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Do You Need a Rental Car in Australia

Extra Freedom?  Or Simply Extra Hassle?

Classic Australian Outback Road Sign

Watch out for camels, wombats and kangaroos for the next 96 km (60 miles) according to this classic Australian outback road sign.

Part of a series on travel to and in Australia - click the links on the right hand side for more articles.



In some countries, renting a car is close to unavoidable, and is essential if you're to be able to fully enjoy your visit, because there's just no other easy way of getting to places you'll want to see.

 In other countries, traffic is a nightmare, parking is impossible, or for some other reason, renting a car is massively ill-advised.

And some countries can be considered as where renting a car is optional.

 What about Australia?  Do you need a car?  Should you have a car?

Using a Car for Traveling Between Destinations

Although Australia is very large, there are a few places where driving is a pleasant way to travel between destinations.

Sydney - Melbourne

In terms of the places you're most likely to visit, the 'obvious' drive would be the journey between Sydney and Melbourne.

There are two main routes to consider when driving between the two cities.  The first is the coastal route, traveling along the Princes Highway.  This is about a 650 mile journey, and while you could do it in a single long day of driving, it would be more relaxing to do it in two days, which would also allow you the chance of making stops as and when you feel like it.

The inland route - along the Hume Highway and Freeway - is both shorter and also faster.  It is about 550 miles, and could more easily be done in a day, but again would be better done in two days.

If you were planning to go via the inland route, you might then choose to make the small detour to Canberra en route.  It adds about 45 miles, and a good hour, to detour through Canberra.

Yes, we know we placed Canberra on our list of places to miss in Australia, but that was more from the perspective of not making a special trip and spending several days there.  If Canberra represents as merely a 45 mile and one hour detour on a day that is only half full of activities anyway, you'd be well advised to include it.

There are other variations for traveling between Sydney and Melbourne as well - perhaps also including the Snowy Mountains (which are seldom snowy and not really mountains - Australia's highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko, is a mere 7,310 ft high).

Oh - an amusing bit of trivia about Mt Kosciuszko (until 1997 spelled Kosciusko).  It was deemed Australia's highest peak, but subsequent measurements showed a nearby peak - Mt Townsend - to be slightly higher.  So Australia swapped the names of the two mountains, enabling the perpetuation of the claim that Mt Kosciuszko is its highest mountain!




   The somewhat inaccurate perception of New Zealand being a very long way away also distorts how long people think they 'need' to spend in New Zealand.

NZ is an easier journey than to Britain/Europe

The travel time - from the west coast - is the same to New Zealand or to Europe.





But the jet lag is amazingly less.  Traveling to New Zealand involves only 3 or 5 time zones (depending on whether daylight saving is operating or not), whereas to Britain and Europe is 9 to 11 times zones.  The extra six time zones crossed on the way to Europe gives you much greater jet lag, messing up your enjoyment of more of your trip, and also taking longer to readjust when you return home again, too.

If you've ever been to Britain or Europe for a week, you'll find a one week trip to New Zealand much easier.

There's no need to see the entire country in a single visit

Some people say 'there's so much to see that it wouldn't be worth visiting for less than three (or some other number of) weeks'.  But, again think about Europe.  Europe is physically larger, has a vastly greater population, and many more places to see and do.  No-one expects to see all of Europe in a single visit; so why should you challenge yourself to see all of New Zealand in a single visit?

The same is true of Mexico and many other places, where people typically go to spend a week at just a single location.

The shortest sensible stay

The shortest sensible stay is about a week, or better still, one week and two weekends.  That gives you plenty of time to see a couple of different places in detail, or to lightly skip over the highlights of a greater number of places for a quick introductory interview to the country, so you'll know for your next visit where to return to for longer stays.

If possible, you'll have a much more satisfying experience if you can extend your stay to two weeks.

The longest sensible stay

There's no real maximum to this, other than what is convenient for you.

You also have to be sensitive to NZ immigration policies.  You can typically get a three month visitor permit automatically - Americans and many other nationalities don't need to pre-apply for a visa for stays of up to three months and will be given permission upon arrival in New Zealand.

You could get this extended if you wanted to stay up to six months, but a longer stay than 6 months at one time becomes more difficult.

Most of us find it difficult to travel anywhere for anything like this amount of time, of course.

If you wanted to be able to thoroughly visit all of New Zealand in a single visit, you'd probably want to spend four to six weeks.

Often the cheapest airfares allow for a maximum stay of no more than one month, and so for this reason, it is uncommon to find people staying in New Zealand for longer than one month.

Combining a visit to New Zealand with other countries

It is more common for people to visit New Zealand as part of a multi-country itinerary than it is for people to go only to NZ and nowhere else.

The most common country to combine with New Zealand is Australia.  Other people choose to include an island stop, perhaps in Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, or Rarotonga (Cook Islands), and some people include both Australia and an island stop.

How to split your time between New Zealand and Australia

I've helped thousands of people plan itineraries to the South Pacific, with a wide range of different interests and expectations.  After a while, I noticed a curious thing - just about everyone ended up spending approximately equal amounts of time in each country.

There's no scientific reason why this should be, but it seems to be so common that you'll probably end up splitting your time similarly - about half in Australia and half in New Zealand.

Open jaws travel through New Zealand

If you are combining travel to New Zealand and Australia, here's a great way to get best value from your airfare and for your time.  Fly in to one New Zealand city and out of a different one.  This allows you to travel eg from Auckland to Christchurch without needing to then double back and return to Auckland before flying on to Australia.

There is usually no extra cost for flying into one city in NZ and out of a different one (one exception to this may be if flying on a frequent flier award ticket).  This strategy is called creating an 'open jaws' itinerary.

