A beginner’s guide to self-drive holidays in New Zealand
A self-drive tour through New Zealand is a trip of a lifetime. Driving is really the best way to see the country and its spectacular scenery as you can do it all at your own pace with plenty of flexibility to explore, stopping to capture photos whenever the urge strikes and venturing to places you might not get to see otherwise.
While the country is split into two islands, the inter-island ferry makes it easy to travel between the two while enjoying the magnificent sights of Marlborough Sounds along the way. Depending on the car rental company you choose, you may be able to drive onto the ferry to continue your journey to the South Island, or drop off your vehicle first, hopping on as a passenger and picking up the next one after you’re on dry land.
What’s in this guide?
- Car types
- Fuel costs
- Travel times and roads
- Signs and other driving need to knows
- What you can see in three weeks
While there are a wide range of car models to choose from, the best choice is typically a smaller model like the classic Nissan Maximum and Toyota Corolla or even smaller Swift or Gertz types. These are the most fuel-efficient, economical to rent and insure, as well as being easier to drive when navigating those narrow mountain roads. If you’re travelling in a group with more than two adults, keep in mind that you may not have enough room for all your luggage. Even if the vehicle seats four comfortably, the boots tend to be small so you may need something slightly larger. Of course, packing lighter is a good idea (there are plenty of how-to articles to be found online if you struggle with this) – plus, it’ll be easier to get around the airport and to/from your accommodation.
Unlike many places in Europe, the majority of car rentals in New Zealand are automatic, although categories like compact and intermediate typically have a manual option, they tend to be more costly.
Typically, the smaller the car, the more fuel efficient it will be; however, New Zealand has a newer line of cars that offer higher fuel efficiency, including hybrid and electric cars in compact size, sedans and SUVs, which may be available for hire. Fuel costs average around 2.30 New Zealand dollars per litre, about 1.2 British pounds, 2 Canadian dollars or 1.50 US dollars.
Traffic volumes are comparably low, roads are well-maintained and New Zealanders tend to be highly-skilled drivers, but it can be easy to underestimate travelling times here as the roads are narrower, mostly two-way with one lane in each direction. There are few motorways, and oftentimes the roads are steeper and windier than you’d expect. The good news is that Google drive times are fairly accurate – if you add about 10%, you’ll get a more realistic idea, based on driving a more compact car in light traffic, following the posted speed limit in good weather. Commute traffic, road works, and obviously photo stops and other breaks, are going to add to that drive time. Be sure to check the weather forecast before heading out for the day as inclement weather may slow you down as well.
Driving is on the left in New Zealand as it is in Australia and the UK. If you aren’t familiar with it, be sure to pay close attention as old habits can be hard to break and many fatal crashes are the result of drivers who drive on the wrong side of the road. If you’re flying in from a long distance through multiple time zones, always take at least a day or two to rest before venturing on your road trip as sleepiness coupled with unfamiliar driving/roadways increases the odds of an accident.
Get to know the road terminology before embarking on your road trip. Most roads in New Zealand are undivided with one lane in each direction. No ‘overtaking’ or ‘passing’ zones are marked by solid yellow lines. National highway routes are referred to as ‘State Highways.’ ‘Give way’ means yield, while a freeway is a ‘motorway’ and a rotary is a ‘roundabout.’ The country uses yellow signs that are shaped like diamonds, similar to countries throughout the Americas, Australia and Ireland.
All signposting follows standard international symbols, with all distances in kilometres. The signs indicating the speed limit have a white background with a red circle and are stated in km/h - kilometres per hour. Be sure to stay at or below the legal speed limits that are indicated, for safety reasons as well as to avoid a potentially steep penalty. The maximum on any open road is 100 km/h, and in urban areas, 50km/h. When going through road work areas, it’s typically 30km/h. When a traffic light turns amber, you must stop unless you’re already so close to the intersection it would be unsafe to do so. Drivers and all passengers must wear seat belts, and drivers cannot use a handheld phone while driving. As it is in most places, it is a crime to drive under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.
A three-week road trip can bring you to many of the highlights in New Zealand on both the North Island and the South Island.
