Driving New Zealand: The most important tips for your road trip

Great Coast Road on the west coast of New Zealand

Left-hand traffic, winding roads, numerous cars and long routes – driving in New Zealand can be quite exhausting. In this blog post we report about our experiences with the New Zealand road traffic and show you what you should pay attention to.

One thing in advance: We recommend you to spend at least one or two days in Auckland or Christchurch after your arrival before you pick up your car or camper. This is how you can recover from the stress of the long journey before you start your adventure. We would not take over the car directly after arrival.

International driving license

To rent or buy a car in New Zealand you need an English driver's license. If you don't have one, you need either a certified English translation or an international driver's license. Both documents are only valid together with the original passport and must be carried on every trip. This is very important as the fines for forgotten tickets can be high.

We recommend that you arrange for an international driver's license. You apply for this at the road traffic office in your place of residence. There are various requirements for the certified translation and the whole process seems to be time-consuming.

With an international driver's license you can drive in New Zealand for up to 12 months. This will probably be enough for most of you. The cost of an international driver's license in Switzerland varies from canton to canton and is approximately between 15 and 60 Swiss francs. Remember to organize everything in time.

Travel time and distances

It always takes longer than you think.

We had to make this experience several times in New Zealand. Distances are easily underestimated. Often you can't see on the map how curvy, narrow or hilly the road is in reality. There are also gravel roads, passes and narrow switchbacks that take a lot of time.

Milford Road, New Zealand

Be sure to allow more time for your routes than the sat nav predicts. The navi calculates that you are driving with 80-100 km/h outside of the city, which does not correspond to the reality for the most part. It often happens that you have to reduce your speed to 20-30 km/h outside the city limits in order to master the tight curves. Many areas in New Zealand are particularly curvy.

Curvy road at Lake Hawea, New Zealand

Another factor to consider is the weather. This can change abruptly in New Zealand as you know. In bad weather you have to adjust your speed to the visibility when driving.

Toll Road New Zealand

Left-hand traffic New Zealand

In New Zealand you drive on the left side of the road. We had already driven many kilometers in left-hand traffic in Australia, which gave us a feeling of security. Nevertheless, the roads differ significantly from those in Australia.

Crown Range Road, highest main road in New Zealand

If you have no experience with left-hand traffic, it will be a big change at the beginning. But you get used to the new situation relatively fast.

Tip: In order to concentrate better on the unknown roads and the left-hand traffic, we decided to rent a car with automatic transmission, which made many things easier for us.

Turning in left-hand traffic

Turning left caused us the most difficulties. No matter how hard we tried, we kept using the windshield wiper instead of the turn signal. This is not so easy, because the two switches are also placed upside down.

Especially at the beginning it is a challenge to turn into the right lane at a junction or turnoff. If the direction is marked with arrows on the ground or if there are many drivers on the road, you can orientate yourself relatively well. It becomes more difficult on roads with little traffic and no markings.

Driving New Zealand

Tip: We orientated ourselves on the central reservation. The passenger must always be on the side of the driver. If there is no median strip – and this happens sometimes – the driver must always sit in the middle of the road or in the middle of the lane. the passenger to the roadside. And remember, even if you drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand, you still have to give way on the right side of the road. This also takes some getting used to.

Speed limit driving New Zealand

The speed limit outside the city is 100 km/h, if no other speed limit is indicated. For larger motorhomes (over 3.5 t) there is a speed limit of 90 km/h.

Speed limit in New Zealand

Due to the curvy roads one rarely drives at the maximum speed. Yellow signs usually point out challenging curves and indicate the recommended speed limit to pass the curve safely. The speed limit within the urban area is 50 km/h maximum.

Driving New Zealand:
One Lane Bridges

In New Zealand you will cross numerous one lane bridges. The right of way signs show you who may drive first. In heavy traffic, it can take a little longer to get to the other side of the bridge.

One Lane Bridge in New Zealand, Driving New ZealandThe longest One Lane Bridge in New ZealandThe longest One Lane Bridge in New Zealand

Some One Lane Bridges are used by rail traffic. Trains always have the right of way, of course.

Toll Roads New Zealand

In New Zealand there are three toll roads on the North Island, the so-called Toll Roads. But these are only between 5 and 15 kilometers long and can be avoided without any problems. The prices for using the Toll Roads range from NZD 1 to NZD 2.90 and 2.40 per car (as of September 2019).

Information about prices and alternative routes can be obtained from the NZ Transport Agency.

Petrol / Diesel Prices New Zealand

Unlike in Switzerland, you will pay much more for gasoline in New Zealand than for diesel. Prices are subject to constant fluctuations. During our stay the average price per liter for diesel was NZD 1.36 and for petrol at NZD 2.15.

Crown Range Road, Driving New Zealand

Prices vary widely depending on the area. It is worthwhile to refuel in advance before driving to remote areas. Always check if there are any gas stations in rural areas.

Driving New Zealand:

Outside the cities there is usually only one lane per direction. Heavy oncoming traffic, especially on the North Island, makes overtaking difficult. Slow vehicles should let the other drivers pass in safe places. This way you can avoid dangerous overtaking maneuvers, of which we unfortunately saw far too many.

Along your route, there are always so-called "overtaking lanes" that you will be alerted to well in advance. Safety lines must be obeyed even when there is little oncoming traffic. Overtaking is not allowed on yellow center lines.

Driving New Zealand:
Traffic circle

Drive through the traffic circle in a clockwise direction, the person coming from the right has the right of way. So always look to the right before you enter the traffic circle. Also there everything runs differently than with us.

Railroad crossing

About half of the railroad crossings are not equipped with barriers or warning systems. Here only a "Railway Crossing" sign warns of the railroad crossing.

You must obey the stop signs, stop and look for a train in both directions before passing the level crossing.


Pay attention on which side of the road you park the car. If you park your car on the wrong side, you risk fines. The vehicle may even be towed away. One-way streets are an exception, parking is allowed on both sides here.

Baldwin Street in Dunedin is the steepest street in the world

Driving New Zealand: Keep your distance

Especially in the north there are many cars on the road and the roads are very curvy. On these challenging roads, we encountered numerous tailgaters who tailgated us very closely. We felt stressed, although we were driving fast.

There were always posters at the side of the road asking to keep your distance. Unfortunately the posters did not show their effect at that time. The tailgaters are extremely negative on the North Island.

Caution: Animals on the roads

Many animals in New Zealand are nocturnal, so we advise you not to drive after dark. Caution is also advised at dawn and dusk. Keep a good lookout, sometimes there are small animals like hedgehogs on the roads, which you can not see so well.

Road signs saying "stock ahead", "penguin crossing" or "kiwi crossing" warn you that animals may be on the road.

Penguins Crossing sign, driving New Zealand


Many tourists travel New Zealand by bicycle. So expect around every bend that a slow cyclist might appear right in front of you. Be considerate of bicyclists and keep your distance when overtaking them.

Coastal road with sea view New Zealand


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