If you're planning a trip to New Zealand and wondering how to get the most out of your time, there are a couple of things you could do. The first would be to travel by plane and bus around the country. You get to see a lot of places in the shortest amount of time and you don't have to worry about driving. The second option is one that we'd recommend to anyone that wants the real Kiwi experience. Rent a car and do a New Zealand road trip at your own pace, stopping wherever you want and when you want. New Zealand self-drive options are plentiful and great value (If you're starting in Queenstown, check our guide to car rental). The roads are easy to navigate and if you're coming from Australia, the UK, or Ireland you don't even have to change the side of the road you drive on.
Our favourite way to explore New Zealand is by car. The epic scenery, the quiet roads and all the hidden treasures waiting to be discovered along the way make self-drive itineraries exciting to create. Take your time, stop for plenty of photos and soak in all this beautiful little country has to offer.
Planning Your Road Trip
Use the AA's Route Planner for planning your road trip itinerary. The time & distance calculator is great for estimating the time and cost of travelling distances around the country. An alternative is the NZ Transport Agency's Journey Planner. The AA's site is purely for vehicle traffic while the NZTA's website also provides routes by bicycle. Handy if you have a bike or two strapped to the car for the odd side trip. Both websites show traffic and route conditions. This information is extra useful when the weather is bad.
Don't plan your trip down to the minute though. Leave some room for unplanned side-trips, extra days in some places, and anything else that might crop up. I know many people that set off on road trips and didn't make it past the third stop. Sometimes a town or area in New Zealand takes your fancy and it's too hard to leave right away.
Unless you have a camper van you'll need accommodation along the way. Dropping into hotels is a good way of not only checking the accommodation but negotiating a price. Hotels with vacancies will be a bit more open to this kind of haggling. However, in peak season, or in certain touristy towns drop-ins will often be left stranded. Accommodation fills up fast during the summer and winter holidays. Book hotels in advance. I recommend using Hotels.com or Hotelscombined to get the best value and discounts.
Here are 15 tips from an experienced road tripper on how to get the most out of your driving holiday.
1. Do Bush Walks to See the Real NZ
One of the best things about New Zealand is that there isn’t much in the wild that will kill, maim or murder you. No bears to worry about, no poisonous snakes, and not too many rednecks with banjos. Don’t be afraid to stop by the side of the road where you see a green Department of Conservation sign, abandon your car for a while, and go for a bit of a walk. Each sign will give you details of the walk, whether it will be suitable for wheelchair users or families with small kids, and whether it’s a loop track which will bring you back to the start. It’ll also tell you how long it will take, and these times are generally very accurate. Although, if you look at New Zealand on a map it’s quite skinny, it can’t take more than 20 minutes to walk from one side to the other surely?
Tip – Don’t miss the Blue pools bush track accessed from the Haast highway on State highway An easy 1.5 k walk to view the blue pools. (Includes swing bridge for Indiana Jones role-play yay!). The Lonely Planet's Hiking and Tramping in New Zealand is an excellent guide to the best walks and tramps around the country.
2. Pack Snacks For the Road
One of the best things about road tripping is eating snacks. Hell, eating snacks is one of the best things about anything. New Zealand towns can be quite spaced out so pack plenty of snacks. And now I'd like to clear up a point of confusion. In most countries, a dairy is for cows and milking stools. In New Zealand, dairies offer the kinds of things you would find in a convenience store or newsagent. In most of these local stores you will find a good selection of fruit, nuts, cheese and even filled rolls and sandwiches to restock for the road ahead. Nuts are often of the pick & mix variety and you can conveniently fill a zip lock bag with your chosen amount. Look for “trail mix”. New Zealand is full of really good quality and often organic brands; you will have no trouble finding sugar-free organic juice or even coconut water if you enjoy your drinks with no added fun whatsoever.
Also look for New Zealand apples, they are crunchy and juicy. There’s nothing quite like them.
