I wanted to write this post after just 5 days of road tripping New Zealand, as so much about our travels surprised me, but now after close to a month, I think it is the best time to share the realities and tips for road tripping New Zealand.
New Zealand is beautiful, no one can say otherwise. The landscapes can change from corner to corner, there is plenty to see and do, regardless of the season, and it is an extremely safe country to travel to.
Most people planning a trip to New Zealand know this, so I wanted to share the realities of road tripping New Zealand that I found when I visited.
8 Realities of Road Tripping New Zealand
The most obvious reality of road tripping in New Zealand is the costs.
1. It is Expensive!
I live in Canada and found the prices to be staggering for just about everything. I was ready for the price of importing, but still, the numbers shocked me. From the costs of renting a motorhome or campervan, to a basic motel room, to grocery stores and restaurants I hope after you read this, you will be well prepared for a New Zealand vacation.
For starters, we are two adults and two children, so traveling as a family is not a cheap as solo travel or even couples travel in New Zealand.
Check out this post on 1 Week South Island Itinerary
2. Renting a Motorhome
If you are looking at traveling New Zealand in a campervan, you will likely spend over NZ200 per day. If you want an economy car rental, about NZ30 per day. If you want one of the self-contained camper vans that are mostly designed for 2 people travelling, they can be over NZ100. I felt that a LOT of the camper vans available catered to 2 or a max of three people. That does not work for most families. If it had just been me and the boys it would have been possible to rent a camper van – the boys were desperate for a “mystery machine” painted rental van but, we also had my mum (and step dad for part of the trip).
If you want some route ideas, check out these New Zealand Road Trip Itineraries!
If you have a self contained unit, you can freedom camp. While we didn’t do it, it is a popular option to spend a few nights! and save money, Otherwise a campsite will be about NZ50 a night. Note that in order to freedom camp, your rental needs to be certified as “self contained.” Some rental cars and vans have the tent that pops out the back, but they are not self contained as they do not have a toilet and cooking facilities.
Keep an eye out for “no Freedom camping” signs. They are usually in major centres or popular parking lots. Some even say they will put a wheel lock on your vehicle if you are caught! Top 10 holiday park campsites have great reviews and an average campsite will be about NZ50 a night.
We went with Rad Car Hire’s Rotorua branch for our North Island Itinerary.
3. Motel Costs
Typical motel rooms for a family of 4 are between NZ160 and NZ230 just for a place to rest your head. All of the motels and motor lodges that we stayed in had a kitchen. They ranged from somewhat run down, to good places. But nothing that we came across was actually dirty. Some had nice pools (or even thermal spas) and some had a square of pavement with a sliding door and a table a chair outside. The price difference was minimal. It came down to availability.
One of the places we stayed with was Aura Accommodations in Rotorua. Part of the reason it was so great was the location, but also that it had a nice pool, as well as a trampoline and free bikes and scooters for use around town! Their staff was extremely friendly and we highly recommend it for your Rotorua visit!
We have been here the month of March and had some things planned in advance. Other days, we road tripped and before lunch decided where we would stop. I would open Booking.com and Expedia a find something in our budget of NZ200 for a night where we wanted to stop and would book it.
We would arrive, usually after dinner, sleep, have toast and oatmeal for breakfast, and then continue on. I had a hard time stomaching NZ200 just for a place to sleep. If I was enjoying the place, it might be different, but I just wanted a clean bed to sleep, a shower in the morning and set off for more adventures.
When we did book in advance for 2 to 4 days, we made sure to have a nice pool, a beach nearby or the perfect location to make the cost seam more bearable. One of these places, that has the best location, was the Aarangi Motel in Auckland. Situated on Mission Bay, it was just one block to the beach, a perfect place to base ourself in Auckland!
Expect to pay over NZ300 for hotels in Auckland, boutique accommodations or resorts. We did save money by booking some AirBNBs in advance, but when you are road tripping and do not have an itinerary planned, it is sometimes difficult to book an airBNB a few hours before arrival.
Another great place was the Boutique accommodation The Lodges at Transport World in Invercargill. If you want upscale, these brand new units feel so much like home, you do not want to go out and explore the city!
As I already mentioned, If you have a self-contained unit, you can freedom camp. While we didn’t do it, it is a popular option to spend a few nights before you need to recharge and dump your waste.
Something that I do really appreciate about road-tripping in New Zealand is the availability of Public Toilets that are clean and free. Every town, even the small ones, have a sign for public toilets, and the only toilet we found in a month that was an outhouse was outside a boat launch at an empty parking lot and not serviced. Otherwise all had flush toilets, toilet paper was plentiful and some even had showers (generally outside for showering off after a swim etc but for those who are freedom camping it would do for a hair wash!)
