Like in many countries around the world, I truly believe that self-driving is the best way to see and experience New Zealand. Yes, you can get around the country using buses and trains. But having a vehicle in New Zealand means you have the freedom to visit places that those other modes of transport just don't go.
A New Zealand road trip, therefore, has always been on my bucket list.
Even though I've been to New Zealand multiple times (and even though I lived there for half a year back in 2008), my NZ road trips in the past consisted of short stints with a rental car; usually a couple days here, and a few days there, combined with cheaper bus rides and short flights.
So for my fifth trip to New Zealand, I wanted to do it right: I wanted to do a proper road trip around New Zealand.
And in order to do that, I knew Elliot and I were going to have to rent a campervan.
New Zealand is one of those countries where it's really popular to rent a campervan or motorhome in order to tour all the highlights. Campervan road trips differ a little bit from normal road trips, both in terms of what you drive and where you stay, but the main goal is essentially the same: to have the freedom to see/do as much as you want.
But there are a lot of questions when it comes to planning a campervan trip – I know I had a lot myself when we were in the planning stages of our trip! So now that I've successfully campervanned around New Zealand for two weeks, it's time to answer all of those questions for you!
Here we go.
How does a campervan road trip work?
So how does a campervan trip differ from a “normal” road trip around New Zealand? Well, for starters, you rent a campervan instead of a car. A “campervan” in New Zealand can cover quite a range of vehicles, from small converted mini-vans that sleep just two people to large family-sized motorhomes and RVs with full amenities.
No matter the size, though, all campervans have a couple things in common. The main features of most campervans for hire in New Zealand are at least one bed and a kitchen of some sort – meaning you can stay at campsites and cook a lot of your own meals, saving you from having to spend lots of money on hotels and expensive restaurant meals.
Having your vehicle be your “home” also means that you have more freedom when traveling; if you fall in love with a spot, or hear of somewhere that wasn't originally on your itinerary, it's usually easier to change your plans with this mode of travel.
Choosing the right campervan in NZ
When it comes to campervan hire in New Zealand, there are a LOT of options. I lost count of how many different brands we saw represented on the roads of New Zealand – but it was a lot!
Choosing a campervan, then, can be a bit overwhelming. But here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you choose the right campervan for you and your trip:
- How many people are you traveling with? The smaller campervans in New Zealand will only sleep two adults comfortably, while the larger ones can accommodate four adults or even a family of 5. Figure out how many people you're traveling with, and then look for campervans with corresponding berth space.
- How large of a vehicle are you comfortable driving? Traveling with more people means needing more space. But even if you're only traveling with one other person, there will be a variety of different campervan sizes to choose from. My advice is to consider how large of a vehicle you actually want to drive. Sure, the larger kitchen and extra storage space might sound nice on paper, but if it means less maneuverability and slower speeds, it might not be the best option. Keep in mind that New Zealand roads are notoriously narrow and winding, making it more challenging to drive a large vehicle.
- Do you *need* a self-contained vehicle? Many of the larger campervans for rent in New Zealand are certified self-contained, meaning they have some sort of toilet onboard. This technically means you can camp in places where there's no running water – but it also means you're in charge of dumping your waste responsibly. If you're planning to mostly stay in established campsites and holiday parks with facilities (see the next section for more on this), you probably don't actually NEED a self-contained van.
- What's included? When pricing out campervan options, you need to consider a lot of different things. Does the company charge extra for things like one-way rentals or adding an extra driver? Do they include insurance cover in your quote? (Because in New Zealand, you want to take the insurance cover!) Do they include bedding and towels? How about a GPS?
The campervan we chose
Elliot and I ended up renting our van through Spaceships, a company that hires out mini-van-sized campervans ideal for couples. We went with their Dream Sleeper Mini (their “luxury” van) for our 2-week trip from Auckland to Christchurch.
The pros of renting a Dream Sleeper Mini included:
- It drove like a regular car. Our Dream Sleeper Mini wasn't super big, so all those winding roads and tiny parking spots really weren't an issue for us. It was also regular car-sized, meaning we didn't have to pay extra to take it on the ferry between the North and South islands.
- It came with a built-in GPS already programmed for New Zealand, meaning we didn't have to rely on our phones for navigation.
