There are many ways to experience the lush, ridiculous beauty of New Zealand, but I’d argue the best way is on the road.
With a population of 4 million people on a good day, it’s understandable that New Zealand doesn’t have a mass easy public transport system like you can find around more urban destinations. It’s ok, we don’t want that anyways. Besides, let’s not mix words here; the majority of people coming to New Zealand are coming for the epic landscapes and wild views, right?
And while you can get to the more well-known spots on day trips and what not, the best way to get around is on 4 wheels if you can manage. Some of my favorite surprises in New Zealand happened spontaneously on the road, pulling down a street that piqued my curiosity or stopping at a picnic view point in the middle of nowhere for some sick views.
New Zealand’s real beauty lies in its inaccessibility and remoteness.
Depending on your budget, you can make your dream trip work. Whether you go on a guided tour like what I’ve done in the past or you rent a car or campervan, it’s up to you (more on this in a minute).
Exploring the country by campervan is a classic kiwi pastime, and I finally popped my van cherry this month on a 2 week road trip around New Zealand with Jucy.
If you’re keen to fit right in and see New Zealand like a local, you need a van and a sense of adventure.
I’ve written before about the ins and outs of road tripping in Iceland, and I thought it was high time I shared a similar story for New Zealand, after, you know, a year of road trips packed with trials and errors.
Here are my do’s and don’ts for a New Zealand road trip! Happy trails!
Do – pick the right camper or car
First things first, you gotta pick the right car for your trip. I decided to go with Jucy because they had been capturing my attention with their flashy vans around New Zealand and Australia for the past 11 months. Be prepared for an onslaught of green and purple – we all know how I feel about colors and I that I was probably a rainbow unicorn in a past life.
This young hip company has taken NZ by storm with their catchy logos, budget options and active social media pages. I am a fan of young cool (nontraditional) brands so Jucy was a logical choice since it fit everything I wanted.
They’ve got it all – vans, big and small, budget and fancy cars and SUVs.
I’d say you don’t really need a SUV for most of New Zealand.The only time you might need one is if you are coming in winter and plan to do some serious offroading or go up to some of the more remote club ski fields; some dirt roads might turn to a mudfest or there might be swollen creeks you have to cross – for example, you have no hope of getting to Mt. Aspiring National Park in Wanaka in winter if there’s been rain or snow (and there always is) because there are 9 creek crossings before you get to the parking lot.
But if you get a van or car in winter that’s not 4 wheel drive, be sure to add on snow chains. Those come in handy, and you could be seriously stranded without them. And you’ll need them to get up the ski resort roads since the majority of them are gravel.
Since I was going solo, I didn’t want one of those vans that look like a house, both for the gas expense and also because I didn’t want to drive a tank of a van all by myself over the crazy mountain roads I was hoping to see. Understandable right?
The Jucy Cabana was perfect for me; basically a pimped out, reconverted minivan that sleeps 2, just my size since I like to sprawl. It’s been modified so a bed pulls out from the benches and has a mini kitchen in the trunk. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, and it comes with all the cooking stuff and bedding that you would need. Curtains come down at night and it can go as fast as a car and doesn’t struggle up hills or mountains, unlike the rest of the campers who I get stuck behind ALL the time.
I’ve done all sorts of road trips and expeditions around New Zealand, but having the freedom to drive around with my house on my back like a turtle was AWESOME! It meant I wasn’t obligated to go anywhere or be somewhere by a certain time and I could just go with the flow. Those are my favorite kind of trips!
Also did you know if you rent a Jucy car or van you get a 6 day ski pass to Treble Cone in Wanaka worth over $600? Holla.
The only downside with choosing the small vans is that they don’t plug in and campsites. I found this out the hard way; the conversation went something like this:
Me picking up the van in Queenstown – “So how does the whole plugging in thing work?”
Van attendant – “hahahaha.”
Me – “You’re scaring me. Why are you laughing?”
