Everything You Need to Know About Planning a Road Trip (by Car) in New Zealand!
So you’ve decided you want ultimate freedom to travel the country at your own leisure by travelling by car in New Zealand. That’s awesome! This guide will tell you all you need to know about travelling by car and how to plan a road trip in New Zealand, from what sort of license you need to road trip budget and more!
This ultimate guide to travel by car in New Zealand is for both those international visitors who want to rent a car in New Zealand and those who are staying in the country for a while and therefore prefer to buy their own. We’ll go over where to rent or buy a car from, important road rules to know for driving on New Zealand’s roads, what costs to expect, how to plan a road trip itinerary and even where you can legally sleep in your car if you want to.
So get ready to hit the road with this guide to travelling New Zealand by car and how to plan the ultimate New Zealand road trip!
What You Need to Drive in New Zealand
Are you able to drive in New Zealand? You can legally drive in New Zealand if you have a full valid driving license written in English. If yours is not in English then it must be accompanied by either an International Driving Permit (IDP) or a translation which has been approved by the New Zealand Transport Agency. You can read more about these in:
- Why You Need an International Driving Permit for New Zealand
- How to Translate an Overseas Driving License for New Zealand
Further Things You Need to Rent a Car
If you are renting a car, you may come across a few other restrictions, such as age restrictions that may mean you have to pay a young driver’s surcharge for being under 25 years old or a mandatory insurance excess reducer. However, this does not apply to all rental companies so be sure to compare your rental options. Check out more on the subject in Age Restrictions When Renting a Vehicle in New Zealand or simply choose a company from The Best New Zealand Car & Campervan Rentals for Ages 18 to 25.
Do You Need a Credit Card to Rent a Car in New Zealand?
A final thing you may need when renting a car in New Zealand is a credit card, or at least a Visa or MasterCard debit card. In order to hire a car in New Zealand, you need to provide a bond, also known as a security deposit, which will be returned to you upon dropping off your vehicle providing the vehicle is undamaged, has a full fuel tank and meets the other conditions of the rental agreement.
The bond is usually the same price as your insurance excess option, which can range from NZ$250 to $4,000! Because is a lot of cash to hand over upfront, car rental companies tend to prefer taking a credit card imprint, which means they will have access to the specified amount of money from your credit card should you damage the vehicle. Therefore, a credit card with Visa or MasterCard is needed to hire a car from most companies. Many companies are happy with a Visa or MasterCard debit card, while a rare few rental companies will accept a cash deposit.
Head over to How to Hire a Car or Campervan in New Zealand Without a Credit Card for more advice on the subject.
Getting a Car in New Zealand
Now you need a vehicle. How you go about getting a car in New Zealand varies depending on whether you rent or buy.
Should You Buy or Rent a Car in New Zealand?
Deciding on whether to buy or rent a car in New Zealand basically depends on how much time you have in New Zealand. If you plan to be in New Zealand for less than a month, then renting a car is the fastest no-nonsense way of getting on the road quickly. On the other hand, buying a car is much more cost-effective if you plan to be in New Zealand and need to use a vehicle for much longer.
Each method has its pros and cons, for instance, renting a car is much more straightforward than buying a car, which is often time-consuming and requires maintenance. Nevertheless, if it’s not obvious whether you should buy or rent a car to travel New Zealand then take a look at our complete guide, Should You Rent or Buy a Vehicle to Travel New Zealand?
How to Rent a Car in New Zealand
It’s simple. Compare car rental companies by following the tips in How to Compare Car and Campervan Rental Companies in New Zealand and simply make a booking with your desired dates and pick-up/drop-off locations. When you make a booking, you will either have to pay the price of your rental in full or make a non-refundable deposit. Either way, when you rent a car in New Zealand you pay for the rental before you drive the car, not when you drop it off.
The Best Car Rental Companies in New Zealand
While we’re here, we might as well share with you some of the best car rental companies in New Zealand. Check out the links to rental company comparisons based on pick-up locations:
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Auckland
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Wellington
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Christchurch
- The Best Car Rental Companies in Queenstown
- The Best Car Rental Companies in New Zealand
Plus, check out RentalCars.com for cheap car rental deals.
New Zealand Car Relocations
It’s also worth mentioning car relocations, which can actually be the cheapest type of car rental in New Zealand! This is when rental companies need to relocate vehicles from one depot to another, often offering the rental for free! The downside is that usually the relocation is required to be completed within just a few days. Find if it’s the right option for you by checking out our full car relocation guide, New Zealand Car Relocations: How to Get Free Car Hire.
