New Zealand: What to Expect

March 2019

What to expect when visiting New Zealand

This adventure was certainly our most labor intensive planning trip to date and I loved every second of it. This was our very first road trip so having a vehicle adds a new level of complexity to planning… not to mention driving is on the left side! While everyone’s adventure will be different depending on the type of trip you are planning, there are considerations on what to expect when visiting New Zealand.

GETTING THERE

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Since we were only staying for a two weeks, we did not need to apply for a visa to visit. Visas depend on your home country, the intent of your visit and duration you will be in New Zealand. This website outlines all the visa options for your trip.

Flights are becoming more affordable and routes are increasing to New Zealand. Always keep an eye out for good deals. We flew Air New Zealand for the international flight into Auckland and flew Jet Star domestically from Auckland to Queenstown.

  • Make sure when planning your travel itinerary you leave at least 2-3 hours between flights to allow for any delays, disembarking from the plane, and security lines to ensure the best travel day possible.
  • Be aware that the flights are very strict with the luggage requirements of 7 kg / 15.4 lbs. Evaluate the airline’s rules and your packing situation ahead of time to decide if a checked bag is necessary.

A large majority of international flights will go through Auckland. Many passport holders (eligibility is country specific) can take advantage of the e-passport system at border control. It is a two step process- the first scans your passport and prompts questions using the touch screen; the second takes your photo. While I was rejected from the e-passport and failed the photo portion, many people going through get to wiz by customs. For the individuals who fail the e-passport, there is an assistance line where your passport will be checked manually. Additionally, there is a regular line for those that do not qualify for the e-passport.

Like the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand takes biosecurity very seriously. Make sure the declare any items they list and when in doubt, it seems best to declare. We declared packaged food items (snacks we brought for all the travel) and our gear (bags and shoes) as they have been hiking in other countries. Before leaving the airport, you will meet with a biosecurity officer to go through your declaration form and a mandatory x-ray of your bags. 

GETTING AROUND

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There are so many ways to get around New Zealand! Depending on the type of experience you want to have will help guide your mode of transportation. While renting a campervan was a whimsical idea for us, it added a level of complexity and planning that did not feel necessary for the experience we were looking for and did not seem to save us a significant amount of money. Using buses seemed to restrictive for what we wanted to accomplish and hitchhiking was not a consideration. That is how we determined renting a car would be our best option giving us flexibility and freedom for exploration on our time. We rented our car through Apex Car Rentals which we found very affordable and included the price of the ferry from the South Island to the North Island. 

That was the best option for us but the others definitely have their place and are very popular.  

  • Campervan: Your all in one option for the ultimate immersion into New Zealand’s nature. There are campervan parks everywhere to accommodate your itinerary. Beware of freedom camping- you cannot park your van anywhere- it has to be a designated camping area. Campervans range from self contained units with all you need to live completely in your van to campervans with only a bed in the back. There are many companies (popular ones we passed on the road include Brtiz and Jucy Rentals) that offer travelers a wide variety of options depending on needs.
  • Bus: This is perfect for budget travelers or people that need more structure, do not want to make decisions, or do not want to go through the hassle of planning. The bus has a “hop on hop off” arrangement at all the popular destinations. The Kiwi Experience is a very popular option for travelers- you see the big green buses throughout New Zealand.
  • Backpacking/Hitchhiking: If you had all the time in the world, traveling only to a small area of New Zealand, or have eternal faith in humanity, then this is your option! Hitchhiking is not uncommon in New Zealand as the country is extremely backpacker friendly but I do not believe this to be an efficient or reliable way if you need to get somewhere fast. Certainly budget friendly and we saw lots of people using this mode of transport as well. Stick yourself in an area that has high car traffic, such as a round-about, and hold up a sign with your final destination. This allows passing drivers to know the direction you are heading so they know if they can help you.  

If you rent a car or a campervan, here are some additional tips:

  • If your native driver’s license is in English, you do not need to apply for an International Driver’s license to drive in New Zealand.
  • Bring phone cables so you can play music, podcasts, audio books, etc while driving for hours on end. This can also charge your devices while en route. While our car had an USB port, I packed a car charger with USB ports in case we had an older car.
  • It does take a long time to drive between places. New Zealand is sprawling as much of the land is not developed. It makes for the most beautiful drives but make sure you have enough rest (and gas) to get to your final destination.
  • Most people start in Auckland and work their way south. Starting in the South Island may save you money (sometimes free!) because rental companies need drivers to deliver the cars back north to restock the inventory.
  • A GPS is always an extra daily fee to your rental so download Google maps onto your phone ahead of time to use for directions. This worked perfectly for us.
  • Don’t forget to include the cost of gas… it is very expensive! The bigger your tank, the harder it will hit your wallet. It costs over $50 to fill up the economy car we had at half tank!
  • And finally… New Zealand drives on the left side of the road. We were handed a booklet on driving rules before we got our rental car and will right up a separate post on driving on the other side!

WHERE TO STAY

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Choosing where to stay is largely depending on how you are getting around. Since we decided to drive and were not planning on camping, we needed a place to stay each night. I assumed that hostels were going to be our most affordable way of getting around but we were surprised that Airbnb was either the same or a little more for home convenience. This is not the case if you are a solo traveler- since Kevin and I would need to two beds or a double bed at each hostel, the cost ended up being very comparable to Airbnb’s in the area. The mass majority (all but one) of our nights were in Airbnb options. Note that many were private rooms in someone’s home which is how the cost was comparable to two people in hostels. Booking with Airbnb meant we had to book in advance and it locked us into our itinerary so while this worked for our trip on a tight schedule, it may not be best for last minute accommodations. 