- It had two separate batteries – one that ran the engine, and another that ran things like USB outlets, interior lights, and our small refrigerator. This meant we never worried about the car not starting, and the second battery recharged every time we drove the van. This was an excellent set-up, and the USB outlets meant it was easy to charge our phones overnight.
- Nearly everything was included: towels and bedding, cooking implements like pans and plates, and multiple drivers. We also had unlimited kilometers and there was no fee for picking up in one location and dropping off at another. We added on a table and camp chairs for $50 and a power cord for another $40 so we could plug in at powered campsites and charge things like my laptop.
The cons of renting a Dream Sleeper Mini included:
- It wasn't really that big. The van was a converted Toyota mini van, with the back section converting into our bed each night. To make up the bed, you had to move the seats all the way forward – and even then the bed wasn't really ideal for anyone over 6 feet tall. There were some days (especially the rainy ones) when we wished for separate bed and seating areas, and for the ability to stand up in our van.
- Storage was a bit awkward. There was plenty of storage for our bags underneath the bed and in a bin behind the front seats, but it was almost impossible to get to things when the bed was made since you had to lift the bed up to get to your bags. We adjusted to this, but it was one thing we both agreed could be improved.
- It couldn't “plug in.” Even though our van had a separate battery to run USB outlets and a small fridge, there was no way to plug the van in at night to run the heater or anything like that. We did have a few chilly nights even in March (which is late summer/early autumn in NZ), but luckily the provided bedding was warm enough for us.
- Our fridge was noisy. This is really nit-picky, but our fridge was really LOUD. I'm a light sleeper, and had to put in ear plugs on the nights where we had the fridge running overnight. This may have just been our van, though.
Overall, this van was the right one for us. We didn't really need a self-contained vehicle or one that plugged in since we alternated between staying in holiday parks and at hotels/motels (it was our honeymoon, after all, and we didn't want to camp every night!), and we made the most of the space we had. By the end of the trip, I actually found our van rather cozy!
If you'd like a full tour of the Dream Sleeper Mini, check out this video:
If you need to hire a larger campervan in NZ, companies like Britz and Maui are popular.
Where do you stay on a campervan trip?
The number one question I got about campervanning around New Zealand is: Where do you shower? Well, the great news is that you don't have to turn into an unwashed vagabond just because you're sleeping in a van!
In New Zealand, many people who hire campervans stay at campsites and holiday parks. Holiday parks are essentially fancy campsites with amenities like large kitchens, nice toilet and shower blocks, common rooms, laundry facilities, and sometimes even swimming pools and hot tubs. Most holiday parks offer a mix of campsites and motel rooms/cabins.
We mostly stayed in holiday parks on the nights we were “camping,” but it really felt more like a glamping experience since hot water and flush toilets were usually just a short walk away from our campsite. We didn't even cook breakfast in the van most mornings because the kitchen facilities at the holiday parks were so nice.
How to find good campsites in New Zealand
If you're not planning to book campsites ahead of time, Spaceships has a free app that's pretty useful for finding campgrounds (along with gas stations, public toilets, and more).
We booked most of our campsites ahead of time, though, since we were staying mostly at smaller holiday parks that tend to fill up during high season (the places we booked in both Tongariro National Park and Queenstown, for example, were completely booked the whole time we were there).
An easy way to choose campsites is to pick a holiday park chain and stick with it. We stayed at several TOP 10 holiday parks across New Zealand, and they were some of the best we stayed in. (If you're staying at a lot of Top 10 parks, get a $49 membership card that will save you 10% on every booking.)
Our favorite campsites in New Zealand included:
- Hot Water Beach TOP 10 Holiday Park on the Coromandel Peninsula – We liked the semi-private campsites, the fish and chips shop on-site, and the fact that you could walk to Hot Water Beach in about 10-15 minutes.
- Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park – It wasn't within walking distance to town, but we liked the covered walkways between the campsites and kitchen/lounge, as well as the free thermal pools.
- Plateau Lodge in Tongariro National Park – This small holiday park/lodge offers shuttles to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing hike, which is why we booked here. Sadly the weather didn't let us do the hike, so we spent most of the day in the cozy common area.
- Motueka TOP 10 Holiday Park near Abel Tasman National Park – I think this holiday park was my favorite. It wasn't crowded, had really nice bathroom facilities, and was within walking distance to the town and grocery stores. (Go eat at the Smoking Barrel in Motueka!)
