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New Zealand Road Trip Tips – Driving Tips for Tourists

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Last Updated on April 12, 2022 by Leslie Stroud

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Have you ever driven in a foreign country?  Many of us haven’t.  With shuttle busses, public transport, and resorts, not many people venture out and drive themselves in a foreign country.

With our style of travel and moving around with five kids, driving is a must-do for us anywhere outside of Asia.  During our seven months in Asia, we managed not to drive at all aside from a quick weekend in Japan, and even that we wound up regretting.

When visiting New Zealand, driving is a must in order to appreciate all the beauty and glory the country has to offer. The country spreads itself over an incredible amount of land and destinations are spread out with several hours of driving in between each.  

When driving in New Zealand, there are several things you should be aware of and we are here to break them down:

Renting A Car In New Zealand

Let’s start with the first step, which will happen before you arrive.  #1 Renting a car.

Prices are pretty fair; we like to use Rentalcars.com to compare and find the best deals available. 

It’s easy to book a car in New Zealand online.  We booked a mini-van for three months to start out and ended up extending it to seven when Covid hit. (Read more about how Covid affected our time in NZ here)

The cars in New Zealand are more outdated than you might expect, but you’ll find that is the case for New Zealand in general.  Outside of Auckland, the entire country feels like you’ve stepped back in time a decade or two in the United States.  If you need an example, our car had a tape deck!

You’ll also quickly discover, once arriving in New Zealand, that people are very friendly; our car rental agent was no exception.  They gave us some quick driving tips on things like how to spot the police, where to not speed, and some general driving rules. Kiwis (the term for New Zealanders) are very relaxed and won’t be bothered to help you out.

New Zealand Road Rules

Driving on the Left Side of the Road

The most important thing to know when driving in New Zealand: you’ll be on the left side of the road!

I’ll be upfront, this was more difficult to adapt to than I expected it to be.  Even after 6+ months in the country, I would still have to check myself while driving to make sure I wasn’t turning the wrong way. I never reached a point where I could zone out and have the turns be second nature.

Another funny thing to get used to is remembering to get into the car on the opposite side.  There were so many times I hopped into the passenger side of our van, thinking I was getting into the driver’s side.  That made for some embarrassing moments when I had to get back out of the car because no steering wheel was in front of me.

If you are from the US or any other right-sided driving country, you basically just take everything you know about driving and reverse it.  Expect some mistakes!

Seatbelts and Car Seats Are Required

Like most first-world countries, you must wear a seatbelt at all times while driving in NZ.  Children must be in regulation-approved car seats and restraints.

One-Way Bridges

You’ll cross a lot of bridges when driving in NZ.  Each bridge has its own right-of-way, which you’ll be able to decipher from the signs and road markings.  If your side has a white solid line in front of the bridge, stop!  Yield and see if anyone is coming from the other side before proceeding.


Most of the roadways in NZ are two-lane highways with a max speed of around 50 mph or 80 km/h (speed is measured in kilometers per hour there).  With the large amount of traffic and the rural nature of NZ, it can be easy to find yourself speeding.

I’m not entirely sure how many tickets we ended up within all our time there, but it was certainly more than two!  We got several from radar cameras alone.  Our rental car company would just charge our card on file when the tickets came through. 

I got pulled over once for going only 5 km/h (about 2+ mph) over the limit.  The officer told me it was an area with lots of accidents so they were extra strict.  I think the ticket was for about $12 USD.

All in all, don’t speed in New Zealand; you aren’t likely to get away with it!

Passing Other Vehicles

When driving in NZ, you are guaranteed to encounter one frequent scenario: getting stuck behind a semi, RV, or other slow vehicles on a two-lane highway.  Like most places, you can pass when the center lines are dotted, but be cautious.  As mentioned above, you’ll be driving on two-lane highways most of the time.

There will be some short passing lanes on large inclines, but just don’t be reckless when overtaking other vehicles.


After returning from our time in NZ, we seriously missed roundabouts.  They make driving more efficient and once you get the hang of the right-away, they are easy to navigate.

Brush up on the right-away laws for roundabouts in NZ here before you arrive. 

No Cell Phones While Driving

While many countries have adopted this safety measure, New Zealand holds a very strict stance against cell phone usage while driving.  If caught, you will receive a fine and penalty.

It’s worth the investment to purchase a car charger and a cell phone holder (if your rental doesn’t come with them).  You might also want to rent a GPS or bring your wifi hotspot to navigate with your phone.

Wildlife While Driving

We didn’t run into a ton of wildlife on the roads during the day, but come dark you’re sure to see some interesting creatures!  NZ is a farm country with miles and miles of farms, which leads to lots of wildlife.  Be prepared to stop for wildlife and be extra alert at night.

Sightseeing in New Zealand While Driving

Brown Signs

I don’t know what else to call these other than the “brown signs”, but you’ll find some of your best sightseeing options on these occasional signs as you drive.  The best way to see NZ and all its glory is to be flexible and willing to stop when you see these signs! They truly hold some of New Zealand’s most magnificent sights.

You might find a waterfall, a glow-worm cave, or a cool hike on these brown signs.  There are so many amazing attractions throughout NZ that are not marked in any way.  Following recommendations from these brown signs will give you a head start.

Gas and Rest Stops in New Zealand

Each small town and city will have an iSite, which you should plan to visit when sightseeing.  These awesome stops are built for tourists and can help answer all your questions, assist in booking tours, offer recommendations, and more.  You can find more iSite information and locations here.

Gas stations are fairly frequent, but we did have a couple of times we were nervous about running out of gas.  Because the country is so large and spread out, I recommend filling up anytime you go under half-full to just be safe.

Toilets around the country are amazingly clean so there is no need to fear a gross rest stop in NZ.

Closing Times in New Zealand

As inherent night owls, we packed our days full and drove a lot at night to maximize our time.  However, because the country shuts down fairly early, it can make it tricky to get gas, find food, or secure somewhere to sleep.  We encountered some stressful nights when we couldn’t get gas with our foreign credit cards.  In fact, there was one night that we had to ask people in a nearby bar to buy our gas and we paid them cash.

Generally, everything near Auckland shuts down around 9 pm or earlier. Be aware of this and be prepared ahead of time.

Sleeping on the Road

New Zealand hosts loads of holiday parks and campgrounds.  Should you need to stop and sleep on your drive, you can sleep in your car and “free camp.”

Parking Garages in New Zealand

Most parking garages in Auckland do not give you a ticket when entering.  Instead, they use your license plate to track your time and charges.  

Thankfully, parking in Auckland is relatively easy as there are many parking garages around the city.

Weather in New Zealand

New Zealand’s climates are very versatile and ever-changing. Because of this, you’re sure to encounter some wind and rain as you drive around the country.  In certain elevations, you may even experience snow and ice.

The South Island can be quite windy, which we even felt in our minivan.  If you are driving a camper van, be aware and cautious of this as it can be dangerous.

If it’s dark out and the rain is strong, it’s best that you stop your drive until it passes the next morning. Roads are winding and curvy and can be especially slick when wet.  Be careful and use caution if you opt to continue on in these conditions.

You’ve Got This!

I know it can be scary and a bit intimidating to drive in a foreign country, but I promise it is 100% worth it. You’ll have such a great experience and after 1-2 days it will all be much less intimidating. Take things slowly, be confident, and check out my many recommendations of places to visit while in New Zealand to ensure an amazing vacation!

Additional Reading

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New Zeland






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