Should you rent a vehicle in New Zealand? My answer is definitively a yes.
Below is my complete guide about driving in New Zealand to help you plan, including:
- Is driving difficult? safe?
- NZ Driving rules,
- Road conditions and safety tips,
- Parking information,
- Car rental tips
- Most beautiful roads not to miss,
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Driving in New Zealand - Essentials to know + video
Essentials to know before driving in New Zealand
If you don't want to read the entire article, here are the major points to be aware of about driving in NZ:
- LEFT SIDE - Driving is on the left side of the road so it can be stressful for some people, but it is not that complex. You just have to be careful when getting out of your parking space
- NOT TOO DIFFICULT - New Zealand is not really difficult. Roads are sinuous, especially in North Island but always large enough and in good conditions. My main difficulties were in the vicinity of Auckland.
- TAKE YOUR TIME - The landscapes are beautiful! be careful where you stop, not to block other cars
- ONE LANE BRIDGES - The only thing you could find difficult in the beginning are the one lane bridges. But they are well indicated, with signs to indicate who has priority. And since there is not much traffic, it is very easy.
- TOLLS - There are 3 road sections with tolls in New Zealand. But all of them can be avoided if you want to. Otherwise you pay online within 5 days.
- ISLANDS - If you are planning a road trip on both islands, make sure your rental companies has offices and shops on both islands - compare car rental prices
- In case of accident - emergency number: 111
Below is a short video to give you a taste of what driving in New Zealand looks like:
- on the fast roads,
- on countryside roads,
- on mountain roads,
- in towns,
- on gravel roads,
Where I get my rental car
I always compare prices right away on Discovercars.com.
This is one of the best customer-rated comparison sites on the market.
I have found really great deals and I think the platform super easy to use. I can filter based on my criteria.
Plus, they have a practical coverage option at great price that will cover you in case of damage to the outside of the car.
Need more help renting a car in New Zealand? Read my 36 tips for a worry-free experience.
Getting around New Zealand - by car or not?
Do you need a car in New Zealand?
- Yes, if you you want to enjoy the amazing variety of landscapes New Zealand has to offer
- Yes, if you want to have the freedom to adapt your program to the weather or avoid the crowded times,
- Yes, if you want to enjoy the gems off the beaten path
- No, if you mostly want to stay at in one city and are ok booking tours
- No, if you are staying in Auckland
Overall, I think renting a car is the best way to explore the island and see all the best things to do, plus off the beaten path locations.
It will allow you to see the best landscapes New Zealand offers.
All my favorite locations are included (with GPS coordinates, map and tips) in my travel guide eBook that helps you easily plan your NZ road trip:
Plan your perfect trip around New Zealand!
Is driving in New Zealand safe? Is it easy?
There is no need to worry, it is not difficult.
Remember that only people who had a scare tend to write about it online, all the people who had no problems don't.
Here is my analysis of the situation:
On the positive side:
- Roads are overall in correct conditions,
- Roads are overall wide, except for a few one lane bridge
- Outside of the cities, there is hardly any traffic
- There is never a boring road!
On the negative side:
- Weather can change in the mountains
- Wild and farm animals can appear on the road
In my personal experience:
I have not felt unsafe during my stay.
Getting around New Zealand without a car
It is possible to get around New Zealand without a car, to see the major sights:
- Bus - There are buses touring both island, connecting the main cities
- Organized tours - If you are staying in Auckland, Queenstown or Rotorua, you can find a variety of guided tours to enjoy the main sights or do fun activities - see options
Below is a map of the driving times you can expect around New Zealand.
#1 to 6 - New Zealand Driving Rules
Let's start with general rules and regulations you should be aware of:
#1 - License requirement / Age - Do I need an international driver's permit?
To drive in New Zealand you need a valid driving licence from your country.
If you have a valid driving licence, which includes:
- a licence number,
- a photograph,
- a valid date
- and is in English
Then you won’t need an international licence.
Otherwise, you do need one or a translation by an official translator.
You must be 16 years of age (but know that many rental companies may have other age requirements starting at 21)
It is also mandatory to always have the vehicle registration documents as well as a valid ID, such as your passport, with you.
#2 - Side of the road
OK. If you are from a right-driving country, what might worry you the most is driving on the left.
But don't worry, it is actually not that difficult!
I have not seen anyone do big stupid things while driving around New Zealand
The main dangers is when you get out of a parking spot. If there is no car out, you may start driving on the wrong side (I am guilty of that the first day). If that worries you, take a big white sheet and write Keep LEFT on it and place it behind the wheel.
The issue most people have is : "but what about roundabouts". You really don't have anything to worry about.
The flow of driving feels logical and the curvature makes you go the right way around the roundabout.
#3 - General behavior rules
- Seatbelts are mandatory for all
- No cell phone while driving
- Kids under 8 cannot seat in the front of the car and should sit in a special seat
#4 - Alcohol and driving
Alcohol limit is 50mg per 100ml of blood - but I always recommend not drinking at all if you are driving.
#5 - Mandatory equipment to have in your car
In New Zealand, there are no mandatory extra pieces of equipment.