The most expensive fuel we found in New Zealand was in Wanaka (about an hour out or Queenstown on the South Isalnd). It was NZ 2.23 over litre (March 2018) and the cheapest we found was in Invercargill for NZ 1.91 per litre.
To save a few dollars you can get coupons with your groceries for 6c off per liter. It makes the difference of a few dollars with each fill up! Pac N Save was where we tried to shop an then would fuel up at their stations. You can also get a card at Mobil for 6c off.
Snacks at the gas stations were hugely inflated (as usual), so try and get your snacks at a grocery store where you can get a chocolate bar for NZ1 instead of NZ2.79 that I saw a few times at a gas station.
5. Food and Restaurants
The average meal we found at a restaurant was in the upper teens or around NZ20. Pop, coffee or bottled water would be NZ3 or 4. Every restaurant will offer tap water, so I advise you take it. The water in New Zealand is excellent, there is no need to drink bottled water. We always take a reusable water bootle and use it on the plane and on our vacation to avoid buying water everyday! Wine prices were typical in restaurants. We enjoyed the New Zealand wine selection at prices much cheaper than we get in Canada (be jealous, my Oyster Bay loving friends, we bought it for about NZ14 which is about USD10 a bottle).
It is rare to find kids meals under NZ10 and drinks are not included. My boys are 6 and 4 and were able to split one meal usually, which saved me a few dollars, and prevented half the meal from being left behind.
Even McDonalds is quite expensive. A signature burger was NZ10 and happy meals are about NZ6. They do not have drip coffee and McCafe coffee is your only option, setting you back over NZ4. Pretty much everywhere you go a large flat white will be NZ4-6. It is good though!
If you do not want to be eating home made nutella sandwiches everyday, but are a budget conscious traveller, try a steak and cheese pie from a bakery! They are NZ4-5 and are very tasty! A cream bun makes a great snack too and is about NZ2. Try and avoid the gas station ones and make your way to an authentic bakery!
The nice thing about restaurants in New Zealand is what you see is what you pay. Taxes are included so there is not much sticker shock when the bill comes. Also tipping is not like North America where 20% is expected at a good restuarant. Tips are appreciated, but not expected. workers are paid higher wages here and do not relay on tips as much as the North American restaurant industry.
For the budget traveller here are some staples:
- apples in season can be .99 per kilogram. We got 6 gala apples and they were 0.62!
- oatmeal – everywhere has a kettle or somewhere to make hot water, so have instant oatmeal for breakfast
- bread for toast as well as sandwiches can be another way to save money.
- keep an eye out for roadside stands with fruits and veggies as you can save money and get the freshest produce!
- Pac N Save was the cheapest grocery store we came across, while it is almost impossible to “sale shop” while traveling, we would buy our groceries and then fill up on gas with their discount coupon.
6. Activities and Attractions.
Activities, excursions, and attractions in New Zealand can range from NZ30 to NZ200. A visit to Waitomo and Rurikuri caves will set you back NZ91 for an adult, while downhill ball rolling in Rotorua is NZ129 to ride all three hills one time. We were also able to keep the kids entertained with several road trip questions!
While you are here to enjoy your vacation, research where you want to go in advance so you are not finding sticker shock when you arrive. If you are visiting Rotorua, you can check out the Best Things to do In Rotorua by CLICKING HERE.
But with that being said, New Zealand is a stunning county and its beaches and outdoors mean that there are lots of things that do not require hefty attractions passes. Check out this list of things to do in Mount Maunganui for example.
7. Roads, Motorways and Travel Distances
It does not take long to realize that driving in New Zealand is much different than … what you will find in North America, or even most of Europe. Motorways exist in Auckland, with multi lane divided highways, but the rest of the country has mostly single lane roads each way.
The speed limit on these highways however, is usually 100 km/h even as you twist and turn around hills, mountains and waterways. You will not find many straight roads in the North Island, and until you realize you have found one, you because accustomed to lefts and rights over and over.
New Zealand vehicles drive on the left side of the road, which is foreign to most visitors, except Aussies and those from the UK. This means that the steering wheel is on the right side of the road. It takes a little while to get comfortable with being on the “wrong” side of the road, instead of the “right” side, but after a few days you should be used to it. For me, the hardest and most uncomfortable part was backing up. My body is used to looking over my right shoulder to back up, and to look up to the right to see my rear-view mirror. Those things are backwards as you need to look over your left shoulder when backing up. That was the most awkward part for me!
Travel distances in New Zealand are also not the same as in Noth America or Europe. You cannot do 100 kilometres in an hour, even if the speed limit is 100 km/h.
