Driving in New Zealand in 5 points
As I write this article, I just got back from a roadtrip in New Zealand (a few hours flight from Tahiti) and I had to start writing. After running into an unexpected tourist at 100 km/h on a deserted road during my roadtrip, I thought, why not start with this: driving in New Zealand, what do you need to know then? After all, it’s a good idea in general to find out about driving abroad. If you are planning to explore the South Pacific and its beautiful national parks, it is interesting to know a few things about driving in New Zealand. I will give you the things to know, tips for driving in the country and finally some driving anecdotes!
New Zealand is one of the Pacific islands, located in Oceania (in the southern hemisphere), at the end of the world, which many people have visited these last years. Many people are considering a trip to the country, especially when they have a WHV (Working Holiday Visa) to go and live in New Zealand for a while. For information, here is our itinerary in New Zealand on the North Island.
For all those who prefer to rent a van or motorhome, I often recommend this site which gathers all the biggest brands. Good deal guaranteed!
If you are preparing your trip, you can find very interesting prices through this flight comparator that I have been using for several years.
Things to know about driving in New Zealand
Let’s be clear from the start, your driver’s license will probably not be valid in New Zealand. That’s right, you will need to order an international driver’s license before leaving. Don’t believe those who say you can drive without one. You will be asked for it even if you are renting a car or a van in New Zealand.
1 - The international driving license: mandatory in the country?
Generally, no matter where you live, in Europe or elsewhere, you must go to the prefecture of your department or region and apply.
For French people, the documents are usually the same, they are indicated on the prefectures’ website. The easiest way is to check with them for full details on the necessary documents to provide. Concerning the delay for obtaining the international permit, count 3 weeks/1 month.
Please note that if you are going as a couple or with friends, each of you must have your own international permit. Both permits will be asked for when renting transportation.
2 - Driving in New Zealand: travel times and distances
I won’t talk to you here about numbers in detail or the distance between cities and tourist places, but rather about my general impression of this 3-week trip in the north of the country.
Initially, during our trip, I had planned to visit the 2 islands of the country in 3 weeks. Finally, after some research on the web and some feedback around me, I realized that it would be very complicated (especially with a child) and that my time would be spent in the car driving between the tourist places. No thanks! So I decided to settle down for 3 weeks on the North Island of New Zealand. Well, all that’s nice, but so what?
Looking back on those 3 weeks, we weren’t even able to see the North Island in its entirety during our trip. We all think that the distances are short and the travel times relatively quick. But this is actually a mistake.
So yes, you sometimes have 250 km between two points that you want to visit. In Europe/US, on the motorway, you can do that in 2 hours, even less. Over there, it’s not the same. Note that the roads in New Zealand are limited (at most) to 100 Km/h and that the places where you drive fast are actually rare (at least on the North Island).
Most of the time, we often drive at 80-90 Km/h, knowing that we cross a lot of cities and that the passage through towns is limited to 50 Km/h. For example, to go from Auckland to Cape Reinga (the northern tip of the North Island), it is announced 422 Km and 5h30 driving time. This is an estimate by the main road (N°1) which isn’t really interesting. We went by the West side and took 2 days to get there.
The advice I can give is to not overestimate the distances between the places to visit and the travel times. Between the mandatory poses, city crossings and traffic jams / roadworks (around Auckland), it is much slower than you might think.
You should be aware that the weather can also play tricks on you. In fact, I’ve written a full article on when to go to New Zealand?
3 - Key points to remember when driving in New Zealand
This is somewhat the purpose of this article, to talk about driving in the country and its local specificities. Of course, I’m not going to remind you that wearing a seatbelt is mandatory and using a phone while driving is forbidden, right?
So let’s start with the basics. In New Zealand, you drive on the left side of the road with the steering wheel on the right. In the majority of cases, rental cars in New Zealand are automatics, which will require some getting used to for those who don’t know. Of course, New Zealanders have no problem…
It’s not a big deal to drive on the left side of the road, but all you’re French habits will be disturbed, whether it’s for parking, looking in blind spots (on the other side), taking a roundabout, and even silly things like putting on turn signals or windshield wipers. I’ll talk about this later.
