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Driving in New Zealand: what you need to know

By in New Zealand, Tips & Tricks No Comments

Exploring the North and South Islands of New Zealand on a self-drive holiday is a fantastic way to experience the best that this beautiful country has to offer. A road trip comes with perks as well, like having the comfort, freedom and flexibility to discover New Zealand at your own pace!

Enjoy poking around Auckland, the City of Sails, and head north to breathtakingly beautiful Bay of Islands. Encounter the amazing glow worms of Waitomo Caves, tour the Hobbiton movie set, experience the rich Maori culture and geothermal wonders at Rotorua and learn more of the nation’s history in New Zealand’s capital city – Wellington. Cross to the South Island to visit Christchurch, also known as the garden city, explore the southern alps, cruise picturesque Milford Sound and enjoy a thrilling stay in Queenstown, that sits on the shores of the Lake Wakatipu and is renowned for being the adventure capital of New Zealand. All this and much more can be revealed on your self-drive itinerary!

What is the best time of year to visit New Zealand?

Let’s get the most common question about weather out of the way first. In short, you’ll have the best chance of comfortable weather and fewer crowds in autumn (March – May). It’s considered the best time to see New Zealand – depending on your interests. You can expect more crowds in February and October, but these are still great times to travel. Summer months (November to January) are also popular and of course winter (July to September) is ideal for snow sports enthusiasts – but this is when you’ll need to take precautions to ensure you can travel safely on the icy or snow-covered roads.

New Zealand driving tips (the important stuff)

Hitting the road in a rental car is a great way to travel around New Zealand. Driving in New Zealand is not difficult and it enables you to be flexible and get off the regular tourist routes. A self-drive holiday also give you the convenience of making spontaneous stops and planning your own timetable. However, it’s important to do some homework and be safe when driving or it could easily ruin your trip if you’re not!

You can drive in New Zealand without a New Zealand drivers licence if:

  • you have a current and valid overseas licence or driver permit, and
  • haven’t been given a disqualification or suspension in New Zealand, and
  • you came into New Zealand less than 12 months ago, and
  • your overseas licence is in English, or you have an accurate translation, and
  • you haven’t been granted a New Zealand driver licence since you last entered New Zealand.

If you don’t meet all of these requirements, then you must apply for a New Zealand driver licence to drive in New Zealand. More information can be found on the NZ Transport Agency website.

Read these 9 quick driving tips (& look out for #1)…

1. Drive on the Left Side of the Road!

Drive on the Left – this is the most important thing to know about driving in New Zealand. You’d be amazed at how many problems tourists cause each day by getting confused, or not doing their homework and not staying to the left!

A tip: the driver should always be closest to the centre line. To turn into the correct lane, make sure the centre line stays on your right side.

2. Know the Speed Limits

Speed limit signs are on the side of the road, usually with a red ring around a number. Speed is measured in kilometres/hour (km/h) in New Zealand. The national speed limit for open roads is 100km/h.

Obviously, modify your driving to the conditions. Remember, you’re not at home now and you don’t know the roads. Also take particular care in winter, when roads can be wet, icy and dangerous.

3. Wear a Seat Belt

By law in New Zealand, everyone must wear a seat belt or approved child restraint (children 7 & under) – whether they are seated in the front or back of the vehicle.

4. Allