Situated south of the south island in New Zealand, Queenstown is a small town of around 15,000 people. Huddled at the foot of Ben Lomond, surrounded by mountains and Lake Waikato, it’s not hard to see why it is so popular with tourists and backpackers.
Queenstown’s population swells to more than twice its usual occupancy in winter, according to one local I spoke to, when people come near and far to enjoy the skiing season.
But it ain’t cheap. And that is an understatement. Never fear though, because help is here. And it comes in the form of, well… me, a Queenstown budget expert having recently been holed up there for two months with a dwindling supply of cash. Here’s how to do Queenstown the budget way.
NOTE: These are true at time of writing. All prices in article are in New Zealand Dollars, unless otherwise stated.
Budget Grocery Shopping
Obviously being on a budget means that the vast majority of your food will be purchased in the supermarket and cooked and eaten at the hostel. There are two options for grocery shopping in Queenstown itself, and another option if you have transport, know someone who has, or are prepared to hitch-hike.
Four Square Alpine, Queenstown
This is the most convenient option as it’s a short walk from anywhere in the town centre. Unfortunately you pay for convenience, especially in New Zealand. Things like rice, pasta and budget tinned food are around the same price as the larger Fresh Choice, so its ok to get those things here. But for a bigger shop involving fruit and veg and meat, go the extra mile (literally).
Fresh Choice, Queenstown
About a mile walk (1.6km), there and back, is the larger Fresh Choice on Gorge Road. It’s a lot cheaper for most items than Four Square but it is by no means cheap, even by New Zealand standards. Fruit and vegetables are very expensive here too. As is meat. Still, if you have no transport its your cheapest option in Queenstown.
New World, Frankton
Frankton’s New World, about 8km (5 miles) drive from Queenstown, is the cheapest option of all. It’s much larger than the other shops. Size matters when it comes to pricing in New Zealand’s supermarkets. Of course you have to take into consideration the price of fuel, but if you’re doing a weekly shop it will definitely be worth it.
If you have no transport, there is a lot of traffic going between Queenstown and Frankton so you should have no problem hitching a ride there and back. You might find it odd to hitchhike to the grocery store if you’re from north America or Europe, or anywhere else for that matter, but it’s common in New Zealand.
As with most tourist towns, Queenstown’s nightlife is great with most establishments packed almost every night in winter season.
People may bemoan Queenstown prices, and food and accommodation can be expensive, but the price of drinks in most bars are the cheapest I’ve seen in New Zealand. A pint of beer is typically five dollars, as opposed to the usual eight or so. But ask prices before you purchase; there is often a huge disparity in price between bottom and top of the range.
Queenstown caters to both the ‘holiday making industry’ and the ‘backpacking industry’. Holiday makers, particularly older tourists, generally have a lot of disposable income; backpackers do not. Consequently, some places are expensive while others are quite cheap.
Prices are nearly always displayed at the door, so have a look before you enter.
Sign-ups and Promotions
If you’re canny you can get some really good deals for food and drink with various promotions. Sign up to everything you see, and make sure your birthday happens to coincide with your stay in Queenstown. There are fewer loyalty card promotions than I expected. The reason for this is likely that most people in Queenstown are there for a short period and so loyalty cards are not perhaps considered the most lucrative marketing strategy.
Nevertheless, I found a few.
Searle Lane Bar and Rotisserie – $10 voucher when you text your email address to 4664.
Searle Lane Locals Card – Congratulations you’re a local. Earn reward points every time you purchase and get a $30 voucher on your birthday or ‘birthday’. No one checks.
1876 Bar and Restaurant – Sign up to their loyalty card for discounts. You have to do this in person.
Speights Alehouse – 20% off for locals. You work in Queenstown, right?
Also, check out Winnies $5 vodka shots and Karaoke on Sundays. There’s loads of prizes. You get one just for bellowing out a tune, however badly.
