Did you know that
….car insurance isn’t mandatory in New Zealand?
…New Zealand gas stations allow you to pump gas before paying for it?
…you can get gas station discounts when shopping at the grocery store?
…you can’t properly ventilate a campervan while sleeping WITHOUT getting attacked by sand flies?
I didn’t either. And there’s plenty more where that came from.
I learned all of this and more when I decided to drive from New Zealand’s North Island to the southernmost tip of its South Island. I did all of this in 3 weeks, in a well-worn Toyota Hiace with devilish looking coffee cups spray painted on the outside. Yes, folks, I took the road trip of a lifetime and traveled New Zealand by campervan.
Before doing so, I did a ton of research, as you will most likely do too. Some of it was helpful, but most of it was learning on the go.
You probably have a lot of questions, and best to jot them all down. For example, how much does it cost? Do I need a special license? Do I need insurance? What about gas? Etc.
Here, I tried to categorize everything you’ll want to know, links that will help you, and anecdotes from my experience. Hopefully, this will get you started in researching the road trip of a lifetime!
1. Decide when to go
Being in the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand’s seasons fall at different times that many of us are used to. Busy, shoulder and low seasons will correspond. You should check specific travel dates within months, as often prices could vary in the gap between shoulder to busy seasons, etc. I traveled in March to April.
Summer – December, January, February (Busy Season)
Autumn – March, April, May (Shoulder Season)
Winter – June, July, August (Low Season)
Spring – September, October, November (Shoulder Season)
2. Book your plane tickets
If you are driving from the North to South Island, book a multi-destination fare. You should arrive in Auckland and depart from Christchurch (or another major city in the South Island).
3. Choose your campervan company
The way they rent campervans is similar to a rental car; you’ll pay a daily fee. So we chose Escape Rentals, mostly because they had good reviews and were the cheapest. For three weeks of rental, we paid $1542 NZ, and that included a $300 NZ one way transport fee (because we picked up in Auckland and dropped off in Christchurch). Considering that our campervan was also our hotel, this was not a bad price. If you do a one-way trip as we did, you should also make sure your campervan company allows you to drop off the van in the city where you end your trip.
Also look at what the price includes. The Escape Rentals site explains what you need before arrival, driver’s license terms, what is included/what is not included, a detailed list of do’s and don’ts, and much more. I was pretty happy to learn that I didn’t need a special driver’s license (my US one would suffice). Sheets, blankets, and cooking utensils were also part of the deal.
4. Choose your route
My friend told me that two weeks in New Zealand was sufficient enough for a North to South Island road trip. We had three weeks and felt it wasn’t enough.
But no matter how much time you have, know this; There aren’t a ton of ways to get around New Zealand and highways are sparse. Major attractions aren’t directly off the highway, and you may be doing a lot of backtracking to see everything you want to see. Prioritize and lay out a specific plan before you leave.
The typical route taken from the north to the south island is to start in Auckland and finish in Christchurch, which was what we did.
It was laid out as the following:
♥ Auckland to Wellington on Highway 1
♥ Take the ferry from Wellington to Picton (South Island)
♥ Continue on Highway 6 to Queenstown (In Queenstown, we explored Milford Sound and did the Routeburn track)
♥ Return to Christchurch on Highway 8.
Taking this route put us in reach of Hobbiton, Tongariro National Park, Nelson and the Marlborough Region, Pancake Rocks, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, Haast Pass and Mount Aspiring National Park, Wanaka, Mount Cook, Castle Hill and a lot more.
5. Plan your general itinerary and realize in advance that you won’t get to see it all
New Zealand would be the furthest I’d ever been from home. As such, I had a laundry list of things I wanted to do/see/experience, and this was so intense that I began booking things way before arrival. For example, I needed to take the evening tour at Hobbiton. I needed to summit Mount Doom (Mount Ngauruhoe), and act like I was throwing the One Ring into the fire. I needed to kayak the entire length of Milford Sound. I needed to buy a Gandalf hat at Hobbiton and wear it while I was hiking the Routeburn Track. These were only a few things.
Well, I got to do one thing I listed above, Hobbiton in the evening, which was a life-changing experience. Though I could’ve summited Mount Doom, kayaked Milford Sound and bought the Gandalf Hat, I got deathly ill which kept me from the summit and kayaking, and that Gandalf Hat was $350 NZ. However, I did hike the Tongariro Crossing (putting me at the base of Mount Doom), took a boat ride in Milford Sound, and wore a beanie (in place of the Gandalf one) while hiking the Routeburn track. It may have felt lacking at the time, but as you can see, I have little excuse for FOMO! (fear of missing out syndrome)
The point is, take your planned route and map out your high priority stops, but just know that something will have to give. Realize now that it’s much more important to spend adequate time at a few locations than rush through many just to cross them off the list. Also, practice being grateful. After all, not everyone gets to visit New Zealand.
6. Don’t underestimate travel time, and know where you want to be during daylight
It takes a lot longer getting places than you’d think. Three weeks in New Zealand sounds like a TON of time, but we were always on the go, never in a location for longer than a day, and subsequently tearing our hair out. It’s much better to overestimate travel time, which will allow more exploration time needed.
Also important, map out which regions where you want to see during daylight. For example, due to our timing, we were racing through the Haast Pass at dusk, chasing light, and not seeing much because we were desperate to reach any campsite before pitch black. It was unfortunate because the Haast Pass is one of those beautiful sought-out places where you should take your time. It also sucked because there was a perfectly good cheap motel at the entrance of the pass, and we could’ve used a hot shower.
Situations like these are typical on any trip, but overestimating your travel time and having a better idea of what you’d like to experience beforehand is helpful when making decisions on the road.
