Buses are a relatively cheap and environmentally friendly way to travel in New Zealand. Services are usually only available once a day, even between major cities. Most roads in New Zealand are quite narrow and winding (compared to US highways), and travelling a long distance by bus can be a safe and relaxing way to travel. If you book in advance on some routes, you can get good deals.
- The Adventures of the Flying Kiwis. New Zealand’s original adventure bus company offering experiences “off the beaten track”. The company was included in National Geographic’s list of best adventure travel companies for 2009 and received a Qualmark enviro award. Trips range from 3 to 27 days and cover both islands. The tours focus on the beauty and excitement of New Zealand, with plenty of opportunities for walking, cycling and activities. It is also possible to take longer breaks in your favourite places. Discounts are available for YHA, VIP, ISIC and NOMAD cardholders.
- InterCity Coachlines. New Zealand’s national coach operator, with services to over 600 destinations across the country. InterCity Group has voluntarily adopted European emissions standards for its entire fleet of modern coaches. It operates InterCity Coachlines, Newmans Coach Lines and also has a modern fleet of ships and buses for GreatSights New Zealand, Fullers GreatSights Bay of Islands and awesomeNZ. In May 2007, InterCity Group joined Landcare Research’s carboNZero programme, whose main aim is to reduce harmful emissions at source. They have implemented a range of activities to reduce their carbon emissions by up to 50% over five years. Tickets can be purchased at the InterCity counters at the bus stations or at the i-SITE information centres. Students or youth hostel card holders (e.g. BBH, YHA, Nomads, ISIC) receive a discount. Fares start at just $1.00 (plus booking fee) on all national InterCity services and are known to offer free seats at various times of the year. A limited number of discounted seats for that week’s trips are posted on Facebook and Twitter every Monday. Online fares are often sold at a lower price.
- Travelpass – A transport map offered by InterCity Coachlines. It includes a wide range of fixed route passes based on New Zealand’s most popular tourist routes. National passes include the Interislander ferry and a scenic Milford Sound cruise. Passes are valid for one year.
- Flexi-Pass – Using the combined national networks of InterCity, Newmans and GreatSights, Flexi-Pass is sold in blocks of time, just like a prepaid phone card, and allows the cardholder to travel anywhere on the corporate network. Passes start at 3pm, which is enough to travel from Auckland to Wellington on the North Island. Flexi Pass hours can also be used for trips on the Interislander ferry and dolphin-watching trips from Fuller’s GreatSights Bay of Islands, as well as trips to Cape Brett and the famous “Hole in the Rock”. Passes can also be sold to third parties and are valid for 1 year.
- Naked Bus. New Zealand’s low-cost city-to-city bus company provides daily point-to-point connections throughout the country. Naked Bus is often the cheapest option for travellers who plan ahead. Some Naked Bus services are code-shared with other bus companies, including Atomic.
- Bare Passport – sold in travel packages. There is also an unlimited travel card (valid for 1 year). Note that this card cannot be used as a travel card, but is ideal for travellers who want to see the whole country. You can get on and off whenever you want – but you have to make a reservation. You can also use this card to buy certain tourist activities at reduced prices. With this pass, you travel on naked buses, so you are with both travellers and locals.
- Atomic Shuttles offer a no-frills shuttle service in parts of the South Island.
- Daily transport of drivers between Christchurch and Dunedin.
- West Coast Shuttle. Daily transport from Greymouth to Christchurch (via Arthur’s Pass) is cheaper than some of the larger companies.
- Backpacker Bus – KiwiExperience Backpacker Bus and Stray Travel Bus offer bus tours around New Zealand where you can hop on and off at your convenience after purchasing a pass.
Domestic flights within New Zealand are often cheaper than travelling by car or train, especially if the crossing between the North and South Islands is necessary.
Airlines use an electronic ticketing system. You can book online, by phone or through a travel agent. A photo ID is required for travel.
Check-in is usually at least 30 minutes before departure. Hand luggage and people scanners are regularly used for services at major airports with jet landings.
- Air New Zealand has the most extensive domestic network and flies to most cities with a population of more than 20,000, operating jet flights between major centres and smaller turboprop aircraft in other cities. Baggage allowance is 1 piece of 23kg for Grabaseat+Bag, Saver and Flexi fares; regular Grabaseat fares do not include checked baggage. All fares include 1 piece of hand baggage weighing 7 kg.