Vouchers In Local Bulletin
Look out for the Queenstown’s Lakes Weekly Bulletin, which you can pick up free of charge on a Tuesday at the local shopping mall. These contain vouchers and tickets for all sorts of eateries and bars. The idea is to get you in the door, but you don’t have to stay!
Check out which bars have Happy Hour and when they are. For example, Searle Lane has one between 9 and 10 where you can get a $3 beer. Now that’s a bargain in any language! Happy hours vary from bar to bar so you can do a mini pub crawl and take advantage of this.
Free Pub Crawls!
Speaking of bar crawls, the cheapest option of all is to join the Happy Travels’ pub crawl on a Wednesday night and the Peter Pans’ pub crawl on a Thursday. These start off at 8.30 pm with free wine and pizza at the respective agencies. There’s prizes to be won if you’re prepared to make a fool of yourself.
Prizes can be pretty significant. I knew a girl who won a season lift pass worth $1000 dollars. There’s day trips to be had aplenty, too. The bar crawl then progresses around town and you get a free shot in each pub or nightspot. The agencies do this for mainly promotional purposes, hence the generosity. Take advantage.
Win Money or Money Off
If you are a bit of a pool shark or a poker ace, or just a lucky beggar, Queenstown offers opportunities to capitalise on this.
Base Backpackers’ bar, Loco, put on a free entry Poker comp twice a week on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Malbas Tavern have a similar event on Sundays; Xtreme Bar on Tuesdays. These are run by Cardsharks League and you can check out the latest information on their Facebook page.
Searle Lane run a free entry pool comp every night. If you win the poker it’s generally worth over $300 in cold, hard cash. The pool comp gets you a $100 voucher for food and drink to be shared with your partner – it’s usually doubles. Don’t worry if you don’t have a pard, you can team up with someone when you get there. All competitions start at 9 pm.
It’s not impossible to win. I won the pool comp four times and came third twice in the Poker, winning seventy dollars a time. I only played the Poker four times and only once bought in ($10). I played the pool comp a lot more, but was seriously impaired by my choice of partners most of the time (yep, that’s you, Jed). So try your luck. I’m no expert in either discipline. The competitions are a lot of fun.
Online Discount Booking Sites
I cannot emphasis enough how important discount websites should be to the budget traveller. Broke backpackers often completely overlook them when it comes to going out, thinking that even with a discount they won’t be able to afford the price of eating out.
Not so. A quick glance at bookme.co.nz for Queenstown at time of writing: Ice Bar entry $1, was $20; Pog Mahones’ (means kiss my a** in Irish, incidentally) Stone Grill Main Meal $10, was$37.50; Buffalo Club Meal and Beer $5, was $10.50. Need I go on? I found that Bookme is the best for dining out in Queenstown, but there’s no harm in checking out grabone.co.nz as well. Groupon.co.nz is pretty poor in every respect and not worth bothering about; not in Queenstown, at any rate.
Free Food in Queenstown
Cowboys bar is a western themed bar that sells litres of beer for $10. But better still they give out free food to their patrons. The details are: free bar snacks from 3pm to 8pm daily, free pizza night on Wednesday from 8pm to 12am, free spicy chicken wings on Sunday from 8pm to 12am and Karaoke from 9pm to 1am. Pity you can’t eat Karaoke…
Sign up to Searle Lane Locals card and get a free 1/4 metre (10 inches) pizza. Searle Lane also do $5 pizzas on happy hour between 9-10pm.
For the cheapest digs, try nakedsleep.com first. For the first couple of weeks in Queenstown, I stayed at Base Backpackers for $130 a week, booked through nakedsleep.com.
It wasn’t quite peak season though, and the price rose quickly after that. Base Backpackers is the cheapest in town at time of writing, and they offer to match any lower price. They also have an app which gives you 15% off your stay at certain times of year. A word of warning: Base has a busy bar which stays open late, so ask to be placed at the other side of the hostel if you want a few early nights.
Failing that, try the usual websites: booking.com, hostelworld.com, etc.If you’re arriving in peak season, you should book at least two weeks before you come to guarantee a bed for more than a night or two, and even longer if you’re travelling with a group.
