Nothing beats the freedom and mobility of a car for exploring. Even if you're nervous about driving on the "wrong" side of the road, driving here is relatively easy. Many rental cars will have a sticker right next to the steering wheel reading "stay to the left."
Remember this simple axiom: drive left, look right. That means keep to the left lane, and when turning right or left from a stop sign, the closest lane of traffic will be coming from the right, so look in that direction first. By the same token, pedestrians should look right before crossing the street. Americans and Canadians can blindly step into the path of an oncoming car by looking left as they do when crossing streets at home. You'll find yourself in a constant comedy of errors when you go to use directional signals and windshield wipers—in Kiwi cars it's the reverse of what you're used to.
Japanese brands dominate rental agencies in New Zealand. For some Australasian flavor, rent an Australian Holden Commodore, a popular car in New Zealand. Most major agencies will have this as a higher end option and some will offer convertibles and esteemed European models such as BMWs. Domestic agency Smart Cars specializes in luxury rentals such as Mercedes and Audi convertibles. Most Kiwi cars these days are automatic, though some stick shifts (manual) are included in hire fleets, so specify if you prefer an automatic.
Kiwi companies Maui Rentals and Kea Campers are best known for wide selections of campers, motor homes, and 4X4 vehicles. Most major international car rental companies operate here; reputable domestic agencies are Apex Car Rental and Auto Rentals NZ Wide.
Rates in New Zealand begin at about NZ$35 a day and NZ$320 a week—although you can sometimes get even cheaper deals on economy cars with unlimited mileage. This does not include tax on car rentals, which is 12.5%. Reserve a vehicle well in advance if renting during holiday seasons, especially Christmas.
Most major international companies (and some local companies) have a convenient service if you are taking the ferry between the North and South islands and want to continue your rental contract. You simply drop off the car in Wellington and on the same contract pick up a car in Picton, or vice versa. It saves you from paying the fare for taking a car across on the ferry. Your rental contract is terminated only at the far end of your trip, wherever you end up. In this system, there is no drop-off charge for one-way rentals, making an Auckland–Queenstown rental as easy as it could be.
Check for rates based on a south-to-north itinerary; it may be less expensive as it's against the normal flow. Special rates should be available whether you book from abroad or within New Zealand.
In New Zealand your own driver's license is acceptable. Still, an International Driver's Permit is a good idea; it's available from the American Automobile Association. These international permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you problems with the local authorities.
For most major rental companies in New Zealand, 21 is the minimum age for renting a car. With some local rental companies, however, drivers under 21 years old can rent a car but may be liable for a higher deductible. Children's car seats are mandatory for kids under seven years old. Car-rental companies may ask drivers not to take their cars onto certain (rough) roads, so ask about such restrictions.
Apex Rental Car (800/7001–8001 toll-free in U.S; 0800/939–597 toll-free in New Zealand. www.apexrentals.co.nz.)
Auto Rentals NZ Wide, Ltd. (1800/905–8071 toll-free in U.S; 0800/736–893 toll-free in New Zealand. www.autorentals.co.nz.)
Kea Campers (09/448–8800; 0800/520–052 toll-free in New Zealand. www.keacampers.com.)
Maui Rentals (1800/20080801 toll-free in U.S; 0800/651–080 toll-free in New Zealand. www.maui-rentals.com.)
Smart Cars (09/307–3553; 0800/458–987 toll-free in New Zealand. www.smartcars.net.nz.)
Avis (09/526–2847; 0800/655–111 toll-free in New Zealand. www.avis.com.)
Budget (0800/283–438 toll-free in New Zealand; 800/472–3325 toll-free in U.S for international reservations. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (0800/654–321 toll-free in New Zealand; 03/9698–2555 International. www.hertz.com.)
On main routes you'll find stations at regular intervals. However, if you're traveling on back roads where the population is sparse, don't let your tank get low—it can be a long walk to the nearest farmer.
Credit cards are widely accepted, though not necessarily at small country gas stations, so ask before you fill up.
Unleaded gas is widely available and often referred to as 91. High-octane unleaded gas is called 95. The 91 is usually a couple of cents cheaper than 95; most rental cars run on 91. Virtually all gas stations will have staff on hand to pump gas or assist motorists in other ways; however, they tend to have self-service facilities for anyone in a hurry. These are simply operated by pushing numbers on a console to coincide with the dollar value of the gas required. When you pump the gas, the pump will automatically switch off when you have reached the stated amount. Pay at the counter inside the station after you fill your tank.
Roads are well maintained and generally not crowded (except for leaving major cities at peak holiday weekends). In rural areas, you may find some unpaved roads. On most highways, it's easier to use the signposted names of upcoming towns to navigate rather than route numbers.
Due to the less-than-flat terrain, many New Zealand roads are "wonky," or crooked. So when mapping out your itinerary, don't plan on averaging the speed limit of 100 kph (62 mph) too often. Expect two or three lanes; there are no special multi-occupant lanes on the major highways. In areas where there is only one lane for each direction, cars can pass, with care, while facing oncoming traffic, except where there is a double-yellow center line. Rural areas still have some one-lane roads. One-lane bridges are common.
Dangerous overtaking, speeders, lack of indication, and slow drivers in passing lanes are all afflictions suffered on New Zealand highways.
