driving a campervan in new zealand

What Is the Best Way to Travel New Zealand?

Caroline Hickman

By Caroline Hickman

8 minute read

Get hold of your free New Zealand Trails brochure here

Camper or campervan travel in New Zealand has always been a popular choice for visitors. The call of the open road, the freedom to explore with no agenda, and the appeal of meeting other wandering souls en route continues to fuel this ever-popular activity. As New Zealand gets more and more popular, the roads get busier and busier; and it begs the question, ‘is the van-life in New Zealand still living up to the hype?’

We constantly get asked what the best way is to travel New Zealand and at New Zealand Trails we’ve made it our life mission to come up with the very best trips possible. To us, the best way to travel New Zealand is with a local to guide you, on a route that has been carefully thought through and with like-minded people to share the experience with. While we agree that seeing New Zealand by campervan has a certain appeal, we are positive that we’ve trumped all the good bits and come up with something even better for the New Zealand of now.  If you’re considering hiring a camper, we reckon you should read this first and then make up your mind.

Of course, whichever way you decide to travel, you’ll still see that New Zealand is a paradise, with beautiful scenery, a wide variety of experiences on offer and wonderful, friendly people to meet. We look forward to seeing you down here!

Camper travel New Zealand at Aoraki Mount Cook, Canterbury

However you travel New Zealand, you'll meet great people and see incredible sights along the way.

What’s so good about a New Zealand small group tour versus driving yourself?

What’s in store when you land in New Zealand…

In a campervan:
You arrive at the airport after your flight. You call your campervan company for a pick up, wait for them to arrive to drive you out to the campervan depot.

In a hire car:
You make it off your flight, dig out your car rental paperwork and look around for the right hire-car company queue to join. Hope you got a rental car big enough to fit all your luggage in!

On a New Zealand Trails trip:
You arrive at the airport after your journey. Then you'll follow our recommendation and hop in a cab or a shuttle arriving at your hotel in less than an hour. Time for a rest!

What’s next…

In a campervan:
You join a bunch of other weary travellers and wait in line for your collection time slot. You fill in paperwork, learn the ins-and-outs of your vehicle and pay your potentially hefty campervan insurance premium… That’s a lot of work following 20+ hours of travel!

In a hire car:
Much the same as for the campervan. You'll also need to sign that you have understood there are several different road rules here in New Zealand and that you grasp how to use them.

With a New Zealand Trails trip:
Crash in bed and sleep off that jetlag or get out and explore the city, find a bite to eat (we can recommend the best places if you like), and soak in your new surroundings.

On the road…

With your campervan:
Hot tip… make sure you’ve budgeted for your petrol; it’s really expensive in New Zealand and you’ll be covering large distances! It’ll cost about $100 per 400km and just to give you an idea, it’s nearly 300km one way to get to Milford Sound from Queenstown. It’s also a good idea to plan out where all the service stations are so you don’t get caught out in a remote location with no fuel.

In a hire car:
Keep your map handy! Phone reception is sketchy, so your usual 'map app' might be unreliable. Make sure you plan your route in advance and be realistic about how far you can travel in one day.

With New Zealand Trails:
Wake well-rested up from comfy sleep, grab a bite to eat for brekky and meet your guides to begin your New Zealand small group tour. You will be driven in comfort to your first destination, getting to know your guides and travel companions as you go.

Driving…

In a campervan:
Be prepared to drive on the opposite side of the road, in a large vehicle that feels a lot different to what you’re used to! We have different road rules down under and you’ll also need to be mindful not to hold up traffic. Oh and make sure you practice reversing your van! You don’t want to be ‘that person’ who can’t reverse into position on the ferry between the islands or when trying to squeeze into a spot in town centres (that’s if you’re allowed to park your van in the centre of town).

In a hire car:
It's always a good idea to plan your route in advance and have someone navigating for you - and keep in mind that it'll probably take twice as long as you think to get there.

With New Zealand Trails:
Relax and enjoy your journey –we’ll be stopping along the way, taking in interesting sites, exploring quiet trails in our favourite places and of course stopping for a delicious bite to eat at all our favourite haunts. You are welcome to follow the map, but you don’t have to do any navigating. This way you can take in the scenery, listen to all our interesting facts about our history, the plants and we’ll let you know al about the animals you spot along the way.

Guide driving New Zealand Trails tour to Mt Cook

Camper travel in New Zealand means operating a heavy vehicle through New Zealand's narrow, twisty roads. Join a New Zealand small group tour and leave it to a professional so you can admire the view along the way!

