How to Find an Affordable African Safari

By Wendy Worrall Redal
March 10, 2014
Safari in Zimbabwe
Melissa Scott, Natural Habitat Adventures

This article was written by Wendy Worrall Redal on behalf of Natural Habitat Adventures.

To watch a herd of impala springing over the savannah with a cheetah in hot pursuit, or a big bull elephant sloshing in a water hole, or a graceful giraffe browsing in the acacia trees, is to know some of the earth's most primal and beautiful wildlife encounters. Then, to share adventure stories around a campfire beneath a sky strewn with stars before you drift off to sleep in earshot of a lion's distant roar... Well, it's no wonder an African safari is the ultimate grail for many nature travelers.

Yet a safari can feel like an elusive dream if you're a budget traveler. Africa's premier safari camps and lodges are among the most exclusive accommodations in the world, frequently topping $1,000 per person per night. While such a figure includes gourmet meals, game drives and other activities, the fact is, a luxury safari is simply out of reach for the typical traveler. Once you factor in costly flights, it's not unheard of to spend as much on a safari for two as you would on a new car.

Does that mean you should give up your hopes of visiting Africa? Emphatically not. While even "budget" safaris often aren't cheap, there are ways to experience Africa's wonders that are within reach of the savvy traveler who's determined to get there. Take these four strategies into account as you search for a safari adventure to suit your budget:

In Africa, high and low seasons revolve around precipitation patterns. The dry season is the most popular time to visit, because animals often congregate around water sources and are easier to spot when vegetation is sparse. Yet the "green season" can offer real benefits, and not just prices that are often 25-30 percent lower. Though the weather is wetter, rains are often brief and sporadic, enough to keep the dust down and the grass green. Many animals birth their young at this time. And the clouds in the sky can make for some stunning sunsets, a bonus for photographers. In many locations, such as Kenya's Maasai Mara, wildlife viewing is superb year-round.

Low Season in East Africa
East Africa has two rainy seasons, from March/April through May/June, depending on your location, and again from October/November through December. Choosing travel dates on either end of these periods can bring good shoulder-season conditions with lower prices—early December is especially appealing, since crowds are few before the holiday season. January to March, between the rains, can be an ideal time to visit Kenya and Tanzania, when it's typically dry and less expensive. Though the annual wildebeest migration across the plains of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara between June and September is a thrill to behold, it also spikes prices. Unless your heart is set on it, you'll get more for your money and still see plenty of game if you travel at a different time. Or, consider a few days at a Serengeti migration camp where the herds are in February, followed by a camp in the northern Serengeti, away from the migration, for a full Tanzania safari experience that includes both the migratory herds and resident wildlife.

Low Season in Southern Africa
In South Africa, the best off-season deals are when it's cold and drizzly in Cape Town and along the coast during the southern winter (May to September), yet still dry and sunny in the north, where the main safari areas such as Kruger, Sabi Sand and Madikwe are located. This means you'll find "low season" pricing when weather and wildlife viewing are actually best! As for Namibia and expensive Botswana, consider the shoulder months of May and November. Keep in mind, too, that Botswana's prices are high because visitor numbers are kept deliberately low to reduce environmental impact: Botswana's desirable safari camps are few and small, and vast tracts of land are dedicated to wilderness that shelters huge numbers of wildlife. Though you'll pay more for a safari in Botswana, the experience may be worth more accordingly.

Africa has thousands of safari camps and lodges, spanning the gamut from large, basic hostels to ultra-luxe bush camps with a personal butler for each opulently furnished tent. And the good news for cost-conscious travelers who want a quality experience on fixed finances is that there are a host of options in between. While 5-star camps may run a grand per night or more, there are plenty of others that offer very comfortable accommodations with personalized service, excellent meals and a full slate of safari activities for half that figure. It can be daunting, however, to know where to start looking. One option is a unique new online safari-planning tool called iSafari. It's a visually enticing, easy-to-use database that provides detailed information on nine African safari countries; parks, reserves and safari routes through those destinations; and a carefully vetted collection of several hundred high-quality camps, with reviews from actual travelers. (Think of the site as kind of a TripAdvisor for African safaris.) iSafari categorizes camps as Premier, Distinctive, and Traditional, terms that speak to style and level of luxury, but also, typically, to descending price. If you know you want to visit Botswana's Okavango Delta, for example, you can search for camps by region, then winnow them further by selecting a category tier. It's frequently the case that you may find a less-expensive camp that offers an equally rich wildlife experience, as on the Jao Concession, a private reserve in the delta known for its superb game viewing. While Jao Camp has a reputation for being one of Africa's most exclusive bush camps (and one of the priciest, starting at $1,242 per person), nearby Pelo Camp offers simple yet surprising comforts for one-third the price, including full beds with duvets and en suite bathrooms with flush toilets and running water.

