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8 Realities of Road Tripping New Zealand

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

Moeraki Boulders on the Beach in New Zealand, South Island
Moeraki Boulders on the Beach in New Zealand, South Island


Road tripping New Zealand to One Tree Hill Auckland
One Tree Hill Road in Auckland

The Costs

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

Hell's Gate Geothermal Pools and Spa, Rotorua New Zealand
Hell’s Gate Geothermal Pools and Spa in Rotorua – A must do on our list!

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!

the waves at Waihi Beach on NZ’s North Island

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.

Aura Accommodation Geothermal Heated Pool
Aura Accommodation Rotorua Geothermal Heated Pool

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!

Sheep Grazing In Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand
Sheep Grazing In Rotorua, North Island, New Zealand

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 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!

Stone Store
Stone Store

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.

Hot Water Beach New Zealand Coromandel Penninsula
Digging a hot pool at Hot Water Beach

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!)

Bay of Islands aboard "the Rock"
Bay of Islands aboard “the Rock”

4. Fuel

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.

Coromandel Penninsula
Coromandel Penninsula

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.

Bay of Islands
Bay of Islands

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.
Downhill Ball Rolling with OGO Rotorua
Downhill Ball Rolling with OGO Rotorua

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.

Watching the South Island landscape change minute by minute

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!).

Have you ever seen a MUD VOLCANO?

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
One lane Bridge Signs
The sign on the left indicates you should yield, the one on the right means you have the right of way

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
Whakarewarewa Village (or Whaka Village for short) is a Maori village and tourist attraction in Rotorua | Maori experiences in Rotorua | NZmustdo | North Island New Zealand | New Zealand Itinerary
Whakarewarewa Village (or Whaka Village for short) is a Maori village and tourist attraction in Rotorua

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).

Tuatara Museum Invercargill
Tuatara Museum Invercargill

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.

Further Reading

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

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  1. Haseeb says:

    Thanks You for help. It’s really guide me a lot.

  2. Visiit says:

    WOW! Great tips you shared to plan a road trip in New Zealand, I enjoyed reading through. Thanks for these amazing tips! Booked marked this.

  3. Tami says:

    Lindsey, I loved reading about your New Zealand road trip, especially when you realized it would be better to slow down and stay in one place longer. I need to do more of that, too. I personally love a good road trip as long as I can stop wherever I want to explore and not be tied to a schedule. Your photos are gorgeous and your description of all the fun things to do in New Zealand is making me wish it were next on my list!

  4. Mansoureh says:

    Such a useful post. I alwyas thought if I go to NZ or Australia, I would take a road trip to explore the countries. I have done a lot of road tripping around Europe, I think the prices are kinda the same as in the UK. I should save this piece for when I am heading there

  5. Kathleen says:

    My husband wants to go to New Zealand so bad. Hopefully we will be able to someday. It looks like you took your boys on a great adventure, even if it wasn’t quite your style. Good for you!

  6. I’d love to self-drive a road trip in New Zealand, the landscapes and coastlines look so stunningly beautiful and the roads not too crowded at all and I love that it’s narrow single laners rather than big freeways. Good to know that it’s a lot more expensive than Canada, I’d imagined it would be about same, I’ve enjoyed road trips in Eastern Canada and found them very affordable. Fuel is less of an issue as costs for fuel in UK are so crazy most places look reasonable to my eyes!!!

  7. Ash says:

    Exploring NZ does not come cheap. Thanks for this informative post. However, the country’s sights and attractions are worth more than what you’ll spend, I reckon. Never been to NZ but it’s on the list, I hope we can explore this country in the future. As someone from the UK – roads, traffic, rules, etc. should be the least of our concerns.

  8. I’m from Scotland where we drive on the left and I’ve not plucked up the courage to drive when I’m over in America so this would suit me fine. Never been to NZ but the scenery always looks so similar to Scotland that I know I would love every minute.

  9. New Zealand is somewhere I have always wanted to visit. We are currently traveling to every state in America in a travel trailer, so it is good to know that we could rent a motor home and travel the country. Great article.

  10. We are always afraid to drive in foreign countries just because of the language barrier, driving on the other side of the road, and not knowing their road rules. I gather from your blog that overall everything is much more expensive than expected: from the car to gas to stay to food. So thanks for the warning! Good to know. Hope to make it to New Zealand someday regardless.

  11. Linda says:

    New Zealand is definitely on our travel wish list. This was a great comprehensive road tripping guide for New Zealand. It was great to see your perspectives as a fellow Canadian. We often find travelling expensive since so much is pegged to the American dollar. It sounds like most things were expensive in New Zealand. I must admit that I prefer travelling without the American tipping expectations. A good tip about the challenges with driving on the wrong side of the road – on twisty turny roads! This post definitely increased my desire to visit New Zealand. Great pics. But I am not sure how much of it I will do as a road trip!

  12. Burcu Basar says:

    Very helpful post and I agree that it is an expensive country as I have recently been there. I also like your comments on when to best write a post after a certain trip. Taking your time as you suggested helps to put it all in a better context.

  13. Marg Garratt says:

    Great report Lindsay, NZ is not cheap especially when you stay in the main areas and eating out is something you don’t want to do every day.
    Glad you had a good time and your pics are great.
    Good luck with your next adventure……we are off to China in two weeks, that will be a big difference for us.

    ps Lamington was spelt wrong!!

    • ohhhhh ENJOY CHINA! What an adventure! and ahhhhhhhhhhhh “lamington” ill go find it and fix it! You know how hard it was to type Whakarewarewa when my computer kept auto fixing it!