Backpacking New Zealand (Part 1) - Tips on traveling solo

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For my first solo backpacking trip, New Zealand was pretty darn amazing.

Being in New Zealand's South Island was a totally different kind of exposure - an unfamiliar culture, new people from all over the globe and a country that's vastly different from Singapore's.

Anyway, a number of people have been asking so I decided to edit this post to make it more comprehensive for any female traveler who's intending to go on a trip solo, or for anyone who's looking for some tips and advices about what it's like to backpack in New Zealand (the accommodation, transport and other costs).

Hopefully, this post will find you well and clarify some of the doubts you have about traveling alone, or visiting the scenic Oceania country.

What it means to travel alone as a female

To start, while you're traveling solo, you're undoubtedly going to face a couple of situations that would have been different than if you were traveling in a group. And most of the times, it's not going to be easy.

The most common fear would probably be the safety concerns that comes with it. I think this hits far closer to home for females as compared to our male counterparts. I'm not trying to be sexist here, but even with all the gender equality movements going around, some parts of the world are still somewhat discriminatory towards females. Like I said, not all, just some. But it's enough to raise multiple safety considerations about females traveling alone.

Prior to my trip, my parents were super against my crazy idea (especially my mum), thinking that I might have gone insane due to my post-break up trauma or distress from school. I was nineteen when I proposed the idea (and traveled), so I'm pretty sure my typically conservative Asian parents wasn't sure what was going on in my head. But it was pretty straightforward actually, I just wanted to travel alone for once, and I thought, why not now? I could use a little breather during my semester break.

Many friends also had their worries that "you're a girl, it's dangerous". I guess I should have been more fearful, but I was more adamant to prove that it really isn't as senseless as what people make it out to be. And more than anything, I refused to have my gender as the limiting factor as to why I can't pursue the things I want to.

But to do that, that also meant that I had to go out of my way to source for more evidence that the whole solo female traveling thing is actually feasible, that it's not just a ludicrous, romanticised idea. For many weeks, I checked out a lot of blogs (nomadicmatt, just to name one) and articles while I planned my itinerary and decided on the safest option to backpack to. Thereafter, it was convincing my parents day after day with facts and statistics and articles before my dad finally relented. And so the trip happened!
My advice to other newbie solo travelers: Do lots of research. Read up on personal blog accounts, I personally find them more relatable and trustworthy. And don't be afraid to send emails or message any of the bloggers/writers to ask for their itinerary or to clarify your doubts. Many will be more than willing to share and help!

It was not easy. I think the majority would think that to be that girl who travels solo, you got to be cut from some cloth made of courage, that you're bold and fearless, who needs no one and never feels vulnerable. But no.

I wasn't fearless without a care for the uncertainties and I sure as hell felt vulnerable. While I am very comfortable with my independence, it doesn't mean I wasn't scared about being a newbie solo traveler  that was about to take the plunge. But the benefits of solo travel and the experiences that comes with it is something you will thank yourself for later.

Read up plenty on your travel destination. It's always better to be well-read on the things you don't know, whether it's cultural practices or the countries' various laws. You can also pick all these up along the way while you travel.

When you're on the road alone, remember that the only one who is able to keep an eye out for you is yourself. Don't do stupid things like get drunk or wander late out at night alone on unfamiliar streets. If you want to drink, do so in moderation and well, I'm pretty sure the rest is just common sense. I've read about how some male solo travelers sleep on the streets/stairs at night to save costs and while it's totally plausible, I wouldn't do so unless I've been around the area long enough to know it's safe. It's up to your own discretion but if you're a female, remember you have more things to be wary of (I'm sure you've been preached enough by your loved ones and the media to know this).

I decided on New Zealand because it was a relatively safe country for females, and it's super backpacker friendly with the backpacker buses and inns they have. Perfect for a newbie backpacker like me!

In my two weeks in NZ, I met so many other female backpackers who have been traveling around solo for months, it's amazing. I met this German girl in one of my dorms who has been traveling around Europe, Africa and some parts of America for 6 months already, and will be moving to explore Asia in the next couple of weeks. And then there are also Japanese, Scotland and Australian girls that I've met who came to NZ by themselves for the working holiday visa.
The working holiday visa is a six-month permit you get that allows you to have a holiday while working for it as the same time. It's available for Singaporeans aged 18 - 30 to apply, if they're studying at a university/polytechnic or have just graduated within the last three years. You can read more about it here.