For much more details on the car rental process, be sure to check out Renting a Car in New Zealand: The Essential Guide.
How to Buy a Car in New Zealand
Because buying a car is usually a large investment, you will really want to make sure you follow all the necessary steps when buying a car. You can find cars listed on backpacker or city/town Facebook Groups, the New Zealand auction site TradeMe, car dealerships, even hostel notice boards and more. Use a combination of these, as well as what we mention in 5 Ways to Find a Car for Sale in New Zealand to find some vehicles quickly.
Next, you will need to arrange a car viewing with the seller. Make sure to inspect the car for any faults, do a test drive and make sure the vehicle has all the necessary certificates, such as a Warrant of Fitness (WOF), which is a legal requirement to drive on New Zealand roads. There’s a lot to go through but don’t worry, we go through it all in Buying a Car in New Zealand: Step by Step.
What Type of Car to Rent or Buy in New Zealand
So the next question is, what type of car should you get for travelling in New Zealand? The New Zealand car scene is awash in Japanese imports, such as Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Honda, so these are the makes that are the cheapest to buy or the most available to rent. But here, we’re focussing more on whether you need to rent or buy a small to medium car, a large car (like SUV or 4WD) or an electric car.
Small to Medium Cars
Perfect for: Travelling from city to city, either solo, as a couple or as a group of three or four.
Rental budget: Cars can go as low as NZ$25 per day in the low season to over NZ$100 per day for higher-end models in the high season.
Fuel efficient and reliable, the small to medium car is the most economical choice. A car with 2WD (2-wheel drive) is the same car that you are probably used to back home. Car rental companies use a wide range of models to satisfy every need, from the classic Nissan Maxima to the all-time favourite Toyota Corolla without forgetting the Gertz, Swift and other small to medium car models. Other options include people-movers which are cars that can accommodate up to six people comfortably like the Toyota Estima.
Large Cars (SUVs and 4WDs)
Perfect for: Travelling in style with a group of friends or family, accessing ski fields, and accessing more remote gravel roads, if the rental agreement allows.
Rental budget: 4WD usually starts around NZ$70 per day in the low season and can be more than NZ$195 per day in the high season.
You will also find 4WD (4-wheel drive) and SUVs for rent in New Zealand. It is absolutely not necessary to get a 4WD to enjoy New Zealand. Almost every spot that international visitors go to can be accessed with a normal car. A few rare instances where you might prefer a 4WD vehicle are accessing ski field roads in the middle of winter (although, there are usually shuttle alternatives available) and accessing remote areas for hunting, fishing and tramping.
Instances where you might find SUVs a better rental car in New Zealand are for travelling on New Zealand’s gravel roads, of which there are many when you go off the main tourist routes. However, be sure to check that your car rental agreement allows you to take your rental vehicle on gravel roads, as many do not. The extra space that SUVs provide for groups and families may also be a reason to hire.
The type of models available range from the Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota RAV4 or the Hyundai Tucson.
Electric Vehicles (EVs)
Perfect for: Environmentally-conscious travellers or those wanting to save money on fuel.
Rental budget: In the low season, you would be able to find a small EV car for around NZ$70 or a Tesla at NZ$195 per day. In mid-summer, it is common to find them up to NZ$150-$215 per day.
With models across the spectrum, electric vehicle rentals are becoming more and more popular in New Zealand. What’s more, the infrastructure is in place to keep your vehicle charged throughout New Zealand.
When it comes to size and practicality, see the sections above for the benefits of small to medium cars, as well as campervans and motorhomes. The only categories that electric cars are lacking in New Zealand are 4WDs and SUVs.
When it comes to fuel efficiency, EVs obvious come out on top with charging stations costing much less (or are sometimes free) compared to refuelling with petrol or diesel – see our how-to at NZ EV Guide: How to Travel Around New Zealand in an Electric Car. Electric vehicles are also one of the more sustainable transport options.
Weigh more of the pros and cons of each vehicle type in our guide, What is the Best Type of Car to Rent in New Zealand?
How to Drive in New Zealand
Now you’re ready to hit the road! Wahoo! But for your own safety and the safety of others, make sure you read up on the rules of the New Zealand roads.
While you can get more in-depth details in our guide, How to Drive in New Zealand, these are the main things you need to be aware of.
