I love a good road trip. There's nothing quite like hitting the open road, windows down and music blaring with nothing but adventure on the horizon. (Or, you know, maybe you'll be driving twisty mountain roads in the pouring rain… either way, ADVENTURE!)
On my last trip to New Zealand, I went on my own mini road trip from Christchurch to Kaikoura and back (and then did another one-day roadie with a friend to Mount Cook from Wanaka). Driving in New Zealand is always an adventure — and not just because they drive on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car.
Driving in New Zealand is like driving through some magical fantasy land (it really kind of IS Middle-Earth). There are so many amazing landscapes — and they can change drastically even when you're just driving for a couple of hours.
That being said, there are some things you need to know if you plan on renting a car and driving in New Zealand.
DOs and DON'Ts for a New Zealand road trip
DO consider whether you need a campervan or just a car
In New Zealand, renting campervans is just as popular — if not more so — than renting cars. Even though they are larger and often a bit unwieldy on New Zealand's narrow roads, they can save you some money while traveling around NZ since they act as your transport AND your accommodation.
In New Zealand you can “freedom camp” in many places if you have a completely self-contained van (i.e. one with a toilet) — meaning you can spend far less on accommodation and sleep in some incredible places.
In some cases, though (like, maybe if you really hate camping), you don't really need a campervan. They are often in high demand, so if you can manage with a smaller van or car, definitely consider that. (Plus, it'll save you on gas.)
DON'T expect to be able to freedom camp everywhere
Even though freedom camping is legal in many places in New Zealand, it's not legal everywhere. Be aware of where you can and can't freedom camp — when in doubt, ask a local. Also, if you don't have a self-contained van, please DON'T freedom camp. Nobody needs your waste dumped all over New Zealand.
DO shop around for rentals and factor in where you're picking up/dropping off
If you're renting a car, camper, or anything else on wheels, shop around for deals — and also take into account where you're picking up/dropping off the vehicle. Renting from an airport location is almost always going to cost more than renting from an in-city location.
If you're looking for a good deal on a car in New Zealand, I can recommend Jucy. They have decent vehicles and really reasonable prices. (And no, they aren't paying me to say that — I've rented cars a few times from Jucy in NZ!) Other budget options include Thrifty, Budget, and Europcar.
As for campervans, I had a good experience renting a smaller van from Spaceships.
DO consider doing a rental car/camper relocation
If you're up for a bit of a challenge and/or don't really need a car for your entire trip (which, you may not — New Zealand has a good number of trains and buses to choose from), look into doing a rental car/camper relocation.
Rental car companies constantly need cars and vans driven from one drop-off location to another, and if you are willing to help them out, they basically give you the rental for free.
Popular relocation routes include ones between Auckland and Christchurch, and Christchurch and Queenstown. Most of the time these rentals cost about $1 per day and often come with one free tank of gas. And, if you need to get the car from one island to the other, the company usually throws in a ferry ticket, too.
This isn’t the best option if you want a nice leisurely road trip (Christchurch to Auckland transfers, for example, usually have to be completed within 4 or 5 days), but it IS a really cheap way to get from one place to another while still getting to see the scenery along the way.
DON'T try to take the wrong kind of car over mountain passes
New Zealand's mountain passes are NO JOKE. Snow, ice, and landslides are always a risk. If you're going to be driving any of them in the fall, winter, or early spring, be aware of what kind of car you'll need.
A little tiny economy car won't cut it on many mountain roads in bad weather — some even require snow chains. So be sure to at least have an idea of the routes you'll be taking so you can rent accordingly.
DO be aware that gas is expensive – split the costs if you can
Since New Zealand sits literally at the end of the world and has to import a bunch of stuff from really far away, gasoline is incredibly expensive. It was sitting at more than $2 per liter when I was there last — that's pushing $8 per gallon!!
If you can travel with friends (or make friends on the road) to split costs with, your wallet will thank you.
DO let people pass you if you're driving slow (it's actually the law!)
I get it: driving in a foreign country on unfamiliar roads — roads that are often really narrow and twisty — can be a bit nerve-racking. It's perfectly okay if you need to take it slow (and, in fact you should slow down, as New Zealand is really cracking down on speed limits these days!).
But, if you notice cars lined up behind you, be courteous and pull over to let them pass when you can.
Believe it or not, you are breaking the law if you have 4 or more cars lined up behind you and fail to pull over. This is especially an issue for people driving campervans through the mountains, so pay attention. Most New Zealand roads come with built-in pull-off points — use them!
DON'T stop on the side of the road to take photos, no matter how pretty the view is
Yes, New Zealand is incredibly gorgeous. And yes, you ARE going to want to pull over roughly every five minutes. But DON'T DO THIS. If there's no designated pull-off, driveway, or large shoulder for you to stop on, just keep driving.
Accidents happen all the time in New Zealand because of people driving stupidly — and this includes pulling over on really dangerous stretches of road to take photos.
I kid you not, I saw this happen with my own eyes. My friend Liz and I were driving on a very straight stretch of road leading up to Mount Cook. We REALLY wanted to stop to take photos, but waited until we saw a gravelly pull-off area.
As we were taking turns watching the road and taking photos, a car zipped past us and pulled over about 100 meters up the road. Except there was no pull-off up there — they pulled over basically still partially ON the road, to where the passenger was opening her door INTO the road. Yes, the road is straight and you can see oncoming traffic. But this is still ridiculously dangerous and you SHOULD NOT DO IT. Ever.
Liz went into a rage like I've never seen, and we stopped to yell at those tourists (who were of course oblivious to the fact that their OPEN DOOR hanging into the road could be dangerous.)
DO get off the typical tourist trail
The beauty of having a car in New Zealand is that you are free to explore wherever the road may lead (and then explore even further using your feet). New Zealand isn't nearly as touristy as some other destinations, but there IS definitely a “tourist trail.” This usually includes places like Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown.
And you might think that a country as small as New Zealand wouldn't have much more to see. But oh how wrong you would be! New Zealand is FULL of incredible corners, from the beautiful beaches of the Bay of Islands to the bird sanctuary on Kapiti Island to the coastal town of Kaikoura to the wildness of the West Coast to cool and funky Wanaka.
If you're creating an itinerary for your New Zealand road trip, make sure it's a loose one. You'll definitely want to allow time to deviate from the planned path here.
DO pick up hitchhikers
As you're cruising through New Zealand, you are bound to spot some hitchhikers along the way. Hitching is actually a really popular way for backpackers to travel around New Zealand — mostly because the country is really safe and the locals are friendly.
If you're comfortable with it, feel free to pick up hitchhikers! They are usually interesting people — AND you can ask them to help pay for some of that expensive gas.
DON'T forget your travel insurance
When it comes to travel, you just never know what could happen. For this reason, I never leave home without a good travel insurance policy! That way everything from lost luggage to a bad accident is covered – because you just never know! I recommend World Nomads for basic (and really affordable) travel insurance.
And, lastly, DON'T forget to drive on the left!
What to Pack for New Zealand
There are definitely a few things you'll want to make sure to bring in order to help you have a great New Zealand road trip. Things like:
- A New Zealand guide book – or how about a Lord of the Rings-themed NZ guidebook?
- A travel adapter so you can easily use your electronics in New Zealand, and a power strip so you don't need multiple travel adapters.
- Good hiking boots so you can navigate the terrain.
- A GoPro so you can capture all the adventures.
Have you road tripped in New Zealand? What other tips would you add?