Driving In New Zealand - Facts and Advice.

This guide will teach you everything you need to know about travelling in New Zealand. New Zealand is a place of incredible scenic diversity and without doubt, touring by vehicle is the best way to enjoy everything on offer.

The best way to see New Zealand

New Zealand roads present some challenges, especially for visitors from the USA, because in New Zealand we drive on the left-hand side of the road. So here are a few hints and tips that should help to make your driving an enjoyable experience.

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Drive to Glenorchy, Queenstown.

Safe driving in New Zealand – Hints and Tips

Hiring a car and then driving around New Zealand can be a great adventure. But, if you want it to go well, you should make sure your trip is well planned. Some of the hints and tips about driving in New Zealand that will be in this blog, include - 

• Hiring a vehicle for driving in New Zealand

• Driving in New Zealand – what you need to know

• Dealing with the challenging terrain you may encounter 

• The hazards that you may come across on the highways and byways

• The variable seasons and climates. 

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Audi rental from Luxury Car Rentals NZ.

Driving In New Zealand

In New Zealand, the locals tend to describe all types of motorhomes and RV’s as campervans. So in this blog, when we write about campervans, we are including all types of self-drive recreational vehicles.

Hiring a campervan in New Zealand as part of your New Zealand adventure should be seriously considered, especially if you’re traveling with a young family. 

Our customer feedback tells us that the flexibility and ease of traveling in a campervan is the main attraction of this type of travel. There are no hotel check-in times to worry about, or the rituals of packing and unpacking suitcases. A good start to any vacation!

There are lots of options when considering what type of campervans you should use. There are the very basic units, suitable to backpackers on a budget, right through to the luxury models, especially if comfort is high on your list!  The costs vary somewhat depending on the size of the van, the time of year you are travelling and how long you hire it for. They can range from $100 per day for the very basic (and not usually recommended by New Zealand Vacations) to $520 a for day a vehicle with all the “bells and whistles”! New Zealand Vacations can help with good advice.

Camper-vanning around New Zealand is very popular and New Zealand camping grounds do a particularly good job of catering for this mode of travel. Most have a central block of bathroom, shower and kitchen facilities, plus power points at each parking berth. There are many of these campgrounds located around the country and “freedom camping” is still an option, provided certain conditions are met.  

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Waking up to a beautiful South Island morning, Lake Wanaka.

The appeal of a campervan is really about getting to places you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to explore, compared to say bus or train. You never know what’s around the next corner and you have the luxury of taking as long as you like between destinations. You can also drive while the kids are sleeping, stop when they need to stretch their legs, and spontaneously change your route if you want to explore and soak up all the beauty New Zealand has to offer. The kids will love being able to stop at a moment’s notice and explore places like rivers and parks. 

Then there’s the excitement of waking up each day to a dramatic new landscapes right before your eyes. You’ll also have the opportunity to buy and cook local produce along the way, making your photo album the envy of all your friends when you return home. 

The other option to a campervan is to hire a car. New Zealand has plenty of hotels, motels, hostels and other types of accommodation suitable for those who decide to hire a car. 

Prohibited roads and 4 X 4 Roads

If you are in a hire vehicle then there are some roads in New Zealand that are prohibited to drive on. Ninety Mile Beach (technically a ‘road’) at the top of the North Island is one example. Additionally, there are certain roads, usually in out of the way places, which are suitable only for 4WD vehicles.  If you get hold of a good quality road map, all of these prohibited and 4WD roads will be clearly marked.

Breakdown Cover

Having breakdown insurance cover included in your travel insurance is strongly recommended. A van or car breakdown that makes it impossible to drive further, especially in remote locations, can be expensive.

Cover is available for New Zealand largest vehicle insurance company, the Automobile Association, commonly referred to as the AA.

Hiring a vehicle for driving in New Zealand

Here are some basic rules, tips and advice when hiring a vehicle in New Zealand.

• You must be over 21 years of age to hire a car.  
• You may be charged a young driver surcharge if you’re under 25 years of age.  
• Some car hire companies will only hire to drivers that are over 25 years old.
• To hire a vehicle and drive in New Zealand you must have a valid, current international drivers licence or International Driving Permit.  This will allow you to drive in New Zealand for up to a 12 month stay in the country.  If you’re staying for longer than that, you must get a New Zealand licence.  If your driver’s licence is written in a language other than English, you will need to carry an approved translation into English with it.
• You must have your licence with you at all times.
• You understand, and agree, to abide by New Zealand’s road rules.  

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Lake Pukaki, Canterbury.

