New Zealand is a long, narrow and relatively sparsely-populated country. Outside the cities, there are large expanses of rolling countryside, tall mountains and thick native bush. In some regions, it can be a long way to the next town.
As a result, most New Zealanders tend to travel by car. Many visitors to the country do the same, although there are also some national public transport options available. Regardless of whether you want to explore the cities or escape into nature, here are some of the best ways to get around New Zealand.
New Zealand's stunning scenery makes for remarkable road trips and traveling by car is convenient and flexible, especially visiting attractions away from main arterial routes. One of the most enjoyable parts of traveling in New Zealand is exploring the national parks and seemingly isolated spots – in fact, many of the best-known sites are quite remote.
Driving around New Zealand is reasonably straightforward and traffic is relatively light outside of the major cities. People drive on the left-hand side of the road and visitors are usually allowed to drive on their home driver’s license for up to a year.
Keep in mind that car rentals aren’t always cheap, and insurance can be expensive for drivers under 25. If you’re traveling between the islands, also check whether your rental car is allowed on the Interislander ferry (which connects the North and the South Islands) – book your vehicle on the ferry in advance.
In more remote areas, there can be long stretches between gas stations, so be sure to fill up the car when leaving a town. Also, be aware that some roads are gravel or dirt, especially in rural places.
If driving through mountainous areas in winter, also remember to rent tyre chains, or a four-wheel drive, as there can be ice and snow on the roads.
In summer you still need to be well rested to tackle the windy narrow roads and tight mountain passes. Longer days mean more time to travel, but be aware distances are deceptive - single-lane roads mean that being caught behind a slow-moving campervan can add hours to your drive.
Renting a campervan and driving around the country is one of the most popular ways to see New Zealand. Traveling by campervan gives you the flexibility of having your own transport while allowing you to save money on expensive accommodation costs.
There are a number of campervan rental companies in New Zealand and it’s possible to get a full-sized campervan or a smaller van, which is cheaper but not as comfortable. Just keep in mind that "freedom camping," or setting up camp outside of designated campgrounds, isn’t always legal – if in doubt, check the Department of Conservation website for some guidelines about where free camping is allowed.
Trains in New Zealand are generally focused on freight and local travel within some of the cities, but there are a couple of scenic regional trains which are aimed at travellers.
The major route in the North Island is the Northern Explorer which goes from Auckland to Wellington, stopping in Hamilton, Tongariro National Park and Palmerston North. There is also the option to travel by train from Wellington to Palmerston North.
In the South Island, there are two scenic train options. The Coastal Pacific route follows the coast from Picton (where the Interislander ferry arrives from Wellington) to Christchurch and back again.
The other option is perhaps the most beautiful train journey in the country. The Tranzalpine Train runs between Christchurch and Greymouth on the West Coast, passing through stunning alpine scenery.
City-to-city buses provide good links between cities and towns in New Zealand. These can be booked in advance and are reasonably affordable, however, local buses will need to be taken to rural locations or national parks.
Intercity is the best known of the national bus companies and their buses include wi-fi and sometimes toilets. Intercity buses also offer flexible passes which include ferry passes on the Interislander ferry. Discounted bus tickets are often available in the off-season.
There are also hop-on, hop-off buses that cater to tourists and backpackers, however, these are significantly more expensive. Within cities and towns, buses are a popular form of transport, particularly in the major centres including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
While many visitors choose to travel overland in New Zealand, opting for a plane can be a good option if you want to get to specific destinations within a short timeframe. Air New Zealand is the national airline and goes to 25 different destinations around the country.
Jetstar, a low-cost carrier, is another option, but it doesn't fly to all airports around New Zealand. If you book in advance, Air New Zealand’s special airfares are comparable with Jetstar’s pricing.
If you’re spending some time in Auckland or Wellington and planning to use public transport, it’s worth buying an Auckland Transport HOP or Metrolink Snapper card when you arrive in the city. HOP cards can be used on bus, train and ferry services in Auckland and gives a 20% discount on fares (excluding the SkyBus from the airport and the ferry to Waiheke Island). Snapper cards can be used on Metrolink buses and trains in Wellington and give a 25% discount on the usual fare.
Both cards are prepaid and provide an integrated fare. This means that you can transfer between Auckland Transport or Metrolink buses, trains and ferries (in Auckland) and pay just one fare across the zones you’re traveling.
Most public transport in New Zealand is accessible for people of all abilities including buses and trains, which typically provide wheelchair ramps, handrails and low steps.
Accessible vehicles are also available across the country with many car rental companies offering a wide range of vehicles and three rental companies who specialize in accessible rental – Disability Rentals, Mobility Vehicle Rental and Freedom Mobility. Mobility parking permits can also be arranged for international visitors if organized at the beginning of the trip.
The New Zealand Transport Authority also runs the Total Mobility Scheme, a resource for finding discounted accessible transportation in different regions of New Zealand, including public transport and taxis.
This article was first published by Lonely Planet.
Last Updated 16 August 2022