Those who have limited time to get between NZ’s attractions can make the most of a widespread (and very reliable and safe) network of intra- and inter-island flights.
Airlines in New Zealand
The country’s major domestic carrier, Air New Zealand, has an aerial network covering most of the country, often operating under the Air New Zealand Link moniker on less-popular routes. Australia-based Jetstar also flies between main urban areas. Between them, these two airlines carry the vast majority of domestic passengers in NZ.
Beyond this, several small-scale regional operators provide essential transport services to outlying islands, such as Great Barrier Island (in the Hauraki Gulf) to Stewart Island and the Chathams. There are also plenty of scenic- and charter-flight operators around NZ, not listed here. Operators include the following:
Air Chathams (0800 580 127; www.airchathams.co.nz) Services to the remote Chatham Islands from Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. Auckland–Whakatane flights also available.
Air New Zealand (0800 737 000; www.airnewzealand.co.nz) Offers flights between 20-plus domestic destinations, plus myriad overseas hubs.
Air2there.com (0800 777 000; www.air2there.com) Connects destinations across Cook Strait, including Paraparaumu, Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim.
Barrier Air (0800 900 600; www.barrierair.kiwi) Flies the skies over Great Barrier Island, Auckland and Kaitaia (and seasonally, Tauranga and Whitianga).
FlyMySky (0800 222 123; www.flymysky.co.nz) At least three flights daily from Auckland to Great Barrier Island.
Golden Bay Air (0800 588 885; www.goldenbayair.co.nz) Flies regularly to Takaka in Golden Bay from Wellington and Nelson. Also connects to Karamea for Heaphy Track trampers.
Jetstar (0800 800 995; www.jetstar.com) Joins the dots between key tourism centres: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Queenstown, Nelson, Napier, New Plymouth and Palmerston North.
Sounds Air (0800 505 005; www.soundsair.co.nz) Numerous flights daily between Picton and Wellington, plus flights from Wellington to Blenheim, Nelson, Westport and Taupo. Also flies Blenheim to Christchurch, Kaikoura, Paraparaumu and Napier, and Nelson to Paraparaumu.
Stewart Island Flights (03-218 9129; www.stewartislandflights.co.nz) Flies between Invercargill and Stewart Island three times daily.
Sunair (0800 786 247; www.sunair.co.nz) Flies to Whitianga from Ardmore (near Auckland), Great Barrier Island and Tauranga, plus numerous other North Island connections between Hamilton, Rotorua, Gisborne and Whakatane.
Available exclusively to travellers from the USA or Canada who have bought an Air New Zealand fare to NZ from the USA, Canada, Australia or the Pacific Islands, Air New Zealand offers the good-value New Zealand Explorer Pass (www.airnewzealand.com/explorer-pass). The pass lets you fly between up to 37 destinations in New Zealand, Australia and the South Pacific islands (including Norfolk Island, Tonga, New Caledonia, Samoa, Vanuatu, Tahiti, Fiji, Niue and the Cook Islands). Fares are broken down into four discounted, distance-based zones: zone one flights start at US$99 (eg Auckland to Wellington); zone two from US$129 (eg Auckland to Queenstown); zone three from US$214 (eg Wellington to Sydney); and zone four from US$295 (eg Auckland to Tahiti). You can buy the pass before you travel, or after you arrive in NZ.
Touring cyclists proliferate in NZ, particularly over summer. The country is clean, green and relatively uncrowded, and has lots of cheap accommodation (including camping) and abundant freshwater. The roads are generally in good nick, and the climate is usually not too hot or cold. Road traffic is the biggest danger: trucks overtaking too close to cyclists are a particular threat. Bikes and cycling gear are readily available to hire or buy in the main centres, and bicycle-repair shops are common.
By law all cyclists must wear an approved safety helmet (or risk a fine); it’s also vital to have good reflective safety clothing. Cyclists who use public transport will find that major bus lines and trains only take bicycles on a ‘space available’ basis (in cities, usually outside rush hour) and may charge up to $10. Some of the smaller shuttle bus companies, on the other hand, make sure they have storage space for bikes, which they carry for a surcharge.
If importing your own bike or transporting it by plane within NZ, check with the relevant airline for costs and the degree of dismantling and packing required.
See www.nzta.govt.nz/walking-cycling-and-public-transport for more bike safety and legal tips, and the New Zealand Cycle Trail (Nga Haerenga) – a network of 22 'Great Rides' across NZ.