Van attendant – “The cabanas don’t plug in.”
Me – “Hahahhahaha. Oh no. It’s snowing.”
Not really a problem for most of the year, not being able to plug in means no heat at night, which on the South Island in winter can be, well, not ideal. Totally didn’t do my research! Rookie mistake!
While the first couple of nights were rough, but it was actually fine by the end. Most people don’t always plug in their vans anyways because it costs more. I’ll get to that in a minute.
So just think about the kind of trip that you want to do and get a car or van that fits it.
Don’t – abuse the camping system in New Zealand
It’s really important that you understand how the campervan and freedom camping system works in New Zealand and not abuse it. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by it all but it’s actually quite simple. Jucy has a great post about it here.
There are two types of campervans you can rent here – fully self-contained and non-self-contained (indicated by a sticker). The difference is pretty much a toilet. If you have a campervan that DOESN’T have a toilet, you can’t freedom camp. Easy as.
Freedom camping is allowed around most of New Zealand and means you can camp on public land for free as long as you have the right facilities (read – toilet). If you are caught freedom camping without the right van or in a restricted area, it’s a $200 instant fine by the poo police. And trust me, it happens a lot.
I don’t want to get into it too much here for a couple of a reasons, but freedom camping is actually quite controversial in New Zealand. This might be simplistic but the way I see it is that disrespectful foreign tourists combined with increased tourism has changed freedom camping drastically in recent years.
For example, you can’t freedom camp anywhere near Wanaka or Queenstown now, which I agree and disagree with.
On the one hand I can understand that because if it was allowed, then there would be way too many people doing it considering how popular these places are, which means there would also be plenty of people abusing it – I’ve heard horror stories.
And it’s not just about having a toilet to use, it’s also about making sure that you don’t light illegal fires or empty the sewage tank in the van in the wrong place (i.e. anywhere), which is what a lot of lazy people end up doing. Can I get a EW gross?!
However, at the same time local councils and such have one thing on their mind, and it’s not preserving the campervan kiwi past time. It’s money. Banning freedom camping means you’ll have to pay to stay somewhere, like a holiday park or hotel, which means more revenue for the town.
So where can you camp?
I camped almost the whole trip in holiday parks for a couple of different reasons. Mostly because since it was winter and I was in a smaller van, I wanted to be able to hang out in a heated room in the evenings and work with wifi and plenty of outlets to charge all my crap. Holiday parks have TV rooms, kitchens, (usually) awesome shower facilities.
Unfortunately there are also plenty of people who abuse the holiday park system. Especially in winter in the more remote areas, the office will close at sunset and open the next morning around 10 or 11 if it’s manned at all. There are a lot of people who will arrive late, park there for the night, use the showers and kitchens and then leave early the next morning without paying, ignoring the honor box system. Tsk tsk.
Since it got dark earlier, I wouldn’t usually get to a site before nighttime, and I would just cook my dinner in the kitchens instead of in the back of the van. I also would call in the afternoon to make sure they would leave me a wifi card to use, but that’s not really necessary. In winter, it’s so quiet you don’t need to reserve anything in advance, and you can just show up.
Holiday parks aren’t cheap though. I paid between $20-$30 total a night for 1 person for a non-powered site and wifi ($5-7 for 24hrs). This goes up with more people and if you want a powered site. Personally, I think that’s outrageous to pay that much money to sleep in a van, and I think there should be off season rates. Most of the time I was the only person there.
If I wasn’t working at the same time and didn’t have deadlines, I would have stayed in DOC campsites (significantly cheaper but further out of town and usually in a dead zone for phone service – no 3G eeek!) or in designated campsites with toilets instead and then stayed at a holiday park maybe every 4 or 5 days as a splurge. But alas, my life is controlled by the internets. One of the sacrifices of being a blogger.
