We visited New Zealand for 4 weeks in March of 2019. We chose to rent a camper van for our Kiwi adventure. We started in Christchurch and made our way north to Auckland. We rented our van, “Vanette”, through Rental Car Village. They are a family owned company with reasonable prices. We rented their economy camper van for all 4 weeks of traveling through NZ and absolutely loved it! Here are some things we wish we would have known at the beginning of our rental car search and travels through New Zealand.
1. They drive on the left side of the road.
As Americans, it took a few days to get comfortable with the Kiwis driving on the left side of the road. If you’re traveling all the way to New Zealand, it is a good idea to get a hotel for the first night or two to be fully rested before starting your rental. Rental Car Village in Christchurch is located in an industrial park with very little traffic. It was nice to be able to practice a bit before heading out on the open road.
2. The roads are not straight.
The roads are windy and mountainous all over NZ, especially on the south island. You will rarely be able to use cruise control. You need to pay attention to the roads and other cars constantly. This also means that it takes longer to get around than expected. While sometimes the destination looks close on the map, there may be mountainous roads in the way that take a lot of time to get through. Also, always let locals pass you. They are more comfortable than you on the roads and like to go faster.
3. Gasoline is quite expensive for a campervan.
When budgeting for traveling in NZ, be sure to add in the cost of gasoline. Every 2-3 days we were putting in $40-60 USD into the gas tank. This will depend on how much driving you will be doing, but we drove 2-3 hours a day average (obviously some days we did not drive at all and some we drove for 6 hours).
Travel Tip- If you shop at New World grocery store, you will be able to get coupons with your receipt when you purchase groceries that can be used at the “Z” gas stations. These coupons normally give you a few cents off the liter price and save you $1-5 depending on how much gasoline you purchase.
4. New World Grocery store is the best place to stock up for groceries.
We found that New World grocery stores always had the best selection for what food we needed. For the most part, we ate fried eggs for breakfast, a PB&J for lunch, and grilled cheese and tomato soup for dinner mixed in with snacks and fruits. Also, some of the stores have free WiFi, which makes it nice to just quickly check in with social media.
Travel Tip: Your first time going to a New World, ask for a “tourist club deals card” to get the benefits of the items on sale! Then everytime you go to a New World scan it and save money!
5. It’s hard to get lost in New Zealand.
In New Zealand, there are not many roads in general. Which makes navigating around the country very simple. There is always good signage telling which way to go to the next town. So as long as you know the name of the town you want to go to, you shouldn’t have a difficult time navigating.
Travel Tip: Skip the GPS offered at the rental companies and just download an offline map of the area (for example, Google Maps) to get around.
6. The views are going to cause a lot of stops.
Another reason driving takes longer in New Zealand is because you will be pulling over to take photos of the mesmerizing landscapes. A lot of the time they will have a sign saying viewpoint in 500 meters, yet other times you will just want to pull over and admire wherever you’re at.
7. Get the good rental insurance.
Most travel insurance will not cover a rental van. We ended up choosing to get rental insurance through the van rental company, Rental Car Village, we rented our van from. We had the economy camper van for 4 weeks. The company offers two different types of insurance, the standard excess and the zero excess. We paid to have the better (zero excess) insurance.
The standard excess insurance is included with the rental and if you have an accident, you are required to pay a maximum of $3,000 for the damage. With this, you are not allowed to drive on unsealed roads. The zero excess insurance is an additional insurance you can purchase where, if you have an accident, you do not have to pay anything! This also covers multiple tire punctures and one windscreen. It also allows you to drive on both sealed and unsealed roads.
The reason you want to purchase the zero excess rental insurance is because it gives you more opportunities in New Zealand. A lot of campsites and activities are down gravel roads. It is not uncommon to see a campervan on the side of the road with a punctured tire or a cracked windscreen from flying gravel. Be safe- get the better insurance and have a better trip.
