New Zealand Road Trip Basics for Every Traveler

Taking a road trip through New Zealand is an adventure you’ll never forget. With landscapes ranging from mountains to beaches and redwood forests, you’ll have plenty of amazing scenery to explore.

And as an American traveling to New Zealand, there were other challenges to consider like driving on the opposite side of the road than we were used to. It can also be difficult to pare down your stop choices to a reasonable itinerary when there are so many wonderful places to check off your bucket list.

But as you plan your New Zealand trip, these are my top tips to help you out.

A paved road winds through yellow grassy fields toward a large snow-capped mountain in the distance.
The road to Aoraki Mount Cook provides many opportunities for beautiful scenic stops. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

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Ask our road trip partner to help you keep left and navigate to your next stop

Driving on the left side of the road will feel counterintuitive at first. This is where your road trip companion steps in. At least for the first few days, I kept an eagle eye out for Hubby as he drove, gently reminding him that he needed to keep left. 

I was really impressed with how quickly Hubby adjusted his driving, only needing reminders on occasion in parking lots or on unlined roads, times when there was little to no other traffic to remind clearly that traffic patterns were different.

In addition to reminding you to stay on the left, your companion can also assist with navigation. New Zealand’s roads can be winding and scenic, with many opportunities to get lost in the beauty of your surroundings. Having someone read maps, watch the GPS directions, and point out upcoming turns allows the driver to concentrate fully on the road.

TIP: Keep track of all of your important travel details with a digital travel planner like this.

Make sure to top off with gas before leaving for your next stop

Always ensure your gas tank is full before you hit the road for your next New Zealand stop. New Zealand has many stunning but remote areas where gas stations could be few and far between.

Plan your stops carefully. Look ahead to see where the next gas station is located, especially in rural regions. It’s always better to play it safe than risk running out of gas.

For help with finding fuel stops, you can download and use the Gaspy App. I had this app on my phone, but I ended up not needing to use it. You may find it helpful though.

Your American credit card may not work at the pump

Many gas stations in New Zealand require a chip-and-PIN card for transactions at the pump. While most American credit cards now come equipped with a chip, not all are set up with a PIN. Without this PIN, the card may not be accepted to pay at the pump.

We had success with prepaying for petrol inside the gas station when needed. In some cases, we also could fuel up and then pay inside. In addition, we obtained a Wise card that worked at New Zealand stations by tapping to pay before fueling up. We could pay faster with the Wise card, but it also required me to keep my account topped off with New Zealand dollars.

If you don’t want to go through setting up Wise accounts and getting a card before your trip, then my best advice is this:

  • Travel with at least two credit cards. To avoid hidden travel expenses take cards without foreign transaction fees.
  • Set up pins with your card issuer for both credit cards. It may help and it certainly can’t hurt.
  • Avoid unmanned pumps and refuel only at petrol stations with a manned convenience store attached so you can get help paying if you need it.

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Download Google Maps before you get on the road

Before starting off toward your next road trip stop in New Zealand, make sure you download Google Maps for offline use.

This is important, especially in remote areas where mobile reception can be patchy. Downloading maps in advance ensures you have access to driving directions even without a wireless signal.

Steps to Download Offline Maps

  1. Open the Google Maps app on your phone.
  2. Make sure you’re connected to the internet and signed in to your Google account.
  3. Search for the area you’ll be traveling to.
  4. On the map, tap the name or address of the location.
  5. Tap on the three dots in the upper right then select Download offline map from the menu.
  6. Alternatively, when you can download the map of your driving directions to your next stopover. In fact, Google Maps may prompt you to do that as you preview your route.

After downloading, you can navigate without requiring a data connection. Just open Google Maps, and your saved maps will be available. This saves data and battery life.

Phone screenshot showing the dropdown menu in Google Maps for downloading an offline map.

Automatic Map Updates

To keep your maps updated, make sure to enable auto-updates:

  1. Go to the Offline Maps section (tap on your photo in the top right of the app).
  2. Click the cog icon in the top-right corner.
  3. Enable Auto-update offline maps.