Anyway to conclude, contrary to popular belief, traveling alone as a female isn't as dangerous and absurd as what they make it to be.

Being alone during your travels

If you're an introvert, it's going to be hard for you to approach strangers or socialise with fellow travelers while you're on the road. That was something I struggled a little with, especially during my first two days in New Zealand, when I had this whole culture shock thing going on - it happens, especially when you're a lone Asian in a Western country with a culture so vastly different from what you're used to. I guess it was harder for me because prior to this backpacking trip, I've only been to other parts of Asia, so yeah. Cultural differences.

But you'll get around it. Traveling solo also means that you would be more open to meeting others. Generally, while we're on the road with a group of friends we're comfortable with, the likelihood of you mingling and interacting with other travelers is not as likely. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, of course it does when you're staying in someone else's home or on a tour, but it's comparatively different when you're alone. During my time in New Zealand, I learnt far more about my bunk mates/travel buddies' life and travel inspirations simply because I had more time and less distractions since I only had myself to attend to. Conversations are more genuine and candid, rather than the obligatory "where are you from" and "what do you do" questions. During this time, the conversations exchanged with other well-traveled backpackers have also helped me gain new eyes about other countries and the travel community.

I think that the second common fear for most who are on the fence about traveling solo is the fear of being alone. I'd admit, while I was planing my two week itinerary, I was all jittery about being lonely with the possibility of having no one to talk or turn to. But like what many other solo travelers have mentioned, I've also come to realise that even during your lone travels, you will hardly ever be alone. There will always be people around you to talk to, it's just a matter of how willing or open you are about it!
I personally find majority of the travelers to be pretty open-minded, so while you're moving around, you're bound to find someone you can click with. Who knows, they might even become your companion(s) for part of your trip! That was what happened to me on my fourth day of being in New Zealand, when I met two Malaysian ladies from my dorm in Mount Cook. We did some hikes together at Mount Cook before parting ways the day after, and then meeting again when we happened to be in the same town (at Wanaka)! I also got close to a number of my dorm mates from the backpacker inns I was staying at, and some from a bar downtown. You'll be surprised at the number of people you'll meet and exchange contacts with!


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Solo travel as empowering

While I'm traveling by myself, I get the freedom to do what I want, whenever I want. There's no need to stick to an itinerary and I found the unexpectedness of it all makes it pretty exhilarating.

Because NZ has a lot of backpacker's inns available, there isn't really a need to book beforehand. If you're not traveling within the peak season, I would advise you to go ahead with your itinerary and only find a place to stay when dusk starts to fall. That way, your plans will be less restrictive since you do not have one fixed place you have to return to. For my travel, I only booked my first two nights of accommodation and left the rest to come as it is.

All this freedom and self-responsibility is going to give you a lot of time to think, reflect and do a little bit of self exploration. Immersing yourself in a different culture and talking to people from other parts of the world is going to inspiring.

While you're traveling, you're also bound to face some unexpected situations or get yourself into some sort of predicament. And because you're traveling alone, you don't always get to fall into your vulnerability, no matter how overwhelming. You just have to pick yourself up and save your own ass because you're the only one who can do so.

While I was in NZ, I got lost many times, and had my debit card stolen one night, only to realise it the next morning when I had only $50 on hand. I remember freaking out because how was I supposed to survive on $50 for the next 4 days when I haven't paid for any of my accommodation?? It was nerve wrecking, but knowing that I got through it made me pretty proud of myself.

Solo travel could be inspiring and empowering if you make it to be. You'll be amazed at what you can do on your own if you had and wanted to.

Ultimately, embarking on a journey away from the usual Singapore is going to be a refreshing experience. Imagine waking up stoked and exhilarated for the day's activities to come because everyday was a breath of fresh air. I think we all need it every now and then.