Rates offered by most outfits for hiring road or mountain bikes are usually around $20 per hour to $60 per day. Longer-term hire may be available by negotiation. You can often hire bikes from your accommodation (hostels, holiday parks etc), or hire more reputable machines from bike shops in the larger towns.
Buying a Bike
Bicycles can be readily bought in NZ’s larger cities, but prices for newer models are high. For a decent hybrid bike or rigid mountain bike you’ll pay anywhere from $800 to $1800, though you can get a cheap one for around $500 (but you still then need to buy panniers, helmet, lock etc, and the cost quickly climbs). Other options include the post-Christmas sales and midyear stocktakes, when newish cycles can be heavily discounted.
New Zealand may be an island nation but there’s virtually no long-distance water transport around the country. Obvious exceptions include the boat services between Auckland and various islands in the Hauraki Gulf, the inter-island ferries that cross the Cook Strait between Wellington and Picton, and the passenger ferry that negotiates Foveaux Strait between Bluff and the town of Oban on Stewart Island.
If you're cashed-up, consider the cruise liners that chug around the NZ coastline as part of broader South Pacific itineraries: P&O Cruises (www.pocruises.com.au) is a major player.
Bus travel in NZ is easygoing and well organised, with services transporting you to the far reaches of both islands (including the start/end of various walking tracks)…but it can be expensive, tedious and time-consuming.
New Zealand's main bus company is InterCity (www.intercity.co.nz), which can drive you to just about anywhere on the North and South Islands. Naked Bus has similar routes and remains the main competition. Both bus lines offer fares as low as $1(!). InterCity also has a South Island sightseeing arm called Newmans Coach Lines, travelling between Queenstown, Christchurch and the West Coast glaciers.
Privately run shuttle buses can transport travellers to some trailheads or collect them from the end point of a tramp; advance booking essential.
Seat Classes & Smoking
There are no allocated economy or luxury classes on NZ buses (very democratic), and smoking on the bus is a definite no-no.
Naked Bus has a sleeper class on overnight services between Auckland and Wellington (stopping at Hamilton and Palmerston North) where you can lie flat in a 1.8m-long bed (bring a sleeping bag, pillowcase and maybe earplugs). See http://nakedbus.com/nz/home/sleeper-bus for details.
Over summer (December to February), school holidays and public holidays, book well in advance on popular routes (a week or two ahead if possible). At other times, a day or two ahead is usually fine. The best prices are generally available online, booked a few weeks in advance.
If you’re covering a lot of ground, both InterCity and Naked Bus offer bus passes (respectively, priced by hours and number of trips). This can be cheaper than paying as you go, but do the maths before buying and note that you'll be locked into using one network. Passes are usually valid for 12 months.
On fares other than bus passes, InterCity offers a discount of around 10% for YHA, ISIC, HI, Nomads, BBH or VIP backpacker card holders. Senior discounts only apply for NZ citizens.
Flexipass A hop-on/hop-off InterCity pass, allowing travel to pretty much anywhere in NZ, in any direction, including the Interislander ferry across Cook Strait. The pass is purchased in blocks of travel time: minimum 15 hours ($125), maximum 60 hours ($459). The average cost of each block becomes cheaper the more hours you buy. You can top up the pass if you need more time.
Aotearoa Explorer, Tiki Tour & Island Loop Hop-on/hop-off, fixed-itinerary nationwide passes offered by InterCity. These passes link up tourist hotspots and cost $775 to $1140. Passes with a narrower scope (eg West Coast or Southern Alps) are also offered. See www.intercity.co.nz/bus-pass/travelpass for details.
Naked Passport (www.nakedpassport.com) A Naked Bus pass that allows you to buy trips in blocks of five, which you can add to any time, and book each trip as needed. Five/15/20 trips cost $159/269/439.
North Island Passes
InterCity offers six hop-on/hop-off, fixed-itinerary North Island bus passes, from short $125 runs between Auckland and Paihia, to $405 trips from Auckland to Wellington via the big sights in between. See www.intercity.co.nz/bus-pass/travelpass for details.
South Island Passes
On the South Island, InterCity offers six hop-on/hop-off, fixed-itinerary passes, from $125 runs along the West Coast between Picton and Queenstown, to a $549 loop via Christchurch, Queenstown and the West Coast glaciers. See www.intercity.co.nz/bus-pass/travelpass for details.
As well as InterCity and Naked Bus, regional shuttle buses fill in the gaps between the smaller towns. Operators include the following (see www.tourism.net.nz/transport/bus-and-coach-services for a complete list), offering regular scheduled services and/or bus tours and charters:
Abel Tasman Travel (www.abeltasmantravel.co.nz) Traverses the roads between Nelson, Motueka, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National Park.
