Having driven more than 10,000 km of New Zealand roads, we thought we’d put together a list of tips for your own road trip based on our experiences so you can get the most out of your visit to the end of the earth.
- Planning: New Zealand websites. When researching for your New Zealand road trip, be sure to be on the lookout for .co.nz web addresses for information direct from New Zealand. When Googling in the US prior to arriving, we had only read sites and blogs under .com sites, meaning that we got a pretty one-sided viewpoint, most generalizing how “amazing” and “life-changing” the country is, without many of the nitty-gritty details that come with travel.
- Planning: Itineraryhub.com. This site is a great starting point for mapping your road trip route based on where you’d like to start and end, and your desired duration. Of course, there are plenty of sights to see in every nook and cranny of New Zealand, so you could easily stretch a two-week itinerary into two months if you have the luxury of time.
- Planning: South Island in the spring. We suggest planning your trip to the South Island in the springtime (around Sept-Nov) to get the best that the island has to offer. The Southern Alps will be mostly snow-capped as seen in 99% of South Island photos. This is also before the local holiday rush in December and January, when Kiwi schools are off and families go on their holidays. Don’t let any North Islander scare you from the “cold” of the South; many will tell you that winter persists for half the year while never having visited. Of course, winter is the best time to visit if you’re looking for great skiing. In the summer, the direct sun can be quite harsh and most of the island will be brown.
- Getting Around: Car vs campervan vs bus vs hitchhiking. There are many ways to get around New Zealand. Renting or purchasing a car or campervan gives you the flexibility of traveling on your own schedule and being able to stop at every lookout point you’d like. A campervan provides even more flexibility in your plans, as it is also your accommodation for the night. It does come at the cost of higher fuel usage and having to search for toilets/showers/campsites if your campervan is not self-contained. Many people also travel via buses with well-established routes that hit all the main towns, and some even guarantee accommodation at the various stops. However, you may end up missing some of the quieter, hidden gems along the way. Hitchhiking is also common in this generally safe and friendly country, but there are days when you may need to wait in the rain for a while before being picked up. We’ve also met people cycling their way through the country, which is definitely a worthwhile challenge if you don’t mind windy roads and steep hills.
- Getting Around: Pak n Save fuel. If you’re self-driving, we found that the grocery chain Pak n Save generally provides the cheapest (or on par with the cheapest) fuel in any town we visited. Plus you save 6 cents per gallon after shopping in store (even just $1). Note that you do need to have a New Zealand EFTPOS card or credit card with PIN capabilities in order to use the self-service stations. Our Bank of America credit card with (supposedly) both signature and PIN capabilities was not accepted.
- Getting Around: Always allow extra time for long drives. New Zealand roads are windy and can be dangerous. We always allowed for about 25% extra time for drives on top of Google Maps estimates. This allows for more careful driving on the mountain roads as well as time for stopping at scenic lookouts or one of many picnic area stops. Extra tip: set your GPS to avoid gravel roads! In Northland, our GPS took us on a “shortcut” on a narrow, harsh, essentially one-way gravel road on steep cliffs, and we ended up going 10km/h when we could have been going 100km/h on the state highway.
- Accommodation: Airbnb* & booking.com*. When looking for accommodation, there are plenty of options on Airbnb to suit a range of needs. It’s also a great place to find unique accommodations in remote areas; for example, we stayed on a 400-hectare dairy farm an hour outside of Rotorua, an experience we would have never found on a hotel website. For more standard accommodation, booking.com is one of the most widely-used sites.
- Having Fun: bookme. Bookme is a great site for booking discounted tickets on attractions, anything from skydiving to kiwi sanctuary admission to sailing on Lake Taupo. Tickets can be booked at the last minute or months in advance. We’ve had no issues with obtaining refunds for tours cancelled due to weather conditions.
- Having Fun: bring hiking shoes or sneakers everywhere you go. So many New Zealand attractions come with hikes, from an easy 10-minute paved walk to half-day strenuous climbs. Some of the best lookouts require a hike to the top. We learned to always have our hiking boots in the car so we were ready for any walks we came across.
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