Renting a Room in Queenstown
If you are planning on staying for the whole season, renting a room in a house is your best option. It will work out around the same as a hostel but you won’t have to move from pillar to post when there is limited availability. And of course you’ll have the luxury of privacy.
There is huge demand for these and you should try to organise something prior to your arrival. Check out trademe.com and easyroommate.co.nz. Remember you’ll have to pay a bond, which you’ll lose if you leave early. So make sure you will have the funds or gain employment before you take this plunge.
Work for Accommodation in Queenstown
Another option is to work for your accommodation. Unless you are truly broke I do NOT recommend this. I worked for three weeks in Base for the purpose of writing a blog post about it, and to save money of course. I never could bring myself to write that post because my experience was so negative. But I’ll briefly describe it here to give you an idea what you might be letting yourself in for.
You first have to pay a $100 bond for the pleasure of ‘woofing’ at Base.You lose this if you don’t perform the job for at least three weeks, which is fair enough I suppose, and if you don’t give a week’s notice when you’re leaving, which is nothing short of ludicrous.
Base management must be aware that most people that are working for accommodation are searching for paid work. If you get a job, you will almost certainly lose your bond because you are unlikely to be able to give a week’s notice. The only possible motive for this policy is to gain $100. There was always a waiting list of people ready to work and they never started before the previous person had left. So why a week? It’s a swindle, and a pretty obvious one at that.
The work itself was ok: cleaning toilets and making beds. But when we worked it out, we were working for around half of minimum wage. One of our bosses was incredibly rude and unpleasant and the other was so particular we rarely finished on time on his shift.
We were supposed to work from 9 am to 1 pm, six days a week, which is a lot for hostel accommodation. But we often worked past 2 pm on busy days.To be fair, we got off early sometimes as well, and you get free laundry and a free continental breakfast. I still feel very strongly that Base takes advantage of the difficulty travellers have finding work in Queenstown. And I know I am far from alone in that sentiment.
If you are planning on working for your accommodation, Nomads is a better option. The hostel itself is much nicer and I spoke to one person who worked for their accommodation there and they had a much more positive experience.
With working for accommodation, it’s best to phone ahead before you visit your destination. There are many smaller hostels you can try in Queenstown. It’s all about getting your name down, the earlier the better. Queenstown is pretty condensed, so when you arrive you can visit most hostels in an hour or two if you haven’t had any luck on the phone. Make sure you ask what your hours will be. Any more than twenty a week is going too far, in my humble opinion.
There are lots of travel agencies around Queenstown and many hostels also offer a booking service for activities, but I find that the cheapest prices are usually to be found online at either the company’s own website or on discount sites.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t check out the agencies, but I’d definitely recommend you check out bookme.co.nz and grabone.co.nz before you make a purchase. There are some great offers to be had which will save you a lot of money. I’ve seen tickets for trips and activities discounted by well over 50%.
With that in mind, here are some of the best things to do in Queenstown.
Hit the Slopes
In winter, most people are in Queenstown to ski or snowboard. Queenstown boasts two main ski fields, the Remarkables and Coronet Peak which, according to people who know about these things, are of a pretty high standard.
Unfortunately this activity is pretty expensive. A day lift pass alone can set you back over $100 and gear rental is a further $30-$50. Season passes tend to be around $1000 for one peak and $1,300 for both the Remarkables and Coronet Peak. Early bird passes can go for $800, so if you’re planning on spending the season there it’s worth doing the research about mid to late May, a few weeks before the season starts. The start of the season varies but it never starts before June.
If you only plan to ski or board once or twice, rent your gear from one of the ski shops in town: it will be much cheaper there than on the mountain. Experienced skiers and boarders will have their own gear, of course.
And that’s all the advice I can offer here, which is disappointing as this is the reason many come to Queenstown. I had hoped to find a cheaper way but none was forthcoming. You can take comfort in the fact that is a lot cheaper to ski in New Zealand than Switzerland or the French Alps, though.
