I still find it so hard to believe that I am actually here. There are moments when it will hit me and a surge of emotions fills my belly. Driving down the road and suddenly becoming more aware that I am driving a car that I bought in another country, everything operating on the opposite side of what I’m used to. I turn on the radio and hear American pop tunes, but with local Kiwi commercials in-between. It makes me laugh a little. How can it be that I am here, doing something that I dreamed of for so long?
But it is true, I’m here. So let’s talk about how that happened! As a break from my usual storytelling blogs, today I’m going to talk about how I got to New Zealand on a working holiday visa without saving up a bunch of money (okay, and probably a couple of stories too). When I was young I used to dream of backpacking around the world, filling notebooks with itineraries, but then when I looked at my budget it felt like a wild daydream that I would never make happen.
The truth is, I don’t have a lot of money. I actually still have quite a bit of debt in the US that I’m working to pay off. And I definitely do not believe that you need to be in some perfect financial situation to follow your traveling dreams.
Turning Travel into a Lifestyle
Now, this may not be for everyone, but for me it was the key to living my dream life. I don’t just take vacations or short trips and then go back to a house and work and a life somewhere else. Traveling is my life. I move around with the seasons and find jobs that provide employee housing for free or extremely cheap. I spend months at a time in a new place, getting to know the area well as I work and make connections in the community and explore.
Even if you aren’t necessarily interested in long-term nomad life, but you are interested in seeing new places and maybe finding inspiration for a new place to live, this can be a great option. Seasonal work provides a way to get out to a new location with both job and housing security. Then, you can explore from there!
You don’t have to be a digital nomad or figure out how to make money from your laptop doing something you’ve never done before. (You certainly can, but it may be more challenging). Instead, look for jobs in areas that you’re already skilled in. If you work in any kind of service/hospitality/restaurant industry, this will be very easy. There’s also opportunities for human resources, accounting, conservation, education, all kinds of things!
If you’re willing to work, and especially if you aren’t very tied down in your current position, this is a great way to travel more deeply and really get to know a new place. In the US, Cool Works is the best site to find seasonal jobs (they have some international listings but it’s quite limited). In New Zealand, I’ve used the Backpacker Board because you can filter by jobs that offer accommodation (which is important to me) but there’s also Seek and TradeMe for more traditional jobs where you would have your own living situation figured out.
Logistics of Getting to NZ
New Zealand is one of several countries that offers working holiday visas (often referred to as WHV) for young people. The cutoff is usually 30 years old, but sometimes it will go to 35. There are also options if you’re over the cutoff age, often for skilled or temporary work or if you’re able to secure a job offer. There are so many different visas for every country, so do your research and don’t get discouraged!
The working holiday visa for NZ was only about $20 USD and was a fairly easy application. I’m not sure if this was some kind of fluke but my application was approved in 24 hours! I took this as a sure sign that I was making the right decision. But in general, I would suggest applying at least a few months ahead of when you’re hoping to go, to allow for plenty of time in case they request any additional documentation or you have any other hangups. With New Zealand, once your visa is approved you typically have one year to enter the country and then the countdown on your time starts. For example, my visa was approved at the end of August but I didn’t arrive in the country until November, so I have until next November to leave. This allows for a good amount of flexibility in your timeline.
Side tip, do NOT buy your plane ticket before your visa if approved! It may be tempting if you see airline ticket prices fall, but do yourself a favor and don’t even start looking at flights until you have your visa approved. I’ve seen multiple people in New Zealand travel Facebook groups looking for advice because they bought their ticket and the date is approaching, but their visa hasn’t come back yet! Don’t let that be you.
Once my visa was approved, I started looking at flights via Google and Skyscanner. My biggest piece of advice here is to be flexible! I was looking at the month of October because that’s when I thought I wanted to go. Prices were higher than I would have liked to pay ideally, so I clicked over to November just to see. And wow am I glad I did! For whatever reason, there was a big drop in prices. Instead of the usual $800-1500, I paid just $372 for my flight from Denver to Auckland. Ridiculous.
Here’s the breakdown:
Base price for the flight: $444
Seat upgrade: $128
Bonus from airline credit card: -$200
Since the flight was so cheap, and because it was a 15 hour flight from Dallas to Auckland, I decided to splurge for extra legroom. This isn’t something I normally do, but I had a lot of anxiety about this flight and wanted to make sure I was as comfortable as possible! (Side note–the flight was not bad at all. Whew.)