- Queenstown TOP 10 Holiday Park – This one is in Arthurs Point outside of Queenstown, but offers free shuttles into town once an hour (huge bonus because finding parking in Queenstown can be tough!). This is a smaller park, but it had probably one of the nicer kitchen/lounge areas. The mountain views didn't suck either!
All of these campsites ran around $50 NZD (roughly $36 USD) per night for a powered campsite for 2 adults. Even though we couldn't plug our van directly in, we hired an extension cord that we could plug in and then run through the window to charge things like my laptop (see it in the video above).
If you're not into organized campsites and holiday parks (or don't want to pay so much for them), there are also a bunch of Department of Conservation-run campsites all around New Zealand. These DOC campsites are usually more basic (some have no power available), but they're cheaper and usually less crowded.
Responsible camping in New Zealand
But speaking of cheaper and more basic campsites… let's talk for a minute about freedom camping in New Zealand. “Freedom camping” (essentially pulling over and camping wherever) is legal in many places in New Zealand – but it's also being abused by many travelers.
From a New Zealand tourism website:
Unfortunately, free camping is having an increasingly negative effect on New Zealand's clean, green environment due to the increasing numbers of freedom campers – some of whom create litter problems, dispose of human waste inadequately and discharge grey water outside of dump stations. Free campers tend not to be popular with local residents.
IF you are going to freedom camp in New Zealand, please keep these responsible camping tips in mind:
- ONLY freedom camp at designated campsites. While a lot of people assume they can just pull over on the side of the road to camp if they have a self-contained vehicle, there are actually lots of places in New Zealand where this is illegal. Look out for DOC campsites instead, which are found in some of the most amazing and remote spots in NZ. There are campsites for non-self-contained vehicles (campsites with facilities like a toilet) and self-contained campervans (sites without any facilities).
- Respect the rules. Every community has different rules about freedom camping. Many of them have signs designating where you CAN'T freedom camp, but you can also check in at iSites and DOC visitor centers to make sure you're camping legally. Also respect rules/warnings about building fires (in most places, you are not permitted to build open fires).
- Leave no trace. Pick up your rubbish, and be sure that you're dumping your waste at a designated dump spot and not just wherever you feel like it (most holiday parks have dump stations). This also means no doing your business in the bush or bathing in streams/lakes, no matter how cool that might sound. New Zealand is known for its pristine environment, and everyone would like to keep it that way.
If you're not willing to camp responsibly, then please don't go freedom camping in NZ.
What's the best road trip route?
I'll be writing a more comprehensive road trip itinerary for a trip like this in the coming weeks, but here are your three options:
- Stay just on the North Island. Every major campervan company in New Zealand has an office in Auckland, making pick-ups easy. North Island highlights include the Boy of Islands and Northland (including 90 Mile Beach, though note that you can't drive a campervan ON the beach), the Coromandel Peninsula, Hobbiton, Rotorua, Taupo, Tongariro National Park, and Wellington.
- Stay just on the South Island. Most campervan companies also have offices in Christchurch, and the South Island is the more popular of the two for road trips. Highlights here include Abel Tasman National Park, glaciers on the West Coast, Mount Cook (the tallest mountain in NZ), Christchurch, Queenstown, and Milford Sound.
- Do a one-way trip that covers both islands. The most popular routes are either from Auckland to Christchurch or Christchurch to Auckland, with a ferry ride in between the two. You really need at least two weeks to cover the highlights on both islands.
How much do things actually cost?
The second most-popular question about campervanning after “Where do you shower?” is: Does it actually save you any money?
Renting a campervan in New Zealand isn't necessarily cheap. A van (even an older, cheaper model) will almost always be more expensive than just renting a small car. But where you can save money is in accommodation and food costs. Instead of spending $100-$200 NZD per night on a hotel room, you can spend $50 NZD per night on a campsite. And instead of spending $40-$60 NZD on a meal at a restaurant, you can shop at the grocery store and whip up meals in your van for a fraction of the cost.
