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Planning a Vacation in New Zealand

Key information for the intending visitor

New Zealand is an uncrowded land of glorious scenery.

While there is no one thing that makes New Zealand unique, its combination of so many different types of landscape and surroundings in such a small country make for an experience filled and diverse visit.

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



Whatever type of vacation experience you're seeking, the chances are New Zealand can offer it to you.  The information in these pages will help you to plan your visit to New Zealand and then help you to enjoy your time there to best advantage.

Sunny sandy beaches?  NZ has plenty - with a choice of white or black sand, and a choice of gentle waves or world class surfing conditions.  Mountains?  Yes, enjoy of the best skiing of anywhere in the world.  Spas and resorts?  The Rotorua area is overflowing (almost literally) with natural spas.

And so on through a lengthy list of other attractions and activities.  Truly New Zealand is a wonderful destination for people of all interests.  Here's what you need to plan your own visit downunder.

New Zealand is closer than you think

Most people think of New Zealand is about as far away from the rest of the world as it is possible to be.

This perception is made worse by Mercator projection maps that distort distances.  These maps flatten out the world to fit into a rectangle and make distances away from the equator seem greater than they are.   NZ seems more distant than it really is.

Using the most relevant measure, New Zealand is just over 12 hours flying time from Los Angeles, 8.5 hours from Honolulu, and 3 hours from Australia.

In other words; from Los Angeles, it takes about the same time to fly to New Zealand as it does to Britain or Europe.  But whereas people consider Europe 'close' they often consider NZ as 'distant'.

Getting to New Zealand

Nonstop flights operate from Los Angeles and San Francisco.  If you wished to include a stop on your way to or from New Zealand, you can choose from various Pacific islands including Hawaii, Tahiti, Fiji and Rarotonga.

Many people, if planning a longer vacation, will choose to combine a visit to New Zealand with time in Australia too.  The extra airfare to include Australia isn't very much, and the flight across the Tasman Sea between various cities in New Zealand (primarily Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch) and Australia (primarily Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane) is an easy flight of just over three hours.  This gives you the opportunity to visit two destinations for little more than the cost of one.

Surprisingly, no US carriers fly to New Zealand.  But this is maybe good news rather than bad news.  The two carriers offering nonstop service between the US and New Zealand - Qantas and Air New Zealand - are among the world's best airlines, with excellent standards of cabin comforts and amenities.  Qantas (my preferred of the two carriers) is a oneWorld carrier, code-sharing with American Airlines and British Airways, and Air NZ, a Star carrier, code-shares with United.

Other airlines can also get you to New Zealand, but on a more roundabout way - sometimes some of the Asian carriers will have surprisingly affordable fares, flying you first to their Asian hub, and from there down to NZ.

Crossing the International Dateline

An interesting anomaly occurs when you fly west (eg from North America) to New Zealand.  As your journey progresses, you cross the international date line and, if westbound, you jump ahead a day.  One minute it might be Tuesday, the next minute it is Wednesday.

This means if you leave the US in the evening on, eg, a Monday, you'll arrive into New Zealand in the morning, but not on Tuesday; instead, you arrive on Wednesday morning.  You never had a Tuesday.

However, it balances out.  On your return, as you cross the dateline going east, you jump back a day and repeat the day you've just had.  Which makes for the even more remarkable circumstance that if you leave New Zealand in the evening on, eg, Monday, you arrive into Los Angeles on Monday morning - apparently earlier than when you left NZ!

Local time in New Zealand

The dateline issue also makes it interesting to compare local time in New Zealand with time back home.

New Zealand has daylight saving, more or less the same as we do, but the dates are reversed (because the seasons are reversed).  When we start our daylight saving is within a week or two of when NZ finishes their daylight saving, and when we finish is within a week or two of when NZ starts.

When we do not have daylight saving, and New Zealand does, the time in NZ is three hours behind the US/Canadian Pacific time zone, but, on the next day.  For example, 5pm in Los Angeles on Monday is the same as 2pm in New Zealand, but in NZ it is Tuesday.

