A month on the road teaches you a lot about your relationship. In the case of Kasha and I, campervanning brought us closer together. There’s something about being in such close quarters while having the freedom to change the scenery at a moment’s notice that just works for us. I’ll always remember the epic sing-a-longs to Livin’ on a Prayer, the pie shop stops, the movie nights and the meals we shared. For me, there’s no better way to see this incredible country than speeding along with your home for the night in tow – and your best friend for company.
If you’re thinking of planning a road trip in New Zealand, then I’ve got some hard-learned tips for you, tried and tested.
Camper or Car New Zealand
If you’ve got to the point where you’re considering which vehicle you want, know this. You will save money by campervanning. Accommodation in hotels and hostels isn’t always cheap, especially in smaller towns where there’s less choice. Campsites are abundant and there’s a strong camp culture among Kiwis, so you’re likely to find at least a few choices in many towns. We had the privilege to work with the guys at Escape Rentals, who kitted us out with exactly what we needed in awesome graffiti-styled vans we named Bumble and Poppet respectively.
The two campervans we drove (I’ll explain why we had two later) each had a queen-sized bed, table, camping chairs, cooking equipment, a lamp, a heater and a sink. It was exactly what we needed, without being too large to park or drive easily. As drivers, neither Kasha or I had been behind the wheel of anything bigger than a car, so if you’re feeling nervous this is much less intimidating than a full-sized motorhome.
The roads in New Zealand are generally of a good quality, except if you take the notorious unsealed (gravel) roads. The only advantage I can think of with getting a car over a camper would be if you wanted to explore difficult-to-reach areas that only a 4×4 vehicle could manage.
The last decision you need to make: automatic or manual transmission. I’m not sure if it’s an American influence or perhaps that Kiwis are just lazy, but the vast majority of cars on the road will be automatic. At first, we wanted a manual to save money, but our second camper was automatic and it made for a much more enjoyable driving experience. I’ll hold my hands up and say I’m a convert. No gearstick, no worries.
What’s a Self-Contained Campervan?
For the adventurous folk out there, you might have heard of a little thing called freedom camping. This uniquely Kiwi law allows people to enjoy a night sleep in a some of the most beautiful locations in the country without spending a penny. Be warned though, this does come with some limitations. Only self-contained campervans with a blue Caravan Self Containment Certification sticker are allowed to freedom camp. To put it bluntly, this just means that you need a toilet in your camper so you don’t spoil the beautiful nature with your waste. For smaller campers, like ours, all this meant was that we needed to carry a small chemical toilet that we were warned not to actually use, unless we really had to – for obvious reasons.
The aim is to leave nothing behind, and the fines for littering are extremely steep. If you’re still keen to go for it, know that there are restrictions on freedom camping in certain areas (you’ll see a big red sign saying so) and that you’ll almost always have absolutely no amenities. That means no morning shower, no place to fill up water and no outdoor cooking facilities.
What to bring on a New Zealand Road Trip
First of all, before anything, you need a microfibre towel and a headtorch.
You might think ‘these can’t be the most important items?’ They are. Go and get them, now.
I can’t even begin to explain how useful these two things have been. For the towel, a few hours after using it, the thing is dry again. There is nothing worse than trying to dry yourself with a wet towel and this is the easiest way to ensure there is always something dry to hand. The headtorch is the single-most important tool for preserving your camping sanity. Arriving late at night (perhaps even in the rain) the last thing you need while trying to plug in the power cable in the dark is to rely on your phone for illumination.
Gadget wise, as I’ve previously written about in my packing guide, I brought along my Garmin Sat Nav loaded with Aus and NZ maps (which saved us heaps of money renting one), a USB with multiple sockets so we could charge a few devices at once and the all-important iPod that became our karaoke machine.
For sheer practicality, you’ll also need: a waterproof jacket (it rains a lot in NZ), flip-flops (thongs, or as they are locally called jandals) for those late-night toilet runs and packing cubes to keep your stuff organised so you don’t have to tear the whole campervan apart to find that ‘nice top’.
Powered vs Unpowered Camp Sites
If you’re driving a car or camping in a tent you don’t need power. If you’re in a camper or motorhome and want to have a lamp, cook some food or recharge your devices and not drain the car battery, get yourself a powered site. They may be a little more expensive but they are so much more convenient, especially after a long day of driving and exploring.
Is Wi-Fi good in New Zealand?
The short answer is: no. For some reason, the internet in the southern hemisphere lags behind the rest of the world. If you’re lucky you can buy internet vouchers at your campsite that sell data by the gigabyte, if you’re unlucky you’ll end up in a camp where they hand out free Wi-Fi vouchers with a laughable 100-200mb of data… I’m not even kidding. Wi-Fi hotspots are also notoriously unreliable and quite expensive.
