Driving in New Zealand is without a doubt the best way to explore the country. Purple lupins sprouting from the ground, sunny beaches, active volcanoes, steaming geysers and incredible night skies full of stars. New Zealand has a lot to offer.
Some of the best surprises in New Zealand happened spontaneously on the road, pulling down a street that piqued our attention or stopping in the middle of nowhere to soak in the incredible views.
Depending on your budget, you can rent a car or a campervan. We opted to buy one! While living in Auckland we picked an old Subaru Legacy and for our last two months in the country we installed a bed in the back of the car. Not the most comfortable solution, but it did the job and saved us a lot of money. If you are planning a shorter stay you can check out Jucy and Escape, two of the most famous rental companies.
Our road trip was amazing, we drove from north to south spending almost two months on the road, camping and getting in deep contact with nature! Everything went smooth and we had no difficulties, but driving in New Zealand is not as easy as you might think. We thought to collect some tips to help you get around New Zealand safe and sound!
Driving in New Zealand
Exploring the country’s beautiful landscapes by car or campervan is the most popular way to get around. But, if you are planning to drive around New Zealand, you need to be aware of windy roads, sharp corners and different road rules before you start your journey. First of all, the driving licence. To rent a car and drive in New Zealand you will need an International Driving Licence or a local English translation. I paid around 35$ to have my Italian drivers licence translated in Auckland, takes 2-3 days.
Secondly, keep left! Here you drive on the left-hand side of the road. It might sound scary but it is actually pretty easy. Most of the rental companies strategically place some ‘KEEP LEFT’ stickers on the campervan’s windows.
Outside of the main cities, there are very few motorways. Most of the roads are single lane in each direction without barriers in between. You may also encounter steep gravel roads. Take plenty of breaks to make sure the engine won’t overheat. The speed on the main highways and motorways is 100 km/h, quite safe, but don’t underestimate driving times when looking at a map. Most likely you will drive slower than the speed limit due to the rough conditions of the roads.
The real local peculiarity is the weather. In New Zealand, you might experience four seasons in one day (it’s true, believe me!). It’s possible to start your day off with blue sky and sunshine but arrive at your destination in rain. Snow, ice and fog can be common in winter, especially in the South Island and around mountain passes. But don’t worry, most rental companies will provide you with chains and demonstrate how to fit them.
Rail crossings. Be very careful with those ones!! Some of New Zealand’s rail crossings have flashing red lights to indicate a train coming, but not all of them. Some crossings only have a ‘Railway Crossing’ sign, so stop and give way to make sure there are no trains coming.
Camping in New Zealand
Coming from Australia, where freedom camping is for everyone, we were initially quite confused. You can either rent a fully self-contained or a non-self-contained camper van. The difference is pretty much a toilet and is indicated by a sticker, so don’t try to get away with it – if you are caught it’s a $200 instant fine. If your camper van doesn’t have a toilet, you can’t freedom camp. If your camper van does have a toilet, you are allowed to freedom camp around most of New Zealand.
Find out more about DOC freedom camping >>
So where can you camp?
You can choose the comfort of holiday parks, with all the facilities you might need, but they aren’t cheap. You will pay $20 – $30 total a night for 1 person for a non-powered site. Or save up some money and choose the DOC conservation campsites. There are more than 200 throughout New Zealand and they are located in stunning settings: forests, lake shores and sandy beaches. Facilities and fees depend on the type of campsite. Serviced campsites, unpowered site $18 adult per night, offer flush toilets, cooking bench, hot showers and, sometimes, laundry facilities. Scenic and Standard campsites have a more limited range of facilities: toilets, water supply (tap, stream or lake) and, sometimes, fireplaces, cold showers and picnic tables. The higher fee for Scenic campsites, unpowered/tent sites $13 adult per night, is based on the scenic location, while Standard campsites cost $8 per night, adult unpowered.
Read more about DOC campsites >>
To find the best campsite near you-you can use the app WikiCamps New Zealand, the ultimate camping guide for smartphones, tablets and Windows PC. Here you will find the most up-to-date database for campgrounds, but also hostels, day use areas, points of interest and info centres.
p.s. Want more road trip tips? Check out our How to Plan the Perfect Road Trip with TONS of advice.