Mt Cook

15 essential travel tips for road tripping around New Zealand

New Zealand is one of my all-time favourite travel destinations, dishing up spectacular adventures and surreal scenery within a compact, cultured, and incredibly safe country. By all accounts, it’s the perfect place for a long road trip, the views out of the window hard to beat anywhere in the world.

After spending 2 months road tripping around New Zealand on a couple different trips, I’m keen to share all my first-hand knowledge, insider tricks, and best travel hacks! From passing the biosecurity inspection at the airport and getting a local SIM card to finding the best deal on a campervan and reserving Great Walks, here are 15 of the most useful travel tips for your road trip around New Zealand.

Want to know more about planning a trip to New Zealand? Check out these custom itineraries:

1 | Apply for the NZeTA before travelling to New Zealand

As of 2019, citizens of many countries, including the USA and UK (but obviously NOT Australia), are now required to apply for a visa waiver before travelling to New Zealand.

Called the NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority), this waiver costs just $9 (+ $35 for the International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL)) and will be automatically linked to your passport. Once you have the NZeTA, you can travel around New Zealand for up to 3 months (or 6 months for UK citizens).

While the NZeTA isn’t an actual visa and doesn’t require a lot of effort to get, it’s still important to apply at least 3 days before your trip to ensure everything is processed in time. The easiest way to do this is using the NZeTA app (you can also apply online, but it’s $3NZD more expensive).

Steps to getting the NZeTA

  1. Download the NZeTA app for iPhone or Android
  2. Use your phone to scan your passport ID page and then confirm all the details are correct
  3. Take a passport-style selfie against a white background— the app will guide you on how to frame your face in the shot and how close to be to the camera
  4. Answer a few quick questions, including your reason for visiting, criminal history, and country of birth
  5. Pay the NZeTA fee + International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL)— the total cost is $44NZD
  6. The app will display a receipt with your reference number and you’ll also get an email receipt for the application within a few minutes
  7. Anywhere from a few hours to a couple days later, you should receive your NZeTA confirmation via email— screenshot this or the NZeTA app page where it lists your status as “issued”, because the airline staff will ask to see it before you board your flight to NZ

* Note: In addition to viewing a valid NZeTA before letting you fly, airline staff will also ask for proof of an outbound flight from New Zealand. I was able to check in online just fine, but the system wouldn’t let me use the self-service bag drop at the airport, which meant I had to go to the counter and show my NZeTA and flight details before getting my bags through.

Confirmation of NZeTA

2 | Pack warm clothes, no matter the season

If you’re planning to travel around New Zealand in the winter (May – September) or coming over for a ski holiday, you’ve probably already got plenty of cozy jumpers, long pants, and boots on your packing list— but you still need to bring warm clothes even if you’re travelling in the summer!

New Zealand, especially the South Island, can be really cold no matter what time of year you’re here. It’s not unusual for summer nights in the mountains to dip down to 5C and I’ve even woken up to snow in the middle of January (twice)!

The days can fluctuate wildly, with sunny afternoons in town approaching the high 20s and yet windy mountaintops are still icy enough to require down jackets, multiple jumpers, and gloves. It just means you’ll need to pack for all seasons, even if you are visiting in peak summer (December to February).

Snow in January

3 | Clean your camping & trekking gear thoroughly

Thanks to its incredibly isolated position in the middle of the Pacific, New Zealand has managed to eradicate many of the bacteria and diseases that affect other parts of the world and, as such, has an extremely unique, delicate ecosystem. This means that biosecurity is a BIG DEAL and you need to plan ahead to avoid having items taken off you as you go through inspection. And the biggest thing likely to cause problems for the average traveller is dirt.

Now, you are definitely allowed to bring your tent, stove, trekking poles, boots, backpacks… all your trekking and camping gear into New Zealand, it just needs to be free of dirt.

While you’re still on the plane, you’ll be given a Passenger Arrival Card to complete— in addition to personal information, you will need to declare any items that might pose a risk to biosecurity and submit them for full inspection. Often the instinct in these situations is to say you have nothing so you can get out of the airport quicker, but they don’t mess around with this shit in New Zealand. Here’s a direct quote from the NZ Ministry: The Passenger Arrival Card is a legal document. If you make a false or incorrect declaration – even by accident – you are breaking the law and you can be fined or put in prison. So yeah, just declare everything.

After coming off the plane and collecting all your checked luggage, a quarantine officer will get you to unpack your bag and then have a look at all the items in question, including completely unpacking your tent and tent poles for a thorough scan, wiping down your hiking boots, and scouring anything else that may have come in contact with dirt or soil. They aren’t so unreasonable that they expect your gear to be brand new, but it better be clean, otherwise you risk losing it or paying a large fee to have it cleaned onsite.

