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American guide to road tripping in New Zealand

You’ve done it! You’ve planned your epic New Zealand road trip using this handy-dandy guide and you’ve booked your flight to the land of kiwi birds, kiwi fruits, and Kiwi people. So now what?

Although New Zealand feels familiar to travelers from English-speaking countries, you may have questions…

  • Where should I rent a car?
  • Is there anything I need to know about fueling up the car?
  • Don’t they drive on the wrong side of the road there?
  • What do I need to wear?
  • What the heck is an L&P?

Well, dear reader, I have you covered.

Car

Rental

Car or campervan? That’s the first question to answer. I chose car for two reasons: 1. It cost WAY less than a camper van. And 2. I really love knowing when I’m getting my next shower.

If you choose car, I cannot recommend Apex Car Rentals more highly. Do your own research, but they were by far the cheapest of all the rental companies I spoke with.

If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be this: get the FULL insurance. Barring a couple (totally reasonable) exceptions, like drunk driving and off roading, you’re 100% covered for anything.

Driving

Don’t Kiwis drive on the wrong side of the road?! Nope… but they do drive on the left side. Pay attention, because driving on the right (opposite of left) is an easy mistake to make but extremely dangerous…. especially on New Zealand’s winding roads.

One more thing to note: in most cars, the windshield wipers switch and the turn signal are switched from cars in the U.S. We ended up with some very clean windows those first couple of days.

New Zealand road trip FAQ

Fuel

There are long stretches without gas stations… especially on the South Island, so once you hit the halfway point on the fuel gauge, fill up.

Most of the gas stations we visited didn’t have a pay at the pump option. Fuel up, then head inside to pay by credit card or cash.

Directions

Instead of renting a GPS, consider renting a portable wifi device… that way you can get real-time directions and upload the awesome photos you’re taking on Instagram (just don’t post while driving!)

Passing the time

Don’t forget to bring an aux cord and a car charger for your phone. Most rentals have an aux plug, but you’ll need to supply your own cord to listen to your road trip jams. Don’t count on the radio because the stations won’t last long as you cross mountains.

With lots of driving to do, consider an audiobook to pass the time and keep you awake.

New Zealand road trip FAQ

What to wear on your New Zealand road trip

I am not a fashion consultant… but I’ve learned a few things the hard way here in New Zealand.

Bring a fleece and rain jacket on any excursion. You never know when the weather will change… and it would be terrible to make it to the top of a mountain when it begins raining freezing rain, and you’re only wearing a tank top and shorts. (Or so I imagine.)

Mount Alfred Hike Queenstown New Zealand

Hiking shoes or sneakers with good traction are a must. I’m not gonna say I slid partway down a mountain in tractionless Nikes, but I’m not gonna say I didn’t…

Sunscreen and insect repellant are definite must-wear items. Sand flies are no joke and the sun in New Zealand is strong!

Speak like a Kiwi

You’ll get by on American English… but in case you’d like to be prepared with a few key Kiwi phrases, here’s a translation guide:

Kia Ora! is Maōri for hello.

When someone asks How are you going? the correct answer is not on foot. That’s just the Kiwi way to ask how you’re doing.

You’ll hear Sweet as! in place of awesome, sweet or any other expression of agreement.

Choice is not just a decision… It’s also a way to say that something is very good.

Whether you’re a guy or a girl, expect to be called bro or mate while you’re in New Zealand.

If you’re here in summertime, be sure to pack some jandals (flip flops).

Sweet As postcard Queenstown, New Zealand

Staying fueled… the Kiwi way

I’m not talking about petrol here!

Snacks

  • Pineapple lumps
  • Chocolate fish
  • Whittaker’s chocolate
  • Jaffa
  • Jet planes
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Feijoa fruit- cut this fruit in half and scoop out the sweet, tart insides with a spoon, just like a kiwi
  • Pie (Not your granny’s apple pie!)- Mince and cheese pies are a good, on-the-go snack

Drinks

  • L&P stands for Lemon and Paeora (Paeora is the city where this iconic Kiwi soda is bottled)
  • Ginger Beer (Bundaberg is an Australian company… but it’s loved and readily available all over New Zealand)

Alright, mate! All that’s left to do now is pack your suitcase for an epic New Zealand road trip!

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An American guide to road tripping in New Zealand thesweetwanderlust.com

Dan Lacey

Wednesday 29th of August 2018

Sweet as article bro! :)

Feel very lucky to live and work in beautiful Queenstown.

Nina

Friday 17th of August 2018

That's true Full time traveling is really hard for those who never tried any dare in normal life but peoples like you are real-life heroes. who never step back from any problem and fight with this. and your adventure always gives you great memories... I like to read it and would like to read more n more about your van life.... Keep it up.... love all of you...

Pilot Mark

Monday 20th of February 2017

Road tripping through New Zealand is without a doubt one of the very best ways to explore this beautiful country! I experienced a number of road trips on the North Island that provided truly spectacular views of the landscape. I also found that enjoying this landscape from the seat of the Northern Explorer train was an awesome way to discover new sights of New Zealand.

Brittany

Monday 20th of February 2017

Ooh! I've never thought about doing NZ by train! I'll have to check that out!

Maria

Thursday 23rd of June 2016

I recently spent 3 months driving around New Zealand, and I was nodding through the whole article 'yep, mhm, Oh I miss those pineapple lumps'.. Sweet as :)

Brittany

Sunday 26th of June 2016

That makes me so happy! I hope you had an amazing trip!

Rebecca

Friday 3rd of June 2016

Nice...it looks so gorgeous...and I do love all things Kiwi. One day.

Brittany

Friday 3rd of June 2016

I still look around every day and can't believe a: a place like this actually exists and b: that I get to live here. Pretty crazy.