Here are some useful sites:
**I’ll also mention my friend Matt of Backpacking Matt who is based in Queenstown now runs an awesome site called Planit NZ which as you might have inferred can help plan and book your trips to New Zealand and save you money. Matt helped me out a lot before I moved down here a year ago – tell him I sent you and save 5%!
Do – get off the beaten path
Half of the beauty of New Zealand lies in getting lost and finding your own favorite little spots, and it’s one of the best reasons to get a car.
Oh that road looks interesting, I wonder what’s down there? And 10 minutes later you’re at the most beautiful, remote beach bereft of life except for a couple of sea lions.
Because New Zealand is so sparsely populated, you can get away with winging it and being spontaneous here. There is always a campsite and always somewhere to sleep. Don’t fret!
Don’t – underestimate New Zealand roads
This should probably have been number 1, but seriously, don’t underestimate the roads here. They are crooked, they are winding, they are gnarly, and above all, they are unforgiving.
All the roads are basically one lane in either direction, so that was different for me to get used to. In the US, highways have big medians and dividers between you and oncoming traffic and big break down lanes on the side. Not in New Zealand. Here it’s usually a dotted white line down the middle and either a mountain or a cliff on the sides.
And the more remote roads don’t even have guardrails. Prepare yourself.
I think the kiwi philosophy here is something along the lines of “well, just stay on the road and you’ll be fine.”
Luckily, the max speed limit I’ve seen is 100 kph (63 mph), but it still is a bit disconcerting to be going so fast with traffic going in the opposite direction just next to you, on the left side of the road nonetheless.
The roads, especially around the South Island, needless to say, are nothing like our roads in Virginia haha.
Nothing is straight for one thing, so you always have to be paying attention all the time, and the New Zealand landscape frequently likes to add obstacles to the adventure like landslides, hitchhikers, and sheep, so be on your guard when you’re behind the wheel.
That being said, the beauty of New Zealand roads are that they are USUALLY really well labeled, like you would have to be an idiot to get lost and if you have an accident, it’s likely because you weren’t paying attention.
For example, when the road bends, there are massive yellow reflective signs warning you in advance and on the curve to lower your speed. Sometimes they say 85 kph sometimes they say 20 kph. Heed them, always. I’m sure most of those accidents involve people taking huge curves way too fast. Don’t be one of them.
If a road is winding for a long time, there will be yellow curvy road warning signs for a center number of kilometers. If there is road construction, there are “Road Works” signs in orange. If there is ice or snow, it will say ice or snow. If it’s a mountain pass, there will be signs saying it’s closed or open or if chains are required, and there will be pull offs all the way over for you to pull over and put chains on.
The one lane bridges, and there are lots of them all have signs with the bigger arrow indicating who has the right of way. There is also some one lane bridge etiquette in New Zealand. It’s standard once you get to the other side and a car is waiting to cross, give them a little wave of acknowledgement to say hey, thanks for not playing chicken with me.
Don’t freak out until you get to a one lane covered bridge south of Greymouth with also shares a track with trains. I’m not joking.
All the towns are well labeled as well with yellow street sign-style signs labeling how far away it is, as well as any cultural, campsite, viewpoint, toilets, picnic tables or really anything interesting is marked.
Seriously, New Zealand loves their labels. They are there for a reason, pay attention.
Do – let faster traffic pass you
It takes a while to get used to the roads in New Zealand. I think it was at least a month before I was zooming around like a local. This means a lot of the time if you’re a tourist, you’ll be going slower. And hey, no worries man.
It’s much better to drive slower and be safe, but it’s important to remember, this isn’t your country and the locals grew up on these roads and are more comfortable on them.
Because the roads are generally one lane in either direction, for someone to pass you, they have to usually cross the dividing lane and pass you in oncoming traffic’s lane, which is allowed, but also, obviously is more dangerous.
On the busier roads, there will be passing lanes built in at certain intervals and of course clearly labeled, but that’s not the case everywhere.
It took me a while to begin noticing that locals will pull over off the road when they can to let faster cars by. This is usually in chain bays on the mountain passes where bigger cars slow down everyone, or in safety stops on the switchbacks or big curves.