If you prefer to travel by campervan, your vehicle will probably have automatic transmission. Most will also have cruise control fitted, a handy way to prevent inadvertently breaking the speed limits! 

If you hire a vehicle with manual transmission you will need to remember the following:

• Use your left hand to change gears.
• The indicators are on the right hand side of the steering wheel.   
• The windscreen wiper stick is on the left hand side of the steering wheel 
• The foot pedals are as per the worldwide configuration.

If you’re a proficient driver,it isn’t difficult to drive around New Zealand. However, we do recommend a few things.

First of all, take the time to learn the most important road rules. Also familiarize yourself with what the various road signs and white and yellow road lines mean. These may be different to those in the US. A notable example is solid white lines. In some countries, these mean no overtaking at all. In other countries, including New Zealand, they mean overtaking is not recommended, but a solid yellow line means no overtaking at all

If you’ve had a long flight to get to New Zealand, you’re almost certainly going to be jet lagged for a few days. New Zealand is not the safest place to be driving around when you’re jetlagged! A significant proportion of accidents involving overseas visitors, occur within that first 24-hours of their arrival when they are tired and unable to concentrate. Ideally, pick up your camper a day or two after you arrive. 

Most overseas visitors arrive at Auckland and to get the most out of your Auckland stay, we recommend taking a downtown hotel for 2 or 3 days and only then, picking up your campervan. Campervans and central Auckland are not a good mix.

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Touring the stunning South Island in an Apollo campervan.

Driving in New Zealand – What else you need to know

More information about driving in New Zealand is available via the official New Zealand Road Code publication. From the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) or purchased from any AA office.  Here is some of the more general information though to get you started:

• Speed is in kilometres per hour and distances are measured in kilometres and metres as well.
• New Zealand steering wheels are on the right hand side of the car.
• New Zealanders drive on the left hand side of the road.
• Give way to the right.  As a general rule of thumb, if another vehicle is approaching you from the right, you should give way to them.
• If you’re turning right onto another road at a T junction it is illegal to stop in the middle of the road to give way to oncoming traffic.  You must instead pull over to the left hand shoulder and wait until the road is clear in both directions before making your turn.
• It is also illegal to park on the right hand side of the road unless it’s a one-way street.  
• You may not stop on the side of a designated motorway unless it’s an emergency.
• You must have your licence with you at all times when you’re driving. 
• Seat belts are compulsory for everyone in the vehicle. Passengers 14 years and over are responsible for themselves.  The driver is responsible for everyone under that age putting their seatbelts on.  There is a $150 fine for anyone caught not wearing a seat belt.
• Children under 7 years of age are required to use an approved child seat.
• Helmets are compulsory throughout the country if you’re riding a motorbike or bicycle and this rule is strictly enforced.

Using Mobile (Cell) Phones Whilst Driving In New Zealand

It is illegal to use hand-held phones whilst driving in New Zealand. This includes texting. If you have a hands-free kit mounted in the car you may make and receive all the voice calls. We recommend ensuring your hire vehicle is equipped with a USB Smartphone or Bluetooth connection if you simply can’t live without using your mobile (cell) phone whilst driving!

Road Signs In New Zealand

These generally follow international conventions. Therefore, a road sign with red on it means you’ll be breaking a road rule (and incurring a possible fine) by disobeying it.  Examples include posted speed signs, stop signs etc.  These signs usually have a red border or a red background. 
• A stop sign indicates you must do exactly that – STOP.  Regardless of whether there is traffic coming or not.
• A give way sign indicates that you must give way to all other traffic.  If there is no other traffic you don’t need to come to a complete standstill.  However, you should still be prepared to stop if you need to. 
• Some US states, like California, allow drivers to proceed through a red light when making a turn and when no cars are approaching. This does NOT apply in New Zealand and under no circumstances should you drive through a red light.

A road sign with yellow or orange on it usually denotes a warning sign.  Yellow is a permanent warning sign whilst orange is a temporary warning sign.  You should heed these signs because they’re there for safety reasons!
Blue signs are informational signs.  The most common example is a parking sign, or a rest bay sign.

BlogSDkiwiSign.jpg#asset:5982Caution for kiwi's, Greyneys Creek, Canterbury.

Drinking And Driving In New Zealand

• The legal blood alcohol level for drivers in charge of a vehicle in New Zealand is 0.05 if you’re 20 years of age or over, and 0.00 if you’re under 20 years of age.
• Alcohol limits are strictly enforced by NZ police. 
• You will almost certainly come across a checkpoint at some point in your journey around New Zealand.  NZ police are not shy about setting them up on motorways or even at traffic stops.
• Refusing to be tested will result in your arrest.

