or stupid is misplaced because if you think it, I promise so many others will have too including me. It will never be ‘perfect,’ by bus or campervan, but it will come very close. The situations you specifically face are ultimately unknown until you get there. The challenge is to not let it deter you from taking the trip of a lifetime and becoming like my dad, aged 52. 

Regardless of your choice, there is something totally transforming about visiting New Zealand for everyone. The devil’s advocates will argue that surely any form of independent and extended travel is transformational? Well, with respect – I disagree. New Zealand’s biggest lesson is not there to be photographed, albeit the views are truly spectacular. Its lesson is metaphysical, opening your mind to the magnitude of the world and your place and purpose in it upon return to your daily life. 

So, the question is bus tour or campervan? Campervan every time. Be brave. You are uniquely you and so should be your travels.