However, NZTA strongly recommend to have in your car:
- a Warning triangle
- a Reflective vest or jacket
- a First aid kit
- a Non-expired fire extinguisher
If visiting in Winter and heading to the mountains, make sure your car has winter tires.
#6 - Mandatory insurance in New Zealand
In New Zealand, there is a compensation scheme so you can't be sued for causing injury.
By default, the car is insured but what remains to your charge is the deductible.
All the extra insurance are to reduce that deductible. So, paying for an extra insurance depends on your willingness to risk that amount.
#7 to 15 - Roads conditions and Road Signs in New Zealand
#7 - Conditions of Motorways and fast roads
There are a few high speed roads in the North around Auckland.
There can be traffic lights to get on them.
I am mentioning it because not all countries have those and it can be surprising.
This is to make the flow of traffic fluid.
Every few seconds one car on each lane can go and enter the traffic easily.
#8 - Sinuous roads
What surprised me the most where the roads in North Islands. They turn and they turn....
You don't stop slowing down, turning and accelerating and slowing down, turning and accelerating... It is due to the landscape with many bumps
South Island also has some sinuous roads, but it also has some very straight roads in the valleys.
#9 - Gravel roads
A few beautiful spots require driving on gravel roads such as
- the Omarama clay cliffs, Wharariki beach, the Cathedral caves, Catlins locations... in South Island
- Te Paki sand dunes, Cape Palliser... in North Island
All the ones I drove were in really good conditions and easy to drive. Just take your time and don't speed to avoid breaking windows with gravel.
Only 2 were more difficult that the others:
- The drive to the cathedral caves car park is quite bumpy.
- The drive in the Northern par of Abel Tasman National park to Totaranui beach, has some big humps and holes plus slopes and turns. I decided to turn around and not go all the way to the beach.
In any case, remember that car rental companies's insurances probably don't cover you if you break down on those roads. Read the details.
#10 - Driving in towns & villages
I have found driving in New Zealand very easy.
The only part that I really really did not like was in the region of Auckland and going West to Piha beach.
First there are always a lot of traffic jams around Auckland. This is not enjoyable after the beautiful open nature areas you have crossed before.
Second, the drive down to Piha beach is narrow and sinuous without many passing bays. But the locals are in a hurry to get home and they get annoyed by you slowing down.
Except for Auckland, driving in New Zealand cities is quite easy.
Most of the roads are quite wide (unless you are in the hilly suburbs of Wellington.
From my experience, I have nothing special to mention (except parking, see at the end of the article).
Pedestrians have priority over cars.
#11 - Speed limit & signs
- Road signs are very classic. Nothing specific to be aware of. Road signs are easy to understand.
- Speed limits are indicated on circular signs with red border and a number
- Speed limits are in kilometers per hour
- National speed limits are - 50km/h in residential areas, 90km/h on rural roads and 120km/h on Motorways
#12 - Other road signs in New Zealand
The road signs are classic in latin letters, nothing specific to know.
There are plenty of signs to indicate directions. Although sometimes in the countryside, they can be missing.
#13 - Single lane bridges
The only other thing that I can think of that may worry you are the one lane bridges.
There are many of them all around the country.
They are really well indicated with big text on the road and lots of roadsigns.
Make sure you pay attention to who has priority : the big black arrow has priority to the smaller red arrow.
If you don't have priority, make sure you stop at the line so that cars in the other direction have enough space.
Generally the bridges are quite short and with really good visibility of incoming traffic.
However there is one very long single lane bridge on the West coast of South Island (South of the glaciers). In this instance, you can't see the cars from the other end of the bridge but there are 2 passing bays. So check incoming cars from the first passing bay, if this is free, drive and stop. Check the next leg and keep going...
In any case, there is not that much traffic outside of the main towns (even during peak season) so it is really not difficult, you just wait for your turn.
#14 - Tolls in New Zealand
There are 3 sections of roads in New Zealand with tolls.
There are no tollbooths.
They are well indicated as well as exit if you want to take the detour and avoid paying.
If you go ahead, it takes a picture of your plate number. You just have to
- go online on www.tollroad.govt.nz,
- don't create an account just click on "buy or pay a toll"
- enter your plate number,
- and pay. It is very easy!
The 3 roads are:
- The Auckland Northern Gateway on road 1 between Auckland and Warkworth - it costs 2.30 NZD per car and saves you 9min compared to the detour
- The Tauranga Eastern Link on Road 2 between Paengaroa and Papampoa - it costs 2 NZD per car and saves you 12min compared to the detour
- The Tauranga Takitimu Drive on road 29, South of Tauranga - it costs 1.80 NZD and saves you 7min compared to the detour
#15 - Fuel
Nothing specific to be aware of about gas stations.
See the concentration of electric car charging station, where you are going in New Zealand on this website
#16 to 18 - How to drive safely
#16 - Know the potential dangers
Apart from driving on the left, there are a few things to be aware of to limit dangers on the roads of New Zealand:
- Landscapes - the scenery is stunning, it is hard to stop looking at it... but that means that you don't look at the road. Make sure you alternate drivers, or, if you are alone, make frequent stop to satisfy your love for nature.