If $400 per night still sounds exorbitant, don't despair. There are ways to find a quality safari for less. The fewer creature comforts you require, the lower the price will drop. One option is mobile camping. While you can find luxury mobile camping options on par with high-end permanent camps (think king-size beds with high thread-count linens, en suite toilets, and dinners served on china and crystal), simpler set-ups provide equally good chances to see wildlife, if you choose your operator carefully.

Fully Serviced Camping Safaris
Budget-oriented mobile safaris can be either fully serviced or participatory. If you'd prefer to have someone else set up your tent and cook for you, check out a company like Wilderness Dawning. Based in Botswana and South Africa, they offer scheduled and custom safaris in some of southern Africa's best wildlife regions. A 10-day "Highlights of Botswana" safari starts at just $2,580, moving to $3,280 in high season. The package includes remote campsites in Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park (as opposed to larger group campgrounds with shower blocks), plus a visit to Victoria Falls just over the border in Zambia. Group size runs 12-14 guests.

While simple, camp facilities are far from primitive: Guests enjoy walk-in dome tents, raised cots, individual canvas wash basins, a shared toilet tent enclosing a flush toilet to sit down upon, hot-water bucket showers, and a dining tent where hearty meals prepared over the campfire are served by the camp staff.

Of crucial importance to a successful safari, the guides employed by Wilderness Dawning are highly trained, typically hailing from the region in which the safari is conducted. As such, they know the area and its wildlife intimately and are able to track and find animals that less-qualified guides often miss. As long as you're going all the way to Africa, It's well worth coming up with the money to ensure an excellent guide, even If you have to cut corners elsewhere, such as shortening your trip by a day or two.

Participatory Camping Safaris
If you don't mind pitching in with setting up camp, preparing meals and maybe even making a market run, a participatory camping safari is an even more economical option. Often referred to as "overlanding," this style of safari travel is frequently conducted in a large, open-sided truck, sometimes switching to mini-buses or 4x4s in the game parks. Participatory safaris are typically led by two guides: a driver and a cook, who may or may not be certified guides in the regions you're traveling to.

Truck-based camping safaris usually take about 20 participants. The greater the number of guests, the lower the price tends to be, though keep in mind that your experience with wildlife will be less intimate, too. These safaris also tend to travel exclusively in heavily visited national parks and reserves, where it's not uncommon to see 10 or 15 vehicles surrounding a single lion.

If cost is your paramount concern and you don't mind such tradeoffs, you can often score a trip like this for a remarkably low price, such as G Adventures' Kenya & Tanzania Overland, as low as $1,719 for eight nights of camping, three meals a day, and park entrance fees into the Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater. That figure is for a specially earmarked departure, however; list price is $2,149. However, note that in circumstances such as this, you may be able to find deep discounts if you can travel somewhat spontaneously. Some operators will slash prices a couple of months before a departure if they need to fill space.

While the average traveler to Africa is probably not going to want to tackle an independent safari, it's certainly possible to do, especially in South Africa and Namibia which are well organized for such activity—indeed, many South Africans head off to Kruger National Park as readily as Americans flock to Yellowstone. A self-drive safari has the added benefit of setting your own pace and pursuing your individual interests, though it may be wise to hire a guide to join you at some point, since you're far more likely to spot wildlife and learn more than simply going it alone. If your budget precludes that, be sure you've got a guidebook and field guide specific to your destination.