If you’re hoping to surf the world wide web while exploring New Zealand you’re better off getting a local sim card for your phone with a fixed data allowance. Luckily for me, I was using Three, who have a Feel At Home package that allows me to use data as if I was at home – though this wasn’t always reliable. Forward planning is definitely advised, and you should always keep an eye out for free Wi-Fi in public spaces. If you look at the bigger picture, the Wi-Fi in New Zealand is so bad that you should probably just put down the screens and enjoy the stunning landscapes instead. Which is what you’re here for anyway, isn’t it?
Do I need to book campsites in New Zealand?
Spontaneity is a great thing, especially when it comes to travelling. However, when it comes to campervanning, the merits of winging it depends on the season. We visited in the shoulder season of September-October when the camps are usually a little quiet. This meant we could have turned up at a camp and had a good chance of getting a spot without much trouble. The issue is that if you’ve spent the day exploring you’ll probably arrive late in the day, and smaller campsites may close their reception before you arrive.
To avoid this worry, we always booked ahead. This is something I especially recommend during the summer, key holidays or in popular cities like Auckland, Wellington, Wanaka and Queenstown. You really would be surprised how many campervans and motorhomes there are in New Zealand, they almost outnumber the locals!
Do I need car insurance in New Zealand?
Unfortunately, I can answer this question with personal experience. The issue with drivers in New Zealand is that having car insurance is not law. This means that younger, or more reckless drivers can always get on the road. If you get into a crash, you will be held liable for damage – regardless of whether or not they have insurance. By sheer luck (forgetting a credit card pin), we’d been forced to purchase Escape Rentals’ ‘No Worries Mate’ zero liability insurance. This blunder actually saved our entire trip.
Approaching a traffic light in Palmerston North, I noticed the light go amber and slowed down. The light now red, I pulled to a complete stop and raised the handbrake. A second passed where I turned to look at Kasha and smile. BOOM.
The camper lunged forward, we were thrown against the seat belts and the recoil made our heads hit back against the headrest. Sheer adrenaline flowed through my body. Somehow, I kept calm. I made sure Kasha was ok, put on my hazards and exited the car. Shards of broken headlight glass and a completely totalled car were the first things I saw. The teenage driver had been drinking heavily the night before and claimed to have ‘blacked out’, not seeing the red light or the enormous yellow campervan at a complete stop and ploughed straight into us. If we hadn’t brought the best insurance possible, we would have had to pay thousands of dollars to repair this, while the teenage driver without insurance walked away – his only worry was having to save up $1,000 to buy another car. For us, even with the insurance, we had to drive to the nearest garage while the damage was assessed. We then had to travel to Christchurch to swap our camper. It screwed up our itinerary and it was a massive downer, but it could have been a lot worse.
I’ve learned my lesson when it comes to car insurance. Don’t leave your holiday in the hands of a careless driver; protect yourself.
How Long to Travel New Zealand?
As long as possible.
It’s doable to see some of the major cities, towns and sights of both North and South Islands in a month, but that will involve quite a bit of driving. It was on this trip that Kasha and I learned the road trip rule that you should be spending more of your time outside the car than in it. We travelled for a month and saw A LOT, but we also spent some days driving 3-4 hours. That’s a lot of time on the road. If you’re desperate to see everything and only have a month, then I say go for it. If you’re flexible on time, I’d say double that. It’s so difficult to appreciate a place when you have the clock running. Slow down and enjoy exploring at a slow pace; it’s what New Zealand is good for.
Our New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary
If you want to know our original planned route, check out the map below!
Driving in New Zealand
You’ll need to keep your wits about you in NZ. Just because there isn’t the worry of kangaroos and wallabies you’d find in neighbouring Australia, New Zealand’s roads come with their fair share of difficulties.
The issues start with local drivers. For a country so sparsely populated (4.69 million) the drivers here are among the most impatient I have ever encountered. Perhaps it’s because they are so used to the open road that they don’t like being behind a campervan. Whatever the reason, expect a lot of tailgating and speeding. The best thing to do is to let them overtake, and drive at a safe speed you are comfortable with until they do so. If you find a traffic build up behind you, pull into quiet road or service station and take a break.
Another thing you’ll want to watch out for is people (usually tourists) slowing down, and even stopping on the road, to take photos. On New Zealand’s single-lane highways, this is extremely dangerous and annoying for other road users. Don’t be that person. If you want to take a picture, then find a safe place like a designated viewpoint to stop. Areas to watch out for with this are Queenstown, Wanaka, Arthur’s Pass and pretty much anywhere that has a viewpoint for something beautiful.
One of the biggest challenges you’ll want to be prepared for is the weather, which can flip from torrential rain to sunny and back again in a matter of minutes. Flooding is an issue, as are rockslips. A slow, steady and cautious driving style is the best advice I can offer.
My Best New Zealand Advice
Ultimately, this is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. You’ll be able to experience things here unlike anywhere else. Whether it’s skydiving, bungee jumping, kayaking Lake Taupo or visiting a Maori village this country will undoubtedly blow your socks off. Open your mind, embrace the unexpected and just have fun; a New Zealand road trip is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Have you been on a Kiwi road trip adventure and want to share your tips/ experiences? Then comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
Please note, we were guests of Escape Rentals, but any opinions expressed are entirely my own.