A year seldom passes without some slight upheaval in New Zealand's domestic air scene. Air New Zealand (tel. 0800/737-000 in NZ, or 09/357-3000; www.airnewzealand.co.nz), along with its Air New Zealand Link, now dominates the airways, with Qantas New Zealand (tel. 0800/808-767 in NZ, or 09/357-8900; www.nz.qantas.com.au) servicing the main centers. British-owned Virgin Australia's trans-Tasman flights operate under the name Pacific Blue (tel. 0800/670-000; www.flypacificblue.com), with domestic flights between Auckland, Brisbane, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. Jetstar (tel. 0800/800-995; www.jetstar.com) is another recent addition to the domestic airways, offering service between Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown. Other smaller airlines fly internal routes, and you'll come across other aircraft willing to fly chartered routes.
If your time is limited, Air New Zealand (tel. 800/262-1234 in the U.S., or www.airnewzealand.com) is a good source of special deals. They regularly offer packages and deals of the month, but these must be purchased outside of New Zealand.
Once you're inside the country, Air New Zealand's grabaseat Deals are a fantastic option, although you need to be spending quite some time in New Zealand, as they're usually for travel 2 or 3 months in advance. They are posted online daily, and because they're restricted and at such amazing prices, they're snapped up fast.
I think the roads in New Zealand are pretty good, but I've heard many Americans say they're terrible and that New Zealanders are aggressive drivers. As for traffic on New Zealand roads, especially in the South Island, it's minimal compared to that found in Northern Hemisphere cities. Unfortunately, I do have to agree with the bit about aggressive drivers. The biggest dangers are excessive speed and foolhardy overtaking, so be careful of both. The New Zealand police have taken a much stronger stance against speeding in recent years, so expect many more speed cameras, more police on the roads, and much higher fines for speeding.
When driving between destinations, do not underestimate travel times. Distances may seem short in kilometer terms but roads are very often winding and sometimes narrow. Time and again I hear of international visitors driving from, say, Nelson to Queenstown in 1 day, or Auckland to Wellington in 1 day. It's certainly possible, but the idea is ludicrous. If you're that short on time, you'd be better off flying between destinations because you're not doing yourselves or the country any justice. Progress can be slower than you expect.
Note that petrol prices in New Zealand are currently fluctuating greatly. At time of writing, they ranged from NZ$2.10 per liter for 91 octane, NZ$2.27 for 95/96 octane, NZ$2.40 for 98 octane, and NZ$1.50 to NZ$1.60 per liter for diesel. For a good overview of current petrol prices in New Zealand, check www.pricewatch.co.nz.
Multilane motorways surround most of the larger cities, but most roads are dual carriageways. There are some single-lane and unsealed roads in remote areas, and these should be approached cautiously - as should all roads during the winter months when rain and ice can create treacherous surfaces.
Statistics show that in 2003, 632 drivers in New Zealand with foreign licenses were involved in nonfatal accidents and 23 in fatal crashes. Police at the scene of 85 of the nonfatal and three of the fatal crashes believed that the fact the driver was foreign was a factor in the accident. So, the message is to keep your wits about you and don't underestimate the danger just because fewer cars are on the roads. Pay particular attention on State Highway 1, north of Auckland and between Auckland and Hamilton, where statistics show a higher volume of crashes. Other hotspots are State Highway 2 to the Bay of Plenty and the Napier-Taupo highway. In the South Island, the most crashes occur on State Highway 1 between Nelson and Christchurch and Christchurch and Dunedin.
Car parking in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch can be expensive and hard to find. All cities have numerous car-parking buildings though. Street parking is metered. You pay in coins, or by using a credit card or via your mobile phone. Instructions are marked clearly on each meter. If you exceed metered times, expect to be fined heavily in the major cities. Fines usually start at NZ$40 and go up from there the longer you overstay your limit.
