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8 Tips for a New Zealand Road Trip

car driving on highway in new zealand

New Zealand is unique. It has relatively short distances between towns and attractions. It has a sparse population which means that you enjoy many amazing sights all to yourself. It is full of hidden secrets off the major highways, and has astounding natural beauty. For these reasons, it is pretty much the ultimate road-trip destination. A hire car in New Zealand gives you the freedom to choose your own itinerary, and take a chance on those enticing side-roads off the main highways.

Get the best from your New Zealand driving experience

However, there are some pointers you need to know. For more information, check our guide to renting a car in New Zealand. New Zealand's uncrowded roads can catch out rookie drivers. While Kiwis are pretty laid back, there are some firmly enforced laws that are important to be aware of. Here are VroomVroomVroom's tips for your New Zealand road trip.

happy family and a campervan

1. Choose the right vehicle

Before you start, consider where you want to go, and who you are travelling with. While New Zealand has plenty of mountainous roads, a fuel-efficient modern vehicle will be able to handle most of them. Petrol is expensive in New Zealand, so don't take a larger vehicle than you need. Four wheel drive SUVs may be useful in the depths of winter. If you are heading to the snow consider hiring chains. You should also consider if a campervan would be better suited. While the upfront cost is higher, your ongoing accommodation costs would be less. Read our Should You Rent a Car in New Zealand to know the benefits of renting a car in NZ.

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VroomVroomVroom can help you compare the costs of either. If you decide to go with a campervan, think about where you will stay. If you plan to stay in commercial campgrounds, you don't need to pay extra for a fully self-contained van. If there is any chance that you would like to 'freedom camp', basically sleeping on the side of the road, you must have a self-contained vehicle. Many tourist towns have strict laws, and fines for freedom camping.

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2. Consider the length and timing of your trip

While New Zealand is a small country, there is a lot to see. It is a good idea to concentrate mainly on one island, and plan to do the other on your next trip. Generally, there are fewer tourists in the North Island, but the one time you don't want to be road-tripping there is in the three weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year. Many people take their annual holidays then, and the coastal resort towns will be heaving with locals. Ironically, this is quite a nice time to be in Auckland. The city's problematic traffic eases, and the beaches are uncrowded.

From mid-January, the hot-spots such as the Coromandel Peninsula and the beaches to the near-north of Auckland such as Mangawhai Heads and Omaha will empty out. The South Island generally has a much lower population than the North Island, so doesn't suffer the holiday crush to the same extent. I am a huge fan of the shoulder seasons in New Zealand. Autumn in particular; sees the most settled weather, the locals are all back at work and school, and the colours of nature can be their most spectacular.

cars on the road travelling with snowfall

3. Take notice of signs

There's one in particular that is confounding to tourists; at one-lane bridges. As you approach the bridge, there will be one of two signs. A red circle with a red arrow on the left hand side, and the words, 'Give way' underneath means you must give way to traffic crossing the bridge from the other direction. A blue square, with a white arrow on the left, means other traffic must give way to you. You will still need to slow down, as you may have to wait for traffic already on the bridge to pass. 

4. Listen to the weather forecast

This is most important in the winter, when snowfall and hail can result in road closures. That said, heavy rainfall can be an issue at any time of the year, particularly in summer tourist spots such as Northland and Coromandel, causing slips. Another phenomenon in the South Island in winter is black ice. This is a thin sheet of ice on the road, almost impossible to see. There will usually be warning signs in areas of black ice; reduce speed, avoid sudden turns or braking, and allow greater following distances. See more winter driving tips here

5. Don't try to rush

Because New Zealand is a small, mountainous country, many roads are narrow and twisty. It's important to be alert, and not in too much of a hurry. Allow yourself extra time in planning your journey, you won't always be able to steam along at 100 kms/hour. You will find you more likely to average around 70.

Ferry in the sea of New Zealand

6. Never get complacent around railway level crossings

Of the 1320 level crossings in New Zealand, only 21% of them have arm barriers and bells. 452, or 32% have flashing lights and bells, and 47% have only passive signage. Come to a complete stop every time. If you can see a train, don't try to calculate whether you can 'beat' it. Chill out, take a couple of minutes to relax, and let it pass.

7. Don't hog the road

In busy tourist areas, if you find the traffic building up behind you while you get used to the roads, it is normal practice to find a place to pull over and let cars past. Don't be alarmed if you get lots of toots when you do, everyone is just saying thank you!  

8. Don't take your rental car on a ferry

Rental cars are not insured when crossing bodies of water. If you are planning to drive in both islands, you will need to leave one car in Wellington, and pick up a new one in Picton. This rule applies to any water, even if you are going to spend some time on Waiheke Island, leave the car behind, and enjoy a break on the passenger ferry. Should you need help with this, or have any other car rental questions in New Zealand, our customer care experts are ready to help you. Contact us and we will do our best to answer all your queries at the soonest time possible.

For more helpful tips, check out our Learn the Road Rules and Get Some Car Rental Tips in our Guide to New Zealand.


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