Planning & Preparing
With the flight booked, I now had a date to set my sights on and I could really get serious about preparing! I booked the flight 8 weeks out, although 4 of those were spent traveling from Alaska to Colorado, so I really only had about 4 weeks of prep and pack time! To make sure I kept everything in order, I did the following.
I made a folder in my google drive. There was a document where I collected helpful websites, articles, and need-to-remember info. I also made a spreadsheet so I could budget my money for the time leading up to the trip, and estimate what I would spend when I got there. I included anticipated costs like the flight, transportation, hostels, groceries and eating out, etc.
I used the notes app on my phone for to-do lists. I started a main one with all kinds of random tasks that needed to be completed (making copies of my passport, cleaning out my car to sell it, booking accommodation, donating extra clothes, etc.) Then as the departure date approached, I started breaking things down into daily to-do lists. This allowed me to break up the big list to make it more manageable, and ensure that I was completing things in a timely manner. I didn’t want to get to the last few days and have a huge list left!
For packing, I started by laying out what I thought I would need and pared down from there. It was helpful to have open floor space to spread out and practice packing everything I wanted to bring in different backpacks and suitcases. (I went to Ross and got two different sized suitcases that were pretty cheap so I could see what I needed and return one. But then I found a dirt cheap one at an estate sale that worked perfectly!)
Then I began getting rid of items to reduce weight and bulk, slowly whittling down piles of stuff to the essentials (plus a few extras). A breakdown of my full packing list can be found HERE.
My personal travel style is one of little planning and great flexibility. I don’t like itineraries, and prefer to arrive in a new place and take my time exploring on foot as much as possible and chatting with locals to get recommendations. For my initial time in New Zealand, I found a cheap AirBnb in Auckland and booked that for six nights. I figured that a week would be a good amount of time to settle in, adjust to a new time zone, explore the area, and get some things in order.
I had also decided that I wanted to get to the South Island soon so that I would be there for the summer season, and then maybe return to the North Island in fall or winter. After researching rental cars, buses, and flights, I ended up booking a flight from Auckland to Christchurch for about $80 USD. With that flight booked, I found a hostel and reserved a bed in a female dorm for one night, just so that I had the peace of mind of knowing where I would stay when I landed.
That’s it! That is the extent of the planning and preparations I did ahead of my trip. As people offered suggestions for specific places to check out or if I came across something that looked interesting online, I would tag it on Google Maps with a “want to go” flag. Other than that, I just showed up ready to explore.
Arriving in Auckland
After a long (but not nearly as grueling as I expected) journey from Denver, CO, I finally landed in Auckland on November 3rd. I could feel the humidity in the air as I made my way towards customs. I had a few things that I declared on the form given to us on the flight: some camping gear, pressed flowers I had glued into my journal, and snacks. They looked through my journal and decided that it was okay, and took my tent back to a biohazard cleaning area for disinfection. Ahead of the flight (and thanks to some friends for the tip on this) I gave my tent and pegs a good cleaning to try to speed up this process. If you’re traveling with any kind of camping gear or boots that you’ve worn hiking or in agricultural work, be prepared to wait a little longer while the customs officers go through your stuff.
And remember that this is very important too! Islands like New Zealand are especially susceptible to things like invasive species. Your boots or trekking poles might carry seeds or even hand-foot-and-mouth disease that could be spread to the area. So be patient and don’t get frustrated when they are thorough about checking your items.
Once I was through customs, I headed to the ground transportation area of the terminal. Looking very lost, someone quickly offered help and I was grateful to get a little guidance on the options. The airport wifi was too slow to download the ridesharing app that I had planned to get, but my backup plan was to take the bus. The airport staff person pointed me in the right direction and I got onto a bus that would take me to a train station to get to Auckland CBD (central business district), where I would then take a ferry and one more bus to get to my AirBnb.
A really nice thing about Auckland’s public transit system is that they use one card for everything. Main bus and train stations will have kiosks where you can purchase an AT Hop card, which you can use on buses, trains, and ferries. It’s an easy and economical choice for transportation throughout the city and surrounding areas of the North Island.
Once I got settled into my room at the AirBnb (and chatted with my host about what I should check out this week!) I packed a small bag and headed out to explore the neighborhood. If you want to read more about my experience and places I went, check out this blog post, and this one too!
I hope this post has been helpful, and please reach out if you have any questions.
moments in New Zealand, November 2022