Tips for cleaning your camping gear

  • Make sure your tent is 100% dry— if you’ve been camping recently, set the tent up in your lounge room for a few days to air it out and make sure there is absolutely zero residual moisture
  • Sweep or vacuum the floor of your tent to make sure there’s no dirt or sand trapped inside, and spot clean the material as needed if there are muddy patches
  • Scrub your tent poles and especially any stakes with hot soapy water and let them dry completely before packing them away
  • Bang any loose dust off your hiking boots and wash them in the sink, also allowing them to dry completely— the main thing the quarantine officer looks for here is mud (they usually blot the insole with a paper towel and it’s expected to come up completely dry)
  • Wash any trekking poles or camp chair legs— if there are removable rubber tips on any of the poles or legs, the officer will pull them off and check underneath, so don’t do a half-assed job
  • If your backpack is really dirty, it’s also a good idea to give it a wash— fill the bathtub up with warm, soapy water and sort of submerge the backpack repeatedly until the water is brown, them re-fill the tub and do it again until the water stays reasonably clear (usually 3-4x is sufficient
Clean boots are happy boots

4 | Learn what food you can & can’t bring into New Zealand

If you’re coming over to New Zealand for a camping or trekking trip, chances are you’re probably carrying some food in addition to your gear. This is yet another thing you’ll have to declare and have inspected before you’re allowed to bring it into the country.

As a general rule, dehydrated mountain food is completely fine, so long as it’s in its original, sealed packaging (they don’t like anything you’ve packaged yourself, so don’t bring DIY dehydrated food) and doesn’t have pork in it. Expect to have each one of the dehydrated meals unpacked from your bag, but usually they will be allowed to go straight back in.

Regulations for bringing dehydrated food into NZ– from the NZ MPI

Snack food like nuts, protein bars, and beef jerky can also be fine to bring, so long as they are in original, unopened packaging. Absolutely no fresh fruit will get through, even if they gave it to you on the flight as part of your meal, so don’t try. For anything else, I’d recommend looking at the NZ MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries) website, which has an extensive list of what is and isn’t allowed.

NZ Ministry of Primary Industries website

5 | Buy a Vodafone SIM card at the airport

For road tripping around New Zealand, a local SIM card is absolutely essential, as it will allow you to use Google Maps and look up points of interest along the way. Thankfully, it’s super cheap and easy to get a SIM these days!

Arriving into the Christchurch International Airport, there are Vodafone and Spark kiosks available to sell you a SIM and pre-paid credit (no contract or commitment) on the spot. I’d recommend Vodafone only because I’ve had a good experience, but I think they are more or less the same in terms of coverage and price.

For $29, Vodafone will set you up with a SIM, 1.5GB of data, some calling and text credit, and unlimited use of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger (valid for 1 month). There are larger options, but this is honestly plenty for a road trip, as long as you’re not watching Netflix or posting heaps to Instagram, and the staff will set everything up for you in under 5 minutes.

6 | … but also download offline maps, just in case

A huge portion of New Zealand is National Parks and remote wilderness areas, and while this is absolutely the appeal to road tripping here, it does mean you have limited mobile reception throughout your day. In the event that you find yourself with zero bars but need to navigate to the next stop, having offline maps downloaded can be a real lifesaver.

You can download offline maps on Google Maps, but I actually prefer using a dedicated offline app like Navmii. You won’t be able to search for the name of a restaurant or specific business, but you can navigate easily to any city, National Park, and even most DOC campsites, all without any mobile reception. I used this exclusively on my first trip around New Zealand, and although I still think a local SIM is better, it’s a valuable back-up!

Driving to Aoraki/Mt Cook

7 | Use comparison sites to find the best deal on campervans

The classic way to explore New Zealand is in a campervan, but unfortunately it’s not always the cheapest option. In peak summer months (December – February), campervan hire can range from $80-300NZD per DAY (including insurance), which is cost-prohibitive to a lot of travellers, especially considering this is already a really expensive country!

If you’re determined to experience NZ in a campervan, I’d recommend either: 

  • travelling in the shoulder season (spring or autumn), when hire can easily be 50% of the summer rate, OR
  • getting a self-contained campervan that will allow you to freedom camp rather than paying for DOC campsites or holiday parks every night ($15-25/person) and cook in your vehicle to save money on eating out.