Atomic Shuttles (www.atomictravel.co.nz) Has services throughout the South Island, including to Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill, Picton, Nelson, Greymouth, Hokitika, Queenstown and Wanaka.
Catch-a-Bus South (www.catchabussouth.co.nz) Invercargill and Bluff to Dunedin and Queenstown.
Cook Connection (www.cookconnect.co.nz) Triangulates between Mt Cook, Twizel and Lake Tekapo.
East West Coaches (www.eastwestcoaches.co.nz) Offers a service between Christchurch and Westport via Lewis Pass.
Go Kiwi Shuttles (www.go-kiwi.co.nz) Links Auckland with Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula daily.
Hanmer Connection (www.hanmerconnection.co.nz) Daily services between Hanmer Springs and Christchurch.
Headfirst Travel (www.travelheadfirst.com) Does a loop from Rotorua to Waitomo (with an option to finish in Auckland).
Manabus (www.manabus.com) Runs in both directions daily between Auckland and Wellington via Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupo and Palmerston North. Also runs to Tauranga, Paihia and Napier. Some services operated by Naked Bus.
Tracknet (www.tracknet.net) Summer track transport (Milford, Hollyford, Routeburn, Kepler) with Queenstown, Te Anau and Invercargill connections.
Trek Express (www.trekexpress.co.nz) Shuttle services to all tramping tracks in the top half of the South Island (eg Heaphy, Abel Tasman, Old Ghost Road).
West Coast Shuttle (www.westcoastshuttle.co.nz) Daily bus from Greymouth to Christchurch and back.
Clock up some kilometres with like-minded fellow travellers. The following operators run fixed-itinerary bus tours, nationwide or on the North or South Islands. Accommodation, meals and hop-on/hop-off flexibility are often included. Styles vary from activity-focused itineraries through to hangover-mandatory backpacker buses.
Adventure Tours New Zealand (www.adventuretours.com.au/new-zealand) Four 11- to 22-day NZ tours of North or South Island, or both.
Bottom Bus (www.travelheadfirst.com/local-legends/bottom-bus) South Island nether-region tours ex-Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown.
Flying Kiwi (www.flyingkiwi.com) Good-fun, activity-based trips around NZ with camping and cabin accommodation from a few days to a few weeks.
Haka Tours (www.hakatours.com) Three- to 24-day tours with adventure, snow or mountain-biking themes.
Kirra Tours (www.kirratours.co.nz) Upmarket coach tours (graded 'Classic' or 'Platinum' by price) from an operator with 50 years in the business.
Kiwi Experience (www.kiwiexperience.com) A major hop-on/hop-off player with eco-friendly credentials. Myriad tours cover the length and breadth of NZ.
Stray Travel (www.straytravel.com) A wide range of flexible hop-on/hop-off passes and tours.
Car & Motorcycle
The best way to explore NZ in depth is to have your own wheels. It's easy to hire cars and campervans, though it's worth noting that fuel costs can be eye-watering. Alternatively, if you're in NZ for a few months, you might consider buying your own vehicle.
Automobile Association (AA)
New Zealand’s Automobile Association provides emergency breakdown services, distance calculators and accommodation guides (from holiday parks to motels and B&Bs).
Members of overseas automobile associations should bring their membership cards − many of these bodies have reciprocal agreements with the AA.
International visitors to NZ can use their home-country driving licence − if your licence isn’t in English, it’s a good idea to carry a certified translation with you. Alternatively, use an International Driving Permit (IDP), which will usually be issued on the spot (valid for 12 months) by your home country’s automobile association.
Fuel (petrol, aka gasoline) is available from service stations across NZ: unless you're cruising around in something from the 1970s, you'll be filling up with 'unleaded', or LPG (gas). LPG is not always stocked by rural suppliers; if you’re on gas, it’s safer to have dual-fuel capability. Aside from remote locations like Milford Sound and Mt Cook, petrol prices don't vary much from place to place: per-litre costs at the time of research were hovering above $2.
Check your rear-view mirror on any far-flung NZ road and you’ll probably see a shiny white campervan (aka mobile home, motor home, RV), packed with liberated travellers, mountain bikes and portable barbecues, cruising along behind you.
