5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Traveling to New Zealand

Traveling to New Zealand can be a thrilling experience, filled with breathtaking landscapes and unique encounters. And we were well-prepared for our NZ road trip, a trip several years in the making.

Before traveling from the United States to New Zealand, I understood the major things I needed to be aware of: driving on the left-hand side of the road, the changeable weather, the type 1 outlet adapters I would need, etc.

BUT, there were a few things I wasn’t aware of before we began our 2 ½ week road trip across both islands, that I kind of wish I had known ahead of time.

Sunlight breaks through a cloudy sky in a fjord.
Milford Sound. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

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Check the calendar for public holidays. They may affect your itinerary.

I knew I needed to check the calendar for school breaks before planning my New Zealand trip itinerary, but for some reason, I had neglected to look for public holidays. It turns out that our three days at Aoraki Mount Cook fell right on King’s Birthday weekend.

Overall, the fact that we were there the first weekend in June didn’t affect our trip much. Except that we did hike Hooker Valley Track that Sunday morning, returning early in the afternoon of a public holiday weekend. Then to top it off the trail had been closed the day before because of the weather. The trail was quite, quite busy that afternoon. Oh yes.

So, you just need to be aware that public holidays can affect your plans.

  • Ensure you check local holidays before booking activities. Popular spots might be crowded during these times.
  • Also, keep in mind that small local businesses might be closed on these days.
  • Check with restaurants where you plan to eat as they might plan to close. If they are open, make reservations ahead of time as they may be busier than usual.

Key Public Holidays in New Zealand:

  • Waitangi Day: February 6
  • Anzac Day: April 25
  • King’s Birthday: First Monday in June
  • Labour Day: Fourth Monday in October

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You may need to ask someone to repeat what they said

I was unprepared for there to be any kind of language barrier when traveling to New Zealand. After all, they speak English. And I had familiarized myself with a few Kiwi terms, but I was reasonably certain that “jandals” (sandals) wouldn’t come up in conversation while traveling through New Zealand in the late fall/early winter.

Nevertheless, on more than one occasion, while speaking with someone at a rental car counter or the grocery store checkout, I found myself completely unsure of what it was they had just told me or asked me.

Now, the vast majority of the time, I had no trouble at all understanding what the other person was saying, but there were a few times I just didn’t understand at all. In those cases, I had no choice but to politely ask them to repeat themselves. I felt a little silly for not understanding, but I just politely asked them to repeat their question, and then everything was usually fine.

It did make me more conscientious about how I spoke to the locals and tried to make an effort not to use as much American slang as I was accustomed to. I have no idea if I succeeded in that, but I did try.

Lindiss Pass. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

The roads weren’t as bad as I feared

As I was planning our trip to New Zealand, I kept hearing about their famously winding roads. No joke. It kept popping up over and over. 

I started to get a little concerned and experienced some pre-trip anxiety. Would the roads between our planned stops be as tortuously curving as some of the roads we’d encountered in South Dakota or Wyoming, like the Needles Highway (near Mount Rushmore) or the Dunraven Pass in Yellowstone National Park? Both of those roadways had made me very anxious with their sharp bends, steep dropoffs, and lack of guardrails in all the important places.

But don’t let talk of New Zealand’s roads deter you from experiencing them. While they did twist and turn at times, I personally found them to be well-maintained and safe. There were only a few times, I felt truly nervous…and never did I experience the kind of anxiety that those roads in South Dakota and Wyoming caused me.

Just remember to drive safely, and pull over where it’s safe if you find that cars are backing up behind you, to let them pass.

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Allow for a more relaxed timeframe for dining

In our experience, dining in New Zealand requires a more relaxed approach compared to dining out in the United States. We frequently waited for our food to be served longer than we would typically expect in the U.S. Now, that’s not a bad thing by any means, but it was noticeable.

Because we are used to being served more quickly (eating in American restaurants where the servers rely on tips and there’s pressure to turn tables over more quickly), the first encounter with slower service led to conversations about the “slow service” at a particular restaurant. When it happened a couple more times, it dawned on me to just sit back and enjoy the slower dining pace. 

You will yearn to return…soon

Beware, New Zealand can leave an indelible mark on your heart. From the rolling hills around Hobbiton to the stunning Southern Alps, every part of the country we saw seemed better than the last.

A paved road winds through yellow grassy fields toward a large snow-capped mountain in the distance.

You’ll appreciate the friendly locals who welcome you with a smile and a “Kia ora.”

And when it’s time to repack your suitcase and head home, you may find that you’ve left a little bit of your heart behind in Aotearoa New Zealand and that it won’t be far from your thoughts after that.

You might find having conversations with your spouse about what you would do on a return trip, what you would see again or what you would explore that you didn’t get to on your first trip.

All of this is purely hypothetical of course. *wink*

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