New Zealand roads are not tolled, with one exception - the Northern Gateway Toll Road, a new stretch of the Northern Motorway, which bypasses the town of Orewa, north of Auckland. This is a more direct route between Auckland and Northland, but as it only cuts around 10 minutes off your journey and the automated payment of tolls has been causing headaches ever since it was instigated, I would strongly advise you simply turn off the motorway and continue on the old route through pretty, seaside Orewa. The exit for this free route on the Hibiscus Coast Highway via Orewa is clearly marked on signs above the motorway.
For those who wish to continue on the toll road, you will pay NZ$2 for a car or light commercial vehicle and NZ$4 for a heavy vehicle (exceeding about 7,700 lb. or 3.5 metric tons). Motorcycles are free. There is no additional charge for towing a trailer or caravan. The fully Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) system means tolls are collected without the need for vehicles to slow, stop, or change lanes to pay a toll; and you can pay at your convenience, either by setting up an account, via a toll-free phone number, or at one of the self-service kiosks. As a visitor to New Zealand, though, you'll be an occasional user, so you can buy single, return, or multiple trip tickets via the website www.landtransport.govt.nz/tollroad, at a service kiosk located along the road, or by calling the toll-free number tel. 0800/402-020 between 8am and 6pm. The road is electronically patrolled and failure to pay the toll will result in fines. Again, I strongly suggest turning off the motorway and proceeding through Orewa. The way is well marked with signs.
If you plan to drive, consider joining the New Zealand Automobile Association (AA) while you're here. In New Zealand, call tel. 0800/500-444 or visit www.aa.co.nz; they have offices around the country and can give you all the details about driving in New Zealand, plus maps, that you need. AA offers excellent breakdown services and advice to drivers. If you belong to a similar organization in your home country, membership is free, so don't forget to bring along your membership card.
Mapping a Path -- You'll receive a set of maps when you collect your rental car; if you're a member of the Automobile Association in the United States, Australia, Britain, or other European countries, you'll have reciprocal privileges with the New Zealand AA. One of the best maps of the country is issued by the New Zealand Automobile Association, 99 Albert St., Auckland (tel. 09/966-8800; www.aa.co.nz); 205 Hills Rd., Shirley, Christchurch (tel. 03/386-1090); or 343 Lambton Quay, Wellington (tel. 04/931-9999). AA sells other detailed maps as well, plus "strip maps" of your itinerary and comprehensive guidebooks of accommodations (some of which give discounts to AA members). Be sure to bring your membership card from home. Wises Mapping, 604 Great South Rd., Ellerslie, Auckland (tel. 800/823-225; www.wises.co.nz), also produces an excellent map, available at newsstands and bookshops throughout New Zealand.
Driving Rules & Regulations -- You must be at least 21 to 25 years old to rent a car in New Zealand, and you must have a driver's license that you've held for at least 1 year from the United States, Australia, Canada, or the United Kingdom (or an international driving permit). Recent law changes mean all drivers, including visitors, must carry their license or permit at all times.
Remember to drive on the left and wear seat belts at all times. The speed limit for the open road is 100kph (62mph); on the outskirts of many towns it is 80kph (50mph); and within towns and city boundaries it is 50kph (31mph). Rigid speeding laws are now in place and you face heavy fines if you exceed limits. New Zealand has also tightened up its drunk-driving laws, and if you are stopped in a random police check for compulsory breath testing for alcohol, you must take the test.
Taking to the Highways -- Some kind and ever-so-thoughtful person - and I think it might be someone at Jasons Publishing (www.jasons.com) - had the good sense to create seven marvelous highway route planners. They include The Twin Coast Discovery Highway, covering Northland and Auckland; The Pacific Coast Highway, covering Auckland, Coromandel, coastal Bay of Plenty, Eastland, and Hawke's Bay; and the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail. These free maps detail the best features of each trip, places to stay and eat, and adventures to sample along the way. They're available at visitor centers throughout the country.
Every major city has numerous rental-car companies, and international companies like Avis, Budget, and Hertz hire a wide range of vehicles. Most offer good deals that can be prebooked before you leave home. However, it pays to shop around and compare not only the prices, but also the cars. Some companies offer cheap deals, but their cars may be well over 10 years old. Most companies also require that you take out accident insurance with an insurance company authorized by them, and you generally need to be 25 to be able to rent a car in New Zealand.
