Planning a trip to New Zealand? I don’t blame you. Tourism to the island nation has soared in the last 5-10 years after being featured in multiple TV and film productions. It’s not only beautiful, the landscape is incredibly diverse offering loads of adventure opportunities, English is the primary language, and the food is outstanding. If your wanderlust for this almost mystical place is growing, here are a few things you should know before your trip! Here are our tips on where to go, what to pack, and what to expect for your trip to New Zealand.
We planed our entire first year abroad around the intention of spending February-May in New Zealand. We began our trip in Canada, then systematically moved to Asia and Southeast Asia, getting closer and closer to our final destination.
New Zealand’s reputation had preceded it: beautiful landscape and adventurous things to do. Every person we talked to who had been there reported just one regret; not being able to stay longer and having too much time between visits (quite literally every. single. person.)
New Zealand also won the prize for Longest Amount of Time in One Country for us. We spent three weeks traveling by camper van through the South Island, another 2 weeks touring the North Island, then settled for 7 weeks in a small village north of Auckland. This gave us the unique experience of not only seeing just about everything on both islands, but of doing it in a variety of ways. We lived the romantic camper van life, rented a car and stayed in nice hotels, and even became fixtures of a small community.
This variety of experiences has taught us a lot about New Zealand. We’re happy to share our tips with you!
New Zealand Travel Tips
New Zealand is an easy country to navigate. Everyone speaks English, the culture is largely westernized, and the food is recognizable. Here are just a few New Zealand travel tips to help your natural instincts.
1. Get a Spark SIM card for your phone
A number of phone companies will offer you service when you walk through any airport in New Zealand. They mostly all offer “tourist SIMs”, which will work for a pre-determined amount of time. It’s easy to go to any of these phone stalls, tell them how long you’ll be traveling in New Zealand, and what you’ll be using your phone for. They will use that information to help you buy a SIM card which you’ll be able to use immediately.
The best of these services is Spark. It’s not the cheapest service, but it does offer the best coverage. New Zealand is mostly a rural country with pockets of concentrated cities, so you’ll want a phone service which works in the rural potion of the country. That’s Spark.
2. Use Credit Cards or Apple Pay for purchases
Credit cards are widely accepted almost everywhere in New Zealand. You’ll be required to sign the receipt if using a foreign card, which makes paying through Apple Pay even better. If you set up a credit card on your smart phone you’ll be able to pay through Apple Pay by holding your payment screen up to the card reader. This method requires no wallet and no receipt signing!
3. Driving on the left side of the road is pretty easy…
… but the roads are much more narrow and windier than you’re probably used to.
Originally the roads in New Zealand were cut for farmers to lead their herds to new places. The roads were often windy so as to slow down any animals who got away from the pack. Foot and car traffic has only slightly increased in rural areas, so the original paths were simply enlarged and paved to accommodate the traffic. Visitors will find the roads to seem unnecessarily windy for this reason.
Keep a safe distance from the cars in front of you to avoid rock chips, as nearly half the paved roads are not sealed. You’re also required to keep 1.5 meters between a vehicle and bicyclist at all time, so take care when passing.
4. It really is as expensive as everyone says
Because New Zealand is an island food and manufacturing is either made locally at a high cost or imported at a high cost. Either way there’s a high cost.
In general we found prices to be comparable, if not a bit higher, than in the United States. A burger or pizza at a sit-down restaurant costs $15-20 NZD, milk costs around $4 NZD per liter, and gas costs around $2.30 NZD per liter. We found a killer deal on a long-term rental car for $20 NZD/ day, but hotels and temporary housing is much more expensive than we expected.
5. There are People Everywhere, and Locals Aren’t Necessarily Happy About It
Part of the reason items in the tourism industry, like camper van or AirBnB rentals, are so expensive is the astronomical rise in tourism to the country. Understand before your trip that there is a huge boom in tourism to New Zealand right now, and the infrastructure is struggling to keep up.
One New Zealander joked with us that when he was growing up there was a huge wave of New Zealanders fleeing the country for opportunities in Australia. In the last 5-10 years the situation has completely shifted: now more Australians (and other commonwealth citizens) are seeking the glamorized idyllic life in New Zealand, only to find that there aren’t enough jobs to go around.
Another local explained to us that, as recently as 5 years ago, many people in rural areas may have never met an American before. But tourism has boomed at such an incredible rate in just the last 5 years that the attitude among lots of New Zealanders about foreigners has shifted from awe to annoyance.