And yes, because honestly at the beginning it’s not easy to find your way around. It took me a few days to understand some of the signs. And of course, I was too lazy to read the guide on how to drive in New Zealand that the rental company gave me! One thing that stands out in New Zealand: there are signs EVERYWHERE! In the majority of cases, the signs are similar to what we already know so we can guess the general idea. The lines on the road are yellow instead of white.
To mention only the main signs:
The speed limit sign
Nothing very complicated here, we find them at the entrance of cities, on the main roads.
These are signs that are either yellow rectangular or in the shape of a lozenge. In both cases, the recommended speed and the direction to take for the turn is indicated.
The warning signs
Usually, they are there to announce (ah?) an upcoming danger, something in particular. It could be a gravel road, a one-lane bridge or curves for a few kilometers.
It’s a pretty funny thing, even if you do have to take them seriously because running over a penguin with your car isn’t a laughing matter. The most classic and famous: kiwi, penguins, and ducks crossing signs!
As in almost all countries, there are speed limits. It’s still good to know this to drive in New Zealand. To keep it simple, remember:
- 100 Km/h on most roads (unless otherwise indicated) and 90 Km/h with a camper van,
- 50-60 Km/h in urban areas.
I will pass you the details on when I was stopped by the police because I crossed a school zone limited at 50 Km/h (which I hadn’t seen at all) at 100 Km/h. Fortunately, the policeman was nice, he knew French Polynesia, we chatted for five minutes and left without a fine. So be careful, especially as over the whole 3 weeks, the police were well present.
The different types of roads
Here are the 5 types of roads to know to drive in New Zealand, the ones you will encounter along the way.
The High-Speed Highway
If we were to make the connection with French roads, we could say that they are New Zealand highways. In reality, they are two dual carriageways, limited to 100 km/hr. We drive pretty fast on them, but sometimes it’s a bit monotonous.
These are New Zealand’s county roads, classic and very common in the country. Most of the time, they are limited to 90 km/h.
Here is a type of road on which special attention should be paid: gravel roads as seen on the signs. They are found in more remote and isolated corners. They are essential to get lost a little outside the tourist circuits.
Generally, the recommended speed is 20 to 30 Km/h. These roads are at times very slippery because of the gravel.
Roads open by season
I didn’t have any worries as I was there in the spring and on the North Island, but keep in mind that some roads in New Zealand, especially on the South Island, may be closed due to weather conditions.
Here is a link that gives you in real time all the road closures on New Zealand and the general traffic conditions.
Here is a very useful link for live local weather. This can allow you to change your route depending on the weather forecast for example.
This is a great mystery to me because I realized afterwards that there were some toll roads in New Zealand. You don’t realize it at first when driving, knowing that there are actually no tolls to stop.
There are 3 toll roads in New Zealand:
- Northern Gateway Toll Road,
- Tauranga Eastern Link Toll Road,
- The Takitimu Drive Toll Road.
Prices range from $1 to $2.5 for cars. You can see on the following link the details. Everything is payable online, after creating an account and depositing a few dollars. To be honest, I realized only afterwards that these roads had to be paid for. We tried to register on the website and go through the process to pay, but it didn’t work. For info, the rental agency, of course, charged us for the two times we went on the toll roads, by directly on our credit card!
If there’s one thing I struggled with the first few days, it was roundabouts. Because, yes, we drive on the left, but priority on the right still exists. So you have to lose your reflexes of usually looking to the left and now look to the right.
Another thing, the turn signals and windshield wipers are reversed. I can’t tell you how many times I put the wipers on instead of the blinker at the entrance to a roundabout!
Last thing you need to know about driving in New Zealand: the one-lane bridges. Personally, I find it very dangerous because I’ve seen a lot of them located in places that are really not easy to see, for example at the exit of a bend or other.
4 - Other things to know about driving in New Zealand
GPS and applications
This is a question that will generally arise when you rent a car for New Zealand or a camper van for example. Rental companies usually offer the option of GPS for a few extra dollars a day. So should you rent or not?
