Self-Drive Touring in New Zealand
Driving in New Zealand
Roads in New Zealand
are generally high quality and uncongested.
But you may
occasionally find yourself sharing the road with a flock of
sheep or a herd of cattle.
of a series on travel to and in New Zealand -
click the links in the right hand
column for more articles.
Perhaps the most convenient way
to enjoy a New Zealand vacation is by renting a car and driving
yourself around the country.
When driving in New Zealand,
the journey and the beautiful scenery truly is the highlight,
reaching your destination is definitely a secondary
This article tells you what you
need to know to plan a self-drive vacation.
A New Zealand Self-Drive
In some countries you can enjoy a marvelous vacation without
needing to hire a car at all. But unless you're going on a
fully organized coach tour, you'll find that New Zealand is a
country where you are almost forced to hire a car. Many of
the places you'll want to see and enjoy can only be reached by
car - there is no bus service, and while taxis are possible, the
expense of taxi fares and the inconvenience of waiting for taxis
make this approach of little appeal to most people.
The good news is that traveling by car in New Zealand is
comparatively easy. Roads are of a good quality, they are
well signposted making it easy to get around, and traffic is
generally orderly, safe, and uncongested.
How Long to Spend on a New
Zealand Self-Drive Tour
As discussed in more detail in the article on
When to Visit New Zealand and How
Long to Stay there is no right or wrong length of time to
spend in New Zealand. Most people spend between one and
three weeks; but some people spend less when making a brief stop
in NZ as part of a multi-destination journey, and other people
spend much longer.
You'll enjoy your time in New Zealand, no matter how long you
stay, and you'll also wish you could stay longer, again no
matter how long you stay.
We will be offering sample itineraries for various lengths of
stay in an upcoming extra part of our NZ travel series.
Which Cities to Fly Into and Out From
If you have less time to spend in New Zealand, you'll save time
by flying in and out of different cities.
Most international flights fly in and out of Auckland. But
flights between Australia and New Zealand fly in and out of
Wellington and Christchurch as well as Auckland (and sometimes
to other cities too).
Strategy for travel to/from NZ and Australia
If your itinerary includes travel to both New Zealand and
Australia, and you have two weeks or less to spend in New
Zealand, consider having the New Zealand end of your flight
between the two countries be somewhere other than Auckland -
Christchurch or Queenstown being the best to places to consider.
This means you can fly in (or out of) Auckland and out of (or in
to) the other city, saving the need to double back on yourself
to get back to Auckland. This can be both a significant
time saving (it is a couple of days of driving to get between
Christchurch and Auckland, and three days of driving to get between
Queenstown and Auckland) as well as an appreciable cost saving
Strategy for travel only to New Zealand
If you want to avoid the doubling back when you're traveling
only to New Zealand, and probably arriving/departing from
Auckland, you still may be able to do this. Many
international airfares can be modified to have you flying in to
one city and out of another for little more than a ticket to and
from Auckland alone.
Driving Between the North Island and the South Island
There are two ways to get between the North Island and the South
Island. You can fly, or you can take a passenger ferry.
Most of the passenger ferries take cars as well as passengers, and some
rental car companies allow you to take your car across on the
ferry, whereas others require you to swap cars - you return one
at the ferry terminal on one island, and pick up another at the
ferry terminal on the other island.
Which is best? Swapping cars can actually end up being
more convenient, as surprising as this may seem.
Especially if you are traveling in the busy summer months (and
in particular during NZ's summer school holidays between mid
December and the end of January) there can sometimes be long
waits for a ferry with available space for cars, and the cost of
taking a car across is also a factor. Taking a car will
add about NZ$150 to the fare you pay (US$95).
Usually there is little need to book a reservation if you're not
taking a car with you, although note there can be discounted
fares available if you book your travel in advance.
We have a very complete three page series on
taking a ferry between New
Zealand's two main islands, and we also have another page
that gives you many alternatives -
your choices for
how to get between New Zealand's two main islands.
Choosing a Rental Car Company in NZ
New Zealand has most of the major international rental car
companies, plus a variety of local rental car companies too.
You can comfortably and sensibly choose a local NZ-only rental
car company, and will usually find the rates to be lower than
those quoted by the major international franchises.
See our pages on renting a car in New
Zealand for a detailed coverage of how to find the best rental
car for your needs while touring around NZ.
