The 5 Best Ways to Navigate New Zealand
New Zealand is only the size of Colorado, but it has an insane amount of outdoor adventures for those looking to play outside. If you want to surf, hike, camp, canoe, kayak, rock climb, bungee jump, mountain bike or go caving, there’s certainly no shortage of outdoor activities to partake in all across either of the islands.
But if you don’t know how to get around, you’ll be missing out on all that the land of the Kiwis has to offer. Whether you’re going solo, looking to meet people, have just a few weeks or a year-long Visa, these are the top five ways to zip around New Zealand.
1. Buy a Car
Best for: Travelers who are spending a few months or more in NZ, 2+ travelers
Pros: Get your money back when you sell the car, Ability to travel on your own time
Cons: Gas money, Stress of buying and selling
If you’re planning on spending a few months to a year in the country, check out the Backpacker’s Car Market in Auckland and Christchurch. At these car markets, sellers pay the market to park their cars there for a few days, which allows fellow travelers the ease of looking for a car. These markets centralize cars, which makes it easy for buyers and sellers to connect. Plus, every car must pass a mechanical inspection and almost all are less than $4,000 NZD. Some sellers throw in mattress pads, blankets or other camping equipment. With the freedom of owning a car or van, backpackers can get to sites on backcountry, gravel roads where buses or rental cars can’t go. Plus, the best part about buying a car is getting your money back when you’re ready to sell it.
If the vehicles at the car markets are out of your budget, try searching online where most people need to get rid of their cars quickly. Try Gumtree.com, TradeMe.co.nz, or the notice board at Backpackerboard.co.nz. Also, don’t miss the notice boards in hostels which often have posts from sellers for cars and other items.
2. Touring Bus Pass
Best for: Travelers who are spending two weeks to a month, Solo travelers
Pros: Meet fellow travelers, Hassle-free
Cons: Can be pricey, Less flexibility
If you’re traveling solo or don’t want to worry about what to see and where to stay, check out the numerous touring bus companies. Stray Travels is recommended mostly for avid hikers. On the other hand, services such as Kiwi Experience are said to have passengers cracking beers open on the bus.
These tours are hop-on, hop-off and let you choose how long you want to stay in a certain spot. Each company covers all of the key hot-spots in New Zealand, but won’t take you to many of the off-track places. The tours do come at a hefty price and don’t include accommodation, though they do set it up for you. Both companies recommend 30-35 days for a full-country tour. Travelers can choose from exclusive North Island or South Island packages, a full-country tour package, or a variety of single-day or multi-day trips, such as a three-day trip that gets you out of Auckland and up to the Bay of Islands.
Many of the touring companies are headquartered in Auckland, or stop in any hostel that has a travel desk — just let them know how long you have in the country, what kind of adventure you are looking for, and you’ll be booked and ready to head off.
3. Rent a Backpacker or Camper Van
Best for: A few weeks stay, Families, 2+ travelers
Pros: Opportunity for Freedom Camping, Accommodation guaranteed
Cons: Can be pricey, Gas money
Vans are convenient for families where the kids can spread out and great for folks who have a limited amount of time in the country, but want the freedom of going where they want, when they want.
Spaceship vans come with double beds, complete with bedding and curtains for privacy, as well as a dual-burner portable cooker, fridge and freezer, gas canister, water tank, and all the plates and utensils needed for a decent meal. And if the little ones aren’t as awestruck by the scenery as you are, these vans also come with a DVD player and an iPod hookup. The vans seat about four people and have plenty of storage for a few backpacks. Other varieties of the Spaceship offer sleeping for more than two people. Jucy offers five different styles of vans to choose from, with some models sleeping up to four people. The Jucy Condo even has a 19-inch, flat-screen TV and the Jucy Chaser has a shower and toilet, which means self-contained Freedom Camping is allowed. Check out Jucy’s campsite go-to-guide for information about free campsites, DOC campsites, and where Freedom Camping is allowed.
If you’re interested in a cheaper, grungier option, check out Wicked Campers, which are all unique in their graffiti-covered exteriors. The vans can sleep two or more people and include a kitchen area, camp stools and table, cutlery and dishes, but do not include linen, pillows or a DVD player and only the newest versions have air conditioning.
Best for: Solo travelers
Pros: Cheap, Meet fellow travelers (and not the crazy kind)
Cons: difficulty finding a ride and getting to specific places
In New Zealand, hitchhiking is a frequent mode of travel — most hitchhikers are young, friendly, and will be carrying a backpack. The North Island is more populated than the South Island, which means bigger roads and less of a chance of someone stopping. But on the South Island, with few roads and more adventurous folk, the chances of getting picked up are greater. It is harder to find a ride if there are multiple travelers or if your pack is unwieldy. Take a chance, though, because you never know who will give you a ride, some free beer, and maybe even take you rabbit hunting.
Hitchhiking is also good for rides to and from trailheads. Many of the main hikes are one-way, and getting a shuttle back to your car can be pricey. Check out boards at hostels to see if anyone is headed where you are going, or pin up a note yourself. Don’t be afraid of hitchhikers in New Zealand — if you are looking for a travel mate, and have the space, try giving someone a ride. Even if you don’t click, at least you’ll save money on gas.
5. Rent a car
Best for: A few weeks stay
Pros: Good deals
Cons: Can’t go on the (many) backcountry roads
If you aren’t into the whole backpacking thing, and just need something to get you from place to place, renting a car is an easy option. It will get you where you want to go and will provide better gas mileage than a large campervan. Parking can be a pricey hassle in certain cities, especially Wellington, but in the smaller cities most hostels have a place to park. Many of the rental car companies don’t allow their cars on back roads— which there are plenty of on both islands and they can lead to some spectacular off-the-path areas.
At every trailhead and many parking lots for tourist attractions, signs warn to lock your car and to always be on the watch for break-ins. If your car is obviously a rental (and a nice looking one at that), chances of burglary might increase, as opposed to if you have some dirty-looking, backpacker car, which an intruder probably wouldn’t expect to have more than a few packs of Ramen noodles inside.