Your Complete New Zealand Road Trip Guide

Last Updated on February 5, 2024


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Written by Yen from Swing Abroad

Taking a New Zealand road trip is probably one of the best things I’ve done in my whole life.

My travel partner and I went for the NZ road trip after our last job pruning apple trees in South Island, which lasted for a month.

We did the road trip during the winter in 2016, when season that there are the least tourists and backpackers. In my opinion, winter time has the best road trips in New Zealand.

So let’s dive straight in and learn how to do an epic road trip New Zealand style!

In this ultimate guide you will be guided through everything you need to know before going for your New Zealand road trip!

🧳 MUST-HAVE: Before you head out on your trip, make sure you have travel insurance. I recommend either SafetyWing or World Nomads.

Find the best road trips in New Zealand, cars parked in a car park in front of large snow-capped mountains under a cloudy sky

Choosing Your Vehicle: Cars or Motorhomes

This will probably be the first question in your mind when planning for road trip. Let me give you a hand on deciding which one you should go for.

Car 

Do you need a car in New Zealand? No, but I chose to use one for this particular New Zealand road trip. As I will explain, it can be a mixed bag.

I bought a car for $900 from my friend, which lasted me throughout my stay there in great condition. Here’s the pros and cons for cars.

Pros

  • Cars consume less gas as compared to motorhomes or campervans. That will be a great news for your pocket as gas in New Zealand can be expensive especially in rural tourist towns like Fox Glacier.
  • It’s faster and easier to operate. And most of us got used to operating it, shouldn’t be a big deal.

Cons 

  • Sleeping inside the car is a real struggle. Even though with station wagon, which the seats can be lowered down flat for sleeping, the roof is still too low. You will easily hit your head against the roof, and there’s not much space for rolling around while sleeping.
  • You can’t spend your time in the car, because as I said, there’s not much spaces for activities.

Getting Your Car

There are several ways in which you can obtain your mechanical travel mate. Before that, I recommend getting yourself a minivan or station wagon because you can sleep with your body straightened inside.

You don’t want a Sedan car and sleep on the seat. I tried it, it sucks.  Another option is to convert your minivan it so you can sleep comfortably!

Facebook Community Groups

I’ve found that there are actually many Facebook groups for road-trippers in New Zealand. You can easily find someone selling their car before leaving their country.

TradeMe

TradeMe is a platform for Kiwis and backpackers to sell pre-owned stuff. You can find things from notebooks to aircrafts there, so cars are no big deal.

While there are some risks buying from there because there might be some small issues with your car, I definitely recommend buying from fellow travelers from Facebook groups above.

They’ve just done their road trips, so you can rest assured that their cars are still functional.

Check out BackpackerBoard too. You can also find pre-owned vehicles there and buy from other backpackers.

Discover the backpackers guide to New Zealand, campervan parked under a starry night sky with trees in the background

Motorhome 

Motorhomes provide a lot more flexibility to your road trips compared to cars. And who don’t love the ideas of doing road trips in motorhomes?

Pros 

  • More space inside the vehicle. Unlike cars, there are enough space vertically and horizontally in the vehicle which allows you to cook your dinner, hang your surfboards, etc.
  • It’s much easier to camp with motorhomes. In some campsites, there are no toilet facilities. There’s where motorhomes come in handy. Settle everything in the car! Just remember to not parking in public carparks. I’ll talk about a travel app which will helps you locating a perfect campsite in a moment.

Cons

  • It’s much more expensive than a car. It runs on more gas, and the rental fee is sky high.
  • Motorhomes are difficult to operate, especially for newbies. It may takes some time for traveler to actually get used to it. Which might be dangerous for others in the process.

🗺 TOUR RECOMMENDATION: Looking to do a tour to discover the best of New Zealand? Join a Haka tour and see some of the most beautiful spots NZ has to offer!

Getting Your Motorhome 

There are numerous motorhomes companies in the entire New Zealand. But the one I stumbled across the most is Jucy motorhomes.