Maui Rentals (tel. 800/351-2323 in the U.S.; www.maui-rentals.com) has vehicles that are either brand-new or less than a year old. Daily rates range from NZ$150 to NZ$400, depending on the size of the car and the time of year. The price includes the goods and service tax (GST) and unlimited mileage, but insurance runs about NZ$30 extra per day. Because Maui has offices in Auckland and Christchurch, there's no extra charge for one-way trips. They also rent a range of extras like a GPS, which goes for NZ$9 per day - a very good investment, I think. Contact the local offices at 36 Richard Pearce Dr., Mangere, Auckland (tel. 09/255-0620; fax 09/255-0629), or 530-544 Memorial Ave., Christchurch (tel. 0800/651-080 in NZ, or 03/358-4159; www.maui.co.nz). Both provide courtesy airport shuttle service.
Auto Rentals Kiwi Travel, New Brighton, Christchurch (tel. 0800/736-893 in NZ, or 800/905-8071 in U.S.; www.autorentals.co.nz), is an established chain offering a modern fleet of cars for budget-minded travelers. They offer sedans, station wagons, and minibuses at competitive rates. They are also an accredited TranzRail booking agency and can help with interisland ferry and train bookings, accommodations, and further vehicle rentals.
Affordable Rental Cars, 48 Carr Rd., Mount Roskill, Auckland (tel. 0800/454-443 in NZ, or 09/630-1567; fax 09/630-3692; www.car-rental.co.nz), has daily rates on unlimited-mileage vehicles from NZ$35 to NZ$95, depending on the vehicle and time of travel. Prices include GST and insurance.
If you want to spoil yourself, try Classic Car Touring New Zealand, 181 Hobson St., Auckland (tel. 021/702-623 in NZ; www.classiccartouring.co.nz), specializing in self-drive classic cars for NZ$350 to NZ$750 per day, depending on the vehicle; or Smartcars Luxury Car Hire, 110 Nelson St., Auckland (tel. 0800/458-987 in NZ, or 09/307-3553; www.smartcars.co.nz), offering the very latest convertibles and 4*4s from Europe.
You can also rent in advance from the following: Avis (tel. 800/230-4898 in the U.S.; www.avis.com), Budget (tel. 800/527-0700 in the U.S.; www.budget.com), Hertz (tel. 800/654-3131 in the U.S.; www.hertz.com), and Thrifty (tel. 800/847-4389 in the U.S.; www.thrifty.com). Daily costs average about NZ$100 to NZ$150.
Alternatives to Renting a Car -- If you'll be in New Zealand for an extended period of time, it may be worthwhile to investigate the guaranteed tourist buyback plan offered by North Harbour Hyundai, 175 Wairau Rd., Takapuna (tel. 09/444-7777; fax 09/444-7099; www.hyundainz.co.nz). This Auckland dealership sells used Toyotas, Nissans, Hondas, and similar cars to visitors with a written agreement to purchase them back after a stipulated time period. Cars come with a nationwide warranty; the owner pays for the insurance. For an example of what to expect, Wheels, 376 Lincoln Rd., Christchurch (tel. 03/366-4855; www.newzealandrentalcar.co.nz), has sold buyback vehicles for NZ$5,000 and bought them back for approximately NZ$3,000 after 3 months of use. (Note: This is only an example of a possible scenario.)
If you're staying in hostels, you'll often find car-share schemes advertised on notice boards. If you want to arrange a carpool officially, check www.carpoolnz.org. It puts people who need a ride in touch with those willing to give them one. The system operates throughout the country, and the person getting the ride pays a small commission and something toward gas costs, which usually works out to be about half the cost of a bus ticket.