So remember, when you're looking for snacks for your road trip and ask for directions to a convenience store, don't be surprised if you get directions to a dairy.
3. Prepare for Windy Roads
New Zealand roads can be quite windy, and by windy I mean windy (curvy) and not windy (lots of wind). If you suffer from car sickness make sure the plastic bags from your snack shopping are handy to have around. Unless they have the breathing holes in the bottom – there’s a mistake you only ever make once.
You can also purchase motion sickness bands from any pharmacy; these are small bands you wear around your wrists that apply a gentle pressure to an acupressure spot which helps with motion sickness. If you've only ever driven on long open motorways make sure you let fresh air circulate in the car, stop often, or ensure you look out the window. Some people swear by sitting in the front seat but you will need to bear in mind that even with motion sickness the rule of shotgun still applies so you’ll either need to be quick or man up. Try driving at night if all else fails.
Pay special attention to children who may not voice concerns. Signs that your child is experiencing car sickness are dizziness, increased saliva, sweatiness, pale skin (some children can look quite green) and a feeling of nausea. Projectile vomiting is also a sign, but try to recognise the earlier, slightly cleaner and less gross signs first.
4. Don't Forget the Mosquito Repellent
If you’ve never experienced sandflies before you’re in for a treat. A horrific, bloodsucking, tiny-spawn-of-the-devil, only-thing-in-the-world-worse-than-Nickelback treat. The only thing more useless than wasps, and just as anger-inducing, sandflies blight the beautiful West Coast of the country. They will sniff out the tiniest square of unprotected flesh, latch on and begin draining you until they are full leaving behind a big red itchy spot just to remind you.
Mosquito and Sandfly Repellent is available at any supermarket, convenience store or pharmacy. Try some great natural brands like Tui Balms Bug Balm, Botanica no bugs, Kiwiherb Herbal Insect Repellent, or All Terrain Herbal Armour.
5. Keep the Petrol Tank Topped Up
You may drive 2 hours at a time without passing a shop or service station so if you are planning on being on the road for the day take each opportunity to fill up the tank as you pass a gas station. Even with breakdown assistance, you'll waste time waiting for help if you run out of gas a long way from a town.
Before you set out each morning make sure your car is at least half full of petrol. Most gas stations will have food and snacks for sale, but you may also find a nearby cow-less dairy to make sure you have adequate food & drink to see you through to the next town.
6. Find Safe & Free Drinking Water
If you pass a mountain stream/creek and the water is quite fast-moving it will be perfectly safe to fill water bottles for drinking water (although just maybe glance upstream to ensure your road-trip buddy isn’t toileting up there). New Zealand has some of the purest water in the world and the chances are it has come straight off from a glacier or even from an underground spring. In fact, why not bottle it, sell it and make a mint. It worked for the French.
7. Plan Toilet Stops
Toilet facilities on long road trips can be few and far between. Most towns will have well sign posted public toilets and you may also come across some long drops at rest stops (big deep hole in the ground with spider webs and flies). However it’s advisable to pack some loo roll in case you may have to go bush, and if you are really stuck in a bind, a big leaf should suffice. Just make sure if you’re crouching in a stream that your road-trip buddy isn’t drinking downstream.
8. Hire a Campervan
If you are travelling as a pair consider hiring a campervan. There are some amazing campgrounds in New Zealand, and this will give you a great opportunity to meet other like-minded travellers as well as the freedom to explore and change your plans at a moment’s notice. Doing a New Zealand road trip by campervan might seem like a more expensive option but you'll save on hotel fees. In most cases, you can save on food expenses by using the campervan's kitchen to prepare meals. But best of all is that fact that driving a campervan around the country is a typical Kiwi thing to do. Join us!
Tip- It's worth ringing the camper van companies to see if they need a camper relocated, this happens regularly as people often pick up and drop off in different locations. I drove a camper from Queenstown to Christchurch for free just by enquiring. Check our article on car rental in Queenstown which contains useful information for campervan rental anywhere in the country.