Start in Auckland, the main international air hub. You’ll find plenty to do right in the city, starting with the trip up New Zealand’s tallest man-made structure, the Sky Tower. From there you’ll get a perspective of the capital city and a stunning 360-degree view stretching as far as 50 miles. Just of few of the other popular things to do including visiting museums like the Maritime Museum, exploring the wealth of art galleries and delving into the outstanding shopping scene.
From there, venture north to the Bay of Islands, an especially photogenic destination made up of over 140 islands filled with beautiful sandy beaches and abundant wildlife – you might even join a kayaking tour or a cruise, watching for whales and dolphins along the way. Heading south towards Snells Beach, stop to take a short walk through the Waipoura Forest, home to the world’s largest Kauri tree.
Heading back through Auckland continue to Rotorua. You might stop for a ride on the heritage train that travels through the rich gold mining history of Karangahake Gorge or visit the Hobbiton film set, a must for Lord of the Rings and Hobbit fans. This is also the centre of Maori culture, with lots of ways to delve into New Zealand’s history and heritage, as well as being a hotspot for geothermal activity.
Note the steam rising from the hills and along the roadside – if you want to see more, stop to experience the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland with its geysers, bubbling pools, waterfalls and sulphur ponds.
Wellington sits at the south end of the North Island and offers all sorts of delights, from the cable car ride that offers dazzling views and the National Museum to Cuba Street with its famously delicious Cuban-inspired fare and variety of entertaining street performers. Crossing the ferry from Wellington, you’ll step on land again in Picton. Drive south along the east coast of the South Island to Kaikoura, renowned for its wildlife, particularly sperm whales which can be spotted year-round. It’s a popular departure point for tours that will bring you to swim with seals and wildlife-watching excursions with opportunities to see other types of whales like humpbacks in June and July, and numerous dolphin species in every season.
Further south along the coast you’ll come to the South Island’s largest city, Christchurch. Take a ride on the heritage tram to explore its highlights like the Canterbury Museum and Avon River as well as hip New Regent Street famed for its historic buildings that have been transformed into trendy cafes, restaurants and bars. Just outside the city in Lyttelton you can join a cruise to view rare hectors dolphins. Continuing towards Mount Cook National Park, take in the view of soaring Mount Cook from the milky turquoise waters of Lake Pukaki and then head out on the trails where you’ll be immersed in scenery that includes glaciers, permanent snow fields and many towering peaks. Just south on your way to Dunedin, Twizel was used as the Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings and is also home to the Moeraki Boulders which gives the landscape another-worldly look.
Dunedin itself is known for its rich Scottish heritage and brings the chance to witness the only mainland royal albatross breeding colony in the world. You may be able to spot yellow-eyed penguins too, and you’re guaranteed plenty of awe-inspiring scenery anywhere you’re at on the Otago Peninsula. Venturing west, you’ll reach Fiordland National Park, the country’s largest national park. Its beauty is extraordinary, with over a dozen fjords, including Milford Sound. Don’t miss the Milford Sound nature cruise to witness postcard-perfect scenery while watching for penguins, seals and dolphins.
As you journey to Queenstown, you’ll travel through dramatic mountains and sparkling lakes. Once in the “Adventure Capital of the World,” choose from a wide range of activities from hiking, four-wheeling and water sports to big thrills like skydiving and bungy jumping. Cross New Zealand’s highest sealed road over the Crown Range to Wanaka, enjoying a walk through the forest in Mount Aspiring National Park, traveling by Fox Glacier before reaching the town Franz Josef.
One of the highlights of your entire trip may be embarking on a helicopter flight over the glacier followed by a hike. This incredible road trip ends by dropping your car off in Greymouth and hopping on the TranzAlpine Scenic Train to Christchurch. The rail journey along the South Island’s west coast has been ranked among the world’s top train journeys rolling through river valleys, and forests, bringing views of stunning gorgeous and snow-capped peaks.
Explore the very best of New Zealand with these recommended self-drive tours
Grand New Zealand Self-Drive (22 nights)
Length and Breadth of New Zealand (29 nights)
Classic New Zealand Self-Drive (20 nights)
North to South Explorer Self-Drive (15 nights)
Lord of the Rings Scenic Explorer Self-Drive (13 nights)
Drive and Hike Around the South Island (13 nights)
Auckland to Christchurch Boutique Self-Drive (19 nights)