It has lower minimum age requirements and budget-friendly price. Often the preferred choice for backpackers.

There’s one thing you should be aware of while renting. When you came across unreasonably low price, be aware of it.

Those are usually old cars with extremely high mileage, with no proper maintenance.

My friend rented a car in Christchurch at extremely low price and guess what, his car broke down in Te Anau.

He called the company and was provided no useful information. He had to call a trailer to drag his car to nearest garage.

Check out Maui. Compare the price and decide if Maui is the most suitable for yourself.

Create your own New Zealand campervan itinerary, three tiers of a waterfall cascading down onto rocks through dense green forest

Documents You Need for a New Zealand Road Trip

Driving License

Your International Driving License must be in English language to be valid in New Zealand. Your driving license in home country can also be used if it’s in English language.

If it’s not, you can get it translated by translator approved by NZ Transport Agency.

WoF, or Warrant of Fitness 

Understanding WoF is important since you’re not buying a new car in New Zealand. It’s basically a full “body checkup” for the car.

If the car was registered before year 2000, the WoF will be valid for 6 months. For those after year 2000, WoF will be valid for 12 months. Check out here for more info.

Quick tips: Most people will not buy cars with WoF that’s expiring soon. So if you’re planning to sell your car before your road trip ends, you might need to consider renewing it before selling.

Best Mobile Apps for a New Zealand Road Trip

Make things easier for your road trip in New Zealand with these great mobile apps!

Campermate 

Campermate is probably the most useful app for road-trippers in New Zealand. You can easily find all remote locations and must-see gems across the country.

Most of them are added by fellow travelers, so you have the chance of discovering what tours don’t show to tourists. The best part? Offline map is available!

This is a great app to help you plan the ultimate New Zealand campervan itinerary.

GPS 

I always use Google Maps. I’m definitely not saying it’s the best but it did its job well. And offline maps are available.

A lot of people might not know this, once you set your destination and start navigating, you can turn off your mobile data. This helps you save your phone battery.

📦 PACKING TIP: Don’t leave home without a solar powered battery pack so you can keep your devices connected at all times.

Kindle

One of the best time killer apps in the world. Download your favorite e-books and read them during your road trip in the wonderland, unless you got something else to do. Because I love reading!

Plan your ultimate road trip New Zealand, inside of a car with person driving into bright sunshine on a highway

Things to do know before hitting the road in NZ

Drive on the left lane 

Driver seat is on the right. Opposite cars come from the right side and you drive at left.

You might need some time to get used to it if your country has the opposite driving rules, like US or Canada. Just stay alert all the time.

Most highways have two lanes, one for each direction 

In most highways, there will be only one lane for each direction. So please do not drive too slowly and block everyone behind you.

If there’s someone closing in behind, drive at your pace until there are overtaking lanes. There is one every few kilometers.

Drive on left lane until the lanes combine again, let people overtake you from the right lane.

Honk = Thank you? 

Some drivers will be polite enough to say thank you when you let them overtake. Honking twice is a sign of thank you by friendly Kiwis so don’t misunderstand that!

Speed Limit is 100kmh

Be sure not to exceed the speed limit because you can easily land yourself a ticket, which will definitely break your budget.

There are a lot of winding roads in New Zealand, and there will be road signs telling you how sharp is the turn. Pay attention to these helpful New Zealand road signs and slow your car accordingly.

Use the high beam highlight!

Unless you’re driving near cities, there is no street light along the highway. Make good use of the high beam headlights to see what’s beyond.

While it gives you much visibility, it can blinds the drivers ahead. Turn off the high beam highlight when there are drivers in front of coming from the opposite direction. It’s dangerous for yourself and others.

Never stop your car by roadside for photos 

There are viewpoints along the road so don’t worry about missing any of them. Stopping your car by the roadside poses huge risk for yourself and others.

Pay attention to the road signs. Those signs will tell you how far in front are the viewpoints. Slow down when approaching and park your car accordingly.