Between NZ and the US, you will probably be flying in or out of Auckland, but between NZ and Australia, you can fly in or out of Wellington and Christchurch as well as Auckland, making it easy to build an open jaws itinerary into/out of NZ.

Circle Pacific and Round the World Fares

If you're planning on visiting a lot of different countries, or if you would like to travel in business or first class, then you should research what are called Circle Pacific and Round the World fares as well as regular fares.

A Circle Pacific fare has you doing, as the name implies, a giant loop more or less around the Pacific rim, traveling always in the same direction, either clockwise or anti-clockwise, and on a specific mix of different airlines.

A Round the World fare is also pretty much as its name implies - you fly completely around the world, traveling always pretty much in the same direction (either east or west) and possibly with various other restrictions in terms of the number of times you can cross the equator and the total number of stops and miles flown (and the airlines you fly with).

Both these types of fares can save you money, and both these fares almost definitely will save you a vast amount of money compared to flying first or business class, so much so that even a fairly limited itinerary can result in you choosing to change a simple plan to just go to NZ and Australia to extending it to a complete around the world itinerary if time allows.  Chances are you can travel all around the world for the same or less cost than just to NZ/Australia and back again!

You definitely need to contact a specialist travel agency to help you with such fares.  They're usually impossible to book through most internet websites.

When is the best time to visit New Zealand

Because New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere, its seasons are reversed (compared to northern hemisphere countries).  So, unless you want to enjoy some opposite season skiing in our summer (NZ's winter) you'll probably not want to go to NZ during our summer months.

We also recommend avoiding New Zealand in the peak of their summer season, which is from mid December through mid January.  This coincides with their local school holidays and also their Christmas and New Year holidays; many New Zealanders are themselves on holiday during this time period, making accommodation scarce, roads congested, and attractions crowded.

Air fare seasonality

Another factor to consider is seasonal changes in airfare to New Zealand.  The most expensive time to start your travel to New Zealand is between 9 December and 31 January.  So, to avoid paying another couple of hundred dollars or more on your airfare, start your travel to NZ no later than 8 December, or after 1 February.

It doesn't matter if your travel dates spill into this time period, the seasonality is based exclusively on the date you start your travel on.

Book your flights well in advance

Flights to New Zealand often fill up early, particular during peak times of year.  If you want to be sure to get the lowest possible fares, you should buy your airline tickets as far in advance as your planning allows.

Considering all these different factors, we generally prefer to travel to NZ outside of the peak of their summer.  Late spring or early fall can be a lovely time of year.

New Zealand Weather

Because nowhere in New Zealand is more than about 70 miles from the sea, New Zealand's climate tends to be mild in both winter and summer.

Temperatures rarely get into the 90s in summer, and during the winter rarely drop below freezing, except at night.  Snow can be found in the mountains, of course, but almost never at lower elevations, except occasionally at the bottom of the South Island.

There aren't massive differences in climate around the country, although the further south you go (ie further from the equator and closer to Antarctica) the cooler average temperatures become.

Most parts of the country regularly enjoy rain, with the wettest months being around July and the driest months December - February.  On average, there are typically between 5 and 12 days with measurable precipitation each month.

More information on NZ weather can be found here.

The 'Big Three' Tourist Destinations :  Two winners and a loser

Chances are you'll choose to include the big three tourist spots in New Zealand.  But we recommend you keep your time in one of them to a minimum.

New Zealand's most popular (but not necessarily best!) destinations are :


This is New Zealand's largest city.  It has a population of 1 million, and close on half of everyone in the country live within about 100 miles of Auckland.  It is steadily growing in size, and like all growing large metroplexes, has its share of problems due to roading and other services not keeping pace with population pressures.

Auckland has the main international airport for the country, so most people find themselves flying in and/or out of Auckland, and will choose to spend a day or two in Auckland at the beginning or end of their travels.

This might make sense from a convenience point of view, but other than for the convenience issue, there really is very little in Auckland that is uniquely a New Zealand experience, and much that tends more towards the increasingly generic feel of big western cities the world over.  It no longer has a central downtown shopping area of any note at all, and is perhaps better avoided.

Our recommendation :  spend as little time as possible in this city, and more time in some of NZ's more individualistic and less well known areas.


The Rotorua region is strongly steeped in Maori culture, and is also an area of intense geothermal activity.  Boiling mudpools, geysers, weird moon like landscapes, and NZ's own Pompeii are all in this area, nestled in among the gorgeous native bush.

A wide range of other outdoor activities are also available in this lovely part of the country.

Our recommendation :  Spend more time in Rotorua than you originally planned.

Please see this part of our series for a detailed tourism profile of Rotorua.


The Queenstown area, extending down into Fiordland and to Milford Sound is another very popular tourist region.  This is an area close to the Southern Alps, with glorious snow-covered mountains in abundance everywhere, and wonderful winter skiing in addition to the summer time activities.

Jet-boats were invented not far from Queenstown, and you have a chance of an exhilarating ride on one here.  You can also go rafting, or more sedately cruise on an old steamship on Lake Wakatipu, the lake on which Queenstown is located.

While you're in the Queenstown area you should be sure to go to Milford Sound, and ideally spend a night or two in Te Anau, the town on the way to Milford Sound, and just the other side of Lake Te Anau from the lovely Te Ana-au glow-worm caves.

Legends tell of a lost tribe of maoris, still living somewhere in the intense and unspoiled native bush around the region, and as you look out on the hills and mountains, this fanciful idea all of a sudden seems less far-fetched.

Our recommendation :  Be generous with your time in Queenstown, and try to add a night or two in Te Anau also.

Please see this part of our series for a detailed tourism profile of Queenstown.

For more information

Click the links in the top right of this page for additional helpful information about travel to and in New Zealand.

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Originally published 29 Jul 2005, last update 30 May 2021

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