How to travel around New Zealand
So you’ve decided that New Zealand is the destination for your next holiday? We’re really glad you plan to visit our little paradise in the Pacific South West and we're sure you have a few questions. In this post, we'll take a look at a common question: How to travel around New Zealand?
We’ve noticed that once people decide on visiting New Zealand, questions arise about transport. Travelling in our long, thin country takes a little planning. If you’re pondering your options for navigating the country then read on. We’ve broken down the different methods of travel into an easy-to-read guide. Our aim is to help you make a better decision on how to see New Zealand in style and comfort.
New Zealand Travel - What to Know
New Zealand stretches over 1600 km (990 miles) and has a maximum width of just 400 km (250 miles). The country is split into two large main islands and some outlying islands. This means that if you’re travelling long distances, you’re most likely moving in a north-south direction. Crossing the Southern Alps on the South Island, for example, is one of the few times you’ll travel in an east-west direction.
The key to planning travel is figuring out when to go and what to see. The weather and topography can play a big part in travel planning. There’s so much to see here that unless you have months to spend here, you might want to focus on a few areas to get the most benefit. Whatever you decide, we don't recommend speeding around trying to fit too much in.
New Zealand's northernmost tip is at -34 degrees latitude and the very south is at -48 degrees latitude. That’s the equivalent of the German/Swiss border to North Africa in Europe or Quebec to North Carolina on the North American continent.
So as you can imagine, there’s a bit of distance to cover travelling from top to bottom and the climate changes considerably. The northernmost part of the country has a subtropical climate while the southernmost part has a temperate oceanic climate.
The impressive Alps of the South Island influence the weather, as does the isolated location of the country in the South Pacific.
What are the options for travelling around New Zealand?
You could walk the country, but we’ll leave that to the extreme sports enthusiasts. You could also cycle but that’s an option for extremely fit people with a lot of time to spend. This article will focus on helping people that want less strenuous modes of transport.
Here are your options:
Hop On / Hop Off Buses
Travelling by public transport in New Zealand
New Zealand public transport is of an excellent standard, better than that of the United States but probably less developed than many European countries. New Zealanders have (like Australians) adopted the car as the main mode of transport. Bus travel is the main form of public transport in the country but usage is pretty low overall.
Each major city has a number of bus lines that will get you to the most important places. For travel further afield the Intercity bus route is your main option (apart from the hop-on-hop-off buses). Naked Bus is another company that competes with Intercity and is worth checking out as they regularly run discount deals for bus journeys.
Intercity offers a couple of Bus Passes that can save you lots of money, depending on your planned routes. The Flexipass is particularly good for backpackers and solo or independent travel fans. This pass allows you to buy set blocks of hours. You only pay for hours spent travelling and not for the days between the start and end date. You can use your pass for up to 12 months. Great if you find a place that inspires you to stay longer.
You won’t have to worry about kicking back for a few extra days. The pass also includes the Interislander ferry (part of the Great Journeys of New Zealand, see below) crossing between Wellington and Picton. Intercity suggests the 60-hour pass for visiting the main destination in New Zealand. Buses have Wifi too, which is a great option for people that need to work or connect with friends while they travel
Travelling New Zealand by rail is exciting but limited in scope. There are just four long-distance rail routes in the country so it’s not possible to travel everywhere by rail. Even if you plan to visit only the towns connected by the rail network, you will need transport between endpoints. However, if you’re a fan of rail travel, don’t let this put you off. Travelling by train is relaxing, often more interesting than using motorways, and isn’t dependent on traffic conditions.
The main visitor rail routes are:
- Auckland to Wellington: The Northern Explorer, which covers the ground between the two most important cities in the country.
- Wellington to Palmerston North: The Capital Connection route. Palmerston North is not top of the list of destination for most tourists, but the location close to the centre of the North Island makes it a good jump off point for hiking, skiing and fishing.
- Picton to Christchurch: The Coastal Pacific. A more interesting train ride than either of the North Island journeys, this route travels along the north-west coast of the South Island. Taking about five and a half hours, the Coastal Pacific train passes by beautiful coastline with the glorious Southern Alps in the distance on the other side. The tracks cover land that is not accessible to motorists and there’s a certain romanticism with rail travel that driving just can’t capture. You won’t be able to keep your eyes on a book for long with the views on this route.
- Christchurch to Greymouth: The TranzAlpine route is a spectacular train ride from the east coast to the west coast (and vice versa) that crosses the Southern Alps. It’s a 233 kilometre (139 mile) journey (one way) and takes around 5 hours. With large comfortable seats, extra legroom, and tables, crossing the mountains by train is arguably more comfortable than crossing by bus or car.
All the rail journeys in New Zealand are run by one company, the government owned Kiwi Rail. Take a look at the Great Journeys of New Zealand website.
