New Zealand: there really isn’t anything quite like this country. Everywhere you turn there’s something stunning to see. At the end of every day, you crawl into bed and think, there is no way I’ll see anything more beautiful than what I saw today. The next day your jaw will drop and you’ll be speechless yet again. The best way to discover this country is to travel to New Zealand by campervan.
How to Travel New Zealand by Campervan
If you have an English-speaking driver’s license, it’s actually relatively easy to travel New Zealand by Campervan. So many people road trip through New Zealand and the country has the infrastructure to support camping throughout the country. Even those who are new to camping will have a wonderful time seeing the country by campervan.
Before you hit the road you’ll want to consider the following:
- What time of year are you looking to travel? Prices are highly inflated during the busy season, but many of the roads close in the winter, so choose wisely.
- What kind of amenities do you want with your campervan in New Zealand? A bigger van or RV comes with more luxuries but might be tough to drive down the typically rural New Zealand roads. A basic van keeps things simple, but you may miss having things like a toilet.
- How long are you traveling for? If you’re engaged in long-term road travel in New Zealand you may want to buy a campervan.
- Where do you want to go? Unless you have more than two weeks, you may want to just pick one island to travel to.
When is the Best Time to Visit New Zealand?
Unlike the northern hemisphere, New Zealand experiences summer from November through February. This coincides with both New Years and the Christmas holiday, as well as school breaks in New Zealand. The New Zealand summer is certainly the busy season and the exorbitant campervan rental prices reflect that as both locals and tourists alike take the roads. Campsites can be crowded, but you’ll have warmer weather.
During the winter, temperatures are typically cold, but the campsites are vacant. Shoulder season is certainly possible in the fall and spring. The temperatures are typically still quite pleasant and the prices aren’t quite as high.
Where to Go with Two Weeks Traveling in New Zealand with a Campervan
As an American, I didn’t have too much time to spare when we traveled to New Zealand. In two weeks, you can hit many of the South Island’s highlights, however, travel from the north to the south island would be tedious and ambitious. If you’re the kind of traveler that likes to stay in one place, opt to hit the highlights of the South Island. If you don’t mind moving every day, you can see quite a bit. Here is a look at where we went in two weeks and notes about where we would have liked to spend more time.
- Christchurch (not terribly interesting, but plan on spending a day here to rest. We picked up our van and immediately hit the road, this was a mistake)
- Akaroa (I would swap Kaikoura for Akaroa)
- Picton (the haul from Akaora to Picton was LONG, although Picton was one of our favorite camp spots
- Abel Tasman National Park. Plan on spending at least two nights here.
- Punakaiki. This area was well-traveled but beautiful (check out the photo below).
- Franz Josef. We had plans for the glacier, but the weather said no. We ended up only spending a few hours here and continued on to Wanaka.
- Wanaka. I was largely unimpressed. It was quite windy and not too much to see.
- Queenstown. Very expensive and tough to find places to stay.
- Te Anau. One of our favorite spots. It’s well-worth several days here if you really want to dive into Fiordland National Park and don’t forget to check out these delicious Te Anau dining hot spots.
- Curio Bay
- Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park. Home to some of New Zealand’s best hikes.
Got more time? Check out the awesome sights along the Northland Road in the North Island of New Zealand.
How to Select the Right Campervan for Travel in New Zealand
Should You Rent a Self-Contained Van?
Should You Rent an RV?
Renting an RV, or bigger campervan, gets you a bit more space and can easily accommodate more people. However, New Zealand is made up of mostly 2 lane roads, and many of those roads go down to one lane over bridges. An RV is an excellent choice for larger groups or families that may need a bit more space. However, for a couple, it’s really cumbersome to drive and you’re probably better off with a simple van set up.
What Comes with Your Campervan?
Again, this will vary greatly depending on what company you choose to go with, however, most campervans include the following:
- Bedding and a bed setup
- A canister stove with a few cooking and eating basics
- A cooler or small fridge
- Chairs for sitting
- A driver’s manual and maps
Many campervan outlets have a pile of various pieces of gear that other campers have left behind. We found a bunch of clothes pins, a grate for grilling and a few other handy items we borrowed.
Renting Budget-Friendly Campervans in New Zealand
Renting Versus Buying a Campervan in New Zealand
Where Can You Camp in New Zealand?
Staying in Holiday Parks
If you need a shower, laundry, or want to use a communal cooking area instead of cooking out of your campervan, head to a holiday park. These parks are privately run and vary in price from $14 to $36 NZD a night depending on the location. Many of these places have more permanent residents or even small vacation homes for locals. They are a great option for families who might want a playground and some space, or for those looking to freshen up.
A Note About Privacy while Camping in New Zealand
Campervan Tips for New Zealand Travel
When it comes to living out of a vehicle, there are a few helpful tips to make your trip more successful. These campervan tips for New Zealand are designed to help you make the most of your trip to New Zealand.
Don’t Rent Your Campervan Directly After Arrival
The first rule of vanlife in NZ would actually be to wait. Yes, you read right, wait. John and I thought it would be “no big deal” to fly for 24 hours across the globe, arrive in Christchurch, pick up the van, drive through a construction ridden city in right-hand drive vehicle, and then continue onwards for an hour or so until we reached Akaroa.