- Animals - there can be sheep and wild animals on the roads (especially flightless birds). In areas where it is frequent, you will see danger signs, slow down and pay attention. Do NOT sound your horn.
- Roadwork - There is frequent roadworks happening. And since most roads only have one lane in each direction, it means alternate driving. Roadworks are overall well indicated with signs and speed limits.
- Railway crossings - Approach railway crossings with cautions. On the main roads, they have lights and barriers but on side roads to accommodations for example, they don't. Always slow down on a look in each direction.
- Cyclists - During the weekends, locals enjoy cycling around. They have the priority. Always slow down and overtake with care.
- Fog - when driving on a mountain pass you may end up in the fog or in the clouds. Slow down and take your time.
#17 - Overtaking in New Zealand
Most roads have a single lane in each direction.
Some have passing lanes regularly.
Otherwise the rules are as follows:
- solid yellow line: you cannot overtake
- no solid yellow line, cars in both directions can overtake
- yellow solid line but not on your side of the roads, you can overtake but not those coming in the other direction
- white dotted line on your side becomes yellow, it means you soon won't be able to overtake
#18 - What to do in case of accident
In case there are people hurt or there is a conflict, the emergency number in 111 is:
The best order of actions is:
- contact emergency services
- contact the police
- contact your rental provider
#19 - Taking the ferry with your rental car between North and South Islands
Booking the ferry
If you are planning a road trip on both islands, you will have to book a ferry between Wellington (North Island) and Picton (South Island).
There are several sailings a day with 2 different operators: Interislander and Blueridge
However you can do the booking only if you have your car's plate number. So you can't do it early.
I recommend you
- bookmark this booking page for now in your favorites - New Zealand ferries
- do the booking the first day after you collect your rental car, once you know the plate number
Getting onboard the ferry
On the day of your ferry ride, make sure you check the time indicated on the ticket. Attention is the the cut time to present yourself (not the beginning boarding time).
As you arrive at the terminal, first go to the bathroom.
Then head to the booth by car and start queueing.
There is no point being first of last. It does not mean you will get out first. Placement of all the vehicles inside a ferry is complicated. You never know where you will be.
So just wait in line and follow the directions of the crews.
Once parked, close your mirrors and you car, and make your way to the living areas. Make sure you take all you need as you may not be able to go back to your car.
Advice when on the ferry: If you feel sick and don't have medicine, ask for ice chips or buy a sorbet and eat slowly.
#20 to 21 - Parking in New Zealand
#20 - Parking in towns
Most parking spots in large and medium cities require paiement.
There is one important rule to know:
On streets with lanes in each direction, you are not allowed to park opposite the traffic. You can be fined or towed away for parking on the wrong side of the road. They do apply this rule.
#21 - Parking at attractions
Overall I have never had any issue finding a parking spaces and most carparks are free
Where to stay in New Zealand?
- In Auckland, to explore the vibrant city - see best rated accommodations
- In Rotorua, to visit the geothermal parks - see best rated accommodations
- In Wellington, to feel the vibe of the capital city - see best rated accommodations
- In New Plymouth, to admire Mount Taranaki - see best rated accommodations
- In Kaikoura, for dolphins and whales - see best rated accommodations
- In Queenstown, for the mountains - see best rated accommodations
- In Dunedin, to explore the Catlins - see best rated accommodations
- In Lake Tekapo, to admire Lake Pukaki, Mount cook and the Dark Sky - see accommodations
Find more inspiration in my article about where to stay in New Zealand
#22 - Most beautiful roads in New Zealand
If you want to drive on the most beautiful roads in NZ, don't miss:
- Arthur's pass road
- Along lake Pukaki towards Mount Cook
- Lindis Pass between Wanaka and Omarama
- The road to Milford Sound
#23 to 26 - Renting a car in New Zealand
Below is a snapshot with the main things to know.
You can learn more on my article about renting a car in New Zealand.
#23 - Type of car to rent
- You will often have you luggage with you changing accommodations, so you want a trunk big enough to have them all in and nothing visible in the car - No need to tempt thieves.
- Choose a car with a good motor: there are hills and lots turning. You want a car that can stay stable so that the drive is really more enjoyable
- 4WD not necessary
- Cars are mostly automatic
#24 - Where to rent
The largest car rental hubs in New Zealand are:
#25 - Best rental car company
On the my favorite platform Discovercars.com, each rental company has a mark on 10 points. This is an average of the marks given by actual customers.
On the search page, you have a filter to select only the best rated ones.
Some of the best rated rental car companies in New Zealand are:
Plan your New Zealand Itinerary
Check out some of my articles about NZ:
- New Zealand North Island vs South Island - read article
- New Zealand in 50 photos - read article
- 20 Best waterfalls in New Zealand - read article
- 15 most beautiful beaches in New Zealand - read article
- Things to do in New Zealand North island - read article
- Things to do in New Zealand South island - read article
- New Zealand hidden gems - read article
- How to plan a New Zealand road trip - read article
- New Zealand 2 week itinerary - read article
Or check out my travel guide to help you plan:
Plan your perfect trip around New Zealand!
And keep track of your own trip!
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