New Zealand is a paradise, a country full of surprises, ranging from endless ocean views to skies so dark you feel as though you can walk across the Milky Way. While we usually focus on where to go, today, we will explore how to go, as there are plenty of options for getting around New Zealand.
Slow and steady, our preferred travel makes the journey as important as the destination. We like to drive. New Zealand roads will take you through subtropical rain forests, around extinct volcanos, along cliff tops, over mountains, and through modern metropolises.
The country’s travel options offer anything from luxury transport to basics. We will be the first to admit we prefer to travel in comfort.
Despite this, we have tried to include all the options for getting around New Zealand.
How to get around New Zealand
Filled with epic road trips and stunning scenery, New Zealand’s landscapes are beautiful and easy to traverse. When you’re ready to hit the road, you can drive, hire a driver, or take a bus. But these are only some of the options. Check out this list of ideas for getting around New Zealand, some of which will take you everywhere, while others will just hit a few highlights.
- Private guide
- Fully guided tours
First, be inspired . . .
Getting around New Zealand via car
Self-driving is our favourite way to get around.
The main advantage of driving is the ability to change our plan when something piques our interest. The downsides are the cost and time involved in getting the car (for visitors), the possibility of getting lost, staying focused on long driving days, and finding a car park in bigger cities.
We love the flexibility inherent in having our own vehicle. Personally, we prefer an upscale lifestyle, including luxury hotel stays and unique dining, rather than cooking ourselves. As we live in New Zealand, we can take our own vehicle when we road trip.
However, if we are headed to the other island, we often fly, hire a car, and drive around New Zealand, usually starting and ending in different cities. Therefore, the larger international rental car companies serve us well, as they often have multiple locations. This allows for drop-off in a different city from pick-up.
To find the best options, we use Rental Cars.com, a rental car aggregator. They provide a list of major players and local shops that have vehicles during our time period, providing us with cost, dealer ratings, and even available car information. They are a great place to start, even if you don’t book through them.
We have been using them in New Zealand and around the world since we discovered them years ago. To date, we have always found great pricing as well as excellent customer care.
If you are thinking about an electric car, check out our complete guide to renting a Tesla in NZ.
A few things to consider before renting a car in New Zealand:
- In New Zealand, vehicles drive on the left side of the road and the steering wheel is on the right. The transition is easy for most people, although driving requires a higher level of concentration. Check the NZTA for driving tips for overseas visitors.
- New Zealand motorways are generally in excellent condition. However, some rural roads are unpaved. Speed limits tend to be slower than in other developed countries. Also, be aware that Kiwis drive somewhat aggressively and, as a population, tend to drive too close to the following vehicle.
- Drivers must be at least 21 to rent a car in New Zealand. While some companies require drivers to be 25, others add a surcharge to those under 25.
Bring your own accommodation: Getting around New Zealand via campervan
New Zealand is extremely well-suited for a campervan experience. Good roads, plenty of campsites around the country, plus the ability to freedom camp in many destinations allows for total flexibility.
Some of the advantages include only having to unpack once, having everything you need with you, and, if you are freedom camping, the ability to change your schedule as the mood hits.
While the campervan rental will be higher than a car rental, you need to remember that it includes your vehicle, your accommodation, and a place to prepare your food.
Regardless of if you looking for a small campervan or a big motor home, you should be able to find a good price on what you are looking for at Campstar. And, to sweeten it even more, they are offering a 3% discount to Albom Adventures readers. Check out Campstar here. No code is needed for a discount.
Key things to remember when travelling via motorhome:
- Most campervans in New Zealand are designed to hold between two and six people. The maximum number of people travelling in your campervan is determined by the number of seatbelts.
- Read the rules on freedom camping. Violations can result in an instant fine of $200.
Flying within NZ
New Zealand has three international airports, plus regional airports in most major cities and resort areas. Air New Zealand and Jetstar are the primary domestic carriers in the country.
Prices vary quite a bit based on availability, so being flexible on days and times will often get you the best prices, although flying is generally a more expensive way of travelling around New Zealand.
Getting around New Zealand via bus
We have personally never taken a long-distance bus (coach) in New Zealand, but our adult children have reported it to be a great way to travel. They described the buses to be clean, reliable, and easy. It’s an option that fits into most budgets and allows passengers to relax as they enjoy the New Zealand scenery.
