Every country has its quirks, and New Zealand is no exception — sometimes it seems like we have more quirk than not. And when travelling, it helps to know what you’re going to face before you get there.

1. We drive on the left

I’m sure you knew that already, right? It’s a legacy of our British-colony heritage. That means that the driver sits on the right-hand side of the car; if you’re used to the opposite side, you’ll have to get used to getting in the wrong side of the car — even if you’re the passenger.

Also, if you’re used to long, straight roads between cities, you’ll find things a bit different, especially in the North Island. Journeys tend to be hilly, and the main highway passes through many small towns along its route — which means slowing down to 50km/h. This means that trips might take a fair bit longer than you expect. But at least they’re scenic!

We drive on the left.
We drive on the left.

2. We shop at supermarkets but top up at dairies

Supermarkets are located in every suburb, and over the past few years more and more “metro” supermarkets have been opening — mini, city-centre versions of their suburban brothers. This is a very new trend, as most New Zealanders don’t live in the city centre, we’re much more likely to live in a house in the suburbs. Supermarkets are open every day, including Sundays, usually from around 8am-9pm or 10pm.

Since a trip to the supermarket usually involves a drive, we also have corner stores, known as “dairies” — perhaps because that’s where you go to get the milk (which is fresh, not UHT). These open earlier than supermarkets and everything costs a little more.

You can also pick up essentials in a petrol station, which are often open very late or 24 hours.

A dairy.
A dairy.

3. We tip less than you might expect

If you’re from North America, you will be tempted to tip way too much in New Zealand. We might tip 10% for good service in a nice restaurant, or throw a few coins in the tip jar in a cafe, but not much more than that. Don’t tip at all if the service was bad — tipping is seen as a reward for good service, not a right.

4. Cash isn’t that common

In fact, many New Zealanders don’t carry cash at all. Why bother, when we have EFTPOS? (Debit cards, to the rest of the world. It stands for electronic funds transfer at point of sale.) You can use your eftpos card in all shops, including dairies, and also in many taxis and at some market stalls. The machines in many restaurants also have a facility so that you can leave a tip using your card, but this is probably better done in cash.

We don't carry much cash, but our money is pretty!
We don’t carry much cash, but our money is pretty!

5. Most shops shut at six, but supermarkets are different

If you’re in the city in the early evening, you’ll notice that everything starts to wind down at around 5 or 6pm — which might be a lot earlier than you’re used to. All the shops shut their doors at 6pm, though some shopping centres have a “late night” once a week, when everything stays open until 9pm.

6. “Sweet as” isn’t flattery

Like everywhere, we have a fair amount of slang, but nothing causes as much trouble as the very common “sweet as”. It’s a term of agreement, acceptance, or approbation: “okay” and “great” rolled into one. It is not a comment on how nice your bottom is.

7. We call ourselves “Kiwis”

I’m sure you know that New Zealanders are commonly referred to as “Kiwis” after our cute, flightless, national bird. But a foreign friend of mine was surprised to hear that we use the term to refer to ourselves; she thought it was faintly derogatory. It isn’t. We’re Kiwis, and that’s awesome.

New Zealand in general is pretty awesome, actually — enjoy its quirks and your visit will be sweet as.

Read more about New Zealand.

Your thoughts on "Important things to know about New Zealand"

  • Thanks for the tips! I am off to NZ is a few weeks so I will be sure to bear all this in mind.

    on June 29, 2013 at 4:00 am Reply

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