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Travel guide New Zealand
New Zealand is a small country with a lot of hype. And a lot of sheep. Throw in some breath-taking landscapes, a few active volcanoes, and a couple hobbits, and suddenly your holiday is shaping up to be rather interesting. But surely, it’s just like any other English-speaking country, right? Well, not exactly. But don’t worry, we’re going to give you our complete travel guide to New Zealand.
We’ve included all sorts of handy information to help you get here, save money, find your way around, avoid confusing communication mishaps, and be aware of the potential dangers you may come across.
Claudia is a native Kiwi, and Julian a fellow traveller to New Zealand. We put our heads together to create the kind of guide Julian wished he had when he arrived.
Maybe you’re still wondering what all this “Kiwi” business is all about… “Isn’t it a fruit?! Or a native bird?” you ask. Well, both are true! But New Zealander’s call themselves Kiwis too, named after their iconic feathered friend that is, not the fruit! Which, by the way, is known as “kiwifruit”, here not just “kiwi”. Best to remember that before you tell anyone here that you’re “eating a kiwi”.
Right, now that we’ve got the terminology sorted, let’s go!
- 1 Getting here
- 2 Getting Organised
- 3 Once you’re here
- 4 Potential dangers
Plenty of cities in New Zealand have airports, but there are three main ones. If you’re looking for the cheapest flights, we’d recommend checking Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.
- Auckland has the largest international airport, and certainly sees the most visitors through its gates.
- Wellington shouldn’t be overlooked, however, as prices have actually often been cheaper when we’ve been booking from Europe.
- Christchurch prices are often competitive, and is probably the cheapest way to get here if you plan to start your trip in the South Island.
If you’re heading to a specific place, factor in costs of getting there from your chosen airport before booking. A super cheap deal to Auckland may sound great, but if you want to start at the bottom of the South Island, it might just be cheaper to spend a few hundred more on a flight down South. Do check it out though, you can sometimes find some good deals to get from point A to point B.
As far as transport options go, the whole country is pretty well connected by bus, but less so by train. Ferries run regularly between North Island and South Island, and a bit less regularly from mainland NZ to the many smaller offshore islands. There are many flights between our smaller airports, and you can often find some pretty good deals, although usually carry on only.
Also consider season, as coming in the middle of summer (December- February) can almost double your flight prices! Unfortunately, we know that avoiding peak season isn’t always possible, in which case, plan ahead and keep an eye out for a good deal. We would consider $800NZ (450€) per way a pretty good deal.
If cost isn’t an issue, then booking to smaller, more convenient airports, such as Queenstown and Rotorua may be possible. This will almost definitely cost more, but may save a lot of time and energy.
Make sure to check out your country’s visa requirements online well before leaving. It varies a bit, but most passports will let you travel around New Zealand without a visa for a few months. If you plan to stay longer than this, or work or study in New Zealand, then you do need to organise the appropriate visa.
You’ll likely have a large pack or suitcase with you when you arrive. But even with all that space it can be tricky to decide what to bring, and even trickier to fit it all in. Especially if you’re going for a long time.
We suggest packing two weeks’ worth of outfits if you’re going on a longer trip, although you can get by with one week if you’re savvy… having readily available washing facilities helps too.
Our packing guide is coming soon!
Some New Zealand-specific items we’d suggest are:
- Hiking boots if you plan to do much tramping (just make sure they’re clean, see below)
- Raincoat, especially the foldable kind to save you precious space
- Wind proof layer, it’s almost always windy, even in summer (this one is our favourite!)
- Jandals (flip flops) and togs (swimsuit) are a must if you’re visiting in summer (and even in winter there are geothermal baths to try!)
- Sun protection (sunscreen, hat, glasses) in summer
- Bug repellent! The sand flies are a bit of a nightmare, especially down south
One thing you’ll see a lot of at New Zealand airports is border control. Biosecurity is very strict, allowing NZ to stay free of many diseases and pests.