In the case of a serious accident, immediately pull over to the side of the road and phone 111. Except on city motorways, emergency phone boxes are not common; you may have to rely on a cellular phone. You will find New Zealanders quick to help if they are able to, particularly if you need to use a phone. Minor accidents are normally sorted out in a calm and collected manner at the side of the road. However, "road rage" is not unknown. If the driver of the other vehicle looks particularly angry or aggressive, you are within your rights to take note of the registration number and then report the accident at the local or nearest police station.
The New Zealand Automobile Association (NZAA) provides emergency road service and is associated with the American Automobile Association (AAA). If you are an AAA member, you will be covered by the service as long as you register in person with an NZAA office in New Zealand and present your membership card with an expiration date showing it is still valid. NZAA advises that you register before you begin your trip.
Should you find yourself at a panel beater (repair shop) after a prang (minor car accident), talking about your vehicle might end up sounding like more of an Abbott and Costello routine if you're not prepared with the appropriate vehicle vernacular. For instance, you might hear the panel beater say, "Crikey dick! What are ya?! Doing the ton on loose metal when it was hosing down was two sammies short of a picnic. You have a chip in the windscreen, the fender has to be reattached under the boot, and your axle is puckeroo. Pop the bonnet and let's take a look." Translation: "Wow! Are you nuts?! Driving so fast on a gravel road in the rain was crazy (aka two sandwiches short of a picnic). You chipped the windshield, the bumper needs to be reattached under the trunk, and the axle is broken. Pop the hood."
New Zealand Automobile Association (99 Albert St., Auckland, 1010. 09/966–8800. www.aa.co.nz.)
The speed limit is 100 kph (62 mph) on the open road and 50 kph (31 mph) in towns and cities. A circular sign with the letters "LSZ" (Limited Speed Zone) means speed should be governed by prevailing road conditions but still not exceed 100 kph. Watch out for speed cameras, particularly in city suburbs and on approaches to and exits from small towns. The police force (not to mention the money counters) has taken to them with relish. Fines start at about NZ$60 for speeds 10 kph (6 mph) over the speed limit. (If you’re driving a rental, the company will track you down for payment!)
New Zealand law states that you must always wear a seat belt, whether you are driving or are a passenger. As the driver, you can be fined for any passenger not wearing a seat belt or approved child restraint if under the age of seven. If you are caught without a seat belt and you are clearly not a New Zealander, the result is likely to be a friendly but firm warning. Drunk drivers are not tolerated in New Zealand. The blood alcohol limit is 0.05 (80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood for adults), and it's safest to avoid driving altogether if you've had a drink. If you are caught driving over the limit you will most likely be taken to the nearest police station to dry out and be required to pay a high fine. Repeat offenses or instances of causing injury or death while under the influence of alcohol are likely to result in jail terms.
When driving in rural New Zealand, cross one-lane bridges with caution—there are plenty of them. A yellow sign with parallel black lines will usually warn you that you are approaching a one-lane bridge, and another sign will tell you whether you have the right-of-way. A rectangular blue sign with a bigger white arrow on the left side of a smaller red arrow means you have the right-of-way, and a circular sign with a red border and red arrow on the left side of a white arrow means you must pull over to the left and wait to cross until oncoming traffic has passed. Even when you have the right-of-way, slow down and take care. Roundabouts can be particularly confusing for newcomers. When entering a roundabout, yield to all vehicles coming from the right. A blue sign with a white arrow indicates that you should keep to the left of the traffic island as you come up to the roundabout. In a multilane roundabout, stay in the lane closest to the island until ready to exit the circle. You must indicate left just before you exit.
You can only pass on the left if there are two or more lanes on your side of the center line, if the vehicle you are passing has stopped, or if the vehicle ahead is signaling a right turn. At all other times, you must pass on the right.
When you encounter fog, try putting your headlights on low beam, this sometimes helps as high beams refract light and decrease visibility. It is illegal to drive with only your parking lights on.
In cities and towns, the usual fine for parking over the time limit on meters is NZ$10–NZ$15. In the last few years "pay-and-display" meters have been put up in cities. You'll need to drop a couple of dollars' worth of coins in the meter, take the dispensed ticket, and put it in view on the dashboard of your car. The fine for running over the time for these meters runs about NZ$12, but if you don't display your ticket at all, the fine will be at least NZ$40 and you may risk being towed. So carry a few coins at all times—any denomination will usually do (gold coins only in Auckland and Wellington). Make sure to observe all "no parking" signs. If you don't, your car is highly likely to be towed away. It will cost about NZ$100 to have the car released, and most tow companies won't accept anything but cash.
For more road rules and safety tips, check the New Zealand Transport Agency website.
New Zealand Transport Agency (0800/822–422 toll-free in NZ; 06/953–6200. www.nzta.govt.nz.)
The only cities with a serious congestion problem during rush hour are Auckland and Wellington, particularly on inner-city highways and on- and off-ramps. Avoid driving between 7:30 am and 9 am, and 5 pm and 6:30 pm. It is also worth taking this into account if you have important appointments or a plane to catch. Give yourself a spare 30 minutes to be on the safe side. Traffic around Christchurch also builds up at these times, and has been particularly problematic since the 2011 earthquake damaged many roads.