To make matters worse, we arrived utterly exhausted at where we wanted to stay that night only to realize that there was a drum circle festival going on. Not really what we had in mind. I would definitely not recommend going about business that way. Stay at a hotel or hostel in town, get some rest, get your wits about you, then hit the road the next day.
Balance You New Zealand Itinerary with Driving and Sightseeing
Keep a good balance of driving and other activities. I’m an American living in the western US. We pride ourselves on being road warriors. Distances are so vast from place to place out here that a 16-hour drive just gets me to shrug my shoulders. Don’t try to cram too much in here – you’ll be stopping every 30 minutes to get out and freak out over how beautiful it is. Eventually, we had to stop stopping or we wouldn’t make progress. There really aren’t any endless boring stretches of road like – no offense – most of the state of Nevada. Beauty is everywhere, and I’m convinced the road designers built the roads so they would be best enjoyed in a sports car.
Don’t Try to Tackle Everything in Just 2 Weeks
We looked into what we could accomplish in two weeks and decided to rule out the entire North Island (the South Island is more beautiful anyway). Our itinerary was pretty aggressive. We wanted to see the entire South Island top to bottom, and we did. It was quite funny, most of the Europeans we ran into thought we were slightly insane, but we never felt rushed. We drove just over 2,000 miles in two weeks and we spent the night at a different place each night. We averaged about three to five hours of driving a day (with the exception of one 10 hour day early on in the trip – but we stopped quite a bit). Whatever your style, you’ll see quite a bit in two weeks.
This daily life of drive a little play a lot was easily accomplished thanks to the prohibition of campfires. This meant we ended up living by the sun. Sun went down, we went to sleep. The sun rose, we were awake. Generally, we rose early and beat the crowds. We’d take our time arriving at our next destination and still have most of the day to hang out and enjoy the sites.
Get Out of Your Van and Stretch Your Legs
New Zealand is home to some of the best hiking trails in the world. There are plenty of world-class hikes and treks for all abilities in New Zealand. You can even go on multi-day track hikes which cross pristine landscapes. It’s literally a hiker’s paradise, so plan some time to explore the awesome hiking options along your New Zealand itinerary.
Learn the Rules of the Road
With the influx of tourists taking to the road from all over the world, many locals get upset when the tourists don’t know how to drive. To be honest with you, I can’t blame them! Remember, you’re driving a left-hand vehicle so everything is opposite if you’re used to driving on the right side. Keep these other important New Zealand driving tips in mind:
- Do not use your cell phone while driving! It’s illegal.
- Keep left! Don’t worry, there will be stickers all over your car to remind you, but parking lots can get interesting…may or may not be speaking from experience (oops).
- Know the speed limit. On open roads its 100Km/H
- Be careful on windy roads. Many locals drive quite fast, pull off and let them pass.
- Get used to roundabouts. They are everywhere! enter clockwise and keep dramatic driving moves to a minimum.
- Unsealed roads are common. Driving down gravel, dirt, and unsealed asphalt is quite common. Slow down and get ready to encounter wildlife!
- Wear your seatbelt.
- Don’t drink and drive.
- Watch out for wildlife!
- Bridges are one way. Typically there will be a sign with arrows and the bigger arrow gets the right of way.
Get Creative with What You Have
Rule number three is to be resourceful. Don’t go buy a ton of stuff you only need for your time on the road. Get creative. Escape had a little nook in their shop where you could pick up things other campers had left in their vans. Someone left a bag of tea lights. Each night Squirrel and I would light a row of them up on the sink/counter of the van and write in our travel journal.
I would wash my clothes in the sink and air dry them by clipping them to the drape wire in the van with clothespins I found. Raining? No problem, pop the hatch of the van up and sit underneath it, no need to retreat inside. Buy local wines, ciders, fresh fruit/veggies/eggs at stalls along the road. Use only what you need (we used the cardboard from cider purchases for a cutting board). Enjoy living simply. You don’t need a million things to get by.
Related: Campervan Hacks You’ve Got to Try
Budget-friendly tips for travel by van in New Zealand
All things considered, we kept the cost of our trip fairly low. Here are a few quick-tips for budget-friendly travel in New Zealand.
- Don’t eat out. The food is extremely expensive.
- Take advantage of farmer’s markets and little produce stands. Buying direct from the farmer is cheaper and yummier!
- Buy food that is in season. This was simple for us, since we were traveling during the harvest season.
- Don’t buy liquor. Almost everything is imported here, and that makes prices of booze soar. Instead, opt for the local wine or ciders.
- Don’t speed. You’ll use far more gas that way, and remember, you’re paying by the liter!
- Keep tours and activities to a minimum. We found that the price of some of the adventure activities was insane. We splurged once or twice, but most of the time we took advantage of free hikes and walks.
- Travel during the shoulder season. The price of your van will be a bit lower, and the weather is still pleasant.
- Use DOC sites. These campsites may be more basic, but you have everything you need in your van. Use holiday parks for showers and feeling clean again.
Now get out there and enjoy traveling through New Zealand by campervan. Take your time, enjoy the journey and fall in love with life on the road.