New Zealand’s Air transport network is extensive and modern. Most major cities have an airport and there are scheduled flights between the most important cities and towns. The two main airlines are Air New Zealand and Jetstar. Air NZ and Jetstar fly all of the main routes and offer attractive prices. And charter companies and regional airlines also operate around the country for less frequented destinations.
The main benefit of air travel is the time saved. Auckland to Queenstown takes about 2 hours flying time. The same distance covered by car would take at least 24 hours. Of course, one of the attractions of using land transport is the amazing view from the seat of your vehicle. Flying offers a bird’s eye view but misses the details. In the end, your schedule might determine which mode of transport to use. If you need to move from place to place quickly, flying is your best option. The cost is often comparable to car, bus, or rail travel.
The Interislander ferry which transports passengers daily between the North and South Islands is worth doing purely for the picturesque crossing of the Cook Strait. The beautiful Marlborough Sounds are the highlight of this 3-hour scenic ferry route. The ferries are vehicle and passenger carriers so if you’re doing a self-drive tour you can easily bring your vehicle from one island to another. Don't miss this ferry journey!
Other Public Transport Options
Other forms of public transport include short-distance ferries (especially in Auckland), and suburban rail. The two largest cities in New Zealand, Auckland and Wellington, have urban rails systems but they will only get you to the city borders. If you want to see the islands around Auckland then you’ll need a ferry (although there are flights between Auckland and Great Barrier Island). Travel between the Central Business District (CBD) and the North Shore of the city is also popular. Tourists based in central Auckland might find the ferry an easier and more relaxing way of visiting the trendy North Shore suburbs of Devonport and Takapuna.
Hop On Hop Off Buses
Kiwi Experience is the best-known tour operator in this field and young travellers to the country will hear all about it pretty quickly. The company has been in operation for many years and has helped young backpackers, budget travellers, and explorers visit New Zealand’s most popular destinations.
The idea is this: You take a bus to whatever your next destination is and when you’re ready to move on you take another bus at the scheduled time. The company sells passes that give you different zones and time periods for travel. If you plan on spending a month on the South Island there’s a pass for that.
Why is this a popular option? Mainly thanks to the flexibility and convenience. You might want to see the country but hiring a car or taking a tour is not an option. Maybe you don’t like driving (or you don’t have a licence). Maybe you’d prefer to travel with other people. Car hire can be expensive, especially if the car could be parked for long periods of time. In that case, it’s not a cost-effective method of travel. If you like to take every day as it comes then going the hop-on-hop-off route is a great option.
Included in many passes is accommodation and the activities along the route. As everyone on these buses is a tourist, the bus driver will stop at the most interesting places so that everyone can take photos, explore, and grab refreshments. Short hikes and panoramic vistas are recommended and many travellers pack in as many activities as they can.
At each destination, travellers can use their bus passes to get discounts on activities such as bungy jumping, kayaking, and bike rental. Hostels are the main accommodation choice for almost everyone that uses these services. As you can imagine, the target market is more of the young backpacker crowd. That doesn’t mean that older, more experienced travellers can’t join. As long as they are comfortable hanging out with a young crowd that is most likely looking for the party every night, they will be fine.
Another big operator in the hop on hop off bus travel category is Stray Travel.
Self Drive Travel
Self-drive options are great for the independent spirits who like to drive at their own pace and stop wherever they like. But there’s some convenience built into these packages in the form of pre-arranged accommodation, customized itinerary, and rental car. All the details are taken care of, you just need to get behind the wheel, get yourself from A to B and enjoy the trip.
Group Tours are a hit with visitors who want to relax and enjoy every moment. Instead of focusing on the driving and navigation tourists can take in New Zealand’s beautiful landscape. Reading, working, and napping are also possible on Group Tours so there’s plenty of scope for kicking back and relaxing. Group tours are also a good way to meet new people and share new experiences.
Group Tours suit big groups who want to travel together as a single unit. Everyone can sit together and enjoy the experience in the same vehicle. Independent travellers can also benefit from the group atmosphere and support from fellow travellers and tour guides. Sometimes it's nice to join a group of strangers. They wlll become your friends soon enough.
To find out all about whether group travel is for you, read our New Zealand Group Travel guide here. Plenty of info on how to plan your trip, the pros and cons of travelling in a group and how to find the right group for you.
Different strokes for different folks, some New Zealand travel scenarios
Let’s look at some scenarios based on typical visitors to the country to find out what might suit you best. Hopefully, you see yourself or your travel companions here and this helps you make an informed choice.
1. Juuso from Finland, 22 years old, student.
He’s planning on spending 3 months in New Zealand and has more time than the average visitor to spend here so he doesn’t need to rush. He wants to try out the famed New Zealand adventure activities such as Bungy Jumping. He’s young and likes to party.