Keep this in mind when packing, as you can’t bring in any:
- Animal products
- Untreated wood
- Opened or unlabelled (in English!) food
- Illegal drugs
- Dirty shoes that have been in contact with overseas forest or farmland recently
You’ll likely be handed forms on the plane where you must declare any of these items. Just answer truthfully! You won’t be in trouble for having muddy shoes, or turned away because you were in a forest last week.
In fact, it may actually save you time if your shoes are spotless and you have no prohibited items. Since we’ve always been out exploring the wilderness whenever we’re flying back to NZ, we make sure our shoes are perfectly clean before declaring that we’ve been on farmland/ forests. We get taken aside for a quick interview, our shoes and bags are quickly checked, and we get straight through customs without having to wait in the sometimes very long ‘nothing to declare’ queue.
Just don’t be tempted to lie about anything! A false declaration will cost you $400 instant fine if they catch you out on it. This could include something as minor as forgotten apple in the bottom of your pack. So double check your bag for any forgotten airport food before you go through customs! It’s really not worth it.
If you want to get an idea of what we mean about the border security here, the reality TV show “Border Patrol NZ” makes for a pretty entertaining watch.
Plugs and adaptors
New Zealand, along with Australia and a few others use the I type plug. Adaptors are sold at lots of places, try at a Kathmandu, a great general travel store located in most semi-large towns. Might also be cheaper than at an airport. We would highly recommend taking a portable power bank with you on your travels. Getting stuck between charging opportunities and left without maps and communication can be a bit of a nightmare.
The currency is the New Zealand Dollar. A good basic rule is to double British pounds and Euros, i.e. 10€/£ roughly equals $20 NZ. US-Dollars are a little bit trickier, with $10US coming out at around $15-20NZ. This obviously fluctuates a bit with the exchange rate, but it works well as a basic guide to have in your head.
The lowest coin is 10 cents, and the highest note $100. People still do pay with cash sometimes, but in recent years, there has been a major switch to paying with card. Most places have card readers, although some, especially in rural areas do not. We found that a lot of campsites didn’t take card, so it was definitely handy to always have cash on hand. It isn’t a good idea to travel with huge amounts of cash on you though, so just get out what you need.
There are 3 main supermarket chains in New Zealand: PAK’nSAVE, Countdown, and New World.
- PAK’nSAVE is the budget option, everything is pretty mass-produced and highly processed, and it lacks a lot of health foods and gluten free options etc.
- Countdown is a good middle ground, a little better quality, and has a great range of healthy options and fresh vegetables.
- New World is smaller and more tailored towards those looking for high quality locally sourced options and a nice in-store shopping experience.
But, to be totally honest, if you look out for sales, the prices don’t vary that hugely between the three.
Saving money with loyalty cards
If you’re here for a longer time, you might be interested in signing up to some supermarket loyalty programs to get discounted prices and coupons. These are free to join and can have some great benefits.
Our favourite by far was Countdown’s Onecard. It works in partnership with BP petrol stations, which can be found just about everywhere. Whenever you shop at Countdown and swipe your card, you accumulate points. These can be saved up to get some really incredible fuel savings from BP. Even if you don’t shop at Countdown often, BP runs an offer once a week where cardholders can get 10 cents off per litre of petrol. It’s free to join, you just need an email, which comes in handy for keeping up to date with deals and offers! We used it almost daily on our big road trip around New Zealand.
New World and PACK’nSAVE also have loyalty cards, but we haven’t used them as much.
Once you’re here
For a small country there certainly is an incredibly diverse array of landscapes. There is a lot of rolling farmland (got to keep all of those sheep somewhere!), also a lot of various types of forest, rocky mountains, snowy alps, active volcanoes, glaciers, giant braided river valleys, beaches, sand dunes, mangrove swamps, and even a desert.
Travelling by bus and car is really the best way to see it all!
Maybe we’re biased, but we think Kiwis are great! Of course there are always exceptions, but we’ve found most Kiwis to be laid back, down to earth, friendly folk. Especially away from the big cities, people are pretty relaxed and don’t take life too seriously. They also hate to make a fuss, or be in the limelight.
Generally, the attitude towards tourists is good, and most Kiwis want to see their overseas visitors having a great time in New Zealand. One thing that will make any Kiwi mad though, is littering or being destructive to their beloved nature!