But once you start to pay attention, even though there isn’t really a pull over lane, there will be picnic spots, campsites, viewpoints and even worn out spots on the side where you can slow down (not stop) and pull off or half off the road to let faster traffic pass you. USE THEM. Don’t let a long line of faster cars build up behind you; it can lead to accident, especially on the mountain roads where there are many curves and blindspots, and you could be going the speed limit only to come around a bend and almost run into the back of a long line of cars behind a campervan going 25.
You can always spot the foreign drivers from the locals this way. There’s always one car going 30 km under the speed limit and not letting anyone pass them. Always. New Zealand is way too friendly a place for that kind of oblivious, rude behavior.
Once someone has let you pass them, it’s also customary to give a “beep beep” with the horn and a wave to say thanks.
Don’t – crash into anything when you’re struck by New Zealand’s beauty
A given but bears repeating considering how beautiful New Zealand is. It blinds even the best of us.
It still happens to me.
“Woah look at that glacier…oh crap! Left, Liz, left!!”
Do – remember to drive on the left
Oh, and to make things more interesting, they drive on the left here.
When I first arrived, I was batshit terrified to drive on the left, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to it. You have to be pretty oblivious to forget to stay on the left. Frequently there are enormous arrow pointing you in the right direction on the roads, and in cities with intersections, there are also arrows on the medians pointing you in the right direction. All the roads here are well marked.
That being said, there are people who miraculously do forget to drive on the left when they rent a car here, and they’ve killed people. Do if you think that might be you, do New Zealand a favor and get a bus pass.
I think it becomes second nature quickly, though the only time I’ve consistently noticed people forgetting are on gravel or dirt roads with no markings. How many times have I been going up or down a back road or mountain pass only to come face to face with Asian tourists driving on the right?
3 times in a year. I am not exaggerating. WTF.
Don’t – pull over just anywhere to take a picture
This was the same in Iceland. New Zealand is really really really photogenic, and even now I fight the urge to pull over to take a photo on the side of the road, but do I really need to point out that this is really dangerous for both you and other drivers?
Would you pull over on the side of I-95 in New York for a quick selfie? Probably not. Why would you do it here?
Yes, there is a lot less traffic than in other countries but it’s still there, and you put a whole lot of people at risk just for a photo.
I’ve seen a handful of almost near collisions with tourists this year on the side of the road.
One time I was parked on farm road by Whataroa River when another rental pulled over in front of me, not on the farm road and literally parked half on the grass and half on the HIGHWAY and left the driver’s side door wide open ON the highway – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. His entire family got out of the car and they loitered around running back and forth across the bridge for group pics, almost causing a half dozen accidents.
My friend who I was who is never angry got out and was yelling at them to get off the road and park their car further down, and they were yelling back and waving their arms around in another language. Finally a giant campervan rolled past them and knocked their sideview mirror off and they eventually left.
I was appalled. If you have no common sense and are oblivious to traffic laws, please don’t drive in New Zealand. Please.
And the truth is, now that I’ve traveled all over New Zealand by car, 9 times out of 10 the best shots are not from the side of the road.
They are either a designated outlooks or viewpoints, or down a trail somewhere. There are only 3 roads I know of worth stopping on for a photos and that’s the road out to Mt. Cook village, Hakatere Potts Rd. towards Mt. Sunday, and the road to Milford Sound. All of these except the Mt. Sunday one have lookouts for tourists, and Mt. Sunday is a dirt road with no traffic, literally, so you can just pull off in a field.
Otherwise, there are lookouts, picnic and campsites, farm roads and driveways, and dirt roads all along the highways in New Zealand, and I can pretty much guarantee if you go a little further on, you can find somewhere safe and pretty to pull over. Just think about where you pull over.