The simple fact is that the infrastructure and landscape is finding it hard to keep up with the surge of people, and tourists are starting to abuse the country. If trash cans aren’t being cleared out often enough some people will throw rubbish on the ground. If camp sites are charging high prices to keep up with demand visitors will take to bathing in local lakes.
You almost can’t blame store clerks for rolling their eyes when you step out of a camper van. They’re starting to associate foreigners with the decline of the country.
6. Public Lakes are Not Your Bathtub
As I mentioned, one travel trend is bathing in public lakes in New Zealand. This is not ok under any circumstances! Possibly trying to offset the cost of travel in the country, many backpackers to the country treat public land like their own home. You should not urinate in public places (you’ll find lots of public porta-potties for this), don’t leave your rubbish anywhere, and definitely don’t bathe in local lakes.
There is new legislation in the government which will prosecute those found bathing in public lakes. The effects soap and oils in the water is hugely degrading to the landscape and wildlife, and the country is taking active steps to deter this behavior and protect their natural resources.
If you expect beautiful places to last for the next generation you must help take care of it now!
New Zealand South Island Things to Do
The South Island is, by far, more popular among tourists than the North Island. It features more diverse landscape, which means you can “get more” out of a short trip to New Zealand by sticking to the South Island. A lot of people will give you the same advice on where to go, as it feels like backpackers to the South Island generally go to the same spots. Here is a more honest look into the most stand-out place for us.
Christchurch is a major South Island city with a busy international airport. Chances are you’ll arrive here, so you may as well spend a day or two here!
Christchurch is a relatively funky town. Many downtown landmarks were destroyed in a series of earthquakes in 2010-2012, and the efforts to rebuild have been used as an opportunity to make the city more artistic. You’ll find amazing wall murals everywhere, public art, fusion restaurants, awesome playgrounds, rental scooters with pump tracks, and more.
Some of our favorite stops in Christchurch:
- Cardboard Cathedral: The original cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake, and rebuilt on-site out of industrial cardboard. The structure was originally meant to be temporary, but has come to represent the post-earthquake movement.
- Quake City: A museum in downtown Christchurch dedicated to the series of devastating earthquakes in the city. I had no knowledge of the earthquakes or interest in this museum before our time in Christchurch, but it has left an incredible impact. Seeing the news reports and salvaged building pieces in the museum are important for anyone wanting to understand the modern history of Christchurch
- Christchurch Art Gallery: This art museum is in the middle of a fantastic downtown neighborhood and features some beautiful rotating art exhibits. Entry is free on Wednesdays, too!
2. Wharariki Beach and Farewell Spit
Wharairki Beach is probably the single most beautiful place I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot!) It takes a lot of determination to get to Farewell Spit, in the northern end of the South Island, but committed travelers are rewarded with unique, breathtaking sights.
The closest parking lot to Wharariki Beach leaves you with a 30-minute walk to the beach. This walk is as stunning as the beach, itself. You’ll pass through sheep grazing on farm land and wind around and through trees and hills. Every few minutes a new incredible sight is unleashed, and it’s an emotional ride of being more and more impressed with each turn.
The walk ends at a series of sand dunes leading to the flat beach. The large sand dunes are so much fun to play on! Once past the dunes the flat beach lets you walk right up to random rock formations. The rocks not only make the landscape look other-worldly, they are also home to beautiful caves and seal pools you are welcome to climb and explore!
3. Mt. Cook Hooker Trail
Mt. Cook, the tallest mountain on the South Island, is one of the most popular places to go. The Mt. Cook National Park includes a lot of hiking trails and sightseeing, but our favorite was an afternoon on the Hooker Trail.
The Hooker Trail is the most recommended trail in Mt. Cook National Park for a reason. It only takes an hour (or so) to reach the pinnacle from the parking lot, doesn’t cover much elevation, the path isn’t paved but flat and well-maintained, and it leads to some truly stunning views of Mt. Cook.
If you are on a strict South Island camper van schedule then just one afternoon on the Hooker Trail will give you the most bang for your buck! Yes, we did see more foot traffic on this route than we might have on others, but it was still incredible and so, so, so worth it.
Queenstown is arguably more popular as a South Island destination than Christchurch. It’s the largest city in the southern part of the island, so it offers great infrastructure to visitors passing through. For this reason we almost didn’t come.
What we ended up loving about Queenstown is it’s well-earned reputation as the adventure capitol of New Zealand. Here you can sky dive, mountain bike, bungee jump, go white water rafting, ride a jet boat, and more. If there’s one place you choose to really shell out some money for a good time Queenstown should be it!