- Jetstar is a budget airline serving Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Napier, Nelson, Queenstown and Wellington. Flights to New Plymouth and Palmerston North will start on 1 February 2016.
Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown and Wellington airports have timetables for airport buses. Regional airports usually only have shuttle and taxi services on call.
With the motor vehicle
You can get to most of New Zealand’s sights by car or two-wheel drive motorbike, or even a small motorhome. Traffic in New Zealand runs on the left. Outside the major cities, traffic is usually light and drivers are generally courteous.
The state road network connects the main towns and destinations on the two main islands and is identified by a number within a red sign. Most of the state’s interurban roads are single lane in each direction with limited overtaking; motorways and motorways are generally only located near larger towns. Be prepared to get stuck behind slow-moving vehicles and expect drivers behind you to become impatient if you do not obey the speed limit without apology.
You can drive legally for a maximum of 12 months if you are at least 18 years old and have a driving licence valid in your home country. It must be in English or accompanied by an approved English translation, such as an International Driving Permit (IDP). You must carry your licence with you at all times while driving. All drivers and passengers must wear seat belts and children must be seated in an approved child restraint system until their 7th birthday. It is forbidden to talk or use a mobile phone while driving.
Tourist driving in New Zealand has been a hot topic since mid-2014, following a series of fatal accidents involving tourists. In February 2015 there were reports of cases where locals called in vigilantes, confiscated the keys of bad tourist drivers and in one case assaulted a tourist. Stick to the traffic rules, stay left, don’t turn or cross the centre line unnecessarily, drive slowly, don’t drink and drive, rest after a long haul flight and remember that Kiwi drivers can be just as bad.
Expect to pay $2.00 to $2.05 per litre for regular petrol (gas) in major cities. Diesel may seem cheaper ($1.25 to $1.30 per litre), but that’s because it’s not taxed at the pump; instead, diesel vehicles pay their share of the tax through road tax. As New Zealand imports almost all of its oil, mainly from the Middle East and East Asia, prices at the pump can be volatile.
A campervan/camping home offers great freedom and allows you to create your own itinerary in New Zealand by combining accommodation and transport. These comfortable vehicles are often equipped with two or more beds, a kitchenette, shower and toilet. They are usually suitable for 2 to 6 people, depending on the size.
Motorhome rentals are available in the North Island and the South Island. Some rental companies offer one-way rentals, so you can start and end your trip in different places. The minimum rental period is usually 5 days, but can be up to 10 days in high season (especially at Christmas and New Year).
New Zealand is a biker’s dreamland! Motorbikes of many brands can be rented all over New Zealand. The South Island is the main attraction for a motorcyclist and motorbike tours mostly take place there. Don’t forget to bring your full motorbike licence from your home country; a normal car licence is not sufficient to drive a motorbike in New Zealand.
Car rental companies range from large, well-known multinational brands to small, local car rental companies. The advantage of the big rental brands is that they are present throughout New Zealand and offer the widest and most up-to-date range of rental vehicles. The disadvantage is that they are usually the most expensive. Rental companies sometimes offer free rentals in the south-north direction, as the majority of tourists travel in the opposite direction, creating a shortage of cars in the north.
At the other end of the scale are the small local suppliers, most of whom have older rental cars. Even if you’re not driving this year’s latest model, the advantage is that small car rental companies can be significantly cheaper, leaving you more money to spend on the many exciting attractions New Zealand has to offer. Between these two extremes, you will find a wide range of New Zealand car rental companies to suit different needs and budgets.
It should also be noted that most car rental companies require that you are 21 years or older, that you have a full driving licence, and that it is helpful if you also have an international driving licence. Most New Zealand rental cars are equipped with a manual transmission (stick shift); car rental companies will give you a car with a manual transmission unless you indicate in advance that you want an automatic transmission.
Some car rental companies do not allow their vehicles on the Cook Strait ferries between the North and South Islands, although Hertz does allow their vehicles on the ferries if you are willing to take them back to the island where you picked them up. If your rental car ends up on the wrong island, you will have to pay the cost of returning it, which can range from $400 to $1,200. Most car rental companies allow you to drop off a car at one terminal, take the ferry and pick up another car at the other terminal at no extra cost.
Holidays by car are a great way to travel in New Zealand as they offer independence, flexibility and opportunities to interact with the locals. A number of companies offer car tours with car hire and accommodation, with pre-designed itineraries or customised to your interests.
