New Zealand is an amazing island nation, and one we think everyone with a love of nature should add to their bucket list. As a more westernized country, traveling here is also fairly easy (not to say we still didn’t get thrown for a loop every now and then). Here are 15 important things to know about New Zealand before traveling there.
1) Be Prepared to Go Off Grid
Our trip to New Zealand was focused on seeing and being in nature, so we were prepared to go off grid a good portion of our trip. It was shocking though to find that even close to some towns and cities we’d have weak data signal. Generally speaking this happened more on the South Island, where it’s less developed than the North Island, but it’s good to be prepared in either circumstance. Don’t assume you’ll have signal just because you purchased a local sim card.
2) WiFi is Weak
In addition to spotty cell service, we weren’t prepared for how weak New Zealand’s standard WiFi is. Even when paying for campsites with WiFi, or hanging out in the city, it was sometimes difficult to get enough signal to do anything productive. As such, whenever we came across a place with strong WiFi, we usually hung around for an hour or two to get our research done.
A few places we found with consistently good WiFi:
- Burger King
- The Warehouse
- Bus Station Terminals
- I-Sites and DOC Centers
3) UV Exposure is Extreme
There’s less ozone over New Zealand meaning UV rays can be brutal. Even with traveling in the spring, where it was cold and overcast many days, we still managed to get mild sunburns throughout the trip. Take precaution by traveling (at minimum) with a sun hat and sunscreen. Or, if you burn easily like I do, read our article on other ways to protect from the sun.
4) Meat is Expensive
Even though New Zealand does a lot of sheep and cow farming, meat is still surprisingly expensive. Vegetables, on the other hand, are reasonably priced. Thankfully we’re vegetarian (okay, Tom’s more of an “edge”-atarian, meaning he cheats and eats meat every so often), so this didn’t impact us as much when cooking or dining out. If you’re looking to save some cash, try going vegetarian for some or all of your meals.
5) Horde $1 and $2 Coins
If you’re taking a longer trip, then you’ll need to do laundry at some point. Many town laundromats and holiday park facilities use $1 or $2 coins to operate. Make sure to have a small stockpile in case of emergencies as it can be hard to get enough change on the spot. Freedom campers will also need these coins for paid hot shower facilities around the Islands.
Left: View of New Zealand from the airplane. | Right: Heading to ‘baggage reclaim’ sounds so proper!
6) Customs Regulations Are Strict
New Zealand’s ecosystem is fragile, and any change could have a drastic impact. To help protect it, the country has implemented one of the strictest customs regulations we’ve ever encountered. From food to outdoors equipment, they’re very particular about what you can bring into the country. Before packing your bags, make sure to browse their website to ensure you’re not accidentally violating the law, and when it comes time for customs, declare everything. You can get heavily fined or your gear confiscated if you get caught with something that wasn’t declared, so it’s better to be safe than sorry and just give them the full list of what you’re bringing in.
Fun Fact: New Zealand has no natural predators. The few that exist on the Islands (such as possums) were brought over by settlers long ago.
ProTip: Before bringing outdoors gear with you, consider purchasing it new in New Zealand. You can get a feel for prices online at stores such as The Warehouse. Otherwise, if you do bring your own gear, make sure to clean it thoroughly so there’s no seeds, dirt or other biological elements attached from a different ecosystem.
Personal Story: Even with cleaning most of our items and declaring everything, I was still pulled over by a sniffer dog in customs. It was because my daypack hadn’t been properly cleaned, so there were lingering food smells which the dog picked up. Thankfully when going through secondary inspections my bag didn’t get confiscated. This just goes to show you though how seriously they take regulations.
7) Drive on the Left
If you’re unused to driving on the left, then this will be a new experience for you. I remember those first few moments on the wrong side of the road being heart pumping with anxiety that we were going to crash! Of course, everything turned out fine, but it doesn’t hurt to take it easy the first time behind the wheel while you get used to the new perspective.