Most of the appeal of New Zealand is the peaceful tranquility of communing with nature, but we enjoyed breaking up the quiet with some adrenaline-pumping activities.
While in Queenstown we hiked Queenstown Hill, rented a mountain bike to go down the dry ski trails, rented bikes to ride along the beach, and did some indoor skydiving at iFly. It was a jam-packed couple of thrill days, which were so fun!
5. Hokitika Glow Worm Dell
I’d never heard of glow worms before coming to New Zealand. They are slim worms which dangle from dark, moist places, with a glowing end you’re able to see in complete darkness. They are found in large colonies around both South and North Islands.
The most impressive glow worm colonies are in caves which require paid entrance and navigation on a tour boat. The Hokitika Glow Worm Dell, however, is free and very easy to access. It’s just on the other side of the road, in fact! A sign on the road will lead you to a “hobbit hole” in the hill wall. Crawl a couple feet through the hole and you find yourself standing in the middle of a carved-out clearing in the hill. Turn around and BAM- thousands of blue lights are attached to the wall you just walked through.
We’ve seen a few glow worm colonies in New Zealand, and what makes the Hokitika Glow Worm Dell so memorable is that it feels the most magical. By barely crossing through a hole you feel instantly transported from modern life to a fairy world. The impact is incredible.
Hokitika is a natural stop if on a road trip through the South Island, anyway, so you may as well plan to stay overnight and walk to the glow worm dell once it’s pitch black.
North Island New Zealand Things to Do
While most people suggest staying on the South Island, we really love being on the North Island. Life goes at a slower pace here, the locals are more open to foreigners, and the beaches are incredible! Here are some specific North Island New Zealand things to do!
1. Piha Black Sand Beach
This is one of our favorite beaches in Auckland! 40 minutes west of Auckland City, Piha is locally famous for a few reasons: it’s right off the road and easy to find, the black sand is so beautiful and soft, there are cool rock formations to explore, and the tide is perfect for surfing.
2. Matakana Village
Obviously this is one of our favorite places in the North Island New Zealand, since we decided to live here for 7 weeks! It does truly represent the charming small-town life typical of rural North Island, though.
Just one hour north of Auckland you’ll find yourself in a village with just a couple blocks of commercial businesses, no stop lights, and surrounded by farmland. The drive in is beautiful and once you’ll arrive you’ll be craving life in a small town. Visit the Rusty Pelican for a $5 daily lunch special, take in a movie at the Matakana Cinema, sit at the river wharf, buy fresh vegetables at the Saturday farmer’s market, and ice cream at the Tramcar Diner. It’s such a beautifully maintained village!
3. Rotorua and Whakarewarewa Maori Village
Rotorua is arguably the most popular city in New Zealand’s North Island after Auckland. It’s famous for the wealth of hot spring activity in the area. The mineral hot springs dot the entire area, leaving the surrounding earth multi-colored and smelling of eggs.
The most famous hot springs in the area is Waiotapu. A turqoise-blue pool lined with bright orange sits in the middle of white stone at this hot spring location just outside of Rotoroua. It costs $40 NZD to enter, but you get to see a variety of hot springs while you’re there.
The other famous reason for coming to Rotorua are the Maori hangis nearby. A few commercial Maori hangis are available to outsiders willing to pay $80+ NZD/ person for an evening of Maori dancing and hot springs-inspired local cuisine. We suggest going to Whakarewarewa Maori Village, as it’s the cheapest and most authentic of them all. Whakarewarewa is the last remaining Maori village, which means that locals lead the tours and show you around their active community. You’re still able to see how hot springs impact their lives, a 30-minute haka and dance performance, and purchase hangi foods, but the money all goes back to supporting the real Maori people. It’s wonderful.
Understanding more about the Maori culture should be one of your first objectives. Rotorua is a great North Island New Zealnad thing to do to accomplish that goal!
4. Coromandel Peninsula
The Coromandel Penisula is full of lots of amazing things to do! If you only have one day to visit this incredible parkland we suggest visiting the Hot Water Beach and hike to Cathedral Cove. Oh man, they are both so fun!
Hot Water Beach is pretty much as it sounds, a beach of hot water. The thing is that the hot water isn’t from the ocean, it’s underneath the sand. Remember all of the hot springs activity in Rotorua? Well, another hot water basin is close enough to the ground surface in one section of beach on the Coromandel Peninsula that you can dig a few feet in the sand and hot water will bubble into your freshly-made pool! It may look ridiculous to scan the area and find grown adults from all over the world digging holes in the sand, but it feels so relaxing. And it’s fun to act like a kid!