Picking up Hitchhikers

It’s very common to see hitchhikers in New Zealand especially during the summer season. If you’re planning on giving other travelers a ride, don’t do it in the middle of the highway!

And make sure there’s no car following closely behind so you won’t get your car into any accidents.

If there is, slow down car gradually, turn of indicator light and let them pass you before making a complete stop.

Learn the important New Zealand road signs for your New Zealand road trip, pitched tent lit by inside light surrounded by dark forest trees at night time

Where to Stay During your New Zealand Road Trip

With your own vehicle, there’s a lot of options for you.

Quick tip: When you’re sleeping in your car, make sure to scroll down the windows a bit for ventilation.

Campsites 

The best way to locating one is by Campermate. It has all the reviews and details like fees, basic facilities and how big is it.

It’s a lot harder to find free campsites outside big cities especially Wanaka and Queenstown. You might need to drive a little distance. There are also some public parking lots which allow camping in cars.

Note: Some campsites are solely for self-contained vehicles (motorhomes) only. Cars are not allowed to camp in that campsite.

Backpacker hostels

Great option to make friends from around the world. If you’re opting for this, make sure to get yourself a BBH Card (NZ$45) or YHA Card (NZ$35).

Both of them gives you discounts when booking with hostels they’re associating with.

I personally prefer BBH Card because it offers NZ$15 refund for your first booking (online only) and more widely accepted.

Dorm beds usually cost around $24 per night per person.

Chatting with fellow backpackers is the ideal way to find tips and tricks for your road trip backpackers guide to New Zealand.

🛎 TOP TIP: Wondering where to stay in New Zealand? Check out Booking.com for the best deals on hotels, guesthouses and hostels.

Holiday Parks

Basically a huge piece of land to park your car. Some of them has several blocks of hostels too.

You can choose to camp outside in the field or sleep inside your vehicle or in the hostel. Holiday parks can be expensive most of the time but safer compared to free campsites.

Is a New Zealand road trip for you?

I hope you find the above information useful for planning your road trip in New Zealand. If you’re wondering where to go in South Island, check out these must-visits for New Zealand South Island.

It’s perfect if you’re planning one of the best road trips in New Zealand around the entire South Island.


Your Complete New Zealand Road Trip Guide

Yen is a full-time university student who always takes full advantages of his holidays to travel for new experiences. He’s been to New Zealand for Working Holiday before having his road trip and volunteered in Kathmandu, Nepal. Having spent months in foreign countries, he gives in-depth travel tips and guides in his travel blog, Swing Abroad.


Frequently Asked Questions

✅ What side do they drive on in New Zealand?

Kiwis drive on the left-hand side of the road!

✅ How long does it take to road trip New Zealand?

This is completely down to personal preference, but I would recommend AT LEAST 2 weeks for a New Zealand road trip. 3+ weeks is even better if you have time!

✅ Is driving in New Zealand difficult?

Not at all! New Zealand is an easy country to drive through and explore. Most of the roads are very safe and everything is well marked!

Feel free to comment below if you love the article or have any questions. I’d love to help! Happy traveling!


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The Comments

  • Yen @ Swing Abroad
    June 8, 2018

    Hey Anita, thanks for publishing the post!
    I’m more than glad to help planning your road trip in New Zealand if anybody has any questions. 😀

  • Paul RYKEN
    August 3, 2019

    Hi Yen (and Anita), I like the no-nonsense advice provided in this article, particularly about hitchhiking. When we travelled around New Zealand for 12 months in a campervan in 2018, it was common for us to stop and pick up backpackers. For the few minutes or hours that they were in our vehicle, we learnt about where they came from, why they visited New Zealand, what they thought about the country.

    Almost all of the hitchhikers were near an intersection but had the good sense to stand in an area where we could see them clearly up to 200m and in a place where we could slow down and pull over safely. They ones that didn’t do this, missed out on a ride with us!

  • Shanu Mishra
    October 4, 2021

    Hi! I love how informative and great your articles are. Can you recommend any other blogs that share recipes of Indian Curries or authentic Indian cuisine? Thanks a lot!