New Zealand is one of the easiest and most interesting countries to travel around. And, it is a perfect place to visit if you want to travel around by car or camper van.
Those who are outdoor-minded and have adventurous spirits will feel very at home while in New Zealand, and by the end of their travels will be wishing they had more time here.
In order to better prepare for your trip to New Zealand, we’ve detailed 11 practical tips we learned while traveling around New Zealand’s North Island in our rented-out camper van.
11 Things to Know Before Traveling to New Zealand
1. Be prepared for a strict customs check
When you arrive in New Zealand and go through customs at the airport you will immediately notice that they have a very strict customs check policy.
Even if you mark “nothing to declare” on your customs sheet, you’ll be questioned regardless and will likely have your luggage searched. This is particularly true if you are traveling with outdoor gear. When we arrived in New Zealand, the customs searched all of our bags entirely and inspected every inch of our gear. Fortunately, they let us keep everything.
So my biggest tip would be to make sure that your gear is cleaned thoroughly before you pack it, and if you are packing food, make sure that it is closed in its packaging and recognizable. For instance, we packed a bunch of Cliff Bars and customs said that was OK.
Be sure to check the bottom of your shoes too because they will check that as well!
2. There are no poisonous animals or large predatory animals in New Zealand
Rest easy when you are hiking or exploring New Zealand because there are no poisonous insects (except for one spider called the Katipo Spider), snakes or animals here and there are also no large animals on the island.
Unlike most countries where you will have to be aware of the dangerous species when you go into the outdoors, you can check this off of your worry list. In fact, there are absolutely no snakes in the country of New Zealand! Instead, you’ll find a lot of sheep and farm animals.
3. New Zealand’s summer months are December to February
When planning a trip to New Zealand keep in mind that, like all southern hemisphere countries, the seasons are opposite than that of northern hemisphere countries.
The best time to visit New Zealand if you are hoping to do a lot of outdoor activates will be anywhere from November to April. During its summer months, December to February, you’ll find great weather but also more crowds. If your schedule allows, opt to visit New Zealand in the off-summer months like November or April when the weather is still very nice, but there are less crowds and prices are lower.
If you’re looking to go skiing though, hit New Zealand up during June to August.
4. Be prepared to drive on the left-hand side of the road
Like many countries in the world, you need to be prepared to drive on the left-hand side of the road in New Zealand.
Before you visit just make sure to know the basic rules of the road and be extra cautious at first. If you’re uncertain, look at the traffic around you and get a feel for how everyone else is driving. In the big cities, there will be a lot of roundabouts, so be sure you know which direction to drive on them.
Soon you’ll be driving on the left-hand side like a pro.
5. There is minimal dispersed free camping, you must stay at DOC sites or Holiday Parks
It is commonly misunderstood that you can “freedom” camp, also known as dispersed camping, anywhere you want in New Zealand.
A lot of land is privately owned and therefore cannot be camped on without permission from the owners. Also, historically campers have treated “free” camping poorly in New Zealand, so there are even more strict rules around it.
If you want to free camp in New Zealand, do your research well beforehand.
There are other great options for camping though. You can stay at what is called DOC (Department of Conservation) sites, which are more primitive government owned campground areas which are often located in very beautiful parts of New Zealand. They can range anywhere from free to lower in price range, and the types of sites and rules vary per campground. Check out the DOC website before your visit for a full list of the different DOC campgrounds.
Another great option is to stay at established facilities often referred to as “Holiday Parks”. These are still relatively cheap ($20-$40 typically) and include a lot of great amenities including showers, kitchens, and more depending on the Holiday Park. These are located all around New Zealand. When we traveled in our camper van around New Zealand, we sometimes didn’t even need to book these sites in advance, there was plenty of availability. If you are traveling during the busy season though, it could be worth booking sites in advance of your travels.
6. Travel New Zealand by camper van!
Traveling by camper van is by far the easiest and most rewarding way to travel around New Zealand. And you will be in good company as a lot of the vehicles on the roads tend to be RV’s or camper vans.
Traveling by camper van is a very popular way to travel around the North and South Island and there are a ton of great companies in New Zealand to rent campers from.
As mentioned above, just be aware of where you can and can’t camp before traveling to a new destination. You’ll find traveling around New Zealand is very easy and everyone is super friendly. If you stay at Holiday Parks you will hardly feel like you are camping at all with all the amenities like kitchens, showers, and sometimes even pools and bars.
7. Hobbiton Evening Tours
If you are a Lord of the Rings fan, you probably have a tour of Hobbiton on your list of places to visit while in New Zealand.
There are tons of day tours that run through the movie set at Hobbiton, but if you want to have an extra-special evening tour with less crowds and a “Hobbit-like” feast, look to book a Hobbiton Evening Tour 4-6 months in advance of your trip. These tours fill up very fast but are a really unique way to enjoy the Hobbiton Movie Set, especially if you are big fan.
8. Internet in New Zealand
We never really had the best internet access in New Zealand.
Many McDonald’s would say they have free Wi-Fi, but we always had issues connecting. We usually got the best internet service when staying at holiday parks. This wasn’t always free, but sometimes they would give you a certain amount of free Wi-Fi each day. It’s best to just prepare yourself for being more disconnected on your visit to New Zealand, or opt for a cell phone plan that allows you to use data there.
9. Restaurants and food in New Zealand
When we traveled to New Zealand we weren’t really thinking about the food, and we weren’t sure what the country was “known for” as far as food goes.
Our first night, just outside of Auckland, we were introduced to the best fish and chips we have ever had in our lives. Maybe we just haven’t had that many fish and chips, but to this day, we still rave about the fish and chips in New Zealand.
The coffee in New Zealand is also excellent nearly everywhere you go. Even if you are getting gas station or roadside café coffee, you will be pleasantly surprised. Opt for the popular “flat-white” coffee to order what locals tend to love the most.
Keep note that many restaurants and shops in the towns might close up earlier than you are used to so plan accordingly. Oh and often-times the condiments (i.e. ketchup, mustard, etc.) are not free. Many times we had to pay extra for condiments, something we aren’t accustomed to in the United States.
10. Take advantage of all the unique outdoor activities there are in New Zealand
The most amazing part about New Zealand is its captivating and diverse landscape. Spend less time in the big cities and get out and explore the country!
There are activities for all kinds of adventurers. You can go mountain biking all over the North and South Island. You can hike some of New Zealand’s most well-known hikes such as the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island or the very popular Milford Track on the South Island. And you can find places to rock climb, surf, kayak, and sail all over the islands.
Also, be sure to schedule a tour of the out-of-this-world glow worm caves in Waitomo. And be sure to visit one of New Zealand’s many natural hot springs.
11. Take the scenic route and don’t be afraid to visit unique unscheduled places on your visit
There are a bunch of amazing scenic road systems throughout New Zealand, and driving around New Zealand is a great way to visit the country.
Don’t hesitate to visit unscheduled and less touristy destinations either. One of our best memories from our travels around New Zealand was when we took a side stop to the towns of Tongaporutu and Mokau. We went on some beautiful hikes, saw some really beautiful stretches of New Zealand coastline and it was much less crowded than most places we visited.
I hope these tips will help you plan the perfect trip to New Zealand!
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