9. Drive Carefully
There are plenty of small windy roads, potential obstacles and blind corners in New Zealand. A police chase was recently ended by a flock of sheep in the road, so please use common sense when driving. If you see a row of cars stopped on the road, don’t try to overtake them. Assume there is a reason everyone has stopped and wait to see what’s going on. Turn it into a game of eye spy (unless you are literally just surrounded by cars, road and fields – it becomes painfully tedious). Don’t stop on the side of the road for this same reason, wait until there is a clear and marked pull over spot. If you are travelling in a scenic area (which is pretty much everywhere) you'll find plenty of signposted scenic rest stops you can pull into to take Photos or stretch your legs. And most importantly, stay on the left side of the road at all times.
10. Get Car Seats for the Kids
By law Children under 8 must be restrained in a car seat whilst travelling in New Zealand. Most airlines allow one car seat and one pram per infant/child boarding. These will have to be checked in as luggage but there's no excuse for not carrying one. Car rental companies will also have the option to include a child car seat in the rental.
Insiders Tip – Ask the airline if they have a pram you can use around the airport before boarding.
11. Overestimate Driving Times
Use Google Maps to estimate drive time between landmarks. You may see a sign saying 200 kilometres to the next town but don't expect to make that distance in a couple of hours. On the small winding roads that make driving in New Zealand a beautiful visual experience, your journey may take you longer than expected.
Tip – Always allow for additional time getting from one destination to another as you will want to pull over for photos. No one likes to sit still for long periods, especially children. Aim to stop for at least 15 minutes every 1.5-2 hours.
12. Beware of Ice
If you’re travelling in winter you may wake to an icy window screen on your car in the morning. Buy an ice scraper at one of your gas station stops, maybe even some de-icer, it’s worth the investment. Otherwise, one of the easiest and quickest ways to deal with icy windows is to turn the heater on full blast and use a credit card from your wallet to scrape off the ice. The police here are quite strict and dish out fines if your windows aren’t clear of ice so no pretending you are driving a tank. Never or boil the kettle from your hotel room, run outside and tip the hot water all over the window screen, you’ll end up either cracking the windscreen or slipping over on the newly formed ice rink around your car and breaking your face.
13. Get In-Car Entertainment
It goes without saying the scenery in New Zealand is some of the best in the world, but if you do want a break to catch up on your reading you will find a good selection of magazines and newspapers readily available at any petrol station or dairy along the way. Some good kiwi mags for women are Next, Your Home and Garden magazine & That’s Life for short stories/real life reads. For blokes try North & South or Mindfood.
To entertain children on long road trips you can’t go wrong with a small portable DVD player. These can be purchased for around $100 at department stores such as The Warehouse, Harvey Norman and Noel Leeming. Dora the Explorer, Peppa pig, the Wiggles, happy feet or frozen are all great choices of DVD if you don’t mind the kids singing in the back.
14. Make Pit Stops a Regular Thing
Stop at some of the little towns you pass through as they often have the nicest shops and cafe's and you will get the chance to meet some of the locals.
This will allow everyone to get out of the car and stretch their legs, make trips to the restroom, and have a change of scenery as well, if you get lucky you may just find a playground so the kids can run off steam, too.
15. Understand Single Lane Bridge Etiquette
If you see the word BRIDGE painted on the road the chances are that a short while later you will see the word LANE. Closely followed by ONE. This means you are about to encounter, yes you guessed it, a one lane bridge. There are strict rules regarding these bridges. Slow down when you approach a bridge, – if you see a sign with a red circle you must give way to oncoming traffic, and to traffic already on the bridge. If you see a blue rectangle and nothing on the bridge, other vehicles should give way to you. If in doubt don’t take risks – road rage hasn’t reached New Zealand yet.
And there you have it. I hope you feel slightly more prepared for your big New Zealand Adventure. You are about to have the time of your life, so take heaps of pictures ( #queenstowninsider with the good ones) drive carefully and enjoy all our beautiful country has to offer.