VineyardHawkesBay.jpg#asset:6004Vineyard in the Gimblett Wine growing district, Hawkes Bay.

Driving In New Zealand – Speed Limits, Speed Signs And Road Rules

• Rural roads and motorways - usually 100kph (62mph) unless you’re driving a bus or truck, or towing something, in which case it’s 90kph.
• In towns and cities – usually 50kph (31mph)
• A black circle with a bar through it means the 100kph applies.  
• New Zealand police can and do issue speeding fines.  Whilst there is a 10kph over the limit tolerance (which drops to 4kph on holiday weekends and public holidays) theoretically police can enforce a no tolerance policy at any time and book you for being just 1kph over the posted speed limit.
• Speeds in excess of 40kph over the speed limit are classed as dangerous driving, and rightly so!  You’ll be arrested, have your drivers licence suspended and your vehicle will almost certainly be impounded. 
• Observe temporary speed signs – they are there for a reason, even if you can’t immediately spot that reason!
• Speed cameras are common as are other monitoring methods of assessing drivers' speeds.
• The speed limit passing school buses from either direction is 20kph if the bus is picking up or dropping off passengers. 
• Pedestrians will sometimes be shown a ‘free to cross’ sign at the same time as a traffic light turns green for you.  Be aware of pedestrians and the fact that they have right of way in these instances.

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The winding road to Piha on Auckland's west coast.

Travelling times when driving in New Zealand

When seen on a map, travelling from A to B might appear to be a short journey but don’t be misled. Although Kiwi roads are often free of traffic, the terrain and road surface, particularly with gravel roads, can often make journey times much longer than you might think. Allow for this in your planning.

Dealing with the challenges you might encounter when driving in New Zealand
As is to be expected in a country with so many mountains, spectacular scenery can have an impact on driving. Many of the roads outside the major metropolitan areas, even major highways, are only two lanes with no median strips down the centre to prevent vehicle drift.  
Coupled with narrow winding hairpin bends, steep slopes and sheer drops in some of the more mountainous terrain, like the Rimutaka Ranges north of Wellington, it means you really need to keep your wits about you as you’re driving.  Our advice is to keep an eye on your speed, don’t get too close to the vehicle in front of you, watch your lane position, use your brakes, and above all, practise patience!  

There are some hairpin bends on New Zealand roads that can be challenging, particularly in mountainous regions.  Tight bends are always marked with an advisory sign which states the maximum speed for that bend.  DO observe these – they are hardly ever overestimated to allow for error as might be the case in other countries.

OtiraViaductTruck.jpg#asset:6003Otira Viaduct, Arthur's Pass, on the main divide of the Southern Alps.

Passing lanes and pulling over

Some of the roads, as previously mentioned, are very narrow and offer no opportunities for safe overtaking for many kilometres. Sometimes there will be a brief section of a passing lane to overcome this problem but they can be few and far between.

If you are in a heavy or slower moving vehicle – such as a hired campervan for example – then do be aware of any traffic behind you and pull over wherever possible to let them pass. New Zealanders will expect you to do this and it is one of the rare occasions where you might incur Kiwi wrath if you don’t observe this road etiquette.  

Other road users

In the North Island you may encounter logging trucks carting timber from the logging areas in the middle of the island to pulp mills and ports on the coast. Sometimes there aren’t many opportunities to safely overtake them so exercise patience. Only overtake when completely safe to do so!

Railway Crossings

New Zealand has many railway crossings dotted around the countryside!  Many of them, particularly on rural roads, only have ‘Give Way’ signs so you need to approach them with caution. Even on highways there are often no barrier arms, only warning lights and bells.

Snow, Ice And Rain

Parts of New Zealand experience ice and snow in winter that creates a hazard on the roads.   Some roads are notorious for it – State Highway 1 between Waiouru and Turangi in the middle of the North Island is one such stretch of road. As is the Napier-Taupo road.  

Snow and ice can also be a major winter road hazard on the South Island.  Occasionally, some roads, especially in the mountains, become impassable without snow chains.  If you’re a keen skier and heading for the ski fields, make sure you have chains with you or you may not get to go skiing at all.  Also check for road closures before heading off for the day.

From time to time, New Zealand also gets some very heavy rainfall, so slips and landslides are another road hazard to watch out for if travelling through valleys or cuttings. In some areas, there are deep ditches on one or both sides of the road to carry this water.  They’re often hidden by long grass so try not to leave the bitumen section of the road! 

RoadsignChainsOtago.jpg#asset:6010The Crown Range near Queenstown in winter.