Yep, only campervans with a “self-contained” sticker are allowed to freedom camp outside of official campsites, and the fines can be really big if you try to do this in a car or in a non-self-contained camper. It’s not really going to save you money on the hire costs (if anything, a self-contained campervan will be more expensive), but it will help you save on heaps of other expenses like camping and food, so it’s 100% essential. 

Most campervans will have a chilly bin or small fridge, some sort of sink or water storage, gas stove, cookware, and kitchen utensils, but the quality and extras will vary van to van.

There are an insane number of campervan companies in New Zealand offering anywhere from budget vehicles like Spaceships, to mid-range vans with some nice extras like Jucy and Madcampers, to really luxurious mini-RVs like Apollo and Maui with a price-tag to match. The best way to find a good deal is to book at least 3 months in advance (if travelling in the summer) and use a comparison site to shop around:

Campervans at Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park

8 | … or consider hiring a car instead

If the cost of campervan hire is just TOO much (or if you don’t really like the idea of freedom camping without showers and toilets), there’s always the option to hire a car and camp in a tent. There are some seriously amazing DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites, as well as holiday parks, and tent camping is actually my favourite way to explore New Zealand! 

Car hire can still be really expensive in New Zealand, so you’ll need to do some digging to find a good deal, but it’s definitely possible to get something as cheap as $40-80/day, depending on time of year. These prices reflect the absolute cheapest rentals available, so you’ll probably end up driving a 20+ year old compact car (the kind of thing that wouldn’t even be legal to hire in Australia), but it truly doesn’t matter if all you’re using it for is transport.

Also note that these prices don’t include comprehensive car insurance and the excess on our shit-box hire car was $6,000NZD, so you’ll either need to pay extra for good cover, use the car insurance included with your credit card (which is what we did), or take a big risk. 

I’ve personally used Bargain Rental Cars a few times and, although the opposite of glamorous, they are routinely the best price around. To compare other car hire options, I like to use Momondo.

Camping at White Horse Hills

9 | Download Campermate to find free or paid campsites

Whether you hire a campervan or a compact car, be sure to download the awesome Campermate app to find heaps of campsites around New Zealand. You can use all sorts of filters to search for free campsites, those with wifi or showers, self-contained-only sites for campervans, or tent camping-only sites for a more natural experience.

There are thousands of campsites in the country and just about all of them, including really small random spots where it’s legal to freedom camp in your self-contained campervan, are listed on the app in plenty of detail. It’s indispensable for any road trip around NZ!

10 | Bring plenty of cash for DOC campsites

Even with hundreds of freedom camping spots around New Zealand where you can stay in a self-contained campervan for free, or especially if you’re tent camping, you’re still likely to visit a few DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites on your trip. These government-operated sites are usually quite basic with just toilets, a rain water tank, and sometimes a kitchen shelter with benches (definitely no showers or wifi), but they are often in the absolute best locations within the National Park or at the trailhead of popular tramping routes.

Most popular DOC campsites don’t accept advance bookings, so you just need to show up and claim a spot on the day. Popular sites tend to be quite large, so I’ve never had trouble finding a place to pitch my tent or park my car, even in peak summer.

When you get to the DOC campsite, there will be a spot to complete your registration, which I’d recommend doing right away (as you never know when the rangers will come by and check). It’s incredibly easy, but you definitely need to have cash and correct change with you! Since these sites are rarely near a town centre, plan ahead and make sure you have a stash of notes on you.

Paying your DOC camp fees

  1. Grab a Registration Slip from the box
  2. Fill in some personal details like your name, car rego, and the nights you’re staying
  3. Place the white half of the slip, along with your cash payment, into a plastic bag and then into the designated box— there should be signs displaying the price per person per night, which is typically between $8 – $15NZD
  4. Take the yellow half of the slip and either place it in a visible spot on the dash of your campervan or on the outside of your tent— when the weather is a little crazy, it’s not a bad idea to photograph the camping ticket just in case it gets damaged
Paying the DOC camping fee

11 | Reserve Great Walks 6 months in advance

New Zealand has a phenomenal network of trekking and tramping trails around the country, none more accessible to novice hikers or adventurous families than the Great Walks. These 10 tracks across the North and South Island are painstakingly maintained, well-signed and nicely graded, connected to a large number of campsites and mountain huts, and really do showcase some of the finest scenery in the country without the demands of a challenging backcountry trip.