Cost of Petrol and Diesel in New Zealand
Petrol prices are about 50% higher in New Zealand than in the
US. Petrol is sold per liter in New Zealand, and if you
should see any references to gallons, remember these would be larger
Imperial (UK) gallons, not US gallons.
There are 3.8 liters in a US gallon (and 4.5 liters in a UK
In January 2011 petrol was selling at NZ$1.999 a liter for
regular grade (91 octane) and NZ$2.069 for super grade (95
octane). Diesel was massively cheaper at NZ$1.369/liter.
These prices equate to US$5.77, US$5.98 and US$3.95 per US
gallon. At the same time, US prices for regular grade
petrol averaged $3.10/gallon (lowest in the Rocky Mountain
region at $2.89, highest in California at $3.35) and diesel was
Interestingly, when this article was first written in mid April 2006,
there was a much smaller cost differential. Petrol was selling in NZ for about
NZ$1.70/liter, which translates to just over US$4/gallon.
At the same time, petrol in the US was generally selling for
about US$3/gallon. So while petrol is more expensive in
NZ, it isn't outrageously more expensive (petrol was
US$6.70/gallon in the UK in mid April).
Car or Campervan or Motorhome?
Most people choose to hire a regular motorcar for driving around
New Zealand. But you can also choose from various sizes of
campervans and motorhomes (sort of similar to an RV in the US).
If you're thinking of a campervan or motorhome, be aware that
these are very much smaller than RVs in the US.
While they may be less expensive than renting a car and paying
for nightly accommodation in hotels and motels, this is not
necessarily a sensible way to save money. They are less
convenient to drive, and harder to park, and of course consume a
great deal more petrol. And at night, their comfort level
and spaciousness leaves a great deal to be desired.
If you are going to rent a campervan or motorhome, you should
know that daily hire rates change greatly depending on the
season. You can often find very discounted specials for
rentals in the winter season, but in the middle of summer, you
might find all vehicles are booked out and nothing is available
- even when trying to pre-book a month or two prior to travel.
Book early and consider adjusting your travel dates to secure
the most favorable rental rate.
One more issue when considering a campervan/motorhome hire.
Find out how old your vehicle is likely to be, and carefully
consider paying extra to get a newer vehicle. Older
campervans/motorhomes are much more likely to give you trouble
than are older cars.
Some companies buy brand new vehicles and rent those, then when
they get too old for their high standards, they sell them to
second level operators who then continue to rent them. In
some cases, there are even third level operators who will take
the second-level operators hand-me-downs and continue to rent
them still further.
Driving on the Other Side of the Road
In New Zealand traffic keeps to the left of the road.
It is surprisingly easy to adjust to driving on the other side
of the road, but there are a few tricks and traps to keep in
Please refer to our article about
on the left side of the road for full details of how to
quickly become skilled at this.
Which Direction to Travel
Should you travel from the top of New Zealand in a generally
southerly direction? Or should you start your vacation at
the bottom of the South Island and head steadily north?
This isn't really a vital issue to resolve, but there are
several issues to consider in making this decision which might
help tweak your itinerary from 'good' to 'great' :
Clearly, if your air itinerary has you unavoidably, eg, arriving
in Christchurch and leaving from Auckland, your travels
will be generally northerly. But it is rare that you can't
change your flights to suit your preference.
Strategizing the first day in NZ
Most people, if they are arriving into Auckland early in the
morning after many long hours of travel, will not want to then
get into a car and spend the next some hours driving.
But if your flight arrives at 6am and your hotel choices don't
allow checkin until sometime in the afternoon (and you don't
want to pay extra for early checkin) maybe it is better to at
least keep on flying down to Christchurch or Queenstown so as to
get as much of the travel over and done with at once.
If there is a special event you're planning on attending - or
perhaps an unrelated special event you wish to avoid due to full
hotels and local area congestion - this may influence your
There's quite a distance from the top of the North Island to the
bottom of the South Island, making for quite a difference in
daylight and weather at some times of year.
