Due in large part to winning the geological lottery and undergoing millennia of isolation that lasted well into the 18th century, New Zealand has cultivated a reputation as indescribably beautiful from shore to flawless shore. Although it’s truly an outdoorsman's dream, there’s far more to New Zealand than crystal blue lakes and jade ferns. Whether you want to study, volunteer, work, or just simply adventure, New Zealand has you covered. Looking for time off before or after college? A well-deserved break from the rat race? A solid excuse to travel for a year? Make the most of it and take a sweet as gap year in New Zealand!
Many gappers show up in New Zealand with the intent to comb every inch of both islands to discover all the magic this country so obviously holds, but many will be thwarted by unexpectedly falling in love with a town they’ve never heard of. The North Island is all pristine beaches and big(ish) cities, while the South Island is all rugged mountainside and steely seas. Most towns in New Zealand would make great nests for a gap year, but a few in particular stand out.
Auckland. It’s New Zealand’s largest city, and with that comes endless work opportunities and countless activities. Gappers will easily find a wide range of jobs, volunteer opportunities, internships...whatever experience it is you want to include in your gap year, Auckland will have it. With a stellar free art museum, dozens of pleasant parks, an easy and extensive train network, and hip neighborhoods, Auckland always has something new up its sleeve. This city will foster an incredible and comprehensive gap year experience, no doubt.
Queenstown. This southern island beauty has a bite that lives up to its bark. This hamlet may not be the most practical choice for a gap year, but you’ll be hardpressed to find a more memorable location. Gappers and all kinds of travelers beeline to Queenstown for both its beauty and vibe, so it won’t be long until you assemble your own motley crew. There is a bottomless pit of hospitality jobs in Queenstown, especially during the winter when ski resorts will pay a pretty penny for seasonal workers. Au pairs are also needed frequently in and around town, too. By the way, the symbolic Queenstown rite of passage is a gut-turning bungy jump, so hold onto your butts.
Mount Maunganui. Psst! This is the place for gappers who want a low key experience—perhaps a place that feels more like a hometown than a tourist stop. Hard to pronounce but easy to find, this itty bitty beach town is a premier location for surfing. Hospitality jobs are widely available, even moreso during the summer when the holidaymakers begin to arrive; during the fall and winter months, jobs on kiwifruit orchards become abundant. The Mount is also incredibly community- and family-oriented, so au pair and nannying jobs won’t be hard to find. Spend a gap year here, and impress people at home by telling them you spent 12 months living right under a volcano—they don’t have to know it’s extinct.
Popular activities for your gap year in New Zealand
So you decided to take a year “off.” What now? In New Zealand, you can commit your time to one thing, or many things, in one place, or many places! The key is to decide what it is you want to ultimately accomplish with your year abroad, and go from there (pro tip: it’s okay to change your mind at any time, even if your plane hasn’t landed yet).
Working holiday. Doing a working holiday for your gap year allows a lot of flexibility. Go where you want, be who you want to be. Live in a different town each month, or stay in one place for an entire year—it’s all up to you. Doing a working holiday independently is incredibly simple, but if you choose to coordinate through a program, you are granted access to coordinators and resources to help you land jobs.
Be aware, though, that working holiday jobs usually aren’t the most glamorous; put that sleek corner office out of your mind, and pick up the toilet brush instead. The bonus, however, is that you’ll be making cold, hard cash, rather than trading work for accommodation and food (as tends to be the case with au pairing and volunteering).
Au pair. There is a fairly high demand for au pairs in New Zealand, especially those who speak fluent English in particular. However, with this option, you won’t have much control over where you live; you’ll either be placed with a family through a program, or relocate for the family who hires you. If you’re prone to homesickness, au pairing might be the remedy you need—your own bedroom, home-cooked meals, and family time are generally awesome aspects of being an au pair. Consider also buying yourself a cheap car when you get to New Zealand—some families live well off the well-worn paths.
Volunteering. Volunteering is an awesome option for gappers who want a clear-cut purpose for their gap year, and who want something that looks killer on a resume. If you’re cool with your gap year lacking monetary gain, there are numerous volunteer opportunities all across the country that would greatly benefit from a year of your hard work. Volunteer independently around New Zealand (or in one place), or consider joining a volunteer program for a more structured experience.
Everything else you need to know about gap years in New Zealand
Costs. New Zealand is notoriously pricey, but do not let that deter you! For gappers who hold a working holiday visa, there are hundreds of ways to make a little extra cash. Many hostels also provide free accommodation to those who are willing to make beds and empty trash cans for a couple hours each day. Don’t forget about FundMyTravel either—it’s extremely useful for raising money if you want a comfy financial cushion (and it’s a good idea to have one).
By the way, wifi is expensive. Many hostels offer free wifi nowadays, but some still don’t, and signals aren’t always the best no matter where you are. We think you’ll survive without the weekly Skype calls home, but if you don’t think you can, budget for internet fees.
Accommodations. Hostels in New Zealand truly set the standard for the rest of the gap year world. In even the tiniest city, where the sheep outnumber the people, you can find a clean, comfortable hostel. If you’re willing to do a little research, you can find one that’s downright affordable to boot. Once you choose a location to plant roots, do yourself a favor and test a few hostels out before committing to one. Once you know where you would like to live, ask the owner or receptionist about long-term rates—there’s usually a discount.
Weigh your pros and cons with accommodation. Flats can be cheaper rent-wise in the long run, but nothing beats living in a hostel with many like minded travelers. Having 50-plus roommates may sound wildly unappealing, but it means there’s always someone available for game nights, cooking dinner with, and chatting over the free hostel tea.
Visas. A Working Holiday Visa is what you’re after for a gap year in New Zealand. They are exceptionally easy to apply for. The terms vary between countries, but in general they include a small fee, and last for about a year. They are (sadly) non-renewable, but for some nationalities they can be extended under certain conditions. Check out the GoAbroad embassy directory to learn more.
Safety. New Zealand is one of the safest countries in the world, and may even be safer than your home country (seriously). You will be surprised how comfortable you feel almost immediately. However, solo travelers are seen as easy targets, and must always remain vigilant against scammers and wrong-doers (and that includes other gappers). Always trust your instincts—if something feels dodgy, it probably is.
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Truly, there is no wrong time to take a gap year. You can create an experience that is exactly what you want it to be, or you can go with the flow and see what the universe has in store for you. A gap year will always be remembered as perhaps the most adventurous year of your life, and it will give you more than just pretty pictures—you will go back home feeling inspired, and with the confidence to take risks and leave your comfort zone.
Don’t be that person who stays inside and watches Into the Wild for the 10th time in the hostel TV room—it’s a really sad movie, anyway (spoiler alert). Get out there and hike that trail to Mordor, and climb Mount Doom, or create your own adventure! Just don’t waste your time, and don’t lose sight of why you’re there in the first place. New Zealand is far too special, and your gap year is far too valuable, to spend it all indoors (although, you have our permission if there’s a cyclone).
In the Land of the Long White Cloud, the romanticism of travel is alive and well, and it will complement your gap year swimmingly. Stunning topography, fun culture, adventure around every bend in the alpine roads—stop waiting, and take a gap year in New Zealand!
Interested in learning more? Check out this article about post-college gap years.