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7 Tips For Budget Travel In Queenstown – Queenstown Cheap Travel Tips

Lake Hayes - near  Wanaka

Lake Hayes – near Wanaka

Queenstown likes to market itself as the adventure capital of New Zealand – the reality is that it’s capital of New Zealand’s most expensive real estate, and tourist deals. Which is ironic – because there is no need to court bankruptcy paying for all the adrenalin activities  on offer. In fact it’s a rare airport that as I  walk down the stairs from the plane I can be moved to exclaim “Wow” just by the view!

There Is More To Queenstown – Than Queenstown

Queenstown is where the airport is, but frankly it’s not the prettiest of towns, hemmed in between lake and hills, in boasts an  ugly town centre, and a traffic and parking issues which rival Auckland’s at rush hour. The setting is spectacular – the town, not so much.

Here’s a secret that the Queenstown marketing people won’t tell you: you don’t have to stay in Queenstown. You are only a little over an hour away from Wanaka, 45 minutes from Cromwell. Both cheaper and more pleasant towns to base yourself, and with arguably better access to the jaw-dropping scenery which is what this part of the world is all about. There is a reason that Peter Jackson keeps on making films around here (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings). You see the scenery is so amazing he doesn’t need to do as many special effects as you may think!

Queenstown from Top of the hill

Worth the Climb – view over Queenstown from the top of the hill Image (c) cheetah100 via flickr

Before You Leave Queenstown: Hike Queenstown Hill

You can’t miss it – that’s the hill right behind down town Queenstown, with a Gondola up it. The Gondola is purely for access to the money-sucking tourism venture at the top of it. But the hill itself is free: so start walking: it will take you a couple of hours, but the views are definitely worthwhile. Pack a picnic as you will probably want to stay a while and look at the view.

Wander back down to the water front check out the city gardens and maybe take a tour on the old steamer SS Earnslaw (from NZ$55) it’s one of the best value boat options. Now get the hell out of Queenstown and see some of the real country!

The Road to Mt Aspiring, near Wanaka

The Road to Mt Aspiring, near Wanaka

Hire a Car

Yeah I bet you weren’t expecting that one – but seriously Queenstown has a very competitive car rental industry. The airport has not just the usual big names: Budget,Avis, etc. – but also some cheaper franchises hiring older cars. My last trip we hired from Ace Rentals for NZ$25/day. You don’t think that’s cheap? Check the prices for tours or even just catching the bus : Queenstown – Wanaka NZ$35pp one-way. With two you’re saving money, with four you are in budget traveller heaven. With a car you will be able to get out town and see the scenery – that’s what Central Otago and the Queenstown Lakes District is all about, not the towns themselves, but their setting.

whitebait platter

Whitebait and Sourdough Bread, Arrowtown, NZ Image (c) travelNZTM via flickr

Self Cater For Less

The Queenstown  area grows world-class Pinot Noir wine and has a local industry  of quality artisan food producers which drive  a thriving food and drink tourism industry. The prices are world-class as well. If you must try the local red be prepared to pay at least $40 bottle in a bottle shop, twice that in a restaurant. If you are looking for a supermarket in Queenstown – there isn’t one – head back to Franks ton near the airport and stock up there (Cromwell, Wanaka, Alexandria also have reasonable shopping ie not tourist trinkets). There are also regular farmer’s market in the towns of the area, usually on the weekend during the summer season, check locally. With a car you will also pass farmers and orchardists selling fresh produce for less than you’ll pay in a supermarket. Central Otago particularly is well-known for its cherries and apricots.  With all this scenery you won’t be short of a spectacular setting for a picnic lunch.

Arrowtown – For Free

Arrowtown is easily accessible from Queenstown even without a car (there’s a local  bus) – once there avoid the over-priced shops and restaurants of main street. Instead head toward Chinatown – which is an archaeological area preserving the early Chinese settlers to the area. From here you can head up into the hills on a number of walking tracks, all free, all spectacular, some requiring decent footwear. There is plenty of good mountain biking in the area too.

Central Otago - View From Bendigo near Cromwell

Central Otago – View From Bendigo near Cromwell

Further Out: Abandoned Towns and Spectacular Scenery

From Wanaka – head down the road to Glendue and on towards Mt Aspiring, where you will find some more serious tramping (what New Zealanders call hiking) here, all free. Even if you are not that fit or keen the road itself is spectacular – and free.

Alternatively explore the hills around Cromwell – head up to Bendigo’s ruins (yes named after the more famous Australian gold town), dirt road and steep, but accessible by 2WD unless there is snow and ice.

Lake Wanaka

Lake Wanaka

Water, Water Everywhere – For Not Much Money

If you read the tourist literature you’ll be forgiven for thinking that only Queenstown’s adjacent Lake Wakatipu and nearby rivers are suitable for all things aquatic.  Not so; Lake Hayes, Lake Dunstan and Lake Wanaka, offer similar opportunities with much reduced tourist hoards, and somewhat reduced prices. If you are desperate to get wet – hiring a kayak or canoe is your most cost-effective option. If you just want the views head towards Haast Pass past Lake Hayes for jaw-dropping views.

Lake Wanaka from treble cone

Lake Wanaka from Treble Cone Ski Field Image (c) Daniel Stoj via flickr

Cheap Skiing Options in Queenstown?

Queenstown boast not one but actually four downhill ski field in close proximity (The Remarkables, Coronet Peak Cadrona, Treble Cone) – all are world-class none are cheap. If you can’t afford them, consider the SnowFarm on the Crown Range Road between Queenstown and Wanaka. It’s New Zealand’s only cross-country sky area a day pass will cost about NZ$40/day – under half what the downhill ski areas will set you back.

Cardrona Hotel - Crown Range Road Between Queenstown and Wanaka

Cardrona Hotel – Crown Range Road Between Queenstown and Wanaka

I hope I’ve given you some ideas on how to not blow the budget in Queenstown. I want to reassure the budget traveller that you can experience the incredible beauty which is Queenstown and the surrounding area without spending a fortune. In Queenstown you can jump from planes and cliffs and fly, or  from bridges with a rope attached. You can fling yourself down a mountain on a luge or speed down a river on a jetboat or raft. You can easily spend NZ$500/day plus just on activities. But none of these activities are unique to Queenstown. The location and the scenery is.

Give your wallet a break and spend some time discovering what makes this part of New Zealand pretty special. Stock up on camera batteries, hire a car or a mountain bike or maybe a kayak. Slow down and chill out in some of the world’s finest film sets.

Unless otherwise credited all images are (c) Lis Sowerbutts and

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