Taking a road trip around New Zealand is the best way to experience the country. Here is some useful information that will help make your trip easier and more enjoyable.
New Zealand has a rich history starting with the tribes people that have inhabited the islands for centuries. The first europeans to arrive in New Zealand were the Dutch, led by Abel Tasman, followed many years later by the British explorer James Cook. Not long after Cook’s arrival, New Zealand was considered part of the British colony of New South Wales (Australia). The British influence over the islands is very apparent, making New Zealand feel very similar to Australia. The big exception to this, other than the dramatic landscapes of the islands, is the presence of the Māori, a native tribe that makes up 14% of the population.
Learn much more about the history of New Zealand on Wikipedia.
Visas are not required for American passport holders traveling as tourists for up to 90 days. For more information visit the State Department’s website.
Biosecurity is a major concern in New Zealand, arguably as it should be everywhere. When you arrive in New Zealand you will be asked if you have any gear that has been exposed to the elements in foreign countries. Essentially, they want to protect the fragile ecosystem that exists on the islands. Before arriving make sure all outdoors equipment, including footwear, is thoroughly cleaned. Otherwise, you run the risk of having it completely thrown out. We had cleaned our hiking boots, but they were still examined. A person in front of us had his golf shoes completely disposed of because he had made no attempt to clean them. For more information check out this site.
They speak English, in case you didn’t know, but the accent sounds similar to Australian.
New Zealand is divided into two islands, appropriately referred to as the North Island and the South Island. Both islands sit on the Ring of Fire and the geography makes this abundantly clear. You will find everything from sunny beaches to glaciers, towering volcanoes and snow-capped mountain peaks.
Normally we don’t get into details about weather, but when you intend to take a road trip in New Zealand, it is an important detail. NZ is quite far south and it gets very cold, especially at higher elevations. If you plan to visit in winter (July through September) then you can expect freezing temperatures, snow, and ice. This time of year you will see few people, which can be great, but it comes at quite a cost (poor road conditions, inaccessible attractions, freezing temperatures). Late spring through early fall are the best times to plan a trip, especially to the South Island. The summer months (December through February) are the high season so expect higher prices and crowds.
Weather and Altitude
Always remember these are islands sitting out in the Pacific. At anytime the weather can change drastically, but nowhere is this more dramatic than at the higher elevations. If you are camping or trekking in these regions, pay close attention to the weather forecasts to stay safe.
The only reliable resource for weather forecasts in New Zealand is Met Service. It seems everyone in the country uses it.
As you make your way around New Zealand you will quickly realize that camping is the easiest way to stay on the cheap. You can get hotel rooms for reasonable prices, but they are much more expensive than getting a campsite for the night.
Camping in NZ is easy as it can be and if the weather permits, the best way to stay in New Zealand. Campsites (for tents, cars, or campers) come in all shapes and sizes, from full featured private sites or holiday parks, to government operated public sites with little to no amenities. Locations of campsites also vary, from hidden gems that sit next to glacial lakes, to holiday parks right in the middle of towns. Obviously, the cost is related to the site’s popularity and amenities associated with it, but they tend to range from free to $20 a night for a private spot, with shower and kitchen access. Camping is easy even with the many regulations, but if you are familiar with camping then you probably already know most of them. Get additional information on camping regulations here.
The best way to find site options is to use the interactive map offered by Rankers. Here you search by location, cost and amenities quickly and get all of the info you need for the site you want.
Hotels are available all over New Zealand. If camping isn’t your style or it’s freezing outside (like it was for us), then hotels will do the trick. Depending upon the season, you can simply roll up and grab a room. Properties vary from simple motels to swanky mountain side retreats. We found that the hotels in New Zealand tend to be clean and comfortable with very friendly staff. We used Hotels.com to get some good deals (we are also part of their rewards program to receive a free night after 10 stays).
Our usual go-to, AirBNB, is very difficult to use when on a road trip. However, if you plan to spend a couple of days somewhere, it can be your best bet. We used it in both Christchurch and Auckland and we got to meet great people, stay in nice places, and save some cash.
Chances are if you are visiting New Zealand you want to get away from the cities and see the natural beauty of the islands. If that is the case, you really don’t have a choice but to rent (hire) a car or camper van. I’m sure there are plenty of tour services that will drive you around in a giant bus with tons of other tourists, but that is a waste in a place where you need to go with the flow and be able to go off the beaten path.
