For a small country, New Zealand can be impossibly difficult to get around – unless you have either buckets of cash or buckets of luck.
It’s the school holidays next week, which means thousands of families will be travelling around the country, spending up big and helping boost New Zealand’s economy as we hurtle towards a possible recession.
Except, for many, that reality will not be possible in 2023. There’s been a consistent theme to a lot of recent news coverage in New Zealand: that domestic transport is well and truly cooked. Whether it be our buses, trains, ferries or planes – New Zealand is facing a cost-of-movement “crisis” that is threatening our ability to get from A to B.
In the pre-Covid days it was pretty easy to snag a last-minute flight for under $100. At the least, you could be assured that if you were organised and decided to book nice and early, you could probably be guaranteed a reasonable price. It wasn’t even that long ago that Air New Zealand was charging a mere $29 to travel on the last flight of the night.
All of that has now changed. At times it’s practically impossible to make it from the top to the bottom of New Zealand unless you have access to either a private yacht or a hidden supply of gold bullion.
The Spinoff’s Chris Schulz was looking at sending his kids down to stay with family in Christchurch for some of the school holidays but was quickly put off by the exorbitant price tag. “It was going to be around $1,300 for a teenager and a child to go for a week,” he says. “It’s $320 plus the $20 bag fee to get down there (at a time that we could reasonably organise the kids to get to the airport) plus $308 to get them back. That’s not feasible for us.”
“We’ll just have to have them at home and manage those lockdown vibes.”
A quick search of the Air New Zealand website shows this is far from an isolated case. A return trip from Auckland to Christchurch at the start of next month would cost roughly $350. It’s a similar story if you opt for somewhere more regional like Blenheim or Invercargill. Want to make a last-minute trip away next week? That visit to Christchurch will now cost you around the $600 mark.
Of course, choosing to travel anywhere at short notice is always going to be expensive, but it’s still extreme – especially when looked at in the context of international travel. Considering popping over to New Caledonia in early May? Air New Zealand’s advertising $550 return flights. A week on the Gold Coast? Just over $700.
Should it really be in the same ballpark to travel out of New Zealand as it is to travel around it?
If flying isn’t really your thing, there are other ways of travelling long distance – but they don’t come cheap either. The scenic Northern Explorer train is less public transport and more a tourist trap these days, costing a pretty $229 each way. The bus used to be a budget option, but with one company now effectively holding a monopoly on intercity travel, it’s not as cheap as it used to be (it’s about $80 for the 12 hour Auckland to Wellington trip).
Fine, how about driving to Christchurch and catching the Interislander? A ferry trip across the Cook Strait was once an easy option for a holiday, but headlines have in recent weeks been dominated by cancellations and the words “mechanical failure” can very quickly turn a holiday into a nightmare.
Of course, you could always spend your holidays travelling around your home city. Except, New Zealand’s biggest cities are also facing their own public transport issues. Take a look at this headline from RNZ yesterday: “The ‘crisis’ of our urban bus networks: Hundreds of services cancelled every day.” The story confirmed just how many buses in our main centres are being scrapped on a daily basis. Yesterday morning 500 services had been confirmed not to be running before the rush hour commute had even started. On an average weekday in February, 1,085 Auckland buses never turned up.
In the capital, it’s not much better, with up to one in six Wellington buses being cancelled across the network on any given weekday.
If you’re a regular train user, especially in Auckland, you’ll already be well aware that another two years of disruption has been forecast as part of a major network repair job. “Beginning [this] year, the rebuild will mean years of rolling closures across Auckland’s rail network,” reported 1News. “The Eastern Line between Britomart and Ōtāhuhu ‘will be closed for most of’ next year from March 2023 until December 2023.”
There are dozens of justifiable reasons why travel costs have ballooned in recent years. But New Zealand is a small country – why is it so hard to get to work, visit family or just have a holiday? It’s looking like 2023 might be the year of the staycation.