Once you've chosen a public game reserve or two, rent a car and explore the African bush on your own. It's perhaps the most economical mode of all, if you opt to hire camping gear and make your own meals, though it's also possible to stay in budget lodges and dine a la carte (Google "cheap hotels in Kruger National Park," and you'll find oodles—though be prepared to share them with lots of other safari-goers—not exactly a wilderness experience). And lest you fear that driving will take you off-track into the remote veldt where you're likely to get stuck or become food for a lion, fear not—most public parks have paved roads and signs, and as long as you stay in your vehicle, you'll be fine.

If you like the adventure quotient of a self-directed safari but find the prospect daunting, consider making arrangements through a company like Namibia-based Self Drive Safaris, which takes care of all the arranging and follows you with a support vehicle. You drive at your own pace, stop at will, do your own camp set-up and cooking, yet you needn't worry about breakdowns or getting lost. Of course, the price for such services is significantly higher than doing it on your own, though much less than a high-end hosted safari.

No matter which affordable approach you choose, the time you'll invest in researching options can pay off with real safari savings and a travel adventure that's tough to trump. Start exploring at

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I had a blast appearing on The Weather Channel's "Wake Up With Al" on Friday March 7. We talked about some of Budget Travel's Coolest Small Towns 2014 as ideal spring getaways! (I didn't expect to sing Berlin, MD's signature bluegrass tune, "Cool Berlin," for an audience of 2 million!)


A Spiritual Journey to Myanmar

Maureen Santucci, originally from the U.S., has made Peru her home for the past five years. She writes for Fodor's Travel Guide as well as various travel blogs when she isn't escaping off to the mountains to hike, teaching Tai Chi, or treating patients in her acupuncture clinic. If you're looking for a different sort of vacation, a spiritual journey to Myanmar is something to consider. It doesn't matter if you are already Buddhist or even have an interest in it specifically—visiting the temples, and perhaps, taking part in a retreat at a meditation center, can help you to tap into your own personal spirituality. Although you may think of Thailand, China, or Japan first with regard to Buddhism, Myanmar is approximately 90% Buddhist. The main form practiced is Theravada and the most common form of meditation is Vipassana, something that has become quite popular worldwide. There are several meditation centers in the country that welcome foreigners to their courses. Before taking short classes or courses, you must complete at least 10 days of a residential class, and during these retreats, silent meditation is observed for the entire day during the course schedule. No fees are charged for the courses, accommodations, or for food and donations are accepted at the end of the course that will help foot the bill for future students. If you're taking a shorter course, a tourist visa is sufficient, however if you wish to study for more than 28 days, you'll want to apply for a 90-day meditation visa which must be accompanied by an invitation from the center where you will be meditating. Among the many places you can study are the Dhamma Joti Vipassana Centre, the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Centre, and the Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre—all popular schools in Yangon that have branches in other areas as well. There are also a variety of universities, monasteries, and institutions that provide instruction in the history and practice of Buddhism. If you decide to engage in a course of meditation here, you may want to tour some of the country's many temples before and after as part of your experience. Bagan, one of the main tourist areas (although the country does not yet have a huge amount of tourism) has more than 2,000 temples on its plains, an excellent way to get yourself into the spirit of the journey you are about to begin. Afterward, you might want to take a trip to Mrauk U, a more remote region that is home to hundreds of religious sites in a very small area. Actually, anywhere you travel in Myanmar, you are bound to find temples, monasteries, and other religious sites dedicated to the teachings of Buddha. Although we refer to Buddhism as a religion, Buddha is technically not worshipped, and it is possible to belong to another religion and yet be Buddhist as well. There's no need to feel conflicted if you have a different faith but wish to study Vipassana or any other form of Buddhist meditation. For some, studying meditation is a way of renewing and strengthening a sense of spirituality in their lives. For others, it's a much needed escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. In either case, taking time for a meditation retreat, especially in a country so dedicated to it, is a great way to establish a daily practice that can help you with stress when you return home.


Don't Miss These Summer Travel Sales!