Purchase and sale
If you are planning a longer holiday in New Zealand and prefer to have your own transport, it may be cheaper to buy a car or van and sell it just before you leave. If you use this method, crossing the Cook Strait can be expensive. If you buy a car for $500 or less, it may be cheaper to buy and sell a car separately on each island. However, if you buy your car in Christchurch, drive around the South Island and then head north to sell it in Auckland, you can take advantage of the buyers’ market in Christchurch and the sellers’ market in Auckland and possibly even make a small profit. In addition to the usual ways to search for a car (newspapers, housing posters, car markets, etc.), New Zealand’s largest online auction house, Trademe, has many ads. You can also try the Hiker Car Market, where people usually sell their cars at low prices. Car auctions can also be an interesting option if you want to buy a car. Turner’s Auctions holds regular auctions and is present in many cities. There are trade-in auctions where the cars sold are from a repossession. If there were already ownership problems, these will have been resolved before the auction starts.
New Zealand’s car fleet is mainly Japanese (Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, etc.), but Ford and Holden (the local flagship of General Motors) also make up a large part of the market. Many used cars are imported from Japan, which are cheap but can have a chequered history. If you want to be on the safe side, look for a “new car from New Zealand”, i.e. a car that has been imported new (cars are no longer assembled in New Zealand).
The following points should be checked to buy a vehicle safely in New Zealand:
- there is no debt on the vehicle. In New Zealand, if a loan is used to purchase a vehicle, then the debt is associated with that vehicle even if it is sold, in which case the new owner then has the debt problem. Selling a vehicle with an associated debt is illegal in New Zealand. Verifying the debt is a simple process as a central register is kept.
- the vehicle has not been stolen. Contact the police with the number plate and the vehicle identification number (VIN).
- Legally, the vehicle must have a Warrant of Fitness (WoF) that is less than 30 days old (unless advertised “as is, where is”).
- the registration has not yet expired. This label is usually located on the left side of the car window.
- the vehicle needs a material defect inspection, there are companies in the major centres that offer this service.
If you sell a vehicle, it is very important that you inform the New Zealand Transport Authority, otherwise all fines for speeding, parking tickets etc. will be registered in your name.
Car insurance is not compulsory in New Zealand, but it is recommended that you have at least third party insurance. The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) automatically covers your personal injuries in the event of a car accident.
There are commuter trains in both Auckland and Wellington. The Auckland network is managed by Auckland Transport and has four lines running from Britomart Station in the city centre to Swanson in the west, Onehunga in the southwest, Papakura and Pukekohe in the south and Manukau in the southeast; there are no train services to the north coast or east of Auckland. The Wellington network is managed by Metlink. Four lines run north of Wellington Station and serve the northern suburbs of Wellington, Porirua, the Kapiti Coast (to Waikanae), Lower Hutt and Upper Hutt. A fifth line, the Wairarapa Connection, runs several times a day via Upper Hutt and the Rimutaka Tunnel (8.8 km) to Masterton in the Wairarapa.
Long-distance passenger rail transport in New Zealand is limited and used for tourism purposes rather than as a practical travel option, as the majority of New Zealand’s rail transport is limited to freight.
Intercity passenger services are operated by KiwiRail Scenic Journeys, with some popular tourist trains that travel through spectacular scenery and have constant commentary, panoramic windows and a viewing car.
- Northern Explorer (replaced the Overlander) – a modern train that now runs 3 days a week all year round. It runs from Auckland to Wellington on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays and in the opposite direction on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. It is considered by many to be one of the most picturesque trains in the world.
- Capital Connection – a shuttle service runs from Palmerston North to Wellington in the morning and back in the evening.
- Coastal Pacific – Christchurch to Picton (via Kaikoura) and return daily. It runs along the very rugged north-east coast of the South Island and offers stunning sea views. Meet the Picton-Wellington ferry. Only from October to April. (Out of service after the earthquake of 14 November 2016 and may not operate for several months).
- TranzAlpine – from Christchurch to Greymouth and back daily. Considered one of the greatest train journeys in the world, this journey takes you across the South Island and through spectacular mountain scenery, some of which is inaccessible by road, and the 8.5km Otira Tunnel. Many visitors get off at Arthur’s Pass National Park and spend four hours exploring the mountains before boarding the train back.
The online booking site maximises overseas revenue by showing the lowest rates only if it detects that you are accessing it from a New Zealand IP address. You may be able to get these lower rates if you wait until you arrive or book by phone. Seats on Capital Connection are on a first-come, first-served basis and cannot be reserved in advance.
