Is January/February a good time to go to New Zealand for a solo backpacker trying to see both islands on a budget? Is NZ considered a budget destination for Americans?
Yes yes and yes!!
Their seasons are opposite those of the Northern Hemisphere so January/February are Summer time months. The country is beautiful this time of year (actually, all year-round) and you will have an easy time meeting others and finding your way around.
Admittedly, my journey through both islands took place nearly a decade ago, but I sure some things remain the same:
The people are incredibly friendly - I hitchhiked for three months and was offered everything from lunch to a wedding invitation - Kiwis are extremely nice and accommodating people.
The country is relatively small and transportation/accommodation are readily available. Perhaps if you feel comfortable, renting a car and camping may be a great option (remember they drive on the left hand side). There are countless parks, rivers, lakes and treks to explore with fairly priced camping fees.
Also, look into some WWOOFing or work/stay programs. They allow you to stay and eat in exchange for work on (usually) a farm or cooperative. It is a great way to see the countryside, meet interesting people and save a little cash.
NZ isn't considered a "cheap" travel destination necessarily, but with some original planning and letting the path take you where it may lead, it's a wonderful and well-worthy place to visit.
Also, if you have connections through somewhere like Fiji, it is SO worth spending a few extra days there as well if you can.
I hope this was helpful and let me know if you would like more information. Safe travels.
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The money conversion ratio is favorable for U.S currency and there are a lot of hostels like the chain Nomads or camping options to save money in accommodations. You don't need to rent a car as NZ has many businesses set up to accommodate tourists. I even have young, single female friends that have hitchhiked in NZ. It is very safe for travelers. There are trekking options aside from the Great Walks that would be fun too. Trails like Rees-Dart. One problem with NZ is there is sooo much to do that it's easy to spend money on things like bungy jumping, river rafting, etc. It's a great place and in two months you could see a lot of the country. Tyler also mentioned WOOFing, which could help keep costs low, but then you would be working and not really enjoying a vacation. Might set you up for a week or two though. You need to apply for work visas beforehand, if I'm not mistaken.
Also big fans of NZ.
Make sure to spend some time researching on the New Zealand forums directly. The destination experts (DEs) there are very helpful and can help you think about what to do/where to visit in NZ during your trip. Here is the link if helpful.