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Everything you need to know about a self drive New Zealand trip
In this post you can find:
- Why you should plan a New Zealand self drive trip
- Essential driving tips for New Zealand
- Final thoughts and things to keep in mind for your self drive NZ adventure
Why you should plan a New Zealand self drive road trip
New Zealand is the king of road trips. The country is simply made for them! Whether you’re exploring the thermal wonders of the north island, go hiking on the south island, or both, you’re sure to have an epic experience. Think about everything you could want for a road trip…
The land of the long white cloud has it all.
- Open road? Check.
- Beautiful scenery? Absolutely.
- Masses of amazing stopping points? Another tick.
- Easy to navigate? Yup.
- Great road surfaces? You betcha.
- Top weather? 100% (…in summer!).
And the list goes on.
I’ve been lucky enough to drive around the country multiple times now. I’ve covered north to south and (almost) everywhere in between, more than once. I loved every single second, and learned a thing or two about a quality New Zealand road trip in the process!
Are you planning an Aotearoa road trip? Read on for my top tips on how have the best, and safest, trip possible!
Essential driving tips for New Zealand
Plan your NZ trip beforehand
Planning is always a good idea when you’re heading overseas. Now, I’m actually a big fan of taking things as they come and going with the flow when I travel. After all, that’s how adventures happen! However, having an idea of what you’ll be doing is always a good idea.
It provides structure to your trip and prevents you missing out on anything. There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a trip and realising you skipped some of the best bits through pure ignorance.
That’s particularly true with a self drive road trip in New Zealand!
Chances are you only have a limited time in the country. It’s hard to overstate just how much there is to do there. For a small place, New Zealand is full of incredible things to see and do!
As they say, failing to plan is planning to fail. Thankfully, you’ll enjoy everything you do in NZ. To miss out on one thing is to experience something else amazing! That said, there are always ‘must-sees’ and ‘must-dos’ in any country.
It would be a shame to miss out on them by failing to plan your route in advance. Take some time before you go to determine your essential stops along the way.
Be aware of New Zealand roads
New Zealand roads are notorious in the southern hemisphere. There are literally government campaigns to draw your attention to them. You’ll be driving along and see a giant sign stating that ‘New Zealand roads aren’t like ordinary roads’.
You’re probably reading that and wondering what on earth it means?
I don’t blame you. It’s hard to know until you get there. Even then it can be a bit of a mystery. Until, that is, you have a near miss.
The roads themselves are one reason driving here is so epic: there’s barely any traffic in most places. The roads are long, open, and surrounded by awesome scenery. They take you up, over and through some of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see.
Unfortunately, this all leads to potential problems. There are often NZ-specific issues to contend with. Earthquakes rupture road surfaces. Landslides block them off, or scatter debris over them. Fords cover the road when it gets wet. The hills and terrain mean the roads bend and turn sharply.
All the while, you’re surrounded by incredible (and incredibly distracting) scenery.
There’s simply a lot of room for error. It’s easy to go too fast, misjudge a bend, or just get unlucky with the road surface. Take your eye off it to take in yet another stunning sight, and before you know it you’re in real difficulty. Accidents happen literally all the time there.
Drive sensibly. Stick to the speed limits.
Beware of tourists
I know, you’re going to be a tourist too- just as I was when I was driving there. However, to speak to locals is to understand the chaos we cause on their roads every year.
You hear absolute horror stories, such as people driving for miles on the wrong side of the road. You might wonder how that’s possible. But remember, the roads can be deserted for miles. You can drive for a considerable time without seeing another car! It’s incredible.
But it also means you can be unaware of your issue until it’s too late.
I’ve actually seen this myself when I was there. I was in a town on south island, called Wanaka. This guy in a giant 4×4 was on the wrong side of the road and crossed an intersection into oncoming traffic. It was genuinely terrifying!
Again, it’s about vigilance. Drive sensible, and keep an eye out for other road users. Of course, the locals cause problems too. They know the roads. As such, they often drive quicker than you might. Be sure to let them pass!
Drive on the left!
Okay, this should probably be rule number one! Make sure you’re driving on the correct side of the road: the left hand side.
It might sound stupidly obvious. But like I just mentioned, people forget this rule all the time. Indeed, hire a car in New Zealand and you’ll find stickers on the inside reminding you to keep left!
This is unlikely to be an issue for anyone from Australia, Japan or the UK, or current (or historic) British colonies. We’re used to driving on the left! Everyone else might need to remind themselves of it every now and again though.
Road trips give you the luxury of packing more that you would otherwise. After all, you just stick everything in the boot and/or back seat, and you’re good to go. There’s no heavy lifting required!
There are certain things to think about that might help you have an awesome time though.
Personally, I packed a two-hob camping stove in my car boot (with gas, obviously). There’s nothing better than parking up somewhere and having a BBQ! Similarly, carrying a quality waterproof tent and sleeping bag means you can rock up anywhere and set up shop for the night.