By RV or Motor Home
If you want ultimate freedom, consider renting what we call a campervan. Both Maui Rentals (tel. 800/351-2323 in the U.S., or 0800/651-080 in NZ) and Newmans (tel. 09/302-1582 in Auckland) offer minivans and motor homes. Maui rents two-berth, four-berth, and six-berth vehicles, and you'll find their rates and special deals on their website. Britz New Zealand (tel. 0800/831-900 in NZ; www.britz.com) also has a range of excellent vehicles at good rates.
If you fancy yourself in something superfunky, opt for New Zealand's most distinctive campervans, individually painted by top New Zealand artists. You can get these from Escape Rentals (tel. 0800/216-171; www.escaperentals.co.nz), which has depots in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. They offer competitive rates and unlimited free kilometers, but don't for a minute think you'll escape attention. Spaceships (tel. 0800/772-237 in NZ; www.spaceships.tv) has great little cars that convert to mini campervans, and are much easier to drive than their bigger brother. Spaceships has depots in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.
The minimum age required to drive a campervan rental in New Zealand is usually 21, but for some it may be as high as 23 to 25 years. There may also be restrictions for drivers over 75 years. Campervans also incur higher insurance charges. Make sure you at least have windscreen and tire insurance.
If you enjoy the thrill of speed and the wind in your hair, you can rent motorcycles or purchase tour packages with or without guides. Just bring your full motorcycle license or international driving permit and call New Zealand Motorcycle Rentals and Tours, 72 Barry's Point Rd., Takapuna, Auckland (tel. 09/486-2472; www.nzbike.com), which has a wide range of BMW, Honda, Harley-Davidson, and Yamaha bikes. They're official New Zealand Tourism Award winners, and all their gear is in top condition.
Adventure New Zealand Motorcycle Tours & Rentals, 29 Bolt Rd., Nelson (tel. 03/548-5787; www.gotournz.com), offers a range of deluxe tours with top-class bikes and upmarket accommodations for the 35 to 65 set. Towanda Women, Christchurch (tel. 03/314-9097; www.towanda.org), specializes in guided New Zealand-wide motorcycle tours for women only.
New Zealand's mild summer climate and varied landscape make it an ideal cycling destination. Many companies run tours or rent bicycles. Start with Adventure Biking Natural High, 58 McDonald Rd., Lincoln (tel. 03/982-2966; www.bicyclerentals.co.nz), which offers a range of rental cycles, plus a buyback option that allows you to sell your bike for 50% of its cost at the end of your tour. City Cycle Hire, 73 Wrights Rd., Christchurch (tel. 03/377-5952; www.cyclehire-tours.co.nz), has a 5-day adventure on the Central Otago Rail Trail. Adventure South, P.O. Box 33-153, Christchurch (tel. 03/942-1222; www.remarkableadventuresnz.co.nz or www.advsouth.co.nz), offers a wide range of guided tours in the South Island.
Taxi stands are located at all airport and transport terminals and on major shopping streets of cities and towns. You cannot hail a taxi on the street within a quarter-mile of a stand. Taxis are on call 24 hours a day, although there's an additional charge if you call for one. Drivers don't expect a tip just to transport you, but if they handle a lot of luggage or perform other special services, it's perfectly acceptable to add a little extra. Be aware that many taxi drivers in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch are recent immigrants and don't always have a comprehensive grasp of English.
By Interisland Ferry
Crossing Cook Strait on one of the ferry services will give you a chance to see both islands from the water, as well as the serene Marlborough Sounds. Two ferry companies operate on the Strait, which can be boarded in either Wellington or Picton.
The Interislander ferry system (tel. 0800/802-802 in NZ; www.interislander.co.nz) operates every day with three vessels - Arahura, Kaitaki, and Aratere - that offer a tourism experience in their own right, not just a practical means of getting across the water. You can choose from six daily departure times; the crossing takes 3 hours. The ferries have licensed bar and cafe areas, TV lounges, shops, and play areas, and the newer Kaitaki, the biggest ferry in New Zealand, has two movie theaters and room for 1,600 passengers. Interislander ferries have three fare types. Easy Change fares are the most flexible and can be canceled right up to check-in without cancellation fees. Saver Change fares are the midrange fares that incur a 50% fee if canceled. Web Saver fares are the cheapest way to travel, but once booked they're nonrefundable. They are available all year but numbers are limited, so book early. Overseas bookings can be made by international customers online, or by calling tel. 64/4-498-3302; from outside of New Zealand you can book only Easy Change fares. Web Saver and Saver Change fares can be booked only within New Zealand, and they sell out quickly during peak season.