Tour packages, hotels, cruises, and train travel are all on sale this summer. Here's what you need to know. HOTELS • Room rates start at just $99 a night this summer thanks to the Stay & Play Longer package, part of the Hilton Worldwide Caribbean Summer Sale happening now thru Aug. 31st. You'll get a fourth night free, a $100 resort credit per room per stay, and best of all, kids stay free. Participating hotels and resorts includeHilton Barbados Resort; British Colonial Hilton Nassau; Hilton Curaçao; Caribe Hilton, San Juan; Condado Lagoon Villas at Caribe Hilton;  Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort; The Condado Plaza Hilton; Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach Resort; Embassy Suites San Juan Hotel & Casino; El San Juan Resort & Casino, A Hilton Hotel; El Conquistador Resort, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; Las Casitas Village, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; Hilton Santo Domingo; Embassy Suites by Hilton Santo Domingo; Hilton Trinidad & Conference Centre; and Hilton Cartagena. • Marriott Hotels & Resorts want you to Celebrate Summer! Book your stay at one of 34 participating properties on the east coast, west coast, Hawaii, or in the central U.S. by Sept. 7th and enjoy room rates from $129 a night and up to $100 in resort credit per night that can be used towards dining, golf, spa services, and other on-property perks. Valid on stays thru Sept. 30th. • The Ka’anapali Beach Hotel in Maui is offering a special package this summer that gives you three nights' accommodations in a courtyard/pool view room, buffett breakfast for two at the hotel's Tiki Terrace Restaurant on the morning of your choice, daily rental car from Budget Rent A Car, and dinner for two at the Tiki Terrace Restaurant on the evening of your choice, from $757 per stay (based on single/double occupancy), a savings of 20 percent per person. Please refer to the Simply Simple package, valid now thru Jan. 4, 2016. • Planning to check out Orlando's legendary theme parks this summer? Save by staying at the Hilton Orlando, where family-friendly rooms start at $109 a night and give you access to special kid-friendly glow-in-the-dark games and other poolside activities now thru Labor Day. • You can save 65 percent on standard rates this summer at the Marigot Beach Club in St. Lucia. The Caramel Kiss Package starts at $99 a night and includes a spa treatment for two (caramel sugar scrub, chocolate facial, and caramel kiss pedicure), and daily breakfast. Valid from Aug. 1-31, 2015. • Don't miss the Experience El Yunque package from the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino that gives you 30 percent off overnight accommodations at the resort, a half-day guided excursion to nearby El Yunque National Forest for two, two bottles of water, snacks, and late checkout, from $279 a night. • The W Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Arizona, is offering special rates from $179 a night, a savings of 73 percent off regular high season rates. You'll get overnight accommodations at this luxe hotel, a W Scottsdale tote bag, sunblock and sunglasses, and a pitcher of Vitamin W, the hotel's signature cocktail, to celebrate. Refer to promo code VITAMINW when booking this deal online or call 877/822-0000 to book by phone. • Get ready for great views and savings in Arizona this summer. Room rates at the newly renovated Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, located along the 7.5-mile Red Rock Scenic Byway, start at $168 a night. • Visitors to Greater Williamsburg, Virginia, can take advantage of several specials this summer. Offers include accommodations at the Best Western Historic Area with breakfast and two passes to Busch Gardens Williamsburg from $99.99 a night (available now thru Sept. 7th), and savings on stays of at least two nights at the Days Hotel Busch Gardens Area from $69.99 a night including complimentary daily breakfast (valid now thru Oct. 31st), among others. • Get to know Baltimore with the Best of Baltimore package by Hampton Inn & Suites Baltimore Inner Harbor. You'll get overnight accommodations, complimentary WiFi and daily breakfast, and a 'Baltimore's Best' goodie bag that includes local treats. The best part: 10 percent of the money earned from this package will be donated to the local food bank at St. Gregory's Church. Valid on stays now thru Sept. 6th. • You can save 20 percent when you stay at Generator's London and Paris Hostels now thru Aug. 31st. With rates starting at $86 for a private room for two, or from about $26 per person for a dorm-style bed, you'll be saving big and staying in the heart of the action. Whichever location you choose, you're in for a treat: Generator Hostels are designed to look more like boutique hotels and offer a variety of fun activities—from pub crawls to game and movie nights—to help you get to know your fellow travelers. TOUR COMPANIES • Intrepid Travel is offering a special 10 percent discount on all of their family-style tours when you book by July 31st (valid on travel thru July 31, 2016). Check the latest deals page often, and don't miss Intrepid Travel's last minute deals page for further discounts of up to 25 percent off last-minute getaways. • G Adventures has several specials this summer, including 15 percent off select trips to Colombia, the Galápagos Islands, Europe, India, Japan, the Middle East, Morocco, Peru, the Himalayas, Southeast Asia, East Africa, South Africa, Australia, South Korea, China, Costa Rica, and South American cruises when you book by July 31st. Check this page to see their current promotions. • Attention 18-35 year-olds: Contiki is offering 10 percent off European tours that are ten days or more when you book by July 8th—use promo code EUROPEMAGIC to save up to $554 per person (valid on travel thru Mar. 31, 2016). Keep an eye on their Last Minute Deals page if you're looking to have an unforgettable adventure for less. • JourneYou is offering a special package during the Buenos Aires Tango Festival, held this year from Aug. 12-25. 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Families traveling in Switzerland with children under 16, for example, can book a Swiss Travel Pass and save with the Swiss Family Card (kids ages 6-15 can travel free with a parent or guardian-the card itself is free, just request it when you book your pass). The German Rail Pass also offers free travel for up to two children between the ages of 6-11 with each paying adult. OTHER GREAT SPECIALS • You can save $250 instantly this summer when you book an air-inclusive vacation to Nassau Paradise Island in the Bahamas for at least four nights. Book your beach getaway by July 8th for travel by Dec. 18th. Blackout dates do apply between Nov. 22nd and 27th. Click the link above for more details.