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If you have yet to travel alone and you're considering the option, please do give it a go because I really don't think you'll regret it!! Read up on more articles, blog posts or watch some videos by other travelers. Prior to my trip, I talked to a friend (of the same age) who backpacked to Tasmania by himself last year, for some tips, advices and what not. Honestly if it weren't for the fact that I did hear his encounters and experiences, I might not have had the balls to do whatever I did.

Not trying to romanticise solo traveling because it's not just rainbow and butterflies, but that's the beauty of travel, isn't it?


And because I've been receiving some emails/messages for my breakdown (which I never got around to updating till now in 2016 hahaha), here's a summarised expenditure breakdown and some tips for my 14 days in New Zealand (South Island) as a Singaporean who's backpacking solo. Hopefully, this information is will be able to help other aspiring travelers who are considering visiting the South Island while on a budget!
It's not the best and I'm pretty sure there are many other travel writers around who have had their own experiences to share, but I hope mine's useful as well!

Expenditure breakdown:
Accommodation - $430
Transport (backpacker bus) - $269
Food - $120
Misc (shampoo, SIM etc) - $80
TOTAL: $899

I generally spent about $64/day for food, accommodation, transport and other basic necessities. You can definitely save more on the accommodation if you camp outdoors, tried couchsurfing, farm stays or WWOOFing. More about that as you read on.


For the ones who are looking for tips on backpacking NZ's South Island:

1. GET A GOOD BACKPACK AND PACK LIGHT

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When you're rushing for your next bus/train in the freezing cold, what do you want on your back?

Pack only the essentials and get yourself a good backpack to save yourself from the shoulder and backaches that may come from the long impending walks. It may be pretty costly, but it's going to be worth the pain it saves you.
I spent SGD$128 on my 40L backpack from Bonkers Link in Queenstown shopping center and the staff there are super friendly. I would recommend any newbie to visit their store, because they will listen to your needs and suggest the best backpack for your itinerary. The uncle in store taught me how to use the backpack too!
My bag was super spacious and fits my back just comfortably despite its load. I could carry all my stuff with me for hours and not feel like my back's breaking.

2. TRY EVERYTHING FOR ACCOMMODATION

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Backpacker inns
This will probably be the most popular option for most backpackers, simply because it's affordable and has all the facilities you need. Most inns are also conveniently located in the heart of the town/city, which makes most of the tourist attractions/trekking spots easily accessible. Many inns also have bustops for backpacker busses right outside. A bed in a dorm will generally cost you about $28 to $34NZ.

Based on my personal experience, the most popular few would be YHA and Base. YHA has the best wifi at no extra costs, but they may be a dollar a two more costly than the other inns. Well, I would pay $1 to $2 just for good wifi.

WWOOFing and Farm Stays
WWOOFing and farm stays is also a pretty popular option, but more for travelers who are staying in NZ for a longer period of time, or are on a working holiday VISA. The general idea of WWOOFing is for volunteers to commit a few hours of their time doing some farm work, in exchange for a place to stay (and maybe some food).

I attempted to look for farm stays during my trip but I wasn't so lucky. Most farmers would prefer to host volunteers who are staying for longer periods of time, since it takes some time for them to teach newbies the ropes of farm work and what not. Given my itinerary, a farm stay wasn't really favorable. But if you're traveling for a month or so, definitely give WWOOFing or farm stays a try! I would have if I had more time to spare.

Couchsurfing
I have not couchsurfed before so I can't vouch for it, but the CS community in New Zealand is pretty extensive. If you're looking to save on accommodation by living in with a local, give this a go. From what I know though, it's now a little harder to couchsurf if you have not been actively hosting in your own country, or participating in gatherings/meetings. Reviews on your profile is comparatively important for someone to decide if they want to host you or not, so you might want to start being active on that platform before your travel.

Camping out
Get a tent and camp outdoors. New Zealand has many leisure/adventure/recreational parks that gives you a camping ground with shower and cooking facilities at a relatively small fee. It works if you have a caravan or car too.

If you don't need the cooking facilities or could do a couple of days without shower, consider camping out in the wild. Be wary though, some areas are dangerous during rainy seasons and may not be permitted.