Well the twists and turns of the roads have you constantly slowing down to navigate the turns and when you come into a small town, you will slow to 80, 70 or 50 km/h. So when the GPS says it will take over 4 hours to do less than 300 kilometers, it is probably right. Take your travel times into account when you plan your evening stop as you may think you can travel 400 kilometres in a day (on the South Island) but you might end up with a 7 hour drive on your hands (believe me, it happened to us!).
New Zealand Road Rules
- Pedestrians are to yield to cars unless in a marked crosswalk or unless a sign indicates that left turning drivers should yield to pedestrians
- You cannot turn left on a red light. But you will find that lots of lights have left turn arrows when other traffic is turning. Do not despair you will not have to wait too long!
- Typical speed limits are 100 km/h on motorways and highways unless in cities or towns. Obey the posted speed limit when entering a town
- You must parallel park in the direction of traffic. Failure to do so will result in a ticket
- There are a few toll roads in New Zealand. If you have a rental car, pay your tolls online within 5 days. Otherwise your rental car provider will be given the bill and many charge a hefty administration charge for paying on your behalf and then billing your credit card
- Roundabouts are everywhere in New Zealand, and if you have only driven in North America, you probably haven”™t come across too many, you will learn to love them over the necessity to stop at traffic lights or stop signs. The basic rule is to yield to those in the circle already, follow the land indicators for multi lane roundabouts. For example, if you are taking the first exit, take the curb lane, if you are turning right or take the third exit and there are two lanes, take the right lane
- If there are cars behind you on a highway, be courtious and pull over. There is nothing worse than the pressure of people behind you and they will be happy to move ahead at their desired speed
- No using hand held devices (cell phones ) while driving
- You will likely come across one lane bridges. The black large arrow direction has the right of way. If you have the smaller red arrow in your direction, you should yield to oncoming traffic.
- No passing on a yellow solid line
- No stopping or parking signs are blue circles with red X through them
What to Pack for New Zealand
- Good Quality shoes or hiking boots
- weatherproof jacket
- Sunscreen and a Hat. I love the sun, but the amazing blue skies and the ozone layer hole means that the sun is very strong. SPF50 is suggested
- Insect repellant from sand flies and mosquitoes
- Anti itch cream
8. Overall Realities of Road Tripping New Zealand
When you only plan a night or two per town, you are limited in what you can do and see in the area. Yes you might hit the hi lights and move on, but you may miss some hidden gems or find a restaurant you love or a bakery with the best lambintons that you wish you could visit again. After 4 weeks road tripping New Zealand, with out longest stay being 4 nights at a Lake Wanaka Resort I came to realize that fast travel is not my travel style at all. Packing up a suticase, two kids and leaving every day left me exhausted by 8pm and ready for bed. Yes we saw a lot, but by the last week I was so tired of things I thought we “should do” i was content to find a nice beach (we chose Mission Bay in Auckland and all we did was play at the beach and visit a local playground!). I have learned that this kind of road tripping is not my travel style and I really love staying in one location a lot longer (If you have been reading my blog for a while, we rented an apartment for a month in Amman for USD400 which we based our Jordan activities. While we ventured out to Wadi Rum, Aqaba, Petra and stayed in other places, the bulk of our “stuff” got to stay in the apartment, and we only needed a day bag or a small suitcase for our outings, even for a few nights.)
When you are packing for kids, hot and possibly cooler weather, including my electronics (laptop, camera and lenses, go pro, accessores, chargers, the kids nintendo switch, spare batteries and a million cords), booster seats, a few school work books and colouring as well as toys (currently we travel with a ziplock bag of lego and poke balls and pokemon) it becomes too much to pack up for me everyday.
Does that mean I have failed at roadtripping? I do not thing so, but I have learned that it is 100% not my travel style and it will affect our adventures in the future (if you want a sneak peaks of April adventures, they include Dubai and a return to Jordan).
New Zealand is an absolutely beautiful country and in our 4 weeks road tripping the North and South Island, we only scratched the surface of all of the things to do in this diverse country. But visiting such a place does come with costs, and in New Zealand’s case, it is a cost to your bank account! However, I hope this does not affect your desire or plans to visit New Zealand, I hope this post help prepare you for the realities of the costs associated with visiting and road tripping across New Zealand.
Looking for an Itinerary option to take the pain of planning? Check out Nicole from Travelgal’s South Island Itinerary
Further Reading: Things to do in Queenstown in Winter
Looking for a Road Trip Itinerary? Check out The Best 7 Day South Island Self Drive
While in Queenstown, do not miss the Kiwi Birdlife Park
Lindsay Nieminen hails from Vancouver, Canada and shares her love of travel on this website. She is passionate about showing others that they should not put off traveling the world just because they have young children or are single parents. She aims to encourage them to seek out adventure, whether it is at home or abroad by providing information on how just about everywhere can be a destination to explore as a family.