7. Mentally practice driving on the right
We were extremely nervous to try right-hand driving. Not only is New Zealand filled with roundabouts, but the signs can also be sparse and extremely confusing. As such, the passenger needs to be just as alert as the driver. So, no napping in the van for either of us 🙁
Watching this video may be helpful.
8. Gas budgeting
I’ll admit it. We didn’t budget well for this trip. Since we weren’t staying in hotels, and only had our campervan cost to consider, we assumed it was going to be cheaper than it was. Not necessarily.
It didn’t occur to me before leaving, but New Zealand imports the vast majority of its gas. So in other words, gas was very pricey. Our Auckland to Christchurch route was approximately 3000 km. Escape’s website mentions that the campervans get about 10-12 Liters/100 km, and with the price of gas and size of the tank, we’d be able to drive about 500 km per tank.
Since our route was about 3000 km, we’d be filling up around six times in a perfect world. So, realistically, we probably should have budgeted filling up around 8-9 times. Due to gas costs at the time, it took $100 to $120 NZ for a full tank. That’s an estimated $1000 NZ!
On the upside, there’s a program at Countdown (a grocery store), where you can save a few pennies per liter if you purchased a certain amount of groceries. At the time, this coupon would print on the grocery receipt, and you would then show the receipt at the gas station. Since then, they have changed to a cards system.
9. Food budgeting
Food is expensive in New Zealand. Again, living out of our campervan gave us the false impression that we’d be eating on the cheap.
Well, newsflash, we were eating on the cheap, but it wasn’t exactly “cheap” to do so. Since we were eating out of our van, we often had to buy shelf stable food which is usually more expensive. We did have a few meals made from scratch but had to limit them to ingredients we could also use in different meals.
Not surprisingly, eating out isn’t that cheap either. And there are only so many meat pies you can eat. Same goes for fish and chips.
On the upside, we were able to save some pennies at Countdown by signing up for their rewards card which gets you discounted prices on certain sale items. Though you need to put your address on the application, we mentioned that we didn’t have an address and needed a temporary card.
10. Bring a mini medicine cabinet
Unfortunately, New Zealand is one of those places where over-the-counter medication is scarce and pricey. I quickly realized this when I got a really bad cold virus accompanied by coughing, fever, chills, and other such vacation-ruining ailments. We weren’t near any larger cities for a majority of the time, which meant no stores or pharmacies. For example, it took ages for me to find Mucinex, and when I did, I paid a lot for it.
I’m not trying to convert you into a hypochondriac; I’m just saying. If I had proper cold medicine from the get-go, I might not have gotten to the level of needing a doctor halfway through our trip.
The same thing follows for hydrocortisone (anti-itch cream). For some reason, we could only find those natural salves that do NOTHING. And when we did find hydrocortisone, it was of really low strength (0.5%-ish) and pricey. Having to sleep in a campervan with a window slightly ajar (to prevent condensation) makes you a magnet for the notorious New Zealand sand fly.
Before we left, I heard that New Zealand doesn’t mind you camping off the side of the road or wherever you want (Freedom Camping). However, that’s not entirely true. From the DOC: Freedom camping is permitted on public conservation land, except in areas where it is expressly prohibited or restricted to self-contained vehicles. This is indicated by signage.
Don’t be lazy and just find a campground. From Escape Rentals: There are over 6,000 camping sites throughout New Zealand, and many are free or cost very little. They have a neat website/app that maps them out 🙂
Holiday parks aren’t bad either!
12. Travel Insurance? Yay or Nay?
I don’t have much experience with travel insurance, as I typically don’t like to purchase supplemental insurance of any kind. However, we ultimately chose to buy travel insurance from Trip Mate for two reasons: I was on Covered California (Obama Care), and Trip Mate’s auto coverage was cheaper than buying the supplemental auto insurance from Escape Rentals. However, you get what you pay for; I DO NOT recommend this company. If I had done my research, we would’ve seen that they had a 1-star rating on Consumer Affairs.
But my greatest advice is this: if you have insurance at home, check your coverage. You may already be covered for potential calamities. Additionally, if you have travel rewards credit cards, you may be covered for rental car damages (Chase Sapphire).
14. Give yourself a break and stay in an occasional hostel/hotel
Let’s face it. We’re not in our 20’s anymore and have gotten used to the occasional hot shower and other comforts. We sprung for a hotel in Wellington, a hostel in Nelson and Queenstown, and a hotel in Christchurch. They were well deserved and extremely well appreciated.
15. If you’re doing one of the New Zealand great walks, figure out where to leave your campervan temporarily
We planned on doing the Routeburn Trek, so, that meant we had to park our campervan somewhere in Queenstown. I hate unknowns like this, so I researched the heck out of it. In the end, I wasn’t very confident as there were threads on TripAdvisor about people paying tons of money for parking garages, theft, fear of towing, etc.
I also read that hotels may let you park your campervan for the duration of the trek if you pre-book a night upon your return. I contacted the Nomads Hostel in Queenstown which said they could assist me with free parking upon booking. Score! I felt much better, knowing that our campervan would be waiting at the hostel that we would be returning to after finishing the trek.
As it turned out, their parking assistance was telling us to park at “the park,” and said park happened to be located on Park Street. They said it was free and no one would mess with our stuff. Since Queenstown is filled with meter parking, we were naturally concerned.
While there’s no indication that you could park on Park Street for any length of time, we left our campervan there with some trepidation – we were storing our laptop, and other such things. Thankfully, everything was still there when we returned, and we didn’t get a citation.
Overall, if you’re going on a trek like us, leaving your campervan in Queenstown without paying an arm and a leg isn’t a straightforward affair. However, if you have any experience with this, please share in the comments below!