Unfortunately, no matter how you behave, some locals just hate tourists. Don’t take this to heart! Keep in mind that these people (often older people), have lived on this little island their entire lives – travelling makes no sense to them, and when they see their beloved beaches and forests filled with tourists, they’re scared of losing the only home they know. Be nice, keep tidy, and hopefully some day we can change their ideas about travellers.
Everyone speaks native English, but Kiwis generally aren’t so good with other European languages like German and French.
Sadly there are few remaining fluent Maori speakers, but you’ll hear plenty of bits and pieces thrown into the everyday English. For example, ‘kia ora’ (“kee ora”), meaning ‘welcome’, is often seen on signs as you enter a town. And of course, ‘Aotearoa’ will come up plenty of times. Literally translating to ‘land of the long white cloud’, it’s the beautiful Maori name of New Zealand.
As for town names, it makes for a very entertaining road trip game trying to pronounce them. Especially when you have a Kiwi on board to laugh when it’s almost definitely completely wrong.
Another thing worth a mention is the slang. Lots of this is shared with Australia, but there are dozens of wacky words and phrases used nowhere else in the world. It’s a big part of the Kiwi identity, and they’re used a lot. Check out a list online to impress some of your Kiwi friends!
Tap water in New Zealand is generally very safe to drink. Certainly in all towns, it is very normal to drink straight from the tap. Even if the water looks white and bubbly when you pour it, don’t worry. In rural areas, water usually comes from a collection system on the roof, or from a deep bore. Usually this water is totally safe to drink too, and even tastes better than town water.
If the water doesn’t seem right to you, just use common sense and filter or boil it.
If you see a sign by a tap saying “non-potable water”, don’t drink! It’s probably all good if there isn’t a sign, but you can boil it to be extra safe. We saw plenty of these non-potable water signs on our camping trip around the South Island. It’s always a good idea to fill up some spare bottles when you have the chance, that way you won’t be caught short.
Some rivers are also okay to drink from. Particularly rural, high altitude streams. But even if a river look clean, it may still have some nasty bacteria lurking within (as we learnt the hard way). Bottom line, unless you know what you’re doing or have heard it from a local, you’re safest to stick to tap water.
Most places will have totally free public restrooms for you to use, without any lurking cleaning ladies looking for your spare change. Only the occasional touristy place will charge. Most towns also have free public toilets, just check on google maps. And you can usually refill drink bottles here too. As mentioned, just look out for a non-potable water sign, if there isn’t one, you’re probably all good.
Generally speaking, New Zealand is a very safe country to visit, one of the safest in the world in fact. Violent crime is very low, pick pocketing and petty theft does happen occasionally, but certainly not on the scale of most European countries. It’s still best to take the usual precautions, especially when in a busy touristy place like Queenstown.
Here is a little list of the dangers you may face, and how to avoid getting caught out:
Unlike neighbouring, Australia, NZ doesn’t really have any dangerous animals or creepy crawlies.
- There aren’t any snakes at all.
- They do have a few nasty spiders, but their bites are very unlikely to be life-threatening.
- All you’ll find in rivers and lakes are harmless fish, eels, and freshwater crayfish.
- There isn’t anything scary like rabies, malaria, or Lyme disease.
- Never get into a paddock with livestock unless instructed. Bulls and deer especially can be quite dangerous, not to mention the farmer who won’t be too happy about it. Any photos will have to be from the roadside.
- If you get sea urchin spines stuck in your foot, head to a doctor as they can get infected quite quickly.
- New Zealand waters are also home to plenty of sharks, but most species aren’t aggressive and attacks are incredibly rare.
Probably very scary if you’ve never experienced one, earthquakes are a very normal part of Kiwi life. Most are small and not dangerous at all. But if things start shaking, take cover no matter how small it seems, as they’re rather unpredictable. The best thing is to find a sturdy table to crouch under, or a doorway. Stay clear from large windows and anything that may fall. Hold on to the leg of a table if you can, and cover your head with your arms if things start falling. If outside, try and get to a large open space, or brace yourself as best as possible. Take care for aftershocks, it’s quite common to get one or two quakes after the initial one. If there’s been an earthquake, get to safe ground if you’re in a dangerous position, and get away from the sea.