Trains run at low speeds, not exceeding 110 km/h, which can drop to 50 km/h in summer due to lack of track maintenance after privatisation in the 1990s. Most New Zealanders prefer to travel long distances by car or plane, as rail fares are relatively expensive. However, if the weather is not a problem, travelling around New Zealand by train is well worth the price as you get breathtaking views that you would not get in a car and you can ride the train while someone else does the driving – benefits that no other mode of transport offers.
All long-distance trains are equipped with a dining car and you can order your food in advance and view the menu online.
With the ferry
Between the North and South Island
Two passenger and car ferries cross the Cook Strait between Wellington, North Island, and Picton, South Island. The journey takes just over three hours and there are several crossings per day. It is a spectacular and scenic journey through Wellington Harbour, Cook Strait and Marlborough Straits. However, the weather and seas in the Cook Strait are often rough and unpredictable; crossings can be delayed or cancelled due to stormy weather, while others can quickly become a Mediterranean cruise. Be sure to take essential items for all possible weather situations in your hand luggage; you will not be able to return to your car once the ferry has left port.
Picton’s ferry terminal is close to the station, and the Coastal Pacific train connects with the Interislander crossings.
It is essential to book vehicle passes in advance. The busiest time is from late December to February. Pedestrian traffic is also important during this time and it is advisable to book well in advance.
Check with your car rental company if you can pick up your car on the Cook Strait ferry: Some companies do not allow their vehicles on ferries, but are happy to allow you to drop off one car at one ferry terminal and pick up another at the other terminal, at no extra cost.
- Interislander, +64 4 498-3302, toll-free number: 0800 802 802, contact centre H-F 08:00-20:00, Sat-Sun 08:00-18:00. Operates three vessels: Aratere, Kaiarahi and Kaitaki.
- Bluebridge (Strait Shipping), +64 4 471-6188, toll free: 0800 844 844. contact centre 08:00-20:00 daily . Operates two vessels: Straitsman and Strait Feronia
Harbour ferries for commuters operate in Auckland and Wellington. A number of communities are served by boat rather than road, while charter boats are available for transport to various locations. Sightseeing cruises are regularly organised to various tourist destinations, including the Southern Lakes region and Fiordland.
You can bring your own bike or rent one in some of the larger towns. By law, you must wear a helmet while riding, otherwise you will be fined on the spot. If you rent a bicycle, you must wear a helmet. Remember to ride on the left side of the road. You cannot ride on New Zealand highways. Note that the Auckland Harbour Bridge, which connects Auckland city centre with the north coast, is a motorway and there is no separate cycle path (yet), so you have to take a ferry or cycle around the harbour.
Cycling in New Zealand can be fun, but be aware that due to the geography and the small number of people cycling between towns, there are very few cycle lanes and little space on road shoulders. Beware of buses and trucks on main roads, as many drivers will not give you enough room to overtake; proportionally, five times as many cyclists are injured and killed on New Zealand roads as in the Netherlands or Singapore! You also have to be prepared for long distances between cities and generally windy weather. Although some areas of New Zealand are flat, most tourists cycling in New Zealand need to be able to manage long climbs, especially in the Coromandel. Be prepared to tackle all weathers and seasons in one day.
You can choose to buy a bike when you arrive in New Zealand or use a provider for self-guided or guided bike tours. Christchurch has the most guided and self-guided tour providers and there are also a number of bike rental companies based in Christchurch.
A network of cycle paths is currently being built in New Zealand, using a combination of off-road cycle paths and low-traffic roads. There are already some nice and safe roads: NZ Cycle Trail
Hitchhiking in New Zealand is pretty good everywhere. It is illegal to hitchhike on the few highways (except on exits) and illegal for drivers to stop and give you a lift. Try to get out of the city centre, especially where public transport runs. Carry your backpack and give the impression that you are touring the country and not a local looking for transport, but above all choose a place where vehicles can stop safely and don’t forget to smile. You are just as likely to get a lift from another tourist as from a local, especially in tourist areas.
Carpooling and car sharing are on the rise in New Zealand as fuel prices increase and people realise the social and environmental benefits of sharing vehicles and travelling with others. While some schemes are quite informal, others have trusted systems that provide greater certainty when choosing a route.
- Jayride. A New Zealand carpooling and hitchhiking website. Their aim is to provide a variety of transport options for more flexibility and savings.