If you're in New Zealand at a time when it is getting steadily
colder and the days shorter, you might want to consider starting
at the bottom and moving north. On the other hand, if
you're in NZ at a time when it is getting steadily warmer and
the days longer, you might want to consider traveling from the
Fitting in with other destinations
It makes sense to try and mix and match your varying travel
experiences into some sort of pattern. Maybe you prefer to
have like following like, or maybe you prefer contrasting
experiences. For example, if you're spending some time in
Fiji, NZ and Australia, do you want a NZ 'big city' experience
to be adjacent to an Australian 'big city' experience, or do you
want to mix and match big cities with outdoor and resort style
How Far to Drive in a Day
If you're renting a car and driving yourself around NZ (and this
is how most people choose to travel around) then how far is
realistic to consider traveling in a single day?
You'll find many maps in NZ with 'estimated traveling times' on
them. These estimated traveling times tend to be very
conservative - some (but not all) of them were prepared 25 or more years ago,
when the speed limit was 50 mph, when roads and cars weren't so
good, and they also assume you're making frequent stops each
hour as well.
These days the speed limit has increased to 62 mph (100 km/hr),
and roads and cars are both better suited for faster motoring.
In terms of actual on the road average speeds, figure on
averaging perhaps 50 miles every hour if you like to keep close to the speed limit. If you're a
faster driver, you'll probably manage to get 55 - 60 miles behind you
Fortunately, New Zealand is small and most of the time you'll be
choosing to drive only moderate distances each day.
Speed Limits and Speeding Tickets
New Zealand generally sets an open road speed limit of 100 km/hr
(62 mph) and a speed limit of 50 km/hr (31 mph) in built up
There are also intermediate speed zones of 70 km/hr and 80
km/hr. Prior to 1986, 80 km/hr (50 mph) was the standard
open road speed limit.
Unfortunately there is no increased speed limit for the short
stretches of motorway (freeway) in the country.
speed signs are easily recognizable as such - a black number
inside a circle with an outside red band.
There is also one speed limit sign that is less intuitive - you
can see it pictured on the left.
This is the 'open road' sign and it denotes the end of any
previous speed restrictions or limits, and means the 100 km/hr
open road speed limit will apply.
Speeding Enforcement and Fines in New Zealand
New Zealand has fairly aggressive enforcement of its speed
limits, and unlike some countries which don't attempt to collect
fines from international visitors, NZ quite aggressively seeks
If you leave the country before your speeding fine becomes
overdue, you can leave with no problems, but if you choose to
return back to New Zealand in the future, expect to have an
embarrassing encounter when trying to pass through Immigration.
It is best to pay any fines you might accrue.
feature of NZ speed enforcement is a number of unmarked dark
vans with tinted windows that have a hidden photo radar camera
Here is one such van pictured, with the camera and radar
equipment facing out the back of the van.
These will be parked, all by themselves, by the side of the road
somewhere, and you won't even realize they are anything
significant until too late. So if you see a dark, tinted
window, clean van by the side of the road for no apparent
reason, check your speed.
One possible warning might be if oncoming cars flash their
headlights at you. This is a common signal in New Zealand
to advise drivers that up ahead there is a policeman or radar
trap or photo radar van.
Mix Self-drive with Other Travel Options
Your travel doesn't need to be exclusively by car. Of
course you'll probably be taking a ferry across Cook Strait
between the two islands, and perhaps you might want to take a
train as well.
There are the two very pleasant train journeys worth
considering. The most popular is the Tranz-Alpine, cross
the South Island between Christchurch and Greymouth. This
is a 4.5 hour journey, with the train operating one roundtrip a
day, from Christchurch in the morning, arriving in Greymouth at
lunchtime, and returning back to Christchurch an hour later,
getting back early evening.
Another journey to consider is the TranzCoastal, operating
between Picton (where the ferry terminal is at the top of the
South Island) and Christchurch. This is a five and a
quarter hour journey, leaving Christchurch daily in the early
morning, arriving in Picton at lunchtime, and returning back to
Christchurch 45 minutes later. This train conveniently
connects to ferry service and indeed you can check your bags in
Wellington or Christchurch and have them transfer between ferry
and train in Picton.
The other mode of travel to consider, especially if you have
only a little time in New Zealand, is air travel. In
addition to the obvious flights between Auckland and
Christchurch or Queenstown, another good flight for visitors is
between Rotorua and Christchurch or Queenstown.
We are publishing a series
of self-drive itineraries to help you plan your self-drive New
Zealand vacation. Here is the
list of NZ self-drive
itineraries for you to choose from.
Related Articles, etc
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28 Apr 2006, last update
21 Jul 2020