Since we moved almost every night, it was important to know when we showed up what the check-in arrangement was as well as what accommodations we had so we could plan meals and most importantly, laundry days (Christchurch and Rotorua).

Accommodation Features

Kitchen Utility Washer Self check-in
Queenstown Mini fridge, kettle, toaster No Yes
Twizel Fridge, microwave, kettle, toaster No Yes
Christchurch Full kitchen Yes No
Kaikoura Full kitchen, shared No No
Wellington Kettle No Yes
Adventure Lodge (Tongariro Crossing) Full kitchen, shared with facility No No
Rotorua Refrigerator, kettle microwave Yes Yes
Auckland Kettle No, Nearby laundromat Yes

But there are many other alternatives!

  • Campervan: If you chose to rent a campervan, you have your accommodations already included! Campervan sites have bathroom accessibility while complete “at home” essentials. Some campervans even have kitchens! Self-contained units have everything you need all packed up in your mobile home. 
  • Camping: Camping is another option available to travelers. Make sure to have the proper gear for all weather conditions and able to carry it. Sometimes, the campsite is a long distance from the park entrance or parking lot.  
  • Hostels: Hostels are the most popular option for New Zealand travelers. There are countless hostels throughout the country and are very affordable. The affordability factor is dependent on your comfort with dorm living. The cheapest options include bunked rooms (four or more) and shared bathrooms. Private rooms are typically available but come at a premium cost. There are also accommodations such as kitchen and gaming areas with some that host nightly activities to get to know the people staying in your hostel. For solo travelers, this is often the preferred since it allows for an environment to meet people and buddy up for excursions or sightseeing. This option also allows for traveler’s to be more flexible with their itinerary since last minute and same day hostel availability is common. 
  • Hotels: And of course, traditional hotels also exist. Note though that in some of the more remote areas of New Zealand, hotels are not typically an available option.
  • Holiday Parks: The best of all worlds! Need to park your campervan? Want to camp under the stars? Want a private room? Want to meet people and bunk together? Holiday Parks scattered across New Zealand offer travelers all these options at affordable rates.

WHERE TO VISIT

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It is not an understatement that there is A LOT to do in the country. Depending on the duration of your trip, you may need to make sacrifices as we did. Once we arrived in New Zealand, we had 14 days to accomplish as much as possible. Ideally, we would have loved to have spent a month or more exploring everything this beautiful country has to offer so some things will be saved for a return visit.

We decided to get the flight out of the way and go from Auckland directly to the South Island starting the two week adventure in Queenstown. We worked our way north from there for the duration of the trip. This benefited us in several ways:

  • Most travelers go north to south so this challenges rental companies with a surplus of vehicles in the South Island. Going the opposite direction helps the renal companies and often this rewards the customers with cheaper rates.
  • I would rather worry about the bulk of travel on the way to a destination then stressing about it on the way out. We always try to stay in the city of the airport the last evening of the trip to make transfer easy and decrease the risk of delay.

The way we planned and picked our spots consisted of hours on YouTube (thank you Backpacking Bananas and Mari Johnson) and then marking up Google maps with our sightseeing wish list.

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It was clear our driving path once we saw the map and cut the outliers out (Able Tasman National Park, Arthur’s Pass, Bay of Plenty to name just a few). Then it was taking what was left and making sure we had adequate time to explore the destination and had accounted from driving time to make it to Auckland for our flight. For the time we had, I think we did a pretty good job.

See the full itinerary here!

WHAT TO PACK

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No matter when you visit New Zealand, be prepared to experience all weather conditions. We travel at the end of summer into the beginning of fall (February into March). Some days were hot, some days were cold, some hikes were freezing at the summit, some mountains still had snow caps, some days our skin burned, some days it rained. See the full details of what we packed here!

WHAT TO EAT

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We ate and drank much better than we anticipated. The wine was fantastic and goes far beyond the Sauvginon Blanc they are know for internationally. Depending on where you are in the country, you will find an array of meats (lamb especially) and seafood all done in a variety of international cooking styles, but most importantly you will find pies. The meat pies are just wonderful and I do not know why this is not a more world wide phenomenon. The possibilities of fillings are endless!

When it comes to backpacking food, this was an area I had to be a bit of research. We would not have access to a refrigerator yet there were days that we were going to need multiple meals. I found this video to the most helpful in explaining the options, even including a shopping list- thanks Clever Hiker! Our shopping list included granola bars, crackers, beef jerky, dark chocolate, instant oatmeal packets, brown rice cakes, bananas, apples, Nutella, canned tuna/chicken, tortillas, and instant pasta. PRO TIP: check that cans have pull tabs and that the “ready in three min meals” you have everything you need (milk, butter, etc). We also packed zip lock bags to break down large packaging and serve as trash collection (leave no trace!), and this reusable spoon/fork.

EVERYTHING ELSE

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The national languages are English and Māori- take advantage of learning a few Māori words while visiting.

The currency is New Zealand dollar and we had no issues using credit card anywhere on our trip.

Overall, the country is an incredible place for exploration not just of the incredible variety of landscape to choose from, but of your own limits as well. New Zealand has so much to offer if you are willing and open to the experience. In a few hours of driving you can pass snow capped mountains, rolling green hills, flat farm land, vineyards, or see the bluest lakes or crashing waves of the ocean. The people are so kind, happy, and welcoming, wanting to share the magic of their country with visitors. Expect amazing things here and make the most out of your time in New Zealand.

More New Zealand content!

Full Itinerary

South Island details

North Island details

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