We’d recommend Juuso choose a hop-on-hop-off bus like the backpacker-focused Kiwi Experience. As a second option, public transport would allow him to travel at will and save money at the same time. Using a combination of bus, rail, ferry, and air, Juuso could easily visit every part of the country.
Using the backpacker bus (Kiwi Experience and Stray Travel) companies eliminates the need for travel planning and also gives Juuso the opportunity to meet like-minded young people for socialising. The accommodation options included in the bus pass also saves him on the time and energy required for booking in advance. That gives Juuso more time for sight-seeing and partying.
2. Frank and Linda, USA, early 60s, retired.
Retired doctors from Florida, Frank and Linda love travel and are eager to experience New Zealand culture and hospitality. Linda doesn’t want to drive in New Zealand at all and Frank feels he could, but would rather not have to drive on the left-hand side of the road. Don't tell Frank, but Linda would be much happier if he didn't drive in New Zealand either! They both want to enjoy NZ without worrying about arranging travel details, driving, or route planning.
Our recommendation for this couple is to travel on a group tour. Group tours give Frank and Linda everything they need in terms of convenience and flexibility. The conversion rate from US dollars to NZ dollars is very favourable and gives them many options for extending their trip and choosing the most comprehensive group tour.
3. Mick & Sheila, Austrailia, around 40, family holiday.
The typical Australian family, they're looking to spend their vacation time across the ditch in New Zealand. They’ve got a couple of kids under 10 called Bob and Bindi who, like their parents, love to travel but need constant entertaining and attention.
Public transport and modes of transport with fixed schedules are not the best options for this family. The kids make keeping to schedules a challenge so the parents need some flexibility in their travel plans. Bringing the kids on a group tour is probably not the best fit either.
A self-drive holiday is the perfect choice for the family. The flexibility to start and finish at any time, as well as the ability to accommodate emergencies and random stops along the route, makes self-driving the easiest way to travel in New Zealand. Mick and Sheila only need to rent one car instead of four seats on a bus so there are some cost savings immediately. Kids under 10 years old don’t sit still for long so the self-driving option gives the parents options for stopping along the route and changing arrival times if needs be. Many self-drive tour itineraries include kid-friendly activities. The kids will love New Zealand favourites such as the glow worm caves, whale watching, kayaking, and farm tours.
New Zealand and Australia roads are left side drive, so this makes things a little easier for Mick & Sheila who will share the driving.
4. Caroline, UK, mid 50s.
Caroline has always wanted to visit New Zealand and has decided now is the time. She has negotiated a nice long chunk of time off work and family so will come out for 6 weeks on her own. She's an experienced traveller and is not phased by making the trip alone, she's really social and wants to meet like minded people while she's here, she tried to convince several friends to come with her but they couldn't manage the time away.
She is a big foodie and is really looking forward to trying New Zealand wines and also wants to try some iconic activities like jetboating, a cruise on Milford Sound and she's very keen walker. She's busy working right up until leaving for the trip so just doesn't have the time to spend organizing and booking everything. She's got a good job back home and as this is a special trip, she's going to splash out a little and treat herself with nice places to stay doesn't want to be herded around with 50 other people.
A group tour (a small group probably) is our recommendation for Caroline. Once she finds the right tour she doesn't have to do anything else, and she'll be in the hands of pros. Small groups are a great way to meet people, she'll meet lots of people just like herself and will have ready made friends to go to dinner and enjoy activities with.
What's the best way to travel around New Zealand for me?
We’d love to tell you that one way beats all others but the best choice for you depends on your preferences and circumstances. A young backpacker with months to spend overseas will have a different idea of how to travel than a busy middle-aged couple with a couple of weeks vacation. Some people love the freedom of driving and discovery while others prefer to let the experts drive them and show them the highlights.
- Short on time: Try self-drive or group tours
- Short on money: Try backpacker buses and hop-on-hop-off buses. Public transport is also a good option
- First time traveller: Group tours
- Looking to have everything done for you: Group tours
- Looking for adventure: Self-drive tours or backpacker buses
- Looking to party and make friends: Hop-on-hop-off bus tours
- Travelling alone and want to make friends: Group tours
- Entertaining the family: Self-drive tours.
Once you've decided you are coming to visit us down here in New Zealand, figuring out how to get around is always one of the first things you need to do. Looking over your options and finding the right way for you will take a little time, but once you're here in New Zealand it will be time well spent! The good news is whichever option you choose for your trip, travelling around New Zealand is really easy and everything is set up to make it easy for visitors.
We hope this gives you a better idea of how you might travel in New Zealand. Whatever you choose we’re ready to welcome you to our beautiful islands in the South Pacific. If you've read the above guide and think a small group tour may be the one for you, take a look at our tours or drop us a line now, we'd love to hear all about your ideas for your Dream Trip to New Zealand.
See you soon!