Here were some of our campervan trip costs:
- Dream Sleeper Mini rental for 2 weeks (with full insurance cover): $2,176 NZD (about $1550 USD)
- Gas: Almost $600 NZD ($433 USD) – we drove 3098 kilometers, or 1925 miles, across both islands
- Bluebridge Ferry from Wellington to Picton (2 adults + van): $226 NZD ($165 USD)
- Average price for a powered campsite: $48-52 NZD (avg. $35 USD) per night
- Average price for groceries: (tip: go to PAK'nSAVE for the cheapest groceries)
- 6 eggs: $3-5 NZD
- Loaf of bread: $2-3 NZD
- Quart of milk: $2-3 NZD
- 1 kg of apples: $3-4 NZD
- 500g of bacon: $7-9 NZD
Does this save money over renting a normal car and staying in hostels or Airbnbs? It depends. It largely depends on how far you're traveling, which cities you're visiting, and what kind of van you're renting. Like I mentioned above, we rented Spaceships' “luxury” van, which is therefore the most expensive one they offer. Our rental rate was $119 per day + $30 per day for all-inclusive insurance coverage. There are more budget-friendly brands to hire from, though cheaper vans are usually also older.
In comparison, one of the cheapest economy cars I could find online came in at about $40 NZD per day (before you add insurance coverage). You could conceivably save more money if you rented a normal car and camped in a tent (which you can totally do at most NZ holiday parks), but I personally wouldn't have traded our cozy van for a tent!
What do I need to bring?
You might also be curious about what you need to pack for a trip like this. Some of it will depend on the company you rent from and what's included, and some of it will obviously depend on what your itinerary will look like and what time of year you're visiting.
Some basics that I recommend include:
- A quick-dry towel – Even though Spaceships provided us with towels, we opted to use our quick-dry towels instead. They really do dry quickly, and are antimicrobial, meaning they didn't get smelly in the van.
- A Bluetooth speaker – Since we were driving quite a bit, radio stations would go in and out pretty quickly. To combat this, we brought a tiny Bluetooth speaker and played music off my iPhone instead. We have the Anker SoundCore Mini, and it was $30 well spent.
- A swimsuit – Because there are so many awesome thermal pools all around New Zealand!
- Hiking boots and warm hiking socks – You'll likely do at least a little hiking. I currently have some Lowa Sassa boots which I love, although I also recommend Merrell Moabs.
- A good daypack – So you can pack up snacks, rain jackets, and other odds and ends for your daily adventures. I bought an Osprey Daylite for this trip, which was perfect!
You *shouldn't* need to provide any cooking supplies of your own. If your van doesn't automatically come with pots and plates and such, you can probably hire a kit as an add-on.
We also brought with us a Skyroam Solis, which is a portable wifi device. This ended up being an excellent idea, since wifi in New Zealand can be spotty (and usually not free). Most campsites we stayed at offered wifi for $5 or so, but you were never guaranteed that it would be any good. Conversely, the Skyroam works off a mobile signal, and it worked more often than not, whether we were at a campsite or driving around. It certainly helped me keep my Instagram Stories updated! (If you want to get a Skyroam for yourself, you can save 10% with the code ADBSKYROAM.)
I also always recommend “packing” a travel insurance policy. Yes, the van might be covered, but what if you get sick and need to see a doctor or miss a flight or lose your luggage? Travel insurance can cover all of these, too! I recommend World Nomads for basic and affordable travel insurance.
(If you want a full packing list for New Zealand, check out this post.)
Driving tips for New Zealand
Lastly, here are a few driving tips for New Zealand – because driving in NZ isn't really like driving anywhere else!
- Stay left – Duh! (But yeah, they drive on the left here.)
- Obey speed limits – It's pretty easy to remember the speed limit in New Zealand: it's 100 kph unless another speed limit is posted. If you get a speeding ticket, it's your responsibility to pay it.
- Move over – If you're in a larger campervan and you're driving under the speed limit (it's virtually impossible to drive 100 km/h on some of those winding mountain roads), you're required by law to pull over if there are more than 4 vehicles lined up behind you. Most roads have passing lanes or dedicated “slow vehicle bays” so you can safely let others pass.
- Beware one-lane bridges – New Zealand has a lot of them! One side will always have the right of way, so keep an eye out for signs before the bridge. If the arrow going in your direction is red, it means you need to give way to traffic from the other side.
For more New Zealand road trip tips, check out this post: DOs and DON'Ts for a New Zealand Road Trip
That's literally everything. Now you know! Who's ready to plan a campervan road trip in New Zealand?
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