8. Know the difference between self-contained and non self-contained.
In New Zealand some camper vans are considered “self-contained” which basically means there is a toilet, a fresh water storage, a waste water storage, and a rubbish bin with a lid in the van. These vans typically cost more to rent than a non self-contained van; however, they allow you to camp in more places called “freedom camping”. You can read more about self-contained units here. There are different reasons you would want to get a self contained van versus non self-contained.
- You are allowed to camp in more places.
- You have a toilet on board.
- You have larger fresh water storage in the vehicle.
- It is much more costly.
- The vehicle is often larger and takes more gasoline to get around.
- It requires you to take care of your toilet business.
We chose to get a non self-contained camper van for our trip. It was cheaper than a self-contained van when we paired it with the Department of Conservation campsite pass (below). It came with a cooler and a 10L water tank. It meant we had to do our dishes in a bucket after every meal, but it was honestly perfect for our trip. Looking back, I would still choose a non self-contained van.
9. The Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite pass is a money saver.
Once you have a camper van, you have to figure out where you are going to park it every night! This can be expensive if you’re not careful. Our non self-contained limited our options a bit. One great thing we found was the DOC campsite pass. This pass costs $25 NZD per week per person which is $3.57 NZD per day- an amount not expensive for accomodation. We bought the pass for four weeks to cover our entire journey. The campsites range in quality. Some are very basic with just a dump toilet and others have running water, shelter for cooking, and amazing views.
10. Download the CamperMate app to find free water.
The most useful app that you need to have for traveling New Zealand is the CamperMate app. This is the yellow and black one on the right. When you’re in a campervan staying on cheap campsites every few days, you will want to find free water to fill up your water tank and somewhere to take a free shower. This app has all the suggestions and more! I also liked using it to find public bathrooms on our route to know when I could go to the bathroom! The app lets you save potential campsites in your favorites and you can read reviews of any feature of the site, for example, if the road to a site is totally flooded or if the conditions of the site are just terrible or super clean!
11. Book the Cook Strait Ferry in advance.
Hopefully you have general idea of your itinerary, which will help you know when you want to book your ferry crossing to go from the North Island or South Island. This journey takes about 4 to 5 hours one way depending on the weather. The two well-known ferry companies are Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries and Interislander. We booked with Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferries because it was cheaper and the timing was better for our travel plans.
Travel tip: Do a little promo code Google search before checking out. We saved quite a bit of money that way!
We also saw a large pod of dolphins during our crossing so keep an eye out! There is plenty of room to explore and relax in the main areas of the ship. They also offer private cabins if you’re willing to spend more. While it is not nessacary it could be useful if you’ve been traveling in a campervan for a while and have not showered in a few days. Also, don’t expect the wifi to work well on the ship. We had our hopes up and it was awful WiFi. We gave up and watched the movie they had playing in the movie room!
12. Use the free WiFi at libraries.
This took us a while to learn, but most towns in New Zealand have a library that has pretty decent free WiFi. When it would rain or we needed to do some research, we would always just look for the nearest town and found their library to get a decent connection.
13. Get a SIM card from Vodafone.
Our first day in New Zealand, we stopped in a Vodafone and got a SIM card for the length of our trip. They have special deals for travelers and different prices depending on your length of stay. I bought a 30 day SIM card that came with unlimited Whatsapp messaging and about 2 GB of data for around $25 USD. While you will be in the mountains without service often, having unlimited Whatsapp messaging was very nice to keep my family updated on our adventure.
14. DOC Visitor Centers have useful information.
In the bigger towns near tourist destinations, there will be Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centers. These have all the information you will need when planning your travels, trekking, and driving around New Zealand. We often would stop at the one in town to get great information (for free) from the knowledgeable people and pamphlets they have. One of my favorite pamphlets they have are on the DOC campsite locations on the North Island and the South Island.
15. Scope out one-way relocation specials.
If you are very lucky or very flexible with your travel plans, you may be able to find a one-way relocation special from different campervan companies. From $1 a day, you can rent a campervan from a company and relocate it to a place they need in New Zealand. Sometimes the company will even pay for the ferry crossing or for some fuel. Here is a few companies I was watching for great deals before we left: Apollo and iMoova.