There is no denying that road tripping is the best way to see a country and little beats a New Zealand road trip. With jaw-dropping landscapes, hundreds of campgrounds and a lack of any affordable or practical public transport, New Zealand really lends itself to being explored by driving. But how does it all work? Where can you get a car or a van? How does insurance work? And where can you even camp in New Zealand?
Fear not, I have all the answers right here to help you plan the perfect New Zealand road trip. Recently returned from overseas, we decided to put our knowledge to the test and spent six weeks on a road trip of the South Island. We stayed in some of the most amazing places, stopped off in small towns and view point and most importantly, didn’t break the bank! So read on for all our info and tips for planning an epic New Zealand road trip.
Once you’ve figured out all the details and costs you can start planning your itinerary. Take a look here for four amazing itinerary suggestions for the South Island.
Driving in New Zealand
Cost of fuel: Varies between $1.80 and $2.30 per litre of fuel
Road conditions: are generally very good but there are a few things to think about when you are used to roads in Europe or the US. The roads in New Zealand are very narrow and usually singel lanes. Also, it is common to slow down to 50km/hr when entering a town on the major highways. Just be aware that the roads in New Zealand are not made for huge amounts of traffic.
Driving side: Left
Speed limits: They vary throughout the country but the most common are 50km/hr in towns and 100km/hr on the open road.
Parking: Paid in city centres (denoted by blue signs) and prices vary depending on the city. Free in most other places. Can be paid with coins or card.
Toll roads: There are three toll roads in NZ, all located in the north of the North Island. They all cost roughly $2 and can be paid online. Click here for more info.
Budget break down
Car hire per day: from $30 NZD
Campervan hire per day: from $50 NZD
Camp ground: Prices vary from $0 to $21 NZD per person per night. Depends on the location and service provided.
Litre of fuel: $1.80 to $2.30 NZD
Where to get a vehicle in New Zealand
Car or Campervan?
Your first big decision will be weather to get a car or a campervan. This really comes down to your own personal travel style and budget. If you get a self-contained camper (read about this next) you can camp in many free parking spots which will save you money but your rental and petrol costs will be higher.
A car is easier to drive along many of the roads and is easier to have in cities. But it limits your ability to get off the beaten path and means you need to book accommodation in advance.
We took a station wagon and slept in the back. It was a great combination of the two, meaning we could camp in some areas for free but it was cheaper and easier to drive. The only issues were not having an indoor space to cook or hang out (not fun in the rain) and having to move all our stuff from the back to the front every day to sleep.
What does ‘self-contained’ mean?
In New Zealand there is a certification process for camping vehicles. If they have a toilet and can store water and grey water they can get a sticker on the back which means you’re allowed to camp in ‘self-contained only’ camping zones. Of which there are many.
Basically, you’ll have more options for free camping and more luxury in the camper but it’s more expensive than just a car you can sleep in.
To rent or to buy a car/van in New Zealand?
Again, this depends a lot on your travel style. If you’re going to be in New Zealand any longer than about three weeks buying a vehicle is going to work out cheaper than renting. However, you have to factor in the hassles of buying and selling. The actual process is very straight forward even for tourists but finding the right vehicle and then buyers when you finish your trip can be difficult.
Renting a car or van during peak season is exorbitantly expensive and unless you have a lot of money I would only recommend doing this if you only have a week or two.
Some companies offer a buy back option on campervans and although you might loose a bit of money doing it this way it can be nice to have the security, especially if you want to keep your van up until your last days in the country.
Where to rent a car in New Zealand?
If you’re wanting to rent a van use a price comparison site such as www.vroomvroomvroom.co.nz or www.comparenewzealandrentalcars.com to get an idea of prices and then approach companies asking if they can offer any discounts. This has been known to work, especially if you can quote a competitor’s price which is lower.
Renting from an airport will usually be more expensive than in the city. It can also add a lot extra to pick up and drop off in different locations. You may want to look into hiring multiple times throughout your trip, dropping one back and taking public transport to your next region and hiring another vehicle there.
Where to buy a car in New Zealand?
There’s a high turnover of vehicles in NZ especially in peak tourist season. Most vans and cars will be advertised on Trademe, a platform for buying and selling.
There are also Facebook groups for backpackers buying and selling vehicles which can be a great way to get a good deal off someone who has been using it for the same purpose. People are often willing to sell a bit cheaper as they need to leave the country.
You can attend the Ellerslie car fair in Auckland which has a huge number of cars for sale each week. People also advertise by putting signs in their car window so if you have some time in New Zealand before you need the car you can have a look around. The change of ownership can be done in a day.
Insurance is not compulsory in New Zealand but it’s worth at least having third party. This will cost different amounts depending on your age and the type of car you’re driving but basic insurance should cost around $300-400 for a year with some options for shorter terms. Some popular insurance companies are: AA New Zealand, Tower (Which you can purchase cheaply through Trademe) or State.
Where to camp in New Zealand
Freedom or wild camping is common in New Zealand but you are likely to find mixed attitudes to it as it has received a lot of negative press in recent years. Unfortunately some tourists (and locals) are idiots and can’t use toilets or rubbish bins causing locals to become wary of people parking up and camping for free.
However it’s still allowed in many places around NZ and can be easily done if you respect your surroundings and the local community. If you have a self-contained vehicle you will find a lot more places open to you freedom camping.
It’s usually pretty clearly signposted when camping is not permitted and if you’re caught in one of these areas it’s an instant $200 fine. This is really only an issue in peak season and in really popular areas. If there’s no sign you can ask a local or check the regions freedom camping policy online.
DoC (The Department of Conservation) offers a range of campgrounds across the country ranging from free camping areas with toilets to fully serviced campgrounds and huts along hiking tracks. There is an online map or a brochure of each island which outlines the camping areas and what facilities are available. The DoC campgrounds and categorised as:
Basic - Free
Standard - $8 per person per night
Scenic - $13 per person per night
Serviced - $18 per person per night
Many of the campgrounds run on honesty boxes where you make a payment into a box and put a card on your dashboard to show you have paid. There are DoC officers who come around to check particularly during peak season and in popular campsites. The money is put towards maintaining these campgrounds and the myriad of other great conservation projects run by DoC so make sure you pay if you’re using them.
There are also a lot of private campgrounds that run throughout NZ over the peak season. There are several apps which will show you maps of where all campgrounds are located or you can simply search ‘Campgrounds in XYZ’ and you’ll likely find the options. These tend to be more expensive than DoC campgrounds but have better facilities like hot showers and Wi-Fi.