Dual use and One Lane Bridges

Another interesting feature on some New Zealand roads, like sections of State Highway 6 on the South Island, are the dual use road and rail bridges. By dual use, we mean trains can also be using these bridges and they don’t have their own separate section of the bridge!  Therefore, be very sure there aren’t any trains on, or approaching, the bridge before you venture across.  

Then there are the one-lane bridges where you either have right of way, or you don’t. A road sign at the start of the bridge indicates which scenario is applicable to you.  If you have a blue sign you have right of way. If you have a red and white sign, you don’t have right of way and must give way to traffic coming in the opposite direction. Some bridges have a passing bay in the middle where one vehicle can pull over to allow the other vehicle to pass by.  

An interesting structure is the one lane Homer Tunnel on the road to Milford Sound. Because it’s located on a two-way road, it has traffic approaching at either end, so it operates on 20-minute light controlled cycle in each direction.  So if you’ve just missed your turn, be prepared for a bit of wait.  Pull into the specially designated waiting area and let yourself be entertained by the spectacular scenery and the antics of the Kea, New Zealands' mountain parrot. It loves biting into the rubber around car windows, so be prepared to chase them away. Feeding of the Kea is strictly forbidden. 

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Wildlife and Animals on the road

Livestock on the road is another feature of driving in New Zealand!  You might encounter a flock of sheep being herded along the road.  Or come across dairy cattle crossing the road to the milking sheds on the other side twice a day. Just treat it as part of your total NZ driving experience and enjoy it!  In the countryside, you may also encounter the odd stray horse, cow or sheep out for an unsupervised stroll as well.

And of course, where there is livestock, there are invariably livestock transporters, carrying live sheep or cattle. These might be single, double or even triple units consisting of very large stock trailers.  Like logging trucks, we advise do not try to pass them on the narrow winding roads unless they pull over to let you do so in safety.  It’s not a good idea to travel too closely behind these vehicles because although they are equipped with effluent tanks, some still escapes. So in these situations, make sure the windscreen washer bottle is full!  And your windows are wound up.

If you are driving at night, possums on the road are a common occurrence. Although these notorious pests are small, they do cause accidents, caused by drivers swerving to avoid them when they see their eyes glowing in the dark. It might sound cruel, but as a rule of thumb, run them over in preference to taking sudden evasive action.

SheepOnRoad1.jpg#asset:6008In the remote regions you sometimes have to share the roads.

Road Works

By world standards, New Zealand roads seem to be in a permanent state of repair. This is especially the case after heavy rains, when parts of the roadways can be swept away.  You will almost certainly come across sections that are being resealed and these can stretch for several kilometres at a time. The usual speed limit through road works is 30kph, especially on loose gravel.  Also keep an eye open for ‘New Seal’ signs – the corners on these sections of road can be hazardous, particularly for motorcyclists. Speaking of gravel, grit or gravel is used on snow here and there are often remnants of it lying around on the road verges.  If your tyre hits this leaving the main section of road, you risk losing control of your vehicle, especially on corners.  

Gravel Roads 

There are plenty of gravel roads in New Zealand. If you want to get away from the urban areas and explore off the beaten track you will encounter these roads. Driving on them is straightforward as long as you keep your speed to an appropriate level. However, there are also some roads in this category that are definitely not for the faint hearted and suitable only for the hard-core adventure seeker. They can be exceptionally narrow or steep, often pot-holed and with crash barriers the only thing separating you from a gut-wrenching drop.
Driving such roads can be an exhilarating adventure but check carefully before you take them on and the team at New Zealand Vacations are able to give advice about these.

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Summer rain hazards

Although New Zealand gets plenty of rain, it can also go for long periods in summer without any. During this time oil and rubber accumulate on road surfaces, making them somewhat slippery after a sudden summer shower. These summer showers can be caused by cold fronts so temperatures may plummet rapidly. In an enclosed car, this will fog your windscreen very quickly. If you notice your windscreen starting to fog, switch on your demister straight away or slow down and pull over as soon as possible. 

Driving in New Zealand can be as straightforward or as adventurous as you choose. If you like it easy and leisurely then there are plenty of beautiful places you can get to just off the main roads and these will be sealed and safe. If, on the other hand, you consider yourself to be in the in the rally-driving category then there are some great opportunities to explore! 

The staff at New Zealand Vacations have travelled extensively around the country so if we can be of assistance to you in planning your driving vacation in New Zealand trip, please contact us. There's more about driving on a New Zealand vacation in our FAQ section.

Lindsay Barron

Lindsay Barron • Jun 25, 2018