The second thing we recommend at the Coromandel Peninsula is Cathedral Cove. A 30-40-minute walk on a windy, paved road leads to a secluded section of beach protected from view by the hills you walked down. The beach is white sand and turquoise water, as is all beaches in the North Island, but features many caves which you are able to walk through. The view of the water peeking through the other side of the cave-tunnel is incredible!
5. Hobbiton Movie Set
Yes, this highly commericalized tour is worth it. Take it from someone who isn’t a Lord of the Rings fan.
For one, it’s one of the most unique things you’ll probably ever see. Don’t you want to see as many unique things as possible? For two, it’s just really interesting and fun!
The tour takes you through the beautiful Alexander Farm on your way to Hobbiton. A tour guide will take you on a 2 hour walk through The Shire where you’ll pass lots of colorful Hobbit Holes and lifelike decor. You’ll feel like a magical creature could pass you at any moment, and will want to make a Hobbit Hole your own home!
New Zealand Packing List
Here are some specific New Zealand packing tips, but of course you don’t want to forget sturdy footwear, camera, and other travel necessities!
1. Sunscreen and Hat
We spent one beautiful afternoon in Auckland on a small boat as part of a whale watching tour. Once the tour began, one of the marine biologists on board started walking among the patrons offering squirts of sunscreen. A woman beside me declined until the biologist explained,
“There is a hole in the ozone layer which covers the entire country of New Zealand and part of Australia. We have the second highest rate of skin cancer in the world. Look at me- I’m in my early 20’s, but look 40. You don’t want to end up like me.”
She did look in her 40’s. I grabbed enough sunscreen to cover all exposed skin.
I grew up hearing about man’s destruction of the earth and the hole in the ozone layer, but this was the first time I’ve realized it’s effects. According to NASA.com, the ozone layer is responsible for absorbing harmful ultraviolent rays from the sun. The hole over New Zealand and Australia means there is no block of those harmful rays, so the speed of developing a sun burn and, potentially, skin cancer, is much higher.
New Zealanders are used to this, though. They grew up with public commercials and billboards reminding them to “Slip” on a shirt, “Slop” on some sunscreen, and “Slap” on a hat. For this reason primary schools require children to wear a hat in order to play outside half the year, and most tourism centers will offer Costco-sized bottles of sunscreen free of charge to visitors.
- We suggest Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen. It’s a mineral sunscreen free of harmful chemicals, and the first sunscreen to pass Whole Foods Premium Care Requirements.
2. Bug Repellent
I’ll never forget the mosquito massacre of ’19. One fateful night in our camper van we couldn’t sleep because 2-3 mosquitoes were relentlessly buzzing about our heads. At 2:00 a.m. we decided to turn on the lights, kill the bugs, and reset our bodies to go to sleep. Once the light came on, though, we were faced not 3 but hundreds of mosquitoes covering the roof of our camper.
No one told us to expect mosquitoes and sand flies everywhere, so I’m telling you.
Bring bug repellent and be prepared to spray it all over your body multiple times a day and over any openings to your camper van. After killing every last mosquito that night we started spraying the windows and air holes with repellent each time they were opened and closed. This really helped keep the bugs down!
The good news is that mosquitoes and sand flies are about the worst New Zealand has to offer. As opposed to their neighbor island to the west, New Zealand famously houses virtually no predator species!
- We suggest Buzz Away Organic Bug Spray. This DEET-free bug spray is approved for use for the whole family by the American Academy of Pediatrics
3. Rain Jacket or Umbrella
You’ll be sure to come in contact with the random sprays of rain New Zealand is known for at some point on your trip. The west coast of the South Island is generally wet, and the winter months on the North Island are generally wet. This doesn’t mean either place is always wet, or that rain won’t appear in other places or other times of the year. Weather is quite hard to predict here, as New Zealand is two islands which are small enough to be affected by ocean storm systems.
It’s better to be safe than sorry when packing for New Zealand. Be sure to pack a light rain jacket or umbrella and just get used to carrying it with you!
- We suggest this packable White Sierra Rain Shell. It’s waterproof, has an adjustable full-coverage hood, and packs into it’s own pocket for small storage
New Zealand Food to Try
There are so many incredible New Zealand foods! If you are a travel foodie or appreciate a good meal, you’ll love your options here.
