New Zealand Road Trips: Paradise on the Freeway

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In the first part of our New Zealand Travelogue series, we have some first-hand tips for an epic road trip in an untainted paradise.

By Tay Tian Wen

As the world contends with political swings, closed borders and rampant commercialisation, New Zealand presents the ultimate refuge – peaceful, open and pure, “God’s own Country” is an untainted paradise. Nature is unadulterated, indigenous culture thrives and the food is literally, for the most part, farm-fresh. If you really want to make the most out of your time, ditch that budget flight from South Island to North and go on a road trip instead!

While road trips may be a hit-or-miss with so much to see and do, don’t let this discourage you. Work out a well-planned route and you’ll be rewarded with unique privileges and unparalleled freedom. Paradise is best admired on the freeway, but with proper planning, you can avoid turning it into a rushed affair.

Vehicle rental companies offer a wide range of drives. Some come with added conveniences – Jucy Rentals’ campervans are fitted with sleeping spaces, in-built toilets and cooking areas, while Maui Rentals’ motorhomes boast in-built entertainment systems. Others feature “exclusive deals” on earlier car models at discounted rental rates.

TIP: If you can’t decide between hatchback, sedan, campervan or motorhome, consider: the vehicle’s fuel efficiency (greater importance as you head further south, with petrol prices significantly higher in Queenstown relative to Auckland), parking space size, and manoeuvrability. Parking lots for campervans and motorhomes are rare, and these larger vehicles may struggle with congested roads and tight spaces in major cities.

Make sure to run through this checklist before handing over the cash: Are the tires optimally pumped? Are the lights and horn working? Does your rental contract give you full auto-insurance coverage or is there a premium? Does your rental contract place additional restrictions if you’re 18 years old or below? Are there any prohibitions which if violated will render your rental contract void?

Most rental companies provide auto insurance with a NZD 2000 premium, which means that if you meet with an accident, you will need to pay the premium for the rental company to cover for the rest of the damages.

“One of the biggest benefits of a road-trip is probably this: there’s no need to religiously abide by a list of destinations. See something that catches your eye? Make a detour.”

A good set of wheels is pointless if you’re embarking on a poorly planned route or without proper navigational guides. Prioritise two things: what your intended route is, and whether that route gives you ample leeway for potential obstacles.

TIP: For example, if you are driving via coastal highways, stick to cities and towns along the coastal highways; if you’re moving along the inland highways, base your route on inland destinations. Take note of how long it takes to get from one checkpoint to another, and confirm if you have places to pull over for emergency stops or when you are in need of some urgent shuteye.

This was the route I did: Auckland —> The Coromandel —> Rotorua —> Taupo —> Taranaki —> Wellington —> Picton —> Kaikoura —> Christchurch —> Oamaru —> Dunedin —> Te Anau —> Queenstown

On Google Maps, you’ll realise that these places are connected by just one or two highways. The point here is to keep navigation simple and straightforward.

One of the biggest benefits of a road-trip is probably this: there’s no need to religiously abide by a list of destinations. See something that catches your eye? Make a detour.

TIP: My friends and I chanced upon a private lavender farm en-route from Picton to Kaikoura and stopped by for a free tour of the estate; seafood shacks dot the coastal highways, and we managed to stop by Nin’s Bin for a bowl of fresh mussels sauteed with white wine.

TIP: To ensure maximum comfort and a hassle-free trip, be sure to take these:

  1. Buy snacks and drinks, especially drinks. Long drives can be severely dehydrating. For the driver, snacks are great for keeping awake.
  2. Travel pillow. Avoid needless agony.
  3. A physical map. Having a good old map annotated with destinations and routes will be a great lifesaver when your smartphone or GPS fails you.
  4. Driver’s license and passport, obviously.
  5. Car charger. Really important if you’re hitting the road for long hours.

If you’re set on a campervan or motorhome, this question is moot. If you are on a shoestring budget or would like to maximise cost savings, consider the hostels under Youth Hostel Association New Zealand (YHA NZ) or Budget Backpacker Hostels New Zealand (BBH NZ).

TIP: Contrary to its namesake, YHA NZ is open to travellers of all ages, and signing up as a YHA global member gives you accommodation perks with YHA hostels all around the world. BBH hostels are typically cheaper and (slightly) more spacious on average. For my month-long road trip, accommodation was either a farm-stay (as part of a working holiday agreement) or at a YHA hostel. Hostel fees cost us well below SGD 600.

New Zealanders can get really particular about foreigners taking to their roads, and for good reason. Roads can appear deceptively safe here, and there have been cases of traffic fatalities involving tourists who were unfamiliar with driving rules in the country.

TIP: Just be observant and exercise a fair amount of common sense. Remember to slot your coins into the parking meter and take note of how long you are allowed to park. Don’t drive when the sun is down and always keep your eyes on the road. Case in point: my friends and I left our car in a public parking lot for five hours when a sign clearly stated the maximum time limit was one and a half hours.

Our gamble saddled us with a NZD 75 fine and a couple of demerit points, which we had to settle at a local bank branch in Auckland. A penalty like this is simply not worth your time or money!

Pick a ride that suits your needs, plan a good course, pack the road-trip essentials and drive safely. New Zealand has lots to offer, and with a well-organised road trip, you’ll be set for the most fulfilling adventure of your life.

Images by Tay Tian Wen


Tian Wen sees himself as a modest wordsmith connecting communities one story at a time – a firm believer in social enterprise, he believes words are proverbial bridges to everyone’s little island. His other aspirations include being able to speak 7 languages, completing the Annapurna circuit and hoping people can appreciate how much of a tear-jerker Ano Hana is.

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