Everyone will have their own opinion here. I would personally say you can do without it, especially with the presence of Smartphones and the many useful applications for traveling in New Zealand.
There are indeed some applications that you can use offline through an Iphone or an Ipad and do GPS without worries. To name a few: maps.me and Waze which work worldwide, Campermate or Rankers, applications especially dedicated to New Zealand.
For those who do not feel comfortable with applications on Smartphones, you can rent with the car, or even buy a car GPS in a shop for NZL 100/150.
The vast majority of rental cars run on petrol, while camper vans use diesel. In most cases, you will find service stations all over the place, the best known being Caltex, Mobil or BP.
You can check the price of petrol everywhere in the country on this link, as prices can vary from station to station. This is one of the tips to travel cheaper in New Zealand, subject of an article that will follow.
Small precision, I saw a few times “no fuel for 110 Km” signs for example. So be careful, especially in remote and less touristic areas. Do not wait until the last moment to fill up.
Because yes, even if we tend to say that there aren’t many people in New Zealand, as soon as we approach Auckland, I still think it’s a bit of a hassle. During rush hour it’s even worse. You’re going to tell me that this is normal given that it’s one of the big cities in the country.
If you have to cross through Auckland, this is one thing to know and avoid the busy hours.
5 - Driving in New Zealand with a baby
I will be doing a whole article on how to travel around the country with a baby, but I wanted to say a few words on how to drive in New Zealand with a baby or children.
Of course, parents who have already been on road trips with babies (and even children I’m sure), know very well that it’s impossible to drive for hours without stopping.
Fortunately, New Zealand is perfect for that. Very often, there are rest areas and even more interesting for children, playgrounds everywhere. We’ve found them almost everywhere on the North Island.
To make it easier for you, the specialized applications for traveling in New Zealand locate them directly on a map. All you have to do is activate the GPS on your phone/Ipad and look for the nearest resting/play area for a little break!
A few details about car seats. I could not, of course, check whether or not all airlines accept a car seat on the plane free of charge, but some do.
We went with Air Tahiti Nui for a flight from Papeete to Auckland and the airline allows, up to the age of 7, a car seat for free as checked luggage.
So yes, it’s a bit bulky and hard to carry, but you’ll be happy to have your own car seat during the trip. The alternative is to rent a car seat at the same time as the car. From the feedback we’ve had, not to mention the extra expense, you won’t get the state-of-the-art car seats!
6 - Driving in New Zealand: some anecdotes
Some “funny” anecdotes from my trip about driving:
- The worst thing during the trip was to run into a tourist going the wrong way on a long straight line. At first, I thought, « oh a car in the distance, I’ll overtake it », but then finally, I found that it was getting very close very quickly. At the last moment, I realized that it was going the wrong way, I swung the steering wheel to the right to avoid it (I remind you that we are driving on the left). I saw that the person understood as after they immediately switched lanes. What a fright, my heart almost gave up.
- Another funny anecdote about driving in New Zealand: when you realize you’re driving on the right when the passenger next to us says « uh we drive on the left here, right? ». Yep, that also happened to me a few times, to drive out of a parking lot or a small road and have the habit of driving on the right.
- Another funny thing I think is the habit of using the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals, especially when approaching roundabouts and intersections! Both have a reverse effect on the cars and you get some good laughs with that!
There you go, I hope you’ve learned everything you need to know about driving in New Zealand, that you’ve learned quite a bit and are ready to face the country and drive there? Nothing to worry about, it’s a matter of just a few days in reality, then you quickly get the hang of it!
In any case, New Zealand, the volcanic land of the Lord of the Rings, is a country with great landscapes (Fjord, geyser, hot springs, etc.), and you will enjoy your trip there. Personally, it was a trip I was waiting for as much as I would one day like to discover the Cook Islands, Fiji or Vanuatu. So whether you’re traveling or you want to work in New Zealand, it’s going to be a good experience.
Have you decided to travel around the country?
See you soon for a new article on the country,