13 Essential New Zealand Road Rules
- Keep left! In New Zealand, we drive on the left side of the road
- When at a traffic light and the light turns green, give way to pedestrians first before turning
- It is illegal to use your phone while driving, you must use a hand-free set
- There is an alcohol limit for driving
- Do not overtake when the road has solid yellow lines
- Only overtake when it is safe to do so, such as when there is a passing lane
- Keep left on passing lanes when you are not overtaking so other vehicles can pass you
- You can only park on the side of the road in the same direction as the traffic flow
- Stick to speed limits
- In winter, have snow chains if you intend to drive anywhere with snow
- Slow down for animals on the road and wait for the farmer’s instructions
- Slow down on gravel roads
- Respect the priority markers on one-way bridges (which there are a lot of in New Zealand).
Travel Times and GPS
One extra thing to note is the New Zealand travel times and using a GPS. Expect travel times to take longer per kilometre than what you would expect on straight roads and motorways. Most of New Zealand’s road network consists of winding roads, gravel roads, narrow roads, as well as some motorways and straight roads.
Always prepare for journeys to take a little longer than the estimated time given on your GPS, especially on the South Island. If you are going somewhere a little off the beaten track, it is best to compare the directions of your GPS to another map or satellite view. Your GPS is likely to find the fastest route, which can sometimes be old gravel roads and sometimes dangerous tracks. What’s more, some GPS data may be wrong or not updated so always double-check the route.
New Zealand Road Trip Budget: The Cost of Travelling by Car in New Zealand
Whether you’re renting a car or driving your own, there are some costs to consider for your road trip budget in New Zealand. Here, we focus on the car-related costs, which we also go into much more detail in The Cost of Renting a Car or Campervan in New Zealand: FULL Guide. If you want to add food, accommodation, activities, etc. to your budget, be sure to check out NZ Travel Budget: How Much Does a Trip to New Zealand Cost?
Cost of Fuel
The obvious cost is fuel. Of course, fuel costs vary throughout the country and on whatever is going on in the fuel industry, but the average cost for petrol is usually NZ$2+ per litre (approximately NZ$7.60+ per gallon). For diesel, it’s NZ$1.35+ (approximately NZ$5.10+ per gallon) but you also have to pay a road user charge (RUC) which is around NZ$76 per 1,000km (621 miles). Charging electric cars in New Zealand is between NZ$5 and $10 per 100km (124 miles).
Another cost to put into your budget is the cost of the ferry between the North Island and the South Island. Prices are around NZ$175-255 one way for a car with one passenger. Find out more in our complete guide to the Ferry Between the North Island and South Island.
The three toll roads in New Zealand are all on the North Island: the Northern Gateway Toll Road, the Tauranga Eastern Link Toll Road and the Tauranga Takitimu Drive Toll Road. Find out more in our guide to the Toll Roads in New Zealand.
Car Rental Costs
If renting a car, there is the obvious daily cost of the rental itself, which ranges from NZ$20 a day to NZ$200 a day, depending on the vehicle and season you rent. Other fees may include a young driver’s fee if you are under 25 years old, a one-way fee if dropping off the vehicle in a different location to where you picked it up, and an extra driver’s fee. There may also be optional extras like hiring a GPS or snow chains. If there is any damage to the car that you cause, it is likely you will have to pay for damages unless you have paid for top insurance. We’ll go through more of that below.
For a full car rental cost breakdown, check out The Cost of Renting a Car or Campervan in New Zealand: FULL Guide.
Car Maintenance Costs
When having your own car, there is the risk of it breaking down or having some sort of engine problems. It’s up to you to get these fixed, as most insurance companies don’t cover major expenses past the basic breakdown cover. To reduce the chances of this happening, make sure you really check a car before buying it, plus keep the car well-maintained while it is in your care. Follow the tips in How to Maintain Your Car for Travelling New Zealand. Be aware that you also may need to update the WOF certificate of vehicle registration too.
While car insurance is not mandatory in New Zealand, some people do prefer to pay for insurance in case the worst should happen and the expenses are too much for them to afford. For your own car, we suggest you look at How Car Insurance Works in New Zealand to help decide whether car insurance is right for you.
When renting a vehicle, basic insurance is almost always included in the price. You have the option to drop the excess to a lower value by paying extra. For example, a high excess that might be included in your rental could be NZ$3,000, but you may have the option to reduce this excess to, for example, NZ$250 excess for an extra daily cost of NZ$25. For more information, check out New Zealand Rental Car & Campervan Insurance: Explained!
Where Can You Sleep When Travelling by Car in New Zealand?
Those travelling by car in New Zealand must sleep at commercial accommodations (or any private property where you’re lucky enough to be invited). We’ll go through your accommodation options below, but first:
Can You Sleep in Your Car in New Zealand?
