Tips and Tricks to driving in New Zealand
It’s easy to underestimate how long you should take to visit New Zealand and see it properly. There’s a lot to see and many visitors underestimate travel distances and times. A little local knowledge will help you make the most of the time you have.
New Zealand is much larger than many prospective visitors realise. It's a little larger than the UK, and around the same size as California or Germany.
Two Large Islands & Limited Train Services
The country is split into 2 main islands and only has around 100km or so of motorway (roads that could be compared with multi-lane highways in other countries). Most major routes are made up of two-way highways.
Train services are limited being made up of scenic rail journeys like the very popular TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific journeys on the South Island. These trips are great but travelling through the whole country by train isn’t an option. So for most visitors getting around is by road, coach, flying or a combination of the three.
Why self-drive is the way to travel in New Zealand
Don’t be put you off by the lack of motorways or train options. We may be a little biased but travelling New Zealand by car is a great – perhaps the best – way to experience our beautiful country.
Our roads are well maintained, well signposted, spectacularly scenic and offer a surprise around every bend. They’re also likely to be much less busy than you are used to – the population is only 4.5 million, after all, as opposed to 60 million in the UK a country of a similar geographic area.
Expect to spend more time getting from A to B than the map suggests
All that amazing scenery comes with a whole lot of geography. Our roads are seldom straight for long. Getting around takes a little longer than you might expect.
Realistically, 80kph (or 50mph) might be your average speed over the course of your holiday. Add stops for photos, interesting turn-offs and coffee stops to this time and your travel timings can easily lengthen considerably. So planning a touring visit to fit your location and activity wish list without underestimating driving time is essential to making the most of your time in New Zealand.
This, of course. is where our expert advice comes in but you should also be aware of and consider how much time you want to spend on the road as opposed to exploring particular destinations and attractions.
Our tip: although the driving is great and the scenery spectacular don't try and fit too much in. Each region and destination has lots to explore and experience.
To comfortably visit both the North and South Islands by road you will need at least 14 days. It can be done in a little less with a couple of longer drives or if you decide to skip some sections and take the train (Picton to Christchurch) or fly between the North and South Island, from Rotorua to Christchurch or Queenstown, for instance.
Our experience of what planning tours over 12 years suggest:
- 3-5 days will allow you to do a short circular trip from Auckland, Wellington Christchurch or Queenstown (the most popular starting/finishing points).
- 5-10 days will mean you can take a tour with more time to explore and more 2 nights stops on one island 10-14 days will allow you to visit both the North and South Island starting on one and finishing on the other. Getting back to your start/departure point via a short domestic flight is simple, fast and cost-effective.
- 14-21 days allows for a more extensive trip with a good amount of 2-night stops and also allows time to include locations such as Milford Sound and Kaikoura or the Coromandel and Bay of Islands, which might not be possible on shorter time frames.
- Anything over 21 days means you can start to tailor an itinerary to suit your interests rather than letting the time frame dictate what is possible.