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A car driving towards the Coromandel
A car driving towards the Coromandel | © Alan & Flora Botting / Flickr
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How To Navigate Transport in New Zealand

Picture of Thalita Alves
Updated: 13 April 2018
There are many ways to travel around New Zealand, but your options might differ slightly depending on where you want to go, and how long you’re staying. To help you navigate through the best transport alternatives for your trip, here’s a basic breakdown of the different choices at your disposal.

Cars

Self-driving is a popular choice because of the freedom that comes with it: a car will enable you to reach more remote areas where public transport isn’t an option. Short-term visitors can hire a car from various places – you just need to shop around to find the best deals and also check whether the place you’re renting a car from allows for inter-island travel. Some of the main rental companies in New Zealand include Thrifty, Go Rentals and Budget. If you’re coming by on a working holiday or an extended trip, you could consider buying a used car instead – Trademe is the local go-to for finding second-hand vehicles.

Local tip: Remember that New Zealanders drive on the left, and that you need to be at least 21-years-old to hire a car. The New Zealand Transport Agency website will help you learn the local rules before hitting the road.

A car driving towards the Coromandel
A car driving towards the Coromandel | © Alan & Flora Botting / Flickr

Campervans

Backpackers are known to favour this option, especially in the summer months when camping is at its prime. Hiring or buying a campervan is the ideal choice for long-term travellers who want to get nice and close to New Zealand’s unique geographical wonders, and it might even help you save money on accommodation costs in the long term. With a campervan you’re allowed to stay in holiday parks, campgrounds and allocated freedom camping (i.e. places you can camp for free) areas. Whether you choose to rent or buy, you need to check that yours is a certified self-contained vehicle – otherwise, you won’t be able to use it for freedom camping. Also, remember to check local regulations about camping and campervan usage as these might differ slightly in certain districts and regions.

Local tip: The Campermate app (iOS and Android) is a free resource that will help you locate your nearest campsite, toilet facilities and waste stations as well as providing useful tips from other travellers.

Campervans parked in a campground in Arrowtown, New Zealand
Campervans parked in a campground in Arrowtown, New Zealand | © studio tdes / Flickr

Local and national buses

Buses are the most common mode of public transport in New Zealand. Local bus networks vary greatly from one place to the next: some might have services that run until late at night, while others may end their daily rounds by around 7-8 p.m. As far as local transport goes, it pays to do your homework about the different options available and the discounts and concessions you might be eligible for.

Intercity, Naked Bus and Mana Bus are the main national coach operators. The former is the largest and covers pretty much the key destinations you could ask for. Naked Bus and Mana Bus are known for being more budget-friendly, though the latter might be more limited in scope. If you want to do an overnight trip from Auckland to Wellington, Naked Bus’s Sleeper Trip is the way to go.

Local tip: Pretty much every bus operator, local and national, will have their own passes and cards to make travelling more cost-efficient. Intercity, for instance, has a FlexiPass that’s valid for 12 months and allows you to customise your own itinerary.

Intercity bus
Intercity bus | © DX 5517 / Flickr

Hop-on, hop-off buses

This is another backpacker favourite. Hop-on, hop-off buses are a flexible alternative to your typical bus tour, allowing travellers to pick and choose their own accommodation and activities. Stray and Kiwi Experience are the main operators in this domain, Flying Kiwi is another option you might want to look into.

Local tip: If you’re not sure which bus option is the best fit, talk to a local i-Site Visitor Centre. Every town and city in New Zealand has one of those, and they’re there to help you make sense of the various activities and transport options in a given area – as a bonus, you can usually book tours and buy bus passes directly from them.

Domestic flights

Domestic flights are a good option for those wanting a quicker way to travel longer distances – for instance, if you want to travel between Auckland and Wellington, or even from the North Island to the South Island. Flights will diverge significantly in price depending on where you want to go (Queenstown is notorious for veering on the expensive side); the general rule of thumb with domestic flights is that the earlier you book your ticket, the more money you’ll save.

Local tip: Air New Zealand’s Grabaseat website will help you find discounted air fares across the country. Jetstar is another budget-friendly airline you could look into.

Air New Zealand planes
Air New Zealand planes | © Kristina D.C. Hoeppner / Flickr

Trains

Train travel is not particularly common in New Zealand. Auckland has its own rail system, and Wellington does too – but as far as urban trains go, that’s about it. In saying that, KiwiRail operates some great scenic train rides if you want to see New Zealand’s natural beauty at its best, particularly the Northern Explorer that goes from Auckland to Wellington and the famous TranzAlpine route which leads its visitors from Christchurch to the West Coast. The company also does the Coastal Pacific service from Picton to Christchurch, which has been put on hold until the latter part of 2018 as the area sustained quite a lot of damage during the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake.

Local tip: It’s best to book these train rides well in advance, especially if you’re travelling in the summer season, as they tend to be quite popular among visitors.

TranzAlpine rail journey
TranzAlpine rail journey | © Bob Hall / Flickr

Ferries

Ferries will help you travel between islands. The most famous route is between Wellington and the South Island town of Picton, serviced by Interislander and Bluebridge. Auckland has its own passenger ferry services going into selected North Shore suburbs, all around the Hauraki Gulf and key destinations like Waiheke Island and the Coromandel Peninsula.

Local tip: How about a trip to the lowest, most remote end of the country? If that sounds like something right up your alley, there’s a ferry that travels from Bluff (famous for its oysters) across the Foveaux Strait and into the wildlife mecca that is Stewart Island.

Interislander ferry in Picton
Interislander ferry in Picton | © Matt / Flickr

Transport apps

The Essential New Zealand Travel Guide app (iOS and Android) is free to download and is especially designed to help visitors to fine-tune their itineraries and travel plans. Uber will help you save money on private taxi rides in the main cities; Auckland and Wellington are also served by the ride-sharing app Zoomy. Google Maps can help you plan out your driving routes and travel times – it helps cross-check all information with the AA Travel Distance Calculator to get a more accurate picture. Bus operators like Intercity will also have their own bus tracker apps which allow you to monitor your route in real time.