Do – bring accessories from home
I’m sure more well-researched travelers than myself already realize this, but if you are like me and have a lot of stuff to charge, make sure you bring along one of those USB cigarette charger adapter thingys. They are seriously overpriced here, and more likely than not you have one floating around at home.
Also bring a cable to plug in your iPod or music to the stereo so you can jam out on the long road trips.
If you have a van that doesn’t plug in, you might want to also bring one of those adapters that plugs into the lighter and you can charge a computer or an outlet plug device too. I would have bought one of those too here except they are well over $100 and I’m too cheap for that.
If you get a powered van, they’ll have outlets and the works so you don’t have to worry so much about that.
Don’t – be afraid of hitchhikers
Growing up with legends of Ted Bundy and other horrors, I think I can count the number if times I’ve seen hitchhikers in America in 26 years on one hand.
However, since New Zealand is pretty much the safest and friendliest country in the entire world, hitchhiking is still pretty common, especially in summer.
I still haven’t picked up a hitchhiker yet but I definitely plan on helping people out if I can. I think it makes things all the more exciting and can lead to some great stories. Who knows, I might end up hitching around New Zealand one day (just kidding, mom!)
Do – pay attention to the weather
It’s important to check road conditions AND heed all warnings. The weather in New Zealand can be intense, and especially around the South Island, landslides are a common occurrence, especially in winter and after heavy rain.
Once you see the roads here, especially the mountain passes, you’ll understand.
There are 3 passes through the Southern Alps on the South Island to get between the east and west coasts – Lewis Pass, Arthur’s Pass, and Haast’s Pass.
Last winter during a monster storm, a Canadian couple in a campervan drove through the Haast’s Pass at night after they had been warned to turn around only to get hit with a massive landslide and were killed. They found the girl’s body 50km away and they never found her boyfriend. Moral of the story? Do not drive these passes in bad weather and listen to the locals.
Haast Pass – source
Arthur’s Pass landslide – source
Since then the Haast Pass has frequent slips and is constantly under maintenance and closed at night. Right now the road through closes at 4pm and reopens at 8am.
I have some friends that work on the pass trying to fix it and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and more delayed. from what I’ve heard, a road shouldn’t have even been built there, and personally, if it reopens, I don’t think I’d drive through there at night anyways. In fact, I avoid the more “challenging” roads at night here in New Zealand, especially in the rain and definitely not in hurricane-type weather.
On this trip I drove up to Arthur’s Pass through pretty scary weather- it’s one of the only times I’ve been terrified while driving in New Zealand.
After talking with a hotel who told me a foot of rain had fallen over the past 3 days and they were thinking about closing the pass, I headed straight back to the west coast, not wanting to get caught in dangerous area or risk being stranded for a few days, especially considering there was a massive landslide there earlier this year.
These roads are actually some of the most scenic views in New Zealand since they go through right of the hearts of the mountains. They are remote and stunning, and they have beautiful walks and sights to visit along the way. Besides, you want to go in the daytime anyways to see them in all their glory.
Just remember how untamed and wild New Zealand can be and don’t take unnecessary risks.
Is it really a big deal if you stay an extra day in Wanaka before heading to the west coast or vice versa while waiting out a storm? Probably not.
Don’t – worry, you’re not alone; everyone falls in love with New Zealand
I don’t think I’ve met a single person who has disliked New Zealand. I think it’s scientifically impossible actually, someone should do a study on it.
In fact, not only do I hear only positive reviews, many people I know absolutely fall head over heels for it, and they keep coming back for more or they never leave. I think that speaks volumes about a country.
And keep in mind, any photo I share, any photo I take pales in comparison to the real thing. New Zealand blows me away every day, in the friendliness of the people and also in the scenery.
So be prepared to fall in love too. Embrace it.
Are you a fan of road trips or camperan trips? What’s your best driving tip? Have you been on a New Zealand roadie?
Many thanks to Jucy for hosting me hosting me on my recent road trip – like always I’m keeping it real, all opinions are my own, like you could expect anything less from me.