Welcome to New Zealand! First time visiting this country? You’ll love exploring these islands of stunning mountains, beautiful lakes, kiwis and rugby, but there are a few things that you might not know yet. In order to help you enjoy this amazing place at its best, here are some tips that are definitely good to know before planning your holidays. Don’t hesitate to share more advice in the comments if you’ve already been there. Have fun and enjoy New Zealand: a trip you’ll never forget!
1. Weather is unpredictable…
New Zealand is really far South. At the southernmost point of the South Island, you’re closer to the South Pole than to the Equator! Actually most of the country is directly in the middle of the Roaring Forties, these strong western winds often bringing rain to its coasts. New Zealand isn’t that green without a reason… So even during summer (between December and February), don’t expect a bright blue sky for the whole time of your holidays. During the two first weeks I spent on the South Island in February 2018, I started with a couple of sunny and very warm days (close to 30°C), two days with severe weather warning for heavy rain, snow as low as 1,400m in the mountains with temperature not getting higher than 10°C in Queenstown, and even the strong wind of cyclone Gita, luckily further North from where I was.
Sun and rain on the South Island…
If it’s impossible to know what kind of weather you’ll have during your stay, at least the short term forecast from Met Service is usually quite accurate so don’t hesitate to change your plans and drive somewhere else if rain is announced in the upcoming days.
2. …and sun is dangerous
Another consequence of being so far South is that New Zealand is close to the hole in the ozone layer. That means that the sun is much stronger than anywhere else on the planet. On a sunny day, even if it’s not especially warm, don’t ever go out without sunscreen! I thought that after two months in Australia my tanned skin would be fine: it wasn’t. After my first day of hiking, I quickly realised that sun protection was really important here.
3. It’s very touristic
New Zealand is a gorgeous place, but also a growing destination for international tourists. During the high seasons (summer for hiking, winter for the ski resorts), some places are really crowded. In Queenstown in February for example, every single bed in town is booked at least a week in advance. Be careful not to get trapped, especially if you enjoy travelling on a day by day basis like me…
4. The best way to travel is camping
If you don’t want to plan your itinerary weeks in advance, the best way to explore New Zealand will be by camping, with a tent, a campervan or just a car with a basic mattress in the back. Good news: it’s quite easy to find campsites around the country (use applications like Wikicamps, Campermate or Rankers to help you), even though it’s much more convenient if you have a self-contained vehicle (see below). Plus you’ll have the privilege to wake up in extraordinary locations…
One sure thing: don’t travel around New Zealand with a tour. It might seem convenient and cheaper to go with a company like Kiwi Experience for example: it goes more or less everywhere, but you’ll miss what makes this country that beautiful, the freedom of going anywhere you wish and staying longer in the places you like most. It will be so much better to rent or buy your own vehicle! For low budgets, hitch-hiking is also very popular in New Zealand and might be a good option.
5. Get a self-contained vehicle if possible
If you travelled around Australia before New Zealand, that’s something you won’t be used to: the difference between self-contained (SC) and non-self-contained (NSC) vehicles; in other terms, if you have your own toilet on board or not. In Australia, you can camp pretty much everywhere even if you’re NSC. In New Zealand, only designated campsites with toilets are allowed for tents and basic campervans. It’s still quite easy to find free spots even with a NSC vehicle but in many occasions you’ll have to park very close to your neighbours and you won’t have much privacy. With a SC you’ll have many more options and it will be easier… but at the same time more expensive to rent/buy.
6. Driving around takes a long time
Everywhere in New Zealand, you’ll find these big signs “New Zealand roads are different”. Travellers are advised that they will take longer than they expect to cover a distance that seems short on paper, because it might be a narrow winding road, covering hilly terrain or even with unsealed surface. But another reason that will make you take longer than you think to drive from one place to another is that you’ll want to stop to admire the scenery every 5 minutes.
Roads here are never boring. With mountains in the distance, ocean on the side or beautiful lakes and forest, it will be a real pleasure to drive in New Zealand. You’ll often overtake vehicles stopped on the side of the road for a quick picture… and even more often you’ll be one of these vehicles!
7. Ask for anything you need at the iSites or the DOC offices
The iSites are the visitor centres of New Zealand while DOC is the abbreviation for Department Of Conservation, the organisation in charge of the National Parks. You’ll find the iSites everywhere around the country while the DOC offices are located in or around the National Parks, but both will be perfect to get all the details you need about all the activities in the region you’re visiting. The people behind their desks are usually very friendly and helpful so don’t hesitate to ask a lot of questions.
The DOC is also in charge of many basic campsites (toilets, water – usually untreated – but no showers), available to both SC and NSC vehicles. They cost between 8 and 13$ per person per night, but if you’re travelling with a rental car you can also purchase a weekly pass for 25$. Just be careful that you can’t use it on every DOC campsite, find the map here.
8. Fear sandflies and mosquitoes
There are no dangerous animals in New Zealand: no snakes, no crocodiles, no bears, no wolves. But there are sandflies…
These tiny insects (not longer than 3mm, much smaller than a usual fly) can be found mostly on the West Coast of the South Island, especially next to rivers, lakes and beaches. They are literally vampires: they use the blood they suck by biting the human skin to feed them. And their bites itch! If you’re not well protected, you’ll find yourself scratching again and again. Two solutions: wear long clothes and spray some repellent on your skin. At least the good news is that they don’t carry any disease…
Not enough with the sandflies? Mosquitoes are also very common in many places of New Zealand. At some point it was completely impossible to sleep with open windows without hearing a constant buzzing around me.
9. New Zealand is very expensive
I saved the worse for the end… Unfortunately New Zealand is a really expensive country and your budget will have to be quite substantial if you’re travelling there for a few weeks. The shock will be even bigger if you’re coming from Australia, like I did myself. The exact same product in the exact same shops (Countdown in New Zealand, Woolworths in Australia) costs always more in New Zealand. Even the prices at the Pak’n’Save supermarkets (the cheapest of the country) are still higher than what you’ll find at Coles or Woolworths.
The difference is really extreme on one thing in particular: petrol. When I left Melbourne in February 2018, the litre of unleaded 91 was usually between 1.30 and 1.40$; up to 1.60$ in secluded places, and the highest I ever saw was around 1.80$ in the middle of the Nullarbor Plain, 1000kms away from the nearest town. In New Zealand, at the same time, the litre of unleaded 91 cost between 2 and 2.10$ in average, even up to 2.25$ in Wanaka! With such crazy expensive petrol, you’ll think twice before doing a detour…
Anyway, I’m sure that these disagreements won’t ruin your trip, but it’s better to know about them before the beginning instead of having unpleasant surprises once you’ll get there! So tell me: when are you visiting New Zealand?