Bus travel is one of the least expensive ways to get around the country. The primary bus companies are:
- Intercity: New Zealand’s largest long-distance bus service with high-quality, full-size buses offers point-to-point, Flexi-passes, travel passes, and tours.
- Skip: Marketing themselves as cheaper, faster, funner.
- Kiwi Experience: Targeting backpackers, the bus drivers often add commentary. Hop-on hop-off resumes Jan 1, 2021
- Stray: Currently, Freestyle Travel is suspended, and there are only a few select tours in New Zealand.
- Flying Kiwi: Award-winning adventure tours via coach in New Zealand.
Train travel in NZ
To be honest, train travel in New Zealand isn’t a super popular option despite the country being home to one of the world’s most scenic train trips. Four services to consider:
- Northern Explorer: A fun way to travel from Auckland to Wellington, the train will get you there in a day.
- Coastal Pacific: Timed with the Inter-island ferry, this train runs in the morning from Christchurch to Picton and in the reverse direction in the afternoon.
- TranzAlpine: This stunning journey from Christchurch to Greymouth is often rated among the world’s most beautiful train trips. While many people make the return trip in a day, we did it as part of a loop around the South Island, hiring a car in Greymouth to continue our journey. Reserve your TranzAlpine day trip here.
- Taieri Gorge Railway or Seasider: Two stunning train trips embark from the Dunedin railway station. We opted to do the half-day return trip through the Taieri Gorge (not currently running); the other is the Seasider heading north along the coast.
Taking a ferry between islands
There are two ferries that travel between the North and South Islands and one ferry that travels from the South Island to Stewart Island. From Wellington to Picton, both ferries can take passengers and vehicles; however, if you have a rental car, be sure to check if it is okay to take it across.
Interislander ferry: Offers 11 daily sailings between Wellington and Picton. The trip takes about 3.5 hours, with optional onboard entertainment, although I prefer to spend my time on one of the observation decks. Reserve the Interislander ferry here.
Bluebridge ferry: Also crosses the Cook Strait, travelling the same route from Wellington to Picton. Reserve the Bluebridge ferry here
Stewart Island ferry: Passengers can cross the Foveaux Strait between Bluff (South Island) and Stewart Island. Check here for times and prices.
Cruising around New Zealand
Cruising to and around New Zealand is a popular way of getting here and travelling, as well as being a lovely way to enjoy the country.
Most visit some combination of the key cities of Auckland, Tauranga, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin.
If you are thinking about cruising, we always start our search at Cruise Critic, for they offer a list of ships headed to our destination, usually at the lowest price around.
Joining a tour
The primary advantage of a tour over self-driving is that someone else does the planning and the driving, a fact especially appreciated in Auckland traffic. Also, there is the added knowledge that comes from shared stories, legends, and history retold by the guide.
The downsides are that you are on someone else’s timeline, no opportunity to add extra time at a favourite spot, and you may have to wait or miss something if other guests are inconsiderate. A few things to consider before signing up for a tour:
- Bus tours are usually the most economical option. The advantages depend on the tour and often include commentary, large windows, wifi, and toilets onboard. They are often a good choice for scenic tours or places like Hobbiton that require bus entry. The downside is less personal attention.
- Small group tours cost a bit more, but they have a personal flair. Also, on walking, hiking, or other active tours, it is easier for a small group to stay together and to hear the guide.
- Private tours are fully customizable. They cost more but generally allow you to see more overall. You move at your pace, and there is no waiting on strangers.
- Active tours: In addition to group size, you need to think about the activity level of a tour. Does it include adventure that excites or terrifies you?
- Scenic tours: At the other end of the spectrum, scenic tours will allow you to enjoy the spectacular landscapes that New Zealand offers with very little effort.
Other ways of getting around New Zealand
- Sailing around New Zealand: If you have a yacht, sailing around New Zealand is a great way to see the coastal communities, but be advised, some of the waterways are notoriously rough.
- Cycle around New Zealand: This a great way to see the country, or at least portions of it.
- Hiking: While the Te Araroa Trail runs the distance of the country, there are also nine great walks that range from one to several days.
- Hitchhiking: While popular amongst some groups, even in New Zealand, hitchhiking carries more risk than many other methods.
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For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …
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