Most towns of any size have a campground or holiday park with powered sites (where you can plug your vehicle in) for around $35 per night. There are also 250-plus vehicle-accessible Department of Conservation (DOC; www.doc.govt.nz) campsites around NZ, priced at up to $21 per adult. Weekly campsite passes for hired campervans slice up to 50% off the price of stays in DOC campgrounds; check the website for info.
You can hire campervans from dozens of companies. Prices vary with season, vehicle size and length of hire, and it pays to book months in advance.
A small van for two people typically has a minikitchen and foldout dining table, the latter transforming into a double bed when dinner is done and dusted. Larger, ‘superior’ two-berth vans include shower and toilet. Four- to six-berth campervans are the size of trucks (and similarly sluggish) and, besides the extra space, usually contain a toilet and shower.
Over summer, rates offered by the main firms for two-/four-/six-berth vans booked three months in advance start at around $120/150/230 per day (though they rise much higher, depending on model) for hire for two weeks or more. Rates drop to $60/75/100 per day during winter.
Major operators include the following:
Britz Also does 'Britz Bikes' (add a mountain or city bike from $12 per day).
Backpacker Van Rentals
Budget players in the campervan industry offer slick deals and funky (often gregariously spray-painted), well-kitted-out vehicles for backpackers. Rates are competitive (from $30/60 per day for a two-/four-berth van from May to September; from $90/170 per day from December to February). Operators include the following:
Competition between car-hire companies in NZ is torrid, particularly in the big cities and Picton. Remember that if you want to travel far, you need unlimited kilometres. Some (but not all) companies require drivers to be at least 21 years old − ask around.
International car-hire firms don't generally allow you to take their vehicles between islands on the Cook Strait ferries. Instead, you leave your car at either Wellington or Picton terminal and pick up another car once you’ve crossed the strait. This saves you paying to transport a vehicle on the ferries, and is a pain-free exercise. However, some local car-hire firms (such as Apex) are fine with you taking your rental vehicle on the ferry and will even book your ferry ticket for you.
International Rental Companies
The big multinational companies have offices in most major cities, towns and airports. Firms sometimes offer one-way rentals (eg collect a car in Auckland, leave it in Wellington), but there are usually restrictions and fees.
The major companies offer a choice of either unlimited kilometres, or 100km (or so) per day free, plus so many cents per subsequent kilometre. Daily rates in main cities typically start at around $40 per day for a compact, late-model, Japanese car, and from $70 for medium-sized cars (including GST, unlimited kilometres and insurance).
Local Rental Companies
Local hire firms proliferate. These are almost always cheaper than the big boys − sometimes half the price − but the cheap rates may come with serious restrictions: vehicles are often older, depots might be further away from airports/city centres, and with less formality sometimes comes a less-protective legal structure for renters.
Rentals from local firms start at around $30 or $40 per day for the smallest option. It’s cheaper if you hire for a week or more, and there are often low-season and weekend discounts.
Affordable, independent operators with national networks include the following:
Transfercar Relocation specialists with massive money-saving deals on one-way car hire.
Born to be wild? New Zealand has great terrain for motorcycle touring, despite the fickle weather in some regions. Most of the country’s motorcycle-hire shops are in Auckland and Christchurch, where you can hire anything from a little 50cc moped (aka nifty-fifty) to a throbbing 750cc touring motorcycle and beyond. Recommended operators (who also run guided tours) offer rates around $100 per day:
Rather than risk paying out wads of cash if you have an accident, you can take out your own comprehensive insurance policy, or (the usual option) pay an additional fee per day to the hire company to reduce your excess. This brings the amount you must pay in the event of an accident down from around $1500 or $2000 to around $200 or $300. Smaller operators offering cheap rates often have a compulsory insurance excess, taken as a credit-card bond, of around $900.
Many insurance agreements won’t cover the cost of damage to glass (including the windscreen) or tyres, and insurance coverage is often invalidated on beaches and certain rough (4WD) unsealed roads − read the fine print.
See www.acc.co.nz for info on NZ's Accident Compensation Corporation insurance scheme (fault-free personal injury insurance).
Planning a long trip? Buying a car then selling it at the end of your travels can be one of the cheapest and best ways to see NZ. Auckland is the easiest place to buy a car, followed by Christchurch: scour the hostel noticeboards. Turners Auctions (www.turners.co.nz) is NZ's biggest car-auction operator, with 11 locations.
Make sure your prospective vehicle has a Warrant of Fitness (WoF) and registration valid for a reasonable period: see the New Zealand Transport Agency website (www.nzta.govt.nz) for details.