Some people when travelling around New Zealand want to sleep in their car to save money on accommodation. However, there are only a few designated places where you can legally do this: campsites and holiday parks. Sleeping in your car in any public place is illegal and getting caught could land you an instant NZ$200 fine. For more advice on the subject, check out Car Camping NZ: Where to Camp if Your Campervan is Not Self-Contained.
So, where can you sleep when travelling by car in New Zealand?
Backpacker hostels are often the cheapest option to stay for those travelling by car. Hostel prices in New Zealand range between NZ$20-$35 per person per dorm bed, although, private rooms are also available at around NZ$80-$120 per room per night. There are communal facilities available for cooking, laundry, bathrooms, etc. Find out more about hostels in What is a Hostel? A Beginner’s Guide to Backpacker Hostels.
For travellers who prefer a little more privacy, motels usually come as private units with an ensuite bathroom and either tea/coffee-making facilities or a kitchenette with cooking facilities. There are units with sleeping arrangements of just a double bed up to multiple bedrooms. Prices for motels range from NZ$130 for two people to NZ$150-$250 for four people per unit. Check out what typical New Zealand motels are like by browsing our Motels category.
Commercial holiday parks usually have all the facilities: powered sites for campervans, motel-style units, a toilet block, cooking facilities, showers, laundry and much more. These facilities come at a price with powered sites and tent sites often similarly priced between NZ$15-$50 for two people. Holiday park units are priced similar to motel rooms (see above). To find out more, check out our Accommodation Guide to Holiday Parks in New Zealand.
Hotels and Lodges
Offering privacy and perhaps a little luxury, hotels and lodges are another popular choice of accommodation in New Zealand. Although less practical than motels and holiday parks, as they are less likely to have self-catering facilities, they may offer their own meal options, breakfast inclusions and experiences. Hotels can be found in New Zealand’s main cities, while lodges are more likely to be found in New Zealand’s towns and rural areas. Hotels (excluding budget hotels) and lodges cost around NZ$160+ for a room with just a double bed for sleeping arrangements. Have a browse of some of them in our Hotels and Boutique Accommodations categories.
If you want more options to be able to sleep anywhere in New Zealand, consider travelling in a self-contained campervan or motorhome. More advice can be found in How to Plan a Campervan Trip in New Zealand: FULL Guide. Or check out our video:
Where to Go: How to Plan a Road Trip Itinerary in New Zealand
So the big question is: where are you going to go on your road trip in New Zealand? Road trip itineraries should be catered to your interests, visiting destinations with the experiences you want to do and the sights you want to see. While we have a full guide on How to Create the Perfect New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, here’s a quick rundown on some New Zealand destinations.
- Bay of Islands for its islands, beaches and getting out on the water
- Auckland for its volcanoes and city life
- Rotorua for the geothermal activity and Maori culture
- Tongariro National Park for volcanic landscapes and hikes
- Whanganui National Park for canoeing in the wilderness
- Taranaki for volcanoes and surf
- Wellington for capital city vibes and great food
- Picton for its water activities
- Abel Tasman National Park for beaches, forest, kayaking and walks
- Kaikoura for marine wildlife
- Franz Josef & Fox Glacier for glaciers, heli-hiking and hot pools
- Queenstown for adrenaline activities
- Fiordland National Park for untouched wilderness and Milford Sound
- Aoraki Mt Cook for mountains
- Stewart Island for remote wilderness and wildlife.
Pre-Made New Zealand Road Trip Itineraries
Once you’ve got some dream destinations selected, it’s just a case of connecting the dots on the map and researching what amazing things there are to see and do along the way. To make the whole process easier, we’ve compiled countless itineraries categorised by budget, luxury, honeymoons/couples, families, foodies and more. Head to our Trip Ideas category to start browsing, or, start with these:
- North Island in One Week: Road Trip Itinerary
- South Island in One Week: Road Trip Itinerary
- North Island in Two Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- South Island in Two Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- New Zealand in Two Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- New Zealand in Three Weeks: Road Trip Itinerary
- New Zealand in a Month: Road Trip Itinerary.
Again, check out our Trip Ideas category for much more examples for planning the perfect New Zealand road trip by car.
More About Travelling by Car in New Zealand and How to Plan a Road Trip
That’s it for our complete guide to travelling by car in New Zealand and how to plan a road trip. But, don’t worry! We have many more road trip tips for you at the ready:
- 20 Ways to Save Money on Car Rental in New Zealand
- 12 Safe Driving Tips for New Zealand
- 10 Things We Like About a Road Trip in New Zealand
Finally, for more essential NZ tips, don’t miss the 31 Tips for Travelling in New Zealand!