In New Zealand, road trips are an institution. Partly it’s because the long-distance public transport options aren’t up to much, so everyone has their own car, and partly it’s because of the size of the country. Many people think of New Zealand as a small country, and while it isn’t massive, it’s about the same size as the UK or Italy – comfortably mid-sized. However, with a population of only about 4.5 million people, the cities are quite spread out.
Road trips are a good way for visitors to get to know New Zealand as well. If you can get three or four people together, it’s a good cost-saver, quite apart from the fact that you’ll have the freedom to plan your own itinerary and go places no buses will take you.
Getting a car
If you’re staying more than a couple of months, buying a car is a good option. The backpackers’ car fair in Auckland usually has some cheap cars for sale, or you can find one before you arrive in the country on Trademe.co.nz. Make sure you check it out in person before you buy it, and do some research online to see how much similar cars are going for – don’t pay more than the going rate, but also be suspicious of very cheap offers – they probably are too good to be true.
If you don’t want to buy, renting is a good option. We recommend Spaceships campervans, which have sleeping space for two and seating for three or four. Standard car rental rates get cheaper the longer you hire for and you can often return the car in a different location to the one you got it from. If you’re starting in Christchurch, Allways Rental is a good choice, but there are plenty of options in all the main centres.
If you’re road-tripping in summer, consider camping. It’s cheap and you get really close to nature. Plus, NZ is a very safe country, you’re unlikely to be bothered while you sleep. Not to mention the notable lack of dangerous animals!
The Department of Conservation run basic campgrounds all over the country, which charge around $6-10 per person per night. All these campgrounds have, at the least, a toilet and water source. Private campgrounds (which are also prevalent) charge more but have better facilities.
Of course, hostels, hotels and motels are also available throughout the country, and you can often get good deals by booking online.
If you’re on a budget, being able to prepare your own meals will be a big money-saver. Get a camp stove from a camping store and stock up on canned food that just has to be heated. The Warehouse is a good one-stop shop for the things you’ll need, including tents, power adapters and wet-weather gear. The quality isn’t the best but the price is right. Pak ‘n Save is the cheapest supermarket chain, you’ll get to recognise their bright-yellow buildings.
Planning a route
The beautiful thing about road trips is that you can change your plan whenever you feel like it, but it is a good idea to have a basic one to start off with. Sit down with your travel companions and a map, and circle the must-see destinations for each of you. Then plan a route around these points.
Be aware that New Zealand’s motorway system isn’t very extensive and although the speed limit is 100km per hour in most of the country, you can’t count on this as an average speed. This means that it takes longer than you might expect to get from one place to another, which you’ll need to take into consideration when estimating travel times.
Don’t try to do too much. We did a three-week road trip around the South Island, and we were running – we only once spend two nights in one place, and that was because we had an all-day activity planned there. If you can, budget a month for the South Island and three weeks for the North.