Take a day trip, Queenstown to Milford Sound
Trips run daily from Queenstown to Milford Sound, surely one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Mitre Peak, at 1,690 m (5,540 ft),presides over the sound, a 16 km fiord famously described by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world.
Prior to 1954, Milford Sound was practically inaccessible. Now the 1.2 km (0.75 miles) long Homer Tunnel makes the journey vastly less arduous, and adds a mild highlight to the journey to boot.
When booking make sure you include a boat trip on the sound as well as your return coach trip. Typically, you leave at 7 am and return eleven hours later. These trips are always on bookme.co.nz and you’ll get a better deal if you book a bit in advance. They call these ‘Coach – Boat – Coach’.
If you have transport, you may wish to drive to Milford and book the boat trip only. This will only save you money if the car is full and you split fuel costs as Milford sound is eight hours driving round trip and the road is hard on fuel. There is the small advantage that the boat trip will be less crowded as you will take a different boat than the coach-load of passengers.
Go Ice Skating
During Winterfest there is an ice rink erected in the centre of town for a couple of weeks. I actually helped build the last one. This costs a reasonable $20. You get skate hire included and it is outdoors so there is an opportunity for a nice photo with an impressive backdrop.
Alternatively you can check out the indoor rink in Queenstown Gardens. It costs $19 with skates – a dollar’s a dollar! Just kidding, go to the outdoor one if you and it are both there at the same time. Grab a hearty feed first and stay on there for a while. There is no time limit (on either rink) so you may as well get your money’s worth.
Take a Jet Boat
If you’re going to take a jet boat there’s no better place to do it than Queenstown with its Kawarau and Shotover Rivers. Jet boats are incredible machines that can be powered up to 80 km/h (50 mph/h). Not only that but they can operate at a depth level of just 10 cm (4 inches)! They are piloted by skilled drivers who do all sorts of turns, accelerations and decelerations to thrill the passengers. Sit at the front if you want the best view and the back if you want the best ride. Sit at the back.
When making your booking, be careful to look at the itinerary. Some trips are only 35 mins, others one hour, others include hiking and canoeing. Factor this into the cost. You should have no problem getting an hour for less than $80. At time of writing, there’s one on bookme.com for $60. Less wiser heads will pay double that. Good for you!
Bungy Jump in Queenstown
I am terrified of heights. Always have been. My palms instantly start sweating at the mere thought of a bungy jump. I once tried to conquer my fear of heights by doing a parachute jump (3000 ft with a static line to open the chute). I would have jumped, I swear, but the guy pushed me before I could. He then had the cheek to write “poor exit” on my report card.
I ended up landing in a muddy field miles away from where I was supposed to and have to hitch a ride back. Unbelievably, I didn’t fare the worst. Another fella didn’t come back for hours after dark, and he was covered in scratches. He had landed in a tree.
I digress. I didn’t do a bungee jump and I probably never will. But if you are a braver soul than me then here’s the dealio.
Queenstown is where the bungy started. In 1988, some lunatic tied a stretchy rope thing around his feet and hurled himself off the Kawarau Bridge. He survived. He has also been left to roam the streets ever since, when clearly he should be institutionalised.
Anyway, the cheapest option is to be a coward like me. That’s free. The other options are these:
Original AJ Hackett Bungy – Kawarau Bridge – $195
This is where it all began so you can tell your mates you’ve done the original bungy. You can also get your head dunked in water if you like. It’s all over very quickly though.
AJ Hackett Bungy – Nevis Bungy – $275
134m, 8.5 seconds freefall, highest in Australasia. It may be the most expensive but if you are in it for the freefall this is probably the one for you.
AJ Hackett Bungy – The Ledge Bungy – $195
High up on Bob’s Peak with stunning views of Queenstown and the Remarkables mountain range. Less free-fall than the Nevis, though.
The cheapest price I found for the Nevis bungee was happytravels.co.nz at $255.