Then you have practical things to think about too. Maps can come in handy, as can CD’s (or an AUX cord) for some music. Be sure to take a car adapter to charge your tech on the road as well.
Again, this is all stuff to think about in advance!
Pack valuables away when parking up
Theft is unfortunately common in some parts of New Zealand. Now, it’s worth emphasizing how safe it is as a country. Equally, I’ve never had any problems with theft on my travels there. But it definitely happens. You see signs up everywhere.
You’re at most risk when you leave the car unattended for some time.
For example, you’ll often park up in a car park at the start of a multi-day hike (check out my list of the top hiking backpacks under 100 bucks!). Your car or camper van and everything in it is unattended for as long as you’re away. You may be unwilling to carry your laptop on the trail! As such, you leave it in the car.
All it takes it a bad egg to walk past and see it. Bye bye laptop.
Unfortunately, your options are limited here. Sometimes you have to trust in humanity! Just remember to take all sensible precautions too. Hide away any valuables you’re forced to leave behind and try to take your most treasured possessions with you.
Get a 4×4 if possible
If at all possible, I’d opt for a four wheel drive vehicle in New Zealand. It just makes your life easier. I’d say 75% of the roads you drive on will be in top condition.
However, the country is also covered in unsealed, gravel roads. I’ve been shaken to bits driving down these in a cruddy old and ordinary car! Having a 4×4 gives you extra traction, control and power on trickier roads.
A 4×4 also means you have access to otherwise impossible experiences.
You’re unlikely to want to drive 20km down a potholed gravel road in a tiny old banger. The wild beaches, hidden hot pools, free camp sites and so on can all be off limits.
Having four wheel drive means everything is accessible to you. Take 90 Mile Beach on the North Island. You can take your car onto this incredible stretch of sand, drive up stream beds and put your foot down on endless expanses of beach.
But only with the right set of wheels! People get their cars stuck on the beach nearly every day. Smaller cars just aren’t designed for it.
Don’t drive too long or in the dark
One reason I love traveling in New Zealand is how small it is and how much there is to do. You can travel a few hours and end up in a totally difference landscape with a whole new set of breath-taking sights and unforgettable activities.
However, it’s easy to push it too far. You know something awesome is only another hour away. You push on as a result. This is particular true when you’re on a tight schedule.
Remember though, the roads in New Zealand aren’t the same as other places.
Concentrating on them can be more tiring than in other countries. Likewise, any long drive can take its toll. There’s no point driving a full day only to be too tired to enjoy the final stop.
Everywhere you go is stunning. It almost doesn’t matter where you end the day’s drive. I recommend shorter distances to fully embrace each destination!
Of course, the more tired you get, the higher the chance of an accident too. Plan ahead. Take your time. Drive shorter distances if your timescale allows it. And above all: avoid driving in the dark!
Beware of hidden speed cameras
New Zealand is sneaky. Or, rather, their traffic control systems are! Be wary of blacked out people carriers parked up at the side of the road.
They’re often actually speed cameras. You’ll see them in the back window as you drive past. From afar it’s just another van that’s parked up. It’s all too easy to get caught out.
The regulations are strict. The maximum speed limit is 100 kilometres an hour. If you’re 1km an hour over the limit, then they’ll ping you. The fines can be astronomical when you break the limit by a lot. This is yet another reason to take your time on the road.
Avoid windscreen chips
Road works are common in the country. Everywhere you go there will be road works going on. The roads are mostly of great quality, but the roadworks can be a hassle at times.
Basically, they’re old and not designed for the large scale vehicles that drive them these days.
The resurfacing is an important upgrade and fix. However, it also means there’s almost always little stones and pebbles on the road. I’ve been in more than one car that’s had their windscreen chipped as a result.
Be sure to drive with enough distance between you and the car in front. Chips can lead to larger cracks. Likewise, anyone who has hired a car or campervan may have to pay for it if they haven’t paid for insurance (insurance isn’t obligatory in NZ).
Take your time
This is possibly my biggest and best tip for road-tripping in New Zealand:
Take. Your. Time.
I’ve already mentioned how easy it is to go overboard on longer drives. But there’s something else to think about: there are masses of hidden gems along the way.
And you’ll see some incredible things as a result, such as amazing wildlife like penguins, dolphins, sea lions and if you are incredibly lucky (and quiet) maybe even a kiwi… Take your time on your road trip and reap the rewards of doing so.
Final thoughts on taking a New Zealand self drive trip
New Zealand is one of my favorite countries in the entire world. It’s also, in my opinion, one of the best for taking a road trip! Everything about Aotearoa lends itself to an extended time behind the wheel.
However, there are always things to keep in mind to maximize the experience. Hopefully, this article will help you do exactly that. Enjoy!
Now it’d be great to hear from you. What stops are you considering for your New Zealand road trip itinerary? Drop a comment below to let us know! We’d love to hear from you!