Last Updated: January 2016
We flew to New Zealand using Tanya’s Delta miles. Unfortunately Delta doesn’t actually fly to New Zealand, so they put us on their partner, Virgin Australia. My suggestion: Never fly Virgin Australia. We flew from Phoenix to LA to Brisbane to Queenstown. I’m not sure where our bags flew, but when we arrived only 1 out of 4 bags arrived with us – Tanya’s bike.
Many phone calls later to Queenstown baggage services, Virgin Australia in Brisbane, Virgin Australia in Sydney, and we discovered after several days that two bags had got to Sydney and one bag was still in LA. We were repeatedly told the the bags would be on the flight to Queenstown the next day, only to discover that, no, they weren’t on the flight.
The Queenstown baggage services people (who actually work for Air New Zealand) said that this sort of things happens a lot with Virgin Australia, and on one of the calls Tanya heard that a whole wedding party had landed in Queenstown without their bags.
The Virgin Australia people were completely unapologetic, and made no effort to guarantee that we’d get our bags. It was more like “they’ll be on the next flight if the baggage handlers notice them.” Oh, and there was no Virgin Australia flight to Queenstown on Tuesday but they wouldn’t put the bags on an Air New Zealand flight.
Eventually one bag came in four days late, another five days late, and the last one six days late.
Avoid flying Virgin Australia if you can!
When we landed in Queenstown (actually Frankton), we drove to the very touristy Queenstown (about 3 miles from the airport) and went to one of the ubiquitous Info offices. They hand out SIM cards for cell phones from the company 2 Degrees. Then you go to a supermarket and at the cash register you can buy a top-up of minutes and data. The receipt shows you how to activate the phone with your purchased minutes. When you activate the phone you should also buy a package. For $19 you can get 100 minutes of calls to New Zealand and Australia, 500 mb of data, unlimited texts to NZ and OZ, and free calls to other 2 Degree phones. You can access voicemail using minutes.
The Sim cards from 2 Degrees are micro-SIMs, and these fit the two old phones we brought from the US. However, they did not fit our iPhone 5’s, which take nano-Sims so we went to a Vodafone store in Wanaka. (There are probably stores that will sell 2 Degree nano-SIMS but there are no specific 2 Degree stores, and we found a Vodafone store in Wanaka.)
Vodafone charged me $5 for the nano-Sim for my iPhone 5, and then I bought a $29 package which gives me 200 minutes, 1 Gb of data, and unlimited text messages. However, I can’t get voicemail because I can’t use minutes to access voicemail. I have to pay more money to Vodafone, which I haven’t yet done. What a crazy system.
I’d say that 2 Degrees is probably the better way to go, but you need to remember to buy the package, otherwise your money gets eaten up quite quickly through the default pricing mechanism. We know this because we didn’t fully read the top-up receipt, which tells you to buy a package.
We flew to Queenstown, picked up our rental car (we used Omega Rentals), then did some shopping in Queenstown at a supermarket we found in the touristy town center. Then we drove to Wanaka, which is where we were staying, and did a bit more food shopping.
The next day we discovered the fantastic supermarket where we should have done our shopping – New World. There is a New World supermarket in Frankton, in the Remarkables Park shopping center next to the airport. There is also a New World supermarket in the center of Wanaka, near the intersection of Dunmore and Dungarvon Streets.
(Incidentally, in the supermarkets here you can find many varieties of muesli, but it’s difficult to find granola. In the U.S. the opposite is true.)
Our bags were delayed for several days (thanks Virgin Australia) so we had to buy new socks, underwear, t-shirts, toiletries, etc. A good place for cheap clothes and other things is The Warehouse in the Remarkables Park shopping center next to Queenstown airport.
We rented our car through Omega Rentals. We paid about US$1,650 for 3 months of car rental. It’s an old Nissan Tiida with an incomprehensible GPS display – all in Japanese. It comes with roadside service through AA (the New Zealand version of AAA) and insurance. We are responsible for the first NZ$2,000 of damage, but to pay for $0 deductible would have cost about NZ$2,000.
There’s a great library in Wanaka, at the very eastern end of Dunmore Street. We went there a couple of times to read when it was raining. I wanted to borrow the book I was reading and was able to do this by leaving a cash deposit. The librarian looked up the price of the book, which was NZ$35 and wanted this as a deposit. I made it easier by just leaving a NZ$50 note, along with a piece of paper with my name and cell phone number. They checked out the book (to whom I know not) and wrote down the name of the book on the piece of paper. I wonder how many libraries in the US would be so accommodating to visitors.
We also went to the library in Nelson and asked about checking out books. They already have a policy for visitors. You have to fill in a form, then pay NZ$20 a month to be able to check out books. We didn’t do this, so I don’t know how they guarantee you will return the books.
You can’t generally get raw milk in the US except by going to a pet store and buying pet milk. This is the loophole in US law that allows people to buy raw milk.
In New Zealand you are allowed to buy up to 5 liters of raw milk at a time, but only from a farm. So enterprising companies have created machines that dispense raw milk 24/7. One such company is called Village Milk. You can also look for signs for Fresh Milk as you drive – these will often point to farms that dispense raw milk.
We really didn’t spend enough time researching where to stay in New Zealand. Instead we asked a friend who had been there which places he liked. He said Wanaka and Nelson so we decided to spend 6 weeks on each place. Part of the decision was because we’d moved around quite a bit the previous summer and we wanted some more stability. And part was because we didn’t do our homework. So we spent 6 weeks in Wanaka and 6 weeks in Nelson
How would we do it differently if we knew then what we know now? We wouldn’t have spent as much time in Nelson. There’s some great hiking in the Abel Tasman National Park and some in Nelson Lakes. But there’s not 6 weeks of great activities. I think we’d have spent 2 weeks in Nelson. We’d probably have spent 2 weeks in Wanaka and 2 weeks in Queenstown. Maybe a week in Christchurch.
Which only adds up to 7 weeks. So 12 weeks was too much, but at the time we needed to spend 12 weeks somewhere. We could have gone to the North Island, but the South Island is much more beautiful, with all the lakes and mountains. The North Island seems to be too similar to other countries.
But I think if you want to experience the best New Zealand has to offer you either do a long bicycle tour down the South Island or you plan to do several of the multi-day Great Walks. These involve booking huts in advance, carrying sleeping and cooking gear, and often figuring out shuttles to the start and from the end.
The big hikes and long cycling tours are what is best in New Zealand. Next best is to rent a camper van. These are wildly popular and in summer you see them everywhere. If the camper is self contained you can park and sleep pretty much anywhere – and people do. We thought of renting one but since we were in New Zealand for 12 weeks we thought we’d end up killing each other in such a small space.
Links and Other Clicks
Fantastic Topo Map of New Zealand. You can keep zooming in for more detail.