At time of writing, in peak winter season, I found the Ledge Bungy for$132 on bookme.co.nz, a significant saving.
Do the Luge in Queenstown
The luge is a lot of fun. I did it in Rotorua and had a blast. Try to get a few others to go on this as it’s far more fun trying to outpace and overtake your mates. The luge is basically a go-cart without pedals; it uses gravity as its propelling force and the course is designed accordingly. It is a flimsy machine made of plastic and because you are so close to the ground with minimal protection it feels like you’re going far faster than you actually are. Go on the fastest course, it’s much more fun.
You may be noticing a trend here. Guess what? Yep, they have deals on Bookme. You probably think I’m making money by referrals by now, but I’m not. Check it out. At time of writing, there’s four rides and the Gondola for $33. That’s normally $55.
Shotover Canyon swing or AJ Hackett Swing
They are swings and they are very big swings. Again my aversion to heights has ruled me out of this one. I considered it for a while longer than I had the bungee, which was about three seconds. Then I saw a video. These swings are very, very high up with stunning views. Do you have the balls?
The prices are as follows:
AJ Hackett Bungy – Nevis Swing – $195
This is the highest swing but is it the best? Have a look at the website.
Shotover Canyon Swing – $215/$250 + 1 swing
Check out the video at their Shotover Canyon Swing website and judge for yourself…
I tried and failed to find better offers for these online. But that’s not to say there won’t be in the future. Have a search on Bookme anyway.
If you are travelling with a friend or group, it’s worth checking if you can pick up a two person or group deal at the agencies around town, too.
White Water Rafting
White water rafting brings the two things together that make Queenstown so popular: stunning natural beauty and adrenalin packed activity. You must be water-confident for this one.
There are two main rivers in Queenstown and you can do white water rafting on either one. The Kawarau River is more popular because there is a 400 m long uninterrupted stretch of white-water called the Dog Leg Rapid. The Shotover River boasts 3-4 grade rapids and is more challenging. It also has a 80m long tunnel.
Skydive in Queenstown
There are a number of places around New Zealand you can go Skydiving with perhaps not as stunning scenery, but certainly equally beautiful. The budget travel way is to do things where they are cheapest. It’s in the manifesto. The cheapest place is not Queenstown. The cheapest place to do a skydive is in Taupo at $339 for 15,000ft, exactly $100 cheaper than Queenstown. And it’s not nearly as cold.
That being said, I am aware that not everyone is travelling all around New Zealand and Queenstown may be the only place you can do this. I am also aware that not everyone is quite as broke as I am. So here it is:
15,000ft – $439
12,000ft – $339
10,000ft – $299
The company is NZone Skydive and because they are the only company in Queenstown that offer skydiving, they have a monopoly. As far as I can see, they don’t do promotions or vouchers so I can’t help you with this one.
A word of advice though. Wait until the morning of the day you wish to dive to book your jump. That way you can check the weather first. You will want a sunny cloudless day with little wind. If you are going to pay a large amount of money you may as well have the best experience you can. That advice comes from my mate Jono who is starting his training to become a dive master soon.
Play Frisbee Golf
In Queenstown Gardens there is a remarkable thing: a golf course. But not just any golf course, for instead of holes there are metal baskets and instead of clubbing balls one hurls a frisbee. This activity, unlike so many others in New Zealand, is free. That is, almost free. One must first purchase a frisbee, and not just any frisbee, but a hard plastic expensive one. You can also rent them for $5 dollars from a ski shop though, with a $15 deposit.
The first three holes are dangerous for frisbees. They are beside the lake and these frisbees can’t swim. A mate of mine lost his on the second throw. That’s $20 for two throws. See? New Zealand prices again. Just when we thought we had a bargain.
Check it out. It’s lots of fun and you are allowed to drink in the park too, so you can bring a bottle of wine on your round. This is the first public place I’ve seen in New Zealand where you can drink. Take advantage of it and have a cheap few hours of budget fun.