There is a lot to consider if you are going to use a campervan to get around New Zealand. We spent quite a bit of time sorting out all of the details so we could be confident in renting one. Check out Campervan Hire in New Zealand for specifics.
If camper vans don’t suit you or you want to tent camp, getting a rental car is a great option. Much like camper van companies, rental car companies offer specials year round that will help you save on the cost. In fact, for a road trip in New Zealand, there are many similarities between renting a car and a camper van. Take a look at our Camper Van hire post for more information on things you should consider when renting a car or camper van for a New Zealand road trip.
One way to travel between the islands is via the Ferry crossing of Picton and Wellington. The ferry is straightforward and crosses a beautiful waterway. The ferry can be a bit pricey though, especially if you are taking a vehicle. Two people with a car costs approximately $200 USD one way. The cost goes up the larger the vehicle and the more people that are crossing. If you are a family with a big RV this could cost quite a bit.
All the information and help you need in one spot. iSites can be found all over the country and you are rarely far from one. At these locations you will find maps, brochures for activities, hotels and attractions, and free WiFi. Typically, staff members are available to help you with everything from route options to booking tours.
The US is a great place for a road trip, especially with the car culture that exists, but no country is more accommodating to road trippers than New Zealand. Whether it is the iSites scattered throughout the country or the New Zealand tourism site promoting road trip itineraries, New Zealand knows their audience and understands that people visit the country to explore and get out into nature. For tools and information on planning your New Zealand itinerary all you need to do is visit the New Zealand tourism board website. You can view their itinerary recommendations or build your own. Regardless of what you choose, you can save and print your itineraries so you always have access to them.
If you are planning to camp, you will most likely need some gear. Buying it in New Zealand will be very expensive, especially if you are from the States. You can rent, but do your research first. If you can, bring gear from home. Even if you have to pay for an additional piece of luggage it will most likely be worth it. If you are planning to continue to travel after New Zealand, either sell or donate your stuff, or ship it back home (this could be pricey, though).
Food & Drink
Great food options are limited outside of the cities. Restaurants, especially around big attractions like Fox Glacier, are expensive and the quality isn’t always great. If you are camping (even if you aren’t), you will want to have a cooler, some cutlery, and plates. This will allow you to keep food with you and make a sandwich or salad along the way. Most hotel rooms will at least have a kettle so you can make yourself some tea or coffee in the morning.
Hop in a grocery store before you hit the road to pick up some things. Even if you aren’t camping you’ll want to grab some snacks for the road.
Tipping is not necessary. Just like in Australia, people in the service industry are well compensated and don’t expect tips. Knowing this makes the high costs at restaurants a little easier to digest (pun intended).
For more information on tipping in New Zealand visit Who To Tip.
New Zealand is a very safe place, but be smart as you travel around. Don’t leave valuables visible in your car while you are out hiking or going for a swim.
If you are camping or hiking out in the bush, you will not have to worry about venomous snakes or other dangerous creatures. The bigger concern should be the weather and terrain conditions. Always be aware of these and know where you are and where you are going at all times.
For more information on staying safe while camping in New Zealand visit the DoC’s website.
Yes, unfortunately, they need their own section. We were warned well in advance of these little bastards. Thankfully we were there during colder months, so their impact was minimal. These little nuisances will bite you over and over again causing you to break out and possibly scar. Not everyone is affected by them, but many are and it is unpleasant. Get yourself some good insect repellant when you arrive in New Zealand. Not all repellants work, so make sure to talk to a local about your best option.
Learn more about these annoying creatures here.
There are a number of mobile carriers in New Zealand with Vodafone, 2Degrees, and Spark being the main ones. We went with Vodafone and it worked out well. Pick up a prepaid SIM at the airport before you head out. They have special deals for travelers that you might not find at any of the other retail locations. They will also set everything up for you right there.
For more information on SIM options checkout the Prepaid Data Wikipedia.
Free WiFi is available in some towns via Spark kiosks for up to 10 days (1 GB per day) when you register a New Zealand number. This is great when you are near a kiosk but otherwise, WiFi is pretty much unavailable. Many hotels will offer free WiFi, but it is severely limited, in some cases under 100 MB; barely enough to check email.
If you are doing any type of traveling around New Zealand you will need a SIM card that has data. There is no real good way around it.
Have you been to New Zealand? Is there anything we missed? Share your thoughts and experiences here or on Twitter @retreat2movefwd.