Buyers should also take out third-party insurance, covering the cost of repairs to another vehicle in an accident that is your fault: try the Automobile Association. New Zealand's no-fault Accident Compensation Corporation (www.acc.co.nz) scheme covers personal injury, but make sure you have travel insurance, too.
If you're considering buying a car and want someone to check it out for you, various companies inspect cars for around $150; find them at car auctions, or they will come to you. Try Vehicle Inspection New Zealand (09-573 3230, 0800 468 469; www.vinz.co.nz) or the AA.
Before you buy it’s wise to confirm ownership of the vehicle, and find out if there’s anything dodgy about it (eg stolen, or outstanding debts). The AA’s LemonCheck (09-420 3090; www.lemoncheck.co.nz) offers this service.
You can avoid the hassle of buying/selling a vehicle privately by entering into a buy-back arrangement with a dealer. Predictably, dealers often find sneaky ways of knocking down the return-sale price, which may be 50% less than what you paid, so hiring or buying and selling a vehicle yourself (if you have the time) is usually a better bet.
There's an unusually high percentage of international drivers involved in road accidents in NZ – something like 30% of accidents involve a nonlocal driver. Kiwi traffic is usually pretty light, but it’s easy to get stuck behind a slow-moving truck or campervan − pack plenty of patience, and know your road rules before you get behind the wheel. There are also lots of slow wiggly roads, one-way bridges and plenty of gravel roads, all of which require a more cautious driving approach. And watch out for sheep!
To check road conditions, call 0800 444 449 or see www.nzta.govt.nz/traffic.
- Kiwis drive on the left-hand side of the road; cars are right-hand drive. Give way to the right at intersections.
- All vehicle occupants must wear a seatbelt or risk a fine. Small children must be belted into approved safety seats.
- Always carry your licence when driving.
- Drink-driving is a serious offence and remains a significant problem in NZ, despite widespread campaigns and severe penalties. The legal blood-alcohol limit is 0.05% for drivers aged over 20, and 0% (zero) for those under 20.
- At single-lane bridges (of which there are a surprisingly large number), a smaller red arrow pointing in your direction of travel means that you give way.
- Speed limits on the open road are generally 100km/h; in built-up areas the limit is usually 50km/h. Speed cameras and radars are used extensively.
- Be aware that not all rail crossings have barriers or alarms. Approach slowly and look both ways.
- Don't pass other cars when the centre line is yellow.
- It's illegal to drive while using a mobile phone.
Hitching & Ride-Sharing
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe, and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. That said, it’s not unusual to see hitchhikers along NZ country roads.
Alternatively, check hostel noticeboards for ride-share opportunities.
Bus, Train & Tram
New Zealand’s larger cities have extensive bus services but, with a few honourable exceptions, they are mainly daytime, weekday operations; weekend services can be infrequent or nonexistent. Negotiating inner-city Auckland is made easier by Link buses; Hamilton has a free city-centre loop bus; Christchurch has city buses and the historic tramway. Most main cities have late-night buses for boozy Friday and Saturday nights. Don't expect local bus services in more remote areas.
The only cities with decent local train services are Auckland and Wellington, with four and five suburban routes respectively.
The main cities have plenty of taxis and even small towns may have a local service. Taxis are metered, and are generally reliable and trustworthy.
New Zealand train travel is all about the journey, not about getting anywhere in a hurry. Great Journeys of New Zealand operates four routes, listed below. It's best to reserve online or by phone; reservations can be made directly through Great Journeys of New Zealand (operated by KiwiRail), or at most train stations, travel agents and visitor information centres. Cheaper fares appear if you book online within NZ. All services are for day travel (no sleeper services).
Capital Connection Weekday commuter service between Palmerston North and Wellington.
Coastal Pacific Track damage during the 2016 earthquakes put this scenic Christchurch–Picton route out of action, but when we went to press it was estimated to return in 2018.
Northern Explorer Between Auckland and Wellington: southbound on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays; northbound on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
TranzAlpine Over the Southern Alps between Christchurch and Greymouth – one of the world's most famous train rides.
A Scenic Journeys Rail Pass allows unlimited travel on all of Great Journeys of New Zealand's rail services, including passage on the Wellington–Picton Interislander ferry. There are two types of pass, both requiring you to book your seats a minimum of 24 hours before you want to travel. Both have discounts for kids.
Fixed Pass Limited-duration fares for one/two/three weeks, costing $629/729/829 per adult.
Freedom Pass Affords you travel on a certain number of days over a 12-month period; a three-/seven-/10-day pass costs $439/969/1299.