Daily organisation…

With your campervan:
You will probably need to stock up on groceries, so head to the nearest store and make sure you know where you’ll find the next one - you don’t want to be stranded somewhere remote without food.

Think about where you are going to camp tonight. Is it peak season? Do you need to book ahead? How long will it take to get there? Campsites often fill up from mid-afternoon in peak periods so be sure to arrive early. Also, allow for additional journey times as camper travel in New Zealand is often slow.

In a hire car:
As above. Also be wary not to leave your valuables visible in your car when you go exploring. Unfortunately, opportunistic thieves operate in a lot of tourist hot-spots. If you want to do popular activities, then be sure to book ahead as things fill up quickly in peak season.

On your New Zealand Trails trip:
Your daily accommodation and activities are booked well in advance, so there’s no waiting, queuing or missing out because things are fully booked. Many people miss out on seeing the big-ticket sights like Milford and Doubtful Sound as they don’t plan ahead and are too late to get a ticket. On our New Zealand small group tours, we make sure you don’t miss out on anything.

Finding a place to sleep…

With a campervan:
Freedom camping is restricted to a limited number of places. Where it is allowed, you must be in a self-contained camper vehicle with your own shower/toilet facilities and leave no trace when you leave.

In a hire car:
If you haven't already booked your accommodation, remember that places tend to book up in peak season and it's worth booking in advance. You will probably find somewhere to rest your head, but it may not be what you dreamt of when you were daydreaming about your travels in New Zealand.

Restful sleep with New Zealand Trails:
Your accommodation on a guided trip aims to offer you a variety of experiences, from our network of mountain huts, beach houses, hotels and lodges in stunning locations. You will wake up somewhere amazing every day.

Helicopter landing at Martins Bay Lodge

Finding exceptional places to sleep in New Zealand is a bonus of both travel methods, but we may be a little biased toward this method... This has to be the best way to travel New Zealand!

Getting ready for you day…

In a campervan:
As you will be camping each night, there are a number of daily chores that can’t be ignored – you’ll need to empty your sewage and ‘grey’ water, fill up on freshwater and gas, make up and dismantle your beds and refill gas bottles for cooking if required.

In a hire car:
If you haven't thought and planned your route in advance, then take some time to plan your route for the day. Research the best places to see and stop and be sure to ask around for recommendations so you don't miss anything.

On a New Zealand Trails trip:
Each day you just need to pack a small day bag with your personal items to take with you – don’t forget your camera!

Eating…

With a campervan:
You’ll need to cook every night or find a place nearby to eat out.

In a hire car:
Ask at the hotel accommodation for the best places to eat nearby. If you are on the outskirts of town you will most likely have to drive, so choose your designated driver for the evening!

On a New Zealand Trails trip:
Food and drink is at the heart of our adventures and sharing home cooked roast dinners at long tables, eating at our favourite restaurants after a day in the hills and enjoying BBQs on the beach are all part of the experience. New Zealanders LOVE their food and drink and can’t wait to share it with you.

Restaurant dinners in comfort and style with New Zealand small group tours

Forget dragging out the tiny little gas stove for the third time today - we'll show you our favourite restaurants along the way, or whip up a feast when we're really off the beaten track!

Who you’ll meet…

When you campervan:
If you are travelling in peak season you are likely to meet plenty of other campervans on the road. Be prepared for the odd queue!

In a hire car:
You may be more limited on the people you will meet when travelling by car, as the nature of it means you are more likely to be in hotel accommodation after your day on the road. You may meet some Kiwis along the way if you stop in more unusual places and book some activities.

On a New Zealand Trails trip:
You’ll meet a host of new and interesting like-minded people on your travels – from your fellow travellers, local guides, the hosts at your accommodation and the activity organisers and instructors. Not to mention all the folk in the office helping you get organised before you arrive.

Overall…

With a campervan:
If you take the time to plan it right, camper travel in New Zealand means you'll have lots of flexibility, you can take your days as they come, book your own adventures and explore trails you discover on the way.

In a hire car:
As with a campervan, when planned right this can be a great way to see the parts of New Zealand you have always wanted to visit.

On a New Zealand Trails trip:
It's true that you might feel you have more freedom on a self-drive tour, but it will require a lot of planning and won't be as spontaneous as you might think. You get all this and more on a trip with New Zealand Trails.

All in all, when all is said in done, we think the best way to travel New Zealand has to be joining a New Zealand Trails guided adventure. We take away all the hassle and unwelcome surprises so you can focus on what matters most. Life is for sharing, travelling together means laughs and memories made every day - we’d love to have you join us. Trust us, we’re Kiwis!

Request your free New Zealand Trails brochure here.

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