Tips for Driving Around New Zealand

New Zealand is deceptively large with relatively poor public transportation. There isn’t really a train service, for example. This means that driving around the two islands that make up the country is probably the best way to see everything you want to see. Not only that, but driving around New Zealand is pretty spectacular, with some simply incredible scenery regardless of which direction you’re driving.

However, there are some things you should be aware of when traversing the country in a vehicle. Having driven almost completely around the country on two occasions, I thought I’d share some tips to make you’re life a little easier.

Pick Your Weapon

I’ve driven New Zealand in a car and in a camper van. They are two very different experiences. There are pros and cons to each, and your choice will largely depend on the type of trip you want to have. Either way, I would urge you to go for an auto option (most happen to be automatic). Some of the roads are very challenging and having gears to worry about is something that can only distract. Given some of the distances you’ll be travelling, your left foot will also appreciate the rest.

I’ll write a separate post about taking a camper van around New Zealand, because there’s a lot to cover.

Cross on the Ferry

At some point, you’ll want to move between the islands. It’s possible to fly between various points on each island but if you do, you’re missing out on the stunning ferry crossing.

It’s a toss up as to whether it’s best to cross in the day or the evening. I departed Wellington in the evening and caught an amazing sunset as we left. However, by the time we reached Queen Charlotte Sound (the most stunning part of the journey) it was dark. The pictures above are from a combination of day and evening crossings.

A few things to note about the ferry crossing. If you’ve hired a car, you CANNOT take the car on the ferry. It is expressly forbidden in the hire agreement and if you get caught by the rental company taking the car across on the ferry, you’ll face a substantial fine. Instead, you drop your current vehicle off at the ferry terminal an pick up a replacement vehicle on the other side. Be aware though, if you’re on an evening crossing you may have to request the rental office on the other side open for you and this will incur a charge. If you let the rental desk know that you’re heading to the other island when you first pick up your car, they should give you an information pack explaining all this. Note I say should, because Avis failed to do this for me on my last trip and I was very fortunate to get a vehicle. If you’ve got a camper van, you cross with the van.

Watch out for Cops

The maximum speed limit anywhere in New Zealand is 100kph (that’s roughly 62mph) and the Police in New Zealand enforce this incredibly strictly. In fact, around major population centres they operate a zero tolerance policy during public holidays. Yes, even 1kph over the limit will result in a ticket. I got fined for travelling at 111kph on a clear, straight road in perfect conditions. Police in the UK (nor I believe most of the US) simply wouldn’t bother you at that speed.

Beware the Terrain

The roads in New Zealand are hugely varied and some are unlike anything you’ve seen elsewhere. There are desert roads, mountain roads, motorways (sort of), single lane bridges, blond corners, steep elevations and, rather memorably somewhere south of Greymouth, a roundabout with a train track going through the middle of it. In the same area there’s also a bridge that you share with trains (hint: If you see a train coming the other way, reverse very quickly unless your close to the passing point).

Luckily, New Zealand is one of the best sign posted places I’ve driven, so just keep your eyes open for helpful signs

Don’t Run Out of Fuel/Gas/Petrol/Energy

As I’ve mentioned a few times, New Zealand is deceptively large. It’s also not densely populated, which means you can go for large stretches of time (easily 100km) without seeing a fuel stop. When this is likely to be the case, there tend to be signs warning you. Pay attention to them. And remember to rest. There are plenty of places to stop next to most roads and some amazing views to take in. Make the most of them, and don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

Have you experienced driving in New Zealand? Share your tips below!