New Zealand is a long, narrow and relatively sparsely populated country.
Outside the cities, there are vast expanses of rolling countryside, tall mountains and acres of almost impenetrable native bush. In some regions, it can be a long way to the next town.
As a result, most New Zealanders tend to travel by car. Many visitors to the country do the same, although there are also public transportation options available.
Whether you want to explore the cities or escape into nature, here are some of the best ways to get around New Zealand.
Driving is one of the best ways to see New Zealand
New Zealand's stunning scenery makes for remarkable road trips and traveling by car is convenient and flexible, especially for visiting attractions away from main arterial routes. Many of the best-known national parks are remote, so you'll need a car to explore them.
Driving around New Zealand is reasonably straightforward and traffic is relatively light outside of the major cities. People drive on the left-hand side of the road and visitors are usually allowed to drive on their home driver’s license for up to a year.
Keep in mind that car rentals aren’t always cheap and can be expensive for drivers under 25. If you’re traveling between the islands, double-check whether your rental is allowed on the Interislander or Bluebridge ferries across the Cook Strait. You’ll also need to book your vehicle on the ferry in advance.
In more remote areas, there can be long stretches between gas stations, so be sure to fill up your vehicle before leaving a town. Also, be aware that some roads are gravel or dirt, especially in rural areas, with windy and narrow stretches and tight mountain passes. One-way bridges are incredibly common, particularly on the South Island.
Distances are deceptive and being caught behind a slow-moving campervan on single-lane roads can add hours to your journey. It’s not unusual to encounter construction and “slips” (the Kiwi word for landslides) caused by weather events (such as 2023’s Cyclone Gabrielle) on your travels. Check Waka Kotahi’s journey planner before you hit the road.
If you’re driving through the South Island’s mountainous passes in winter, having snow chains on hand isn’t just advisable – it’s mandatory in some areas, including along the Milford Road. Road signs will advise if and when you’re required to put them on, so make sure you know how to properly fit your chains when needed. Car rental agencies offer chain rentals and can show you how to use them.
Travel by campervan for ultimate flexibility
Traveling by campervan or motorhome allows you to save money by eliminating or reducing accommodation costs, with campsites and holiday parks situated in some of the country’s most scenic spots.
However, if you plan on “freedom camping” (staying overnight in free designated parking areas), you’ll need a certified self-contained vehicle (meaning you can carry your water and waste).
It's important to remember that freedom camping doesn’t mean you can just park up and sleep anywhere. Bylaws are set by local councils, so check freedomcamping.org for advice on where to camp or download the CamperMate app.
Bus services connect New Zealand's cities and towns
Coach buses provide good links between cities and towns in New Zealand. These can be booked in advance and are reasonably affordable, however, local buses will usually need to be taken to rural locations or national parks.
Although regional options exist, InterCity is the only national bus company – you can expect onboard WiFi and sometimes toilets. InterCity also offers flexible passes, which include ferry passage on the Interislander ferry. Discounted bus tickets are often available in the off-season.
There are also hop-on, hop-off buses and shuttles that cater to tourists and backpackers, but these tend to be significantly more expensive.
Scenic train trips let you enjoy the landscape en route
Trains in New Zealand are generally focused on freight and local travel within cities, but there are a few scenic regional trains for tourists that are worth considering.
Great Journeys New Zealand operates three scenic routes with stops along the way: The Northern Explorer (from Auckland to Wellington), the Coastal Pacific (from Picton to Christchurch) and the TranzAlpine (from Christchurch to Greymouth through Arthur’s Pass).
Other tourist trains operate regionally, including those that depart from Dunedin’s historic railway station – but they’re usually meant for day trips rather than getting from A to B.
Domestic flights are the quickest way to travel between cities
While many visitors choose to travel on land in New Zealand, taking a plane will get you to other parts of the country in a shorter time frame, but with a significant impact on the environment.
Air New Zealand is the national airline and goes to 20 destinations nationwide. Keep in mind that domestic flights are prone to cancellations and delays, due to the country’s highly changeable weather, high winds, snow and fog.
Tip for taking domestic flights: Consider low-cost carrier Jetstar if you’re flying to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin or Queenstown. Otherwise, check Grabaseat.co.nz for deals on Air New Zealand flights.
Accessible transportation in New Zealand
Most public transport in New Zealand is accessible to everyone. This includes buses and trains, which typically are equipped with ramps, handrails and low steps.
Many car rental companies offer accessible vehicles, but for specialist accessible rentals contact Disability Vehicle Rentals and Freedom Mobility. Mobility parking permits can also be arranged for international visitors. They take 10 working days to process, so it’s best to apply for one before you depart.
The New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) runs the Total Mobility Scheme, a resource for finding discounted accessible transportation in different regions of New Zealand, including public transport and taxis.
If you’re spending some time in one of New Zealand's major cities and plan to use public transport, it’s worth buying a prepaid transport card.
These give discounted fares that have a capped daily amount (for example, in Auckland you’ll never pay more than NZ$20 per day) and can be used across various transport services in a city.
Cards include Auckland’s AT HOP card, Wellington’s Snapper card and Christchurch’s Metrocard. If you’re visiting Otago, you can use the Bee card throughout the region, including Queenstown and Dunedin.