8) Give Yourself Extra Time
From the weather to extremely windy roads, it will take longer than your navigator estimates to get from one place to another in New Zealand. Travel time estimates are usually based on a normal car, not a campervan that is big and doesn’t handle top speeds as well.
With needing more time to get from point A to B, it’s important to not pack your itinerary completely full. Give yourself leeway to pull over at those amazing vistas for a photo op, or linger in a spot that calls to you. This is a road trip after all, so embrace a more relaxed pace and see where it takes you. Trust me, I know this can be hard if you’re on a tight time frame or are prone to experiencing FOMO, but giving yourself that extra time will make for a better trip overall.
9) Sandflies Are Extremely Annoying
Sandfiles will quickly become the bane of your existence when traveling the South Island. Not only do they have painful bites, but they’ll eventually turn to itchy sores that last for weeks afterwards.
While you can’t avoid sandflies (nor should you try, as some of the best sights are in their territory), there are ways to prevent getting bit:
Wear Long Clothing
Sandflies can’t bite through clothes, so make sure to wear those layers. Especially in the morning and evening, when they’re most active.
Too hot to wear long clothing? Then bug spray will be your next best bet.
While not a perfect solution, sandflies have a harder time landing on moving objects, so get out and be active!
Stay in a Windy Place
As with moving, the wind makes it difficult for sandflies to land on you, so staying in a windy location can be a boon. Other added benefits include keeping you cool in the summer and providing some amazing white noise to fall asleep to.
ProTip: If you do get bit, apply some anti cortisol cream to the itch. This is an over the counter ointment and can be found in most pharmacies across New Zealand.
10) Prices Are Rounded
New Zealand’s lowest coin is the 10-cent piece, so all purchases will be rounded up to the nearest zero. This is automatically done at the register. Yes, sometimes you’ll lose out on a few pennies, but it beats having to carry around a large pocket of change.
11) Sales Tax is Included
Unlike many states in the US, sales tax is included in the listed price. This makes tallying bills and shopping way easier to stay on budget. What you see listed is what you pay.
12) Passports are Required to Buy Alcohol
While your driver’s license will be okay for most situations, you’ll need to present your passport to buy alcohol in the country. We didn’t experience needing our passports when having drinks at a restaurant, so it only seems to be when you’re buying bottles at the supermarket or liquor store.
13) Not all Water Is Safe To Drink
As with many places around the world, safe drinking water depends on its source. If you’re camping, you’ll regularly find that drinking water is labeled ‘potable’. To ensure you don’t accidentally get sick, It’s important that you heed these signs and drink only from approved sources. Otherwise you have no idea where the water was pumped up from.
If you want to ensure you can drink all water that you encounter, then bring a filter system with you. Not only is it eco-friendly and reusable, it’ll ensure you can find water wherever your travels take you.
Left: An easy-ish walk up the Ithmus Peak Track | Right: Even though this is called the Pinnacles Walk, it’s difficulty is more in line with tramping.
14) Walking and Tramping are Not the Same Thing
Getting out in nature is one of the best things to do while in New Zealand. If you plan to do any hiking while in the country, it’s important to know how they classify their trails.
Walking in New Zealand is best equated to a day hike in the US. They are usually on well-worn trails or man-made roads.
Tramping is often known as bushwhacking, backpacking or rambling in other countries. Typically it goes over rougher terrain, longer distances and involves at least one night spent outdoors. People will often carry camping gear with them, including clothes, sleeping equipment and cooking supplies.
Great Walks are popular tramping trails in New Zealand. They showcase some of the best scenery the country has to offer. There are a total of 9 Great Walks across the islands, and each usually takes multiple days to complete.
15) Hitchhiking is Legal
With thumbs out, a backpack on and happy grins, you’re sure to see at least one hitchhiker during your travels. In New Zealand hitchhiking is legal, so feel free to give it a try yourself or help a fellow traveler along their journey by giving them a ride.