3. GETTING AROUND WITHOUT PUBLIC TRANSPORT

Backpacker Buses
With the exception of Christchurch, there is hardly any public transport available in the other parts of New Zealand's South Island. So if you're thinking of traveling out to Tekapo, Mount Cook or other scenic spots, the best option would be to self drive.

But if you're like me, without a driver's license, backpacker buses are your graving grace. There are many backpacker bus companies, such as Intercity, Nakedbus and Kiwi Experience to name a few. Pick the one which suits your itinerary best. I chose Intercity because it gave me the flexibility to plan my own routes with their Flexipass. All I had to do was make a booking to schedule the bus to pick me at Bus stop A and drop me off at Bus stop B the day before! The pass comes with a certain numbers of hours (I got the 30 hour one at $239), and Intercity works in such a way where hours are deducted based on the traveling time you spend on the bus. Selective tours and thrill rides are also payable via the pass, and all their buses are equipped with wifi!

From what I know, Nakedbus is cheaper and is payable each time you ride. However, it does not provide wifi, tours or guides (hence the term "naked", you're given the bare minimum). If you're a super budget traveller with no need for Internet connectivity, this might be the best option for you.

Hitch Hiking
Because the roads are so long it's impossible to walk without taking hours, sometimes the best and cheapest way to get around is to simply hitch hike. I wish I had done this earlier for my trip and spent lesser on my Intercity pass.

In NZ, hitch hiking is almost an everyday affair. You'll always see backpackers hitching, and many drivers who are more than willing to pick you and drop you off along the way - if your destination is also where they're heading to. I hitch hiked twice while I was in New Zealand, once with two other travelers and another alone. When I was alone, the driver who picked me up was a local hunter with a huge hunting dog at the backseat. It was a little intimidating at first but I don't regret it at all - the hunter was super friendly and I got to know more about NZ from a kiwi!

The drivers who are giving you a ride are probably as scared as you - you're a stranger too. You should hitch hike with caution, but don't let your paranoia get in the way of your travel experience.

4. PICK UP COOKING

Eating out is ridiculously expensive in Western countries. Each meal could cost you an average of more than $10, and they aren't always necessarily worth the bill. When I went to the supermarket, $5 could get me a pack of pasta, canned tuna and sauce that could last me a day or two.
Besides, if you're going up to the mountains, there isn't going to be any cafes/restaurants around so you only have your chef skills to depend on. Oh and one more thing, stock up on your groceries at all times, especially if you're going to head up to the mountains. Some places are so sparsely populated there isn't even a supermarket in town.

While I scrimped a lot on food, I still allowed myself to have a couple of good meals in the popular towns because what's traveling if you can't try some of their famed local delicacies or cafes right? Ultimately, save on your meals when you can. You don't need need that extra serving of meat or overpriced bottle of pressed juice. Splurge only when it's worth (which reminds me you should really try the Fergburger in Queenstown) but I'll admit I have no discipline with it comes to their ice cream hahaha.

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5. YOU DON'T NEED A SIM CARD

Lastly, you don't need a SIM card. I got one at Christchurch airport at $39NZ under Spark, but realised I really didn't have much use for it.

If you're planning to head up to the scenic sites and mountains a lot, chances are you won't get any service or reception while you're there. And even if you do have reception in the more populated areas such as Wanaka and Queenstown, there are many cafes and spots around that provide free wifi.

Alternatively, you could book accommodations/buses/cars that provide you with free wifi. No point getting a SIM card when you could hardly use it while you're out exploring the treks and hikes anyway.



Anyway this has been a super long post.
If you have any other questions about my New Zealand trip that was left unanswered, feel free to drop me a message on fb/instagram or an email (mirabelle.koh@gmail.com)! :)

Otherwise, you can read more about my itinerary and what I did in each individual location in the links down below
▶ Backpacking New Zealand (Part 1) - Tips on traveling solo 
▶ Backpacking New Zealand (Part 2) - Tekapo
▶ Backpacking New Zealand (Part 3) - Mountain Cook
▶ Backpacking New Zealand (Part 4) - Cromwell & Makaroa
▶ Backpacking New Zealand (Part 5) - Wanaka
▶ Backpacking New Zealand (part 6) - Queenstown & Christchurch


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