The Hobbit’s Ultimate Guide to New Zealand

This article was written by Kyle Ellison on behalf of These are some of the staggering statistics behind the logistics of filming the latest in The Hobbit trilogy. Though much of the movies were shot in a Wellington studio, nine weeks were spent in the New Zealand countryside filming in surroundings that excite the imagination. From the rolling green hills of Matamata to the soaring peaks of the Southern Alps, the scenery of New Zealand is so phenomenally enchanting that it's almost too perfect to be real. In fact, while filming the movies, many of the cast expressed concerns that viewers would think the landscape was fake. How, they argued, could moviegoers believe that such stunning scenery is real? Where in the world do thundering waterfalls, turquoise lakes, volcanic pinnacles, and alpine glaciers all occupy a terrain with hardly any people? Luckily for travelers to New Zealand, this fantasy-world of rings and hobbits was shot in a very real place, and thanks to the convenience of movie-themed tours, it's easy to visit the same outposts where dwarves and trolls once voyaged. To take a walk in the footsteps of The Hobbit, here is our guide to many of the locations where scenes from the movies were filmed. NORTH ISLAND MatamataSeeing as most visitors fly into Auckland—and that the epic journey all began in The Shire—it only makes sense that Matamata should be the first stop on a Hobbit-themed holiday. This rolling pastureland three hours south of Auckland offers the famous setting for Hobbiton, and after the filming of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbiton movie set was completely dismantled and the area returned to pasture. For the filming of The Hobbit, however, Hobbiton was constructed from permanent materials, and the captivating hamlet of life-sized hobbit holes is now a permanent North Island attraction. In addition to visiting Bag End—home of Bilbo Baggins—you can enjoy a meal in the Green Dragon Inn made famous in the Lord of the Rings. While Matamata is only a short drive from Hamilton, many travelers choose to visit as part of a guided tour. There are multiple tours which depart from Auckland, others which also visit Waitomo Caves, and an exclusive option to arrive early to tour around Hobbiton prior to the opening. RELATED: Book Viator's exclusive tour to Hobbiton. PioPioSet in a remote section of the Waikato region, PioPio and the Mangaotaki Rocks were the famous site of Trollshaw Forest. At an area known as Denize Bluffs, huge shafts of rock plunge upwards from the forest and make the perfect setting for a secretive hideaway. Located 40 minutes south of Waitomo Caves and not far from the town of Te Kuiti, the setting itself is on private land and can only be accessed as part of a private tour. TuroaFor local Kiwi skiers and snowboarders, the Turoa ski area is a popular part of the largest skifield in New Zealand. For those on the trail of The Hobbit, however, the area around Turoa is better known as the entrance to The Lonely Mountain. Also known as Hidden Bay, this grassy tussock and rocky slope has the feel of an alpine outpost, and it's also the area from The Lord of the Rings where Gollum chased fish through the river. Not far away—on the opposite side of the mountain—is the volcanic section of Tongariro Park which was home to Mordor and the famous Mt. Doom. Given the somewhat remote location and the distance from major cities (4-5 hours from both Auckland and Wellington), the best way to visit the area around Turoa is by providing your own transportation. While here, be sure to do some hiking in Tongariro National Park, and the Tongariro Crossing is often considered as the best one-day hike in New Zealand. WellingtonIn addition to being the nation's capital, Wellington is the home of Stone Street Studios where much of the movies were filmed. It's also the home of the Weta Cave, which is the legendary studio of special effects where much of the magic was born. Only 20 minutes