When we have daylight saving and NZ does not, NZ is five hours behind and still one day ahead.  So 5pm Monday PDT would now be 12 noon in NZ on Tuesday.

All of New Zealand is in the same time zone.

By Sea

Cruise ships will often include New Zealand in their world cruise itineraries (eg Queen Elizabeth II), offering a much more leisurely way to travel.  Some cruise lines (eg Princess) also offer cruising around New Zealand and over to Australia and some of the nearby islands, usually during NZ's summer season only.

A very few people choose to travel by ocean freighter.  It is about a two week nonstop journey by ship from Los Angeles to New Zealand.

Contrary to what some people expect or believe, there is no passenger ferry service between New Zealand and Australia.  It takes merchant ships three days to travel the almost 1500 mile journey between Auckland and Sydney.

Visa requirements

You need a current passport, of course, to travel to New Zealand.

Visitors from most western countries (including the US, Canada, UK and EU) do not need visas to visit New Zealand for a vacation, with most such visitors being given approval to stay in the country for up to three months.  More details on the NZ Government's Immigration site.

Traveling within New Zealand

New Zealand is a moderately small country.  It is only 300 miles, as the crow flies, between Auckland and Wellington, and 737 miles from Auckland to the southernmost city of Invercargill.

Bus/coach travel

Perhaps surprisingly to people who think of Greyhound as an unpleasant travel experience in the US, NZ has some excellent inter-city coach services (a 'bus' is a commuter vehicle with uncomfortable seats, a 'coach' is a vehicle for traveling greater distances in much greater comfort).

Inter-city operate medium quality services, and Newmans operate higher quality services.

Air travel

High quality domestic air service operates between the major cities and many of the smaller towns.  Most flights are on smaller commuter planes, but some flights between major cities are on 737s.

Depending on the type of fare you are traveling on, it is sometimes possible to include one or more domestic flights as part of your international airfare at a discounted price.

This can be a great way of saving time - for example you could drive one way between Auckland and Christchurch, then fly the other way to save a couple of days of return driving.

If you buy domestic tickets separately, you may have a problem with a lower luggage allowance (only 44 lbs per person instead of the international allowance of up to 140 lbs per person), and this is something you should carefully check before traveling.

Inter-island ferry

Ferries operate between Wellington at the bottom of the North Island and Picton at the top of the South Island.

Traditional ferries take both passengers and cars, and operate usually between three and five times a day (but this can include very early or very late crossings, there are usually only three or four crossings at convenient times of the day).

It is about 3 hours to get between the two islands, including almost an hour cruising sedately through the beautiful Marlborough Sounds, an hour traveling across Cook Strait, and an hour in Wellington's glorious natural harbor.

A large high-speed catamaran also does the crossing, in 2hrs 15 minutes.

If you're taking a car on the ferry, you're well advised to arrive early, or at busy times of the year, to book a crossing.  But if you're traveling as foot passengers, you're almost sure to be accepted onto the next sailing without needing to book in advance.

Driving in New Zealand

Most people will choose to travel around New Zealand by rental car.  The major car rental companies such as Hertz can be found in most of the cities and towns, and smaller New Zealand only operators can be found in the main centers.  If you plan to pick up a car in one island and drop it in the other island, some companies will allow you to swap cars at either side of the inter-island ferry, others require you to drive the one car all the way.

Personally I slightly prefer the convenience of not having to change cars, but the offsetting consideration is the slight extra cost and hassle of taking a car on the ferry instead of simply walking on as foot passengers.

If you're driving around New Zealand, you'll find most roads outside of the major cities are reasonably uncongested and of reasonably good quality, although perhaps a little hillier and windier than you might be used to.  They are only one lane in each direction; multi-lane freeways are only found close around the major cities.

New Zealand drives on the other side of the road.  See this page for a discussion of how to drive on the left side of the road - it is easier than you think.

Petrol is more expensive than in the US, but not by much.  In November 05, petrol was costing about $4.00 a gallon in NZ (NZ$1.40/litre), compared to about $2.80 a gallon in the US.  Cars tend to be generally a bit smaller and more fuel efficient.