Even for experienced backpackers, NZ’s Great Walks are incredibly worthwhile and I’d recommend incorporating at least one into your trip. Owing to the popularity of the Great Walks, though, it’s necessary to book months in advance for most of the tracks during peak summer. I tried to book either the Milford or Kepler Track about a month in advance this January, and there was not one single spot available— I later learned that popular tracks like Milford sell out in a matter of minutes after bookings open for the so-called “Great Walk Season” from October to late-April (it’s possible to walk outside of the season without bookings, but only with backcountry experience).

AND SO, if you have your heart set on a particular track during the summer months, you should reserve at least 6 months early to avoid disappointment.

  • Bookings open in mid-June for the upcoming season, so set a calendar alert and be ready!

The DOC website is a phenomenal resource for planning your trek, describing in detail all the campsites and mountain huts along the track, as well as transport options to/from the trailhead (particularly for one-way routes) and booking instructions.

North Island

South Island

Routeburn Track, one of NZ’s Great Walks

12 | … and also reserve popular huts in advance

Just like the Great Walks, many of New Zealand’s most popular backcountry huts book up months in advance due to high demand during the peak summer tramping season (November to May). There are more than 1000 backcountry huts across the islands, but people definitely have their favourites— and it shows when you’re trying to snag a spot in highly-coveted places like Mueller Hut.

Yet again, the solution is to plan your visits to any can’t-miss huts at least a few months in advance to ensure you get everything you want out of your trip.

New Zealand’s huts are truly phenomenal, with most offering an indoor kitchen/cooking area, nearby pit toilets, and a cozy bunk room with mats provided (BYO sleeping bag and pillow). They range from quiet 8-person structures to large, social gathering points where dozens of trampers mingle and swap adventure stories over their dinner. Although they may not serve up hot goulash like huts in the Alps, it’s still no exaggeration to say that these are some of the best huts in the world, predominantly thanks to the ever-astounding surrounds. And if you only make it to one, let it be Mueller Hut.

The view from Mueller Hut

13 | Buy dehydrated mountain food at the supermarket

As described previously (#4), it’s possible to bring dehydrated mountain meals and trail snacks into New Zealand as long as they are unopened, but it’s still possible you’ll need to do a re-stock at some point during your trip.

Luckily, mountain meals are available in pretty much all supermarkets, including Four Square, Countdown, and New World, for around $15 per pouch. Cup of Soup packets are another easy purchase that makes for a quick snack or meal accompaniment in a pinch.

Obviously you need to bring a camp stove if this is your plan— I love my JetBoil— and then buy gas in Christchurch when you land, since you won’t be able to fly with it. There’s a huge Bunnings conveniently located right next to the airport where you can get a 230g canister for $8NZD.

The best brand of dehydrated mountain food in the world

14 | Take your passport to buy alcohol

Even though New Zealand has some of the most astoundingly lax laws on alcohol consumption I’ve ever seen (it’s actually legal to drink beer while you’re driving, provided you don’t exceed the BAC limit), the kiwis are surprisingly strict when it comes to purchasing alcohol.

The first time I tried to buy cider in New Zealand (at 26, mind you), 3 staff came over to sight my Australian driver’s licence and then promptly sent me out to the car to get my full passport, which was also closely inspected by a number of employees. I know I look young, but I certainly don’t look under 18.

Similar experiences led me to question some local friends who confirmed that, yes, you are required to show your passport to buy alcohol unless you have a local New Zealand ID. And not only when buying alcohol from a bottle shop, but you also need to show your passport when you go out to a bar or a club. You might not be asked every single time if you look old enough, but rather than risk being sent away empty-handed, remember to bring your passport into the bottlo!

15 | Don’t go easy on the bug spray

And for my final tip, I would just like to tell everyone to bring SO MUCH BUG SPRAY. In addition to rampant mosquitos during the summer months, New Zealand is home to a special kind of evil, the sand fly. They’re incredibly small and it’s difficult to even feel when they’re sucking you, but it’s not uncommon for people to have allergic reactions to their bite (or, rather, the saliva left behind from their bite). I am one of those lucky people, and I have sat up nights in New Zealand near tears because my legs were itching so bad I couldn’t sleep.

Unfortunately, some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand are also the worst in terms of sand flies, like Milford Sound. You’ll notice huge clouds of them hovering around the water, and despite jokes from a diving guide that “German is their favourite flavour”, I’ve found that they tend not to discriminate, with the possible exception of avoiding most locals.

Lather up in bug spray with strong DEET anytime you’re near the water or in the mountains, and do your best to cover up in long sleeves and pants if you’re sitting outside at night (which shouldn’t be hard, because it’s almost always cold). If you aren’t convinced, just google “sand fly bite” and I guarantee you will be.

Beautiful, but being eaten alive by bugs

Read more about New Zealand