If you're traveling by train or InterCity Coach, ask about the cost-effective through-fares, which are subject to availability.
Bicycles and sports gear can be taken on the ferry for a small additional cost, as can campervans or motor homes -- though these travel at a premium fare. Note: If you plan to transport any kind of vehicle (including bikes) by ferry, you need a confirmed reservation.
Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry (tel. 0800/844-844 in NZ; www.bluebridge.co.nz) sails four times daily between Wellington and Picton. It operates two vessels, Santa Regina and Straitsman, which feature lounges, cafe and bar facilities, outdoor decks, free big-screen movies, and shops. Fare bookings are transferable until 24 hours before travel subject to availability, but they're nonrefundable.
Regardless of which ferry you select, keep in mind that Cook Strait is a notoriously changeable stretch of water, and high swells can affect those prone to seasickness. Bad weather may also affect scheduled departures.
By Coach (Bus)
Coaches offer a cost-effective way of getting around New Zealand; as a bonus, you don't have to worry about driving on the left or studying maps. Most provide excellent commentary and stop frequently for refreshments en route, but smoking is not permitted. There are three major services in New Zealand (all owned by the same company). InterCity operates three-star coaches on New Zealand's most comprehensive coach network, visiting 600 towns and cities, with over 170 services daily; Newmans is a standard route option throughout the country, except on the South Island's West Coast, where it operates as a tourist service and a code-share with Great Sights; and Great Sights, New Zealand's premier daily sightseeing operator, which provides the most extensive sightseeing network nationwide. Reminder: Book coach journeys in advance during peak travel periods (summer and holidays).
InterCity (tel. 09/583-5780 in Auckland and 03/377-0951 in Christchurch; www.intercity.co.nz) offers discounts to students, seniors (60 and over), and YHA members and VIP (Backpackers) cardholders. Check out their Flexi-Pass, which allows travelers to buy blocks of travel time up to 40% cheaper than standard fares on all InterCity and Newmans journeys. The Flexi-Pass gives you total freedom to explore the country with an hours-based pass that can be topped up like a prepaid phone card. Set your own itinerary and travel when and where you like. You can lock in discounts on every seat, every service, nationwide, every day; and the more hours you buy, the cheaper it becomes. The pass is valid for a year and can be used on the Interislander and on selected tours and dolphin-watching cruises in the Bay of Islands. Passes start at NZ$168 for 15 hours of travel. For more information, check out www.flexipass.co.nz.
InterCity and Newmans (tel. 09/583-5780; www.newmanscoach.co.nz) coaches are also included in the Travelpass New Zealand deal, which brings together an extensive range of "hop on and off" fixed itinerary passes based on the most popular touring routes throughout the country. It allows you to travel with New Zealand's largest coach, train, air, and ferry network. There are a number of different deals. For instance, the Aotearoa Adventurer gives you 14 days travel (minimum) throughout New Zealand for NZ$1,283; a Kiwi Explorer gives you 9 days travel (minimum) for NZ$682. Among the North Island Passes on offer, the Discovery package gives 4 days travel (minimum) for NZ$279 and includes visits to Auckland, Rotorua, Napier, Taupo, and Wellington. In the South, the West Coast Pass costs from NZ$154 to NZ$180 depending on departure point and is good for 3 months on the route from Nelson to Queenstown. For information, contact Travelpass New Zealand (tel. 0800/339-966 in NZ, or 09/638-5780; fax 09/638-5774; www.travelpass.co.nz).
