***This post is part 1 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***
I've written a couple of posts (here and here) about my adventures in booking award tickets to and from New Zealand, so I won't bother recapping how nerve-wracking it was to not see any award space available as the departure date quickly approached. Luckily, my patience (and ExpertFlyer) paid off and I was able to snag Air New Zealand Business Premier seats on both the outbound and inbound flights. Booking was easy using my OnePass miles, and one of the best things about the Continental website is that it not only displays most partner award seat availability, but you can also book your complete itinerary online without having to pay the $25 phone fee.
In total, I used 135,000 OnePass miles plus $51.38 in taxes and fees. This saved me quite a bit of money, since the cheapest tickets to Auckland during the Christmas holiday hovered around $1,300 minimum for the six months or so I kept track of prices, and the direct Air New Zealand tickets never dropped below $1,800 - in economy! For domestic New Zealand flights, one of the best advice I came across online was to book Air New Zealand tickets through the New Zealand portal (http://www.airnewzealand.co.nz/) instead of United States portal (http://www.airnewzealand.com/home). Prices for the exact same flights were sometimes hundreds of dollars cheaper on the New Zealand website, and anyone could book the tickets without proof of NZ citizenship.
Planning for the itinerary began in May 2011, when a few old college friends and I all agreed on New Zealand as the destination, and more specifically, on doing the independent Milford Track hike. It's extremely important to book your space on the New Zealand Department Of Conservation website as early as possible (up to six months in advance) during the summer season because only a maximum of 40 independent hikers are allowed on the track per day. No camping is allowed at all, so everyone must stay in the three designated huts along the route. I will go into more detail regarding the huts in the Milford Track installment of this trip report. Doing the Milford Track independently is not cheap, as we each paid approximately $315.00 USD for the four-day hike, although that did include boat and bus transport before and after. If you go with a guided tour however (up to 50 people allowed per day split among different outfitters), expect to pay upwards of $1,800!
We decided early on that we wanted to focus more on the South Island since many of the famous national parks are located there. Due to time constraints, we couldn't see everything we wanted, but ultimately, we were able to fit in a three-day road trip up the west coast of the South Island, hitting Westland, Paparoa, and Abel Tasman National Parks. We ended the drive in Picton, where we took the InterIslander Ferry across the Cook Strait to Wellington, and from there, flew back to the States via Auckland.
For accommodations, we booked mainly backpackers lodges since this wasn't really a luxury-type trip, but we did have a few "splurge moments" such as our night at the beautiful Milford Sound Lodge chalet, and our last night in New Zealand at the InterContinental Wellington. It struck a good balance where we could minimize our cost, yet also have a few nights of real comfort.
Overall, this was probably the most tiring vacation I've ever been on; at least it's the most hiking I've ever done on a trip! But it was more than worth it in the end, as the scenary in New Zealand was absolutely stunning. I was telling my friend that the entire country is so beautiful that you almost become desensitized to it... "oh there's another open green field with snow-capped mountains in the background and grazing sheep", "oh there's another perfectly clear river winding its way past a lush forest", "oh there's another expanse of sandy beach framed by wind-swept rocks"... you get the idea ;) Hopefully some of that beauty will translate over in the pictures I post throughout this trip report!