Consider this: As I sip a local beer in the cozy S&M bar in the “Coolest Little Capital City” in the world — Wellington, New Zealand — owners Scotty and Mel welcome me to the closest gay bar to the South Pole, only 3,374 miles further south!
Together for 20 years as business and life partners, they are among the leaders in New Zealand advocating for full-marriage equality in a campaign called “One Love.” Why am I starting a story about traveling to New Zealand with their story? Because the people of New Zealand make a trip here worth every airline mile.
According to New Zealand tourism officials, less than 1 percent of North American travelers who are actively considering a trip to New Zealand — 900 miles southeast of Australia — will actually go. Indeed, to make a journey to this part of the world is special and truly a trip of a lifetime.
Here are a few practical tips on making your travel fabulous.
This remote island nation is so far away that you will cross the International Date Line, which will make you about 18 hours (one day) ahead of your friends and family back home. You will lose one calendar day on your trip going to New Zealand but you gain that day back when returning home. (Your world clock on your phone will come in handy.)
Prepare yourself for the 12-hour overnight flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand. It’s a good idea to break up the trip with an overnight stop in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hawaii or another West Coast destination. For intrepid travelers, you could go all the way without stopping. Godspeed!
Reserve your hotel room the night before you actually arrive to guarantee an early check-in at your hotel, as most flights arrive in the morning. Keep all your travel documents handy throughout the trip, especially your return flight information. You will need to show proof of your citizenship and your return travel plans all along the way.
While the U.S. dollar is approximately 20-percent stronger than the New Zealand dollar, prices there include a national tax on most purchases, which reduces your buying power. Hotel rooms, clothing and meals cost about the same, while some items cost significantly more than in the United States. Tipping is not necessary, but for exceptional service you can leave 10 percent.
You don’t need a visa to make a trip to New Zealand but there is a $25 departure fee at the airport. It is sometimes included in your airfare, sometimes not. Ask the airline representative at check-in about this fee. If your airline ticket does not include the departure fee, you will have to get a sticker for your boarding pass at the currency exchange booth to leave New Zealand.
If you are going to the other side of the world, what’s another three-and-a-half-hour flight to Sydney, Australia? For American citizens, you will need to apply for an online visa at www.eta.immi.gov.au. The online application is quick and costs $20 (AUS). A tourist visa is good for up to three months but employment is prohibited. You must apply for this visa before you leave the United States.
On a flight this long, it is important to rack up miles on one airline and you should definitely choose your carrier wisely. You will want a newer plane with a great international service. Air New Zealand now flies two new planes between Los Angeles and Auckland. Service is Kiwi friendly and the food is superior. The airline has a good sense of humor and is very gay-friendly. Fitness celebrity Richard Simmons stars in the onboard safety video “Mile-High Madness with Richard Simmons,” a hilarious take on safety. Check it out on YouTube.
At last check, roundtrip airfare from Los Angeles on Air New Zealand in November cost $2,000 for economy, slightly more for premium economy and about $8,000 for business premier. Visit www.airnewzealand.com for current prices. A roundtrip flight between New Zealand and Australia cost about $500. To search multiple airline websites at once, use www.kayak.com.
If you have achieved gold status on any Star Alliance member airline, you are entitled to an array of premium services without additional cost, including access to the Air New Zealand international lounges regardless of your class of service. Check out the Star Alliance website for more information (www.staralliance.com).
Be sure to check what you can bring back to the States by visiting the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, www.cbp.gov. You can’t bring back too much wine! Register your trip with the U.S. Department of State, especially since earthquakes can and do happen in New Zealand. And be sure to understand your travel and health-insurance policies.
What does a gay traveler need to know?
Consider a travel agent or tour operator to book your trip. A trip to these two countries could be complicated and you will want to plan a few organized or group tours. Check out www.iglta.org for gay-friendly and LGBT-owned businesses operating in New Zealand and Australia. There are also a number of U.S.- and Canadian-based tour companies that organize group trips to these destinations. Research destination itineraries and explore New Zealand at www.newzealand.com/us.
For gay nightlife, spend the weekend in Sydney. You will find a number of gay bars (also called hotels) along Oxford Street. New Zealand’s LGBT scene is very, very small but you will find bars that cater to mostly men. Search the web for up-to-date information. Grinder is also a terrific travel app where you can ask the locals what is happening while you are there.
Jeff Guaracino is a vice president for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, author of “Gay and Lesbian Tourism: The Essential Guide for Marketing” and vice chair for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association. He has learned how to find the best deals and travel resources for the LGBT community. When traveling locally, check out visitphilly.com/gay and friend visitgayphilly.com/facebook.