Backup with paper maps

When driving through New Zealand, you might encounter areas without a mobile signal. If you downloaded your maps before you left your motel you should be fine, but having a paper map helps ensure you won’t get lost. They work anywhere, anytime.

You can chart your course, mark interesting spots, and jot down notes. Sometimes, your phone’s battery might die. Paper maps, of course, don’t rely on power. They’re a reliable backup for any road trip.

Check the road conditions ahead of time

Before heading to your next New Zealand road trip stop, make sure you check the road conditions. New Zealand’s weather can change quickly, affecting road safety. And there is often road work that can impact how long it may take you to reach your next stop.

You can use websites like the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) site to get real-time updates. This website offers information on road closures, construction, and weather-related hazards. I checked this site almost daily while we traveled through New Zealand

If it starts to rain…SLOW DOWN

Driving in the rain can be tricky anyway, but on unfamiliar roads and when you’re not used to driving on the left-hand side, it’s important to be extra cautious. And New Zealand roads can be windy. When it starts to rain, the first thing you should do is reduce your speed.

If you’re driving in a rental car, get familiar with its features, like fog lights and windshield wipers. In case the rain gets heavy, consider pulling over and waiting until it slows down. Parking somewhere safe and taking a break can be a good idea.

Car dashboard display shows music playing through Spotify. In the background through the windshield there are cars on the road and fall foliage on the trees.
When road-tripping through New Zealand, the music virtually chooses itself. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

Buy an insulated shopping bag from a grocery store to use as a cooler

One of the best ways to keep your food and drinks cool on a New Zealand road trip is to buy an insulated reusable shopping from a grocery store. In addition to keeping your food cool between hotel stops, these bags are very portable. It easily folded up and fit in my small suitcase when we flew from the North Island to the South Island, preventing us from having to buy another bag for the second part of our trip.

These bags are usually located near the checkout counters and are not expensive. With just a Ziploc bag of ice cubes from our hotel room freezer, we kept our food safe traveling from stop to stop on our road trip.

Book motel rooms with kitchenettes to save money on food

Booking motel rooms with kitchenettes can really help you save money on your New Zealand road trip.

Many motels provide small kitchenettes equipped with basic amenities like a sink, refrigerator, kettle, microwave, flatware, plates, bowls, and cups. You can also find rooms that include a two-burner cooktop which will give you even more options for eating in.

In addition to saving money, making some or all of your own meals can be a great option if you have strict dietary restrictions (like Hubby who has celiac disease) or you’re staying someplace with limited options for dining out such as Mount Cook National Park.

Motel room in Rotorua, New Zealand, with a kitchenette that includes a refrigerator, microwave, sink, and nespresso machine.
Room with a kitchenette. Silver Fern, Rotorua, New Zealand. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

Break up your driving with fun quick stops

When you’re on a road trip through New Zealand, breaking up your driving with fun stops makes the journey extra enjoyable. Some smaller spots are too good to miss and offer great opportunities to stretch your legs and see something amazing without necessarily warranting an overnight stay.

Here are a few examples from our trip:

  • Huka Falls
  • Kaitoke Regional Park
  • Lake Taupo
  • Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge
  • Lindis Pass Viewpoint
  • Lake Pukaki
View of the road through Lindis Pass on the New Zealand South Island. In the distance low clouds wrap around tall hills.
Lindis Pass on New Zealand’s South Island offers some beautiful scenery. Photo: Plan, Ready, Go.

Don’t overpack your itinerary

The key to a successful New Zealand road trip is preparing an itinerary that balances must-see sites with time for spontaneous exploring or rest.

When we built our itinerary we also tried for a good blend of nature, cities, and small towns. I honestly think we succeeded at all of this.

Learn more about how to balance sightseeing and relaxation on your next trip.

The bottom line

A road trip through New Zealand can be challenging to plan, but it’s worth every bit of effort that you put into it. If you just follow the tips in this article, you’ll be out navigating those New Zealand roads with confidence. 

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