Tsunamis are rare, but potentially very dangerous. Get to highground immediately if you feel an earthquake while at the beach. Keep an eye and ear out for tsunami warnings, and check the civil defence page for more info if you’re caught in the middle of an alert. If you’re at a beach and suddenly see the sea recede, much faster than a normal tide, get to high ground. The sea rushes out first, before racing in. Don’t be tempted to go and collect stranded fish on the beach!
There are plenty of active volcanoes in New Zealand, but these are carefully monitored by seismologists. Warning systems in place to evacuate the high risk zones if an eruption looks likely. This doesn’t happen often, and if no warnings are in place, it’s quite normal to go hiking or skiing on them.
If you’re used to the Mediterranean, New Zealand waters are rather different. The tides are strong, and it’s very possible to get stranded on rocks or cliffs when the tide comes in. Likewise, if you try exploring a sea cave at low tide, you may quickly end up in a lot of trouble if the tide comes in before you manage to get out of the cave.
Tide times and levels are always available online, often in newspapers, or ask local fishermen. If you’re interested in taking a long beach walk or exploring caves, keep aware of the tide line. Take a lot of care if you’re walking over rocks and sand that’s underwater at high tide.
Don’t assume every beach is as safe as it looks. Some beaches do have very dangerous undercurrents and rips that can easily drag someone out to sea. Swim between the flags, if there are any. Some of the notoriously dangerous beaches have lifeguards on duty, but many don’t. If a sign recommends against swimming in an area, it’s probably a good idea to follow it. Look online for lists of good swimming beaches, or check about the beach you’re about to swim at if you’re concerened.
- They drive on the left. Tourists forgetting and flying around a corner on the wrong side of the road is a cause of plenty of accidents, so keep focused.
- Simply swapping to driving on the left may sound pretty straight forward, but in practise, we found it actually quite tricky for the first few times. There are just a few little things that always get you. Make sure to keep an eye on that left side. We’ve both found ourselves grazing curbs and almost hitting parked cars when you suddenly swap sides. Practise a little in a quiet place in town if you can first.
- Roundabouts also go the other way, in case you never really thought about it. i.e., they travel clockwise around and the first exit is left.
- The speed limit on open roads is 100km/h – and it’s a good idea to stick to it. For one, the police are often patrolling and handing out speeding tickets, and for another, it’s there for a very good reason. Many fatal accidents are due to speed, which is sadly so very avoidable.
- You’ll see plenty of locals treating the roads as a racetrack. But you’ll see plenty of locals rolled in ditches too, no matter how well they think they know the roads. It’s just too dangerous. Stick to 100 and enjoy the scenic view! (Just not so much you get distracted and drift over the centre lane).
Quite probably one of the biggest dangers, NZ roads are windy, unpredictable and narrow.
- There are plenty of sharp turns, which may or may not be signposted. Often on main highways, there are big numbers on each corner. This is a recommended speed to get around. While handy, don’t rely on them! Some very sharp turns have no number at all, so if you can’t see around a corner, brake.
- One lane bridges. In case you haven’t come across these before, there are many bridges allowing only one lane of traffic at a time. One direction will have right of way, while the other direction must give way. This is indicated on the sign before the bridge.
- Train crossings on rural roads sometimes don’t have any barriers, bells or lights. Don’t assume this means the tracks aren’t in use. Slow down and check before crossing.
- You might come across a flock of sheep being moved. Unless the farmer gives you instructions otherwise, slow right down to a crawl and drive through. The sheep will get out of the way.
- Gravel roads are commonplace in rural areas. If you are unaccustomed to driving on gravel, slow down and take care around corners. You’ll end up in the ditch if you try and drive as fast as on a normal road.
Hopefully we haven’t scared you off! With some background knowledge and a little common sense, you’re unlikely to run into any trouble while visiting this beautiful country. We hope these tips help make your visit to New Zealand easier and more enjoyable.
If you have any other questions, or think we missed anything, please leave it in the comments section below, or get in touch with us here. We’d love to hear from you!
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