from downtown Wellington, the Weta Cave is a must-stop destination for anyone who is a fan of the films. Inside this iconic compound of creative imagination, you can come face-to-face with replicas of the characters and learn about how they were brought to life on screen. Though access to the Cave is open to the public, you can also visit as part of a tour which spends the day traveling to filming sights around Wellington. For Lord of the Rings fans, spend the morning touring the Gardens of Isengard and the walk along the banks of the Great River Anduin. After passing the site of famous Helm's Deep, attend the workshop at the Weta Cave for a full day of immersion in Middle Earth magic. SOUTH ISLAND Pelorus RiverAn hour west of the famous Marlborough vineyards—though not quite as far as the sunny coast of Nelson—Pelorus River is the only site in New Zealand where a collection of dwarves have rafted a river in wine barrels. The Pelorus River was used as an escape plan as a way to free the dwarves from Elvish imprisonment, and today is best visited as part of a guided kayak tour. For those who want to spend more time in the area, there is also a campground not far from the Pelorus Bridge where you can sit by the riverbank and re-enact the scene. QueenstownKnown to most travelers as the adventure capital of New Zealand, areas around Queenstown were also the setting for some of the film's most dramatic vistas. On the outskirts of town, The Remarkables mountain range which is so popular with skiing also served as the setting for the mysterious Misty Mountains. An hour to the west of Queenstown, not far from the town of Glenorchy, Earnslaw Burn is the name of the glacier where Bilbo and company visit when leaving Rivendell. Today, visitors can walk in the footsteps of The Hobbit by lacing up their hiking boots and walking the Earnslaw Burn Track. Along this walk through the Southern Alps, glacial waterfalls cascade their way down mountains with such dramatic splendor that they seem to spill from the sky. Twizel, Lake Pukaki, and Mount CookSituated high in the Canterbury interior, these expansive plains were the dramatic setting for many battles and panoramic vistas. Mt. Cook and the neighboring Southern Alps feature prominently in the backdrop of many aerial shots, and the turquoise-infused Lake Pukaki was the setting for Laketown—the city which is featured in The Desolation of Smaug. Small group Hobbit tours visit filming locations around Twizel, which itself is located over three hours from Christchurch. For those who are staying in the city of Christchurch, you can also take a Lord of the Rings tour to Mt. Sunday which was used as the setting for the city of Edoras. Strath TaieriLocated an hour outside the city of Dunedin, Strath Taieri and the Rock and Pillar Range are the remote outposts used for many of the chase scenes. The Hobbit cast members were forced to use helicopters to access many of the locations, although physically-fit hikers can access the craggy ridgeline by a series of walking tracks which weave through the hills. FiordlandFinally, the filming of The Hobbit could never be complete without a series of scenes featuring footage from Fiordland. Of all the footage which was gathered from Fiordland, the iconic landmark which is immediately recognizable is 1,900 ft. Sutherland Falls. Located along the trail for the Milford Track, this awe-inspiring waterfall forms the dramatic backdrop for when the hobbits are soaring on the backs of eagles. Even though the sets—with the exception of Hobbiton—have been completely dismantled since completion of the films, movie fans are guaranteed to be touched by the magic of walking in the beauty of the footsteps of The Hobbit. After all, New Zealand is a real place, and while it might now be crawling in dwarves and orcs, standing in the surroundings leaves little to the imagination. Book a private tour of Hobbiton from Auckland, or check out all Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit tours in New Zealand.