Great Sights, 102 Hobson St., Auckland (tel. 0800/744-487 in NZ, or 09/583-5790; www.greatsights.co.nz), offers a wide range of day, overnight, and multiday tours throughout New Zealand, utilizing a modern fleet of luxury coaches with complimentary hotel pickups. Experienced drivers offer informative commentary, and modern, low-emission luxury vehicles are equipped with air-conditioning, reclining seats, and onboard restrooms. They offer over 40 daily sightseeing trips across the country, including the Bay of Islands, Auckland Sights, Waitomo Caves, Rotorua, Mount Cook, Christchurch Sights, Milford Sound, and the West Coast Glaciers.
Alternative Buses & Shuttles
For the young and/or adventurous, Kiwi Experience, 85 Beach Rd., Auckland (tel. 09/336-4286; www.kiwiexperience.com), and the Magic Travellers Network, 120 Albert St., Auckland (tel. 09/358-5600; www.magicbus.co.nz), provide something that's between a standard coach and a tour.
Popular with backpackers, these coaches travel over a half-dozen established routes, and passengers can get off whenever they like and pick up the next coach days or weeks later. The coaches make stops at scenic points along the way for bush walking, swimming, and sometimes even a barbecue. Prices vary according to the route, but typically are from around NZ$790 to cover both islands in 14 days. Passes are valid for 12 months with Magic Travellers and 12 months with Kiwi Experience.
Flying Kiwi Expeditions, 4B Forests Rd., Stoke, Nelson (tel. 03/547-0171; www.flyingkiwi.com), is another fun-packed flexible alternative to the well-beaten tourist trail. Ten different options combine travel and outdoor activities, priced according to the number of activities included. For other zany southern alternatives try Travel HeadFirst Bottom Bus, P.O. Box 434, Dunedin (tel. 03/477-9083; www.travelheadfirst.com/bottom-bus), which offers fully guided bus tours exploring the very south of New Zealand.
Shuttle transport is another alternative. Numerous companies on both islands run minibus shuttles between cities. You can get details from area visitor centers. Atomic Shuttles, Christchurch (tel. 03/349-0697; www.atomictravel.co.nz), offers service between 30 South Island stops.
Tranz Scenic (tel. 0800/872-467 in NZ; www.tranzscenic.co.nz) operates three long-distance train routes through rugged landscapes -- the Overlander, which runs Auckland to Wellington; the TranzCoastal, Christchurch to Picton; and the TranzAlpine, Christchurch to Greymouth. The trains are modern and comfortable, heated or air-conditioned, and ventilated. Service has greatly improved under new management, and views of spectacular landscapes are assured. Tranz Scenic offers discounts for students, YHA members, Backpacker cardholders, and those 55 and over. It also has a limited number of Saver Fares and Super Saver Fares during off-peak times. Also ask about the Scenic Rail Pass (tel. 0800/872-467 in NZ; www.tranzscenic.co.nz), which enables you to discover New Zealand by train at your own pace and includes one ferry crossing (7-day Tranz Scenic Rail Pass costs NZ$420; a 14-day pass costs $530).
The train routes and their fares are as follows:
- Auckland-Wellington: The Overlander has reclining seats and a licensed buffet car that serves drinks and food. A Super Saver fare costs NZ$125; if you miss out on one of those, check online for other good specials. You get informative commentary as you pass through many scenic highlights. Hostesses and stewards supply newspapers, magazines, and beverage service.
- Christchurch-Picton: The TranzCoastal passes through dramatic landscapes for 5 1/2 hours; the economy one-way fare is NZ$88 and you can choose to stop off in Kaikoura for a spot of whale-watching. There is also an excellent value standard through-fare available for NZ$150, which takes you from Wellington to Christchurch (or vice versa) and includes an Interislander ferry fare.
- Christchurch-Greymouth: The TranzAlpine is the best of the lot. It goes through the unforgettable landscape of Arthur's Pass National Park, depositing you 4 1/2 hours later in Greymouth. The standard return fare is NZ$250, but look out for specials online. Day excursions are also available on these routes.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.