1. All Meat and Dairy Products
Whereas the majority of mass-produced animal products in the United States is grown with the help of hormones and chemicals, a New Zealand butcher explained to us that the animals in New Zealand are raised almost exclusively organically. The cows and sheep are grass-fed, free-ranging animals, and most animal meat and byproducts sold in grocery stores are from local farms. This attention to animals definitely shows in the final result: the most delicious sausage, pepperoni, hamburgers, milk, butter, and ice cream we’ve ever had.
Our favorite single dairy product is Puhoe Valley Chocolate Milk. It’s almost tied for best with Lewis Road Creamery, another country favorite, but Puhoe Valley does eek out the competition. Bottles of either chocolate milk can be found in grocery stores, and is an absolute must while traveling through New Zealand.
Our favorite burger stop is the chain restaurant Burgerfuel. Yes, it’s a chain, but it’s the most incredible burgers I’ve ever had. We love the Ford Fusion burger, which features avocado and bacon on their organic burger patty, but all meals are really good!
2. Fish ‘n Chips
An obvious influence from their imperial roots, fish ‘n chips is now a staple in New Zealand foods. You’ll find fish ‘n chips stores all over (especially on the North Island). The stores are just large enough for you to place your order at a counter. If you’re lucky there will be a few chairs for you to wait for your meal, but they are almost exclusively to-go operations. You’ll be handed a steaming package of brown paper to take with you, which you’ll open to find a pile of fried fish, french fries, fried sausages, potato wedges, crab sticks, and more.
Be warned that fish ‘n chips bundles are huge! It took a long time for us to realize a single bundle was enough to feed 2-3 people!
3. Cottage Pie
Similar to Shephard’s pie, Cottage Pie is another England-related favorite. It features a tomato and mince meat base layered with mashed potatoes and, oftentimes, finished with a layer of cheese. The dish is baked in the oven to achieve a brown, crispy crust. I admit I wasn’t too sure about this one, but I’m so glad I tried it!
4. Fries and Aioli Sauce (Agria and Kumara)
When we first arrived in New Zealand I thought I was pretty savvy by calling french fries “chips”. Well, I soon noticed that most restaurants listed “fries” on their menu, and servers would give me a confused look for having an American accent and asking for chips. As it turns out, they have multiple words for potato products. Thin, fried potato slices are equally referred to as “crisps” or “chips”, thin french fries (think McDonald’s) are generally “crisps”, and wedge fries are “fries.”
The wedge fries in New Zealand are (at the risk of sounding dramatically redundant) the best I’ve ever had. They are typically made fresh from local Agria potatoes, which have a smooth, buttery texture. They are soooooooo good!
Fries are usually served with aioli sauce here. Aioli is a mayonnaise-based garlic sauce. I was also skeptical of dipping my fries in mayonnaise, but it, too, is so good. In fact, it’s now my preferred sauce for french fries and fish ‘n chips!
The other thing you’ll want to try are Kumara Fries. Kumara is a type of sweet potato, and locals go nuts for it. Kumara chips and fries are especially popular and found in lots of restaurants. We like sweet potato fries but didn’t really go for the Kumara variety, but it’s definitely a local specialty worth trying!
5. Local New Zealand Snacks
New Zealand produces a surprising number of foods, for being a small country with a (comparatively) low population. Of the many New Zealand snack food brands, here are a few very popular ones no trip to New Zealand is complete without trying!
- L&P Soda: Lemon & Paeroa is a lemon-flavored sparkling soda. It’s made from the water spring in Paeroa, New Zealand, which also contributes to it’s unique flavor. New Zealanders love this soda and it’s easy to find almost everywhere!
- Whittaker’s Chocolate: Whittaker’s is New Zealand’s pride and joy local chocolate. It’s a good chocolate famous for large, delicious chunks. You can find bars with whole peanuts, chewy fruit bits, hokey pokey (foamed caramel), and more.
- Crunchie: One of the most popular candy bars, Crunchie is a chocolate-covered hokey pokey. Hokey pokey, a hardened foamy caramel, is popular in lots of forms in New Zealand, and a Crunchie bar may be the best way to try it.
- Bluebird Salt & Vinegar Chips: Bluebird is the local potato chip manufacturer, and Salt & Vinegar has been named the #1 chip in New Zealand. They are pretty good!
- Marmite: Similar to Australia’s Vegemite, Marmite is a black, savory spread you’ll find next to the peanut butter and Nutella in stores. New Zealanders grew up eating Marmite on buttered toast or on a potato chip sandwich. A word of caution: this spread takes some getting used to and a little goes a long way!
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