Take a Hike
I’m not being rude and telling you to go away. I mean literally take a hike in Queenstown – there’s no better place for it. There are many hiking tours with guides which you can check out on Bookme, but there is no reason why you can’t do this one for absolutely nothing.
The shortest hike is up Bob’s Peak, adjacent to Queenstown. If you want the views without the effort you’ll have to pay $20 odd dollars for the privilege of riding the Gondola.
An hour’s hike should get you to the top of Bob’s Peak, allowing time to pause for breath and take photos. We did it in the evening to catch the sunset at the summit, which left us in a bit of a predicament because once the sun had set it dawned on us that it would be suicide to return the way we came in the dark. Thankfully the Gondola was unmanned and we hopped on. We really wanted to pay, but what could we do in the circumstances? And it was going down anyway.
If you are a bit of a hiker, there are a bunch of more challenging options. Remember to take the usual precautions: go with someone, tell someone where you’re going, dress suitably, check weather forecast, ask advice from a local, etc.
Here are some of the most popular hikes near Queenstown but if you’re really keen there’s heaps more, of course.
Getting There: You can walk directly from Queenstown.
How long? 1 – 3 hours return.
The walk to the top of Queenstown Hill is a lot shorter than the trip of Ben Lomond. If you’re fit You can reach the top in just over an hour with sweeping views out across Lake Wakatipu.
Ben Lomond Summit Track
Getting There: You can leave directly from Queenstown.
How long? 5 – 7 hours return.
Ben Lomond towers over Queenstown and begs to be climbed (I crossed to the other side of the road, so to speak, and only went as far as Bob’s Peak). It’s an accessible hike on a well walked trail that affords you stunning views of Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the greater Wakatipu Basin. A return trip from Queenstown should take no more than about six hours. This should only be attempted in times of no snow.
If you don’t have the time or the inclination to tackle the summit, you can go as far as Ben Lomond Saddle in about 3 hours return. The view there is pretty remarkable. Taking the Gondola will cut an hour off your time, but it costs.
Lakes Hayes Loop
Getting There: You can walk directly from Arrowtown. Buses to Arrowtown from Queenstown go every hour or hour and twenty minutes or so. They’re a bit sporadic so check the time table. It takes between 35 – 60 minutes to get there from departure, depending which bus you get. Again hitch-hiking is an option here. It really is pretty easy in New Zealand. The bus costs a hefty $15 each way. Ridiculous.
How long? 2 – 3 hour loop.
This is a loop walk. People in the know suggest you go in a clockwise direction from Arrowtown – that way your legs will get warmed up with a steep walk up a hill that opens to sweeping views across the Wakatipu Basin. From here you’ll follow a water race down Sawpit Gully itself, passing beech forest copses as well as high country grassy slopes.
Mt. Alfred Summit
Getting There: A little more awkward but worth it if you’re a keen hiker. This walk starts about twenty kilometres from Glenorchy, which is about an hour drive away from Queenstown. Unfortunately there’s no buses so you’ll have to find someone with a car or better still hitch a lift – this is really easy to do in New Zealand, Queenstown in particular. Hitch a ride to Glenorchy and then on to the Routeburn Track. You’ll see the car park where the track begins.
How long? 5 – 6 hours return.
This 1,375 metre peak juts out between the Dart and Rees River valleys.It’s unique to many accessible day-hikes in New Zealand in that it contains a mix of hiking through the dense bush, with some scrambling near the top and amazing panoramic views from the summit.
The hike begins from the western side of Mount Alfred in the Dart River valley. The first couple hours zig-zags you steadily up through native beech forest before reaching the treeline. From there, orange pylons mark the route. After reaching the plateaued summit, you can spend time wandering around and taking the views of Lake Wakatipu, the Dart & Rees Valleys, the Humbolts and the impressive Mt Earnslaw.
Please let me know below if any of this was helpful or if you have anything to add. I’d be happy to edit the post if anyone has any more ideas or information. We’re all in this budget backpacking business together! I hope you enjoyed the article. Post a comment and let me know what you think.