(Update April 06 :  Petrol is still about US$4 a gallon in NZ (NZ$1.70/litre) and in the US it is just over $3/gallon.  The change in exchange rates has meant the NZ dollar cost of petrol has increased, but the US dollar equivalent has stayed about the same.)

Some people are overly concerned about the cost of petrol as part of their total vacation cost.  It is unlikely that, in a two week vacation in NZ, you'd drive more than 1,000 miles, and at 30 mpg, this means your total petrol cost is slightly more than $125.  Some people, while owning large and comfortable cars they rarely drive back home, turn around and rent the smallest cheapest little car they can find on vacation, and then spend tens of hours cramped in an uncomfortable underpowered car.  Don't be penny-wise and pound foolish when it comes to choosing a rental car - a few more dollars a day for a larger nicer car will give a very positive impact on your overall travel experience.


New Zealand has its own currency, the New Zealand dollar.  Banknotes are made out of a plastic rather than paper type material.

Credit cards are widely accepted, on much the same basis as in the US or other countries.  Small shops in small towns may not accept credit cards, larger stores in larger towns almost certainly will.  Visa and Mastercard  are most common, American Express slightly less so.

ATMs are located in many locations in the cities, and can usually be found in towns as well.  Most ATMs will accept most foreign bank cards.

There is a bank at the international airports that offers money changing services for all incoming flights.

We recommend you don't get any NZ cash in your home country, but simply change some of your home money into NZ currency upon arrival, either at one of the airport ATMs or at the airport bank.

We also recommend you be sure to keep a reasonable amount of emergency cash on hand as you travel around NZ (or any other country).  Sometimes you can find yourself traveling in an area with no ATMs, or the ATMs you do encounter are not working, and more stores than normal won't accept credit cards, then all of a sudden, you come across a 'must have' souvenir you want to buy, or perhaps have some sort of unexpected minor emergency, and if you don't have the needed cash, you can't buy the item or easily solve the problem.

As of November 2005, a NZ dollar costs about US70c, and so US$1 buys about NZ$1.43.

Tipping (as in no tipping, please)

New Zealanders don't tip each other.  They don't need to - people earn fair living wages without the need for tips to boost their income, and people provide good service without the need to be bribed to do so.

New Zealanders don't tip in restaurants, in bars, in taxis, in hotels, or anywhere else.  Indeed, it is quite common for a taxi driver to round down the fare - a sort of a reverse tip and something that would be quite unheard of here.

The closest to a tip these days is to occasionally round up a bill.  For example a restaurant bill of $57.40 could be rounded up to $58, or in rare unusual circumstances, $60.

In the past, New Zealanders would refuse to accept a tip.  Many still will.  But some will now take your money, although they don't expect it, and rather than gratitude, they are quietly thinking to themselves 'stupid American giving me money for no reason'.

And, at the same time, other New Zealanders will be looking at you hatefully, because your tipping practices are threatening to enjoy NZ's 'no tipping' lifestyle.

Read my lips :  Don't tip.

Electronic Issues :  Phones, Video and Power

NZ has two main cell phone companies.  Vodafone offers regular GSM service on the 900 MHz band and you can use a pre-paid account with your GSM phone.  The other service uses non-standard technology.

Regular phones use a British rather than American wall plug connector, so if you plan to plug your laptop into a phone outlet, be sure to have a NZ/UK adapter.  These are readily available in 'Dick Smith' electronic stores in NZ (a bit like Radio Shack in the US).

NZ uses the PAL system for its television and video, and is in a different DVD region.  If you are buying blank video-tape, you will have no problem using video tape purchased in NZ, but if you are buying a pre-recorded video, make certain, if it is a VHS tape, that it is in your home country's format (ie NTSC for North America), and if a DVD, make sure it is either coded for all regions or for your region (region 1 for the US) and also make sure it is compatible with your format (eg NTSC).

New Zealand uses 230V and 50Hz power, with a three point plug.  This is the same type of plug as used by Australia, but is different to the US, UK, and Europe.  You'll need to make sure your power supplies can manage 230V 50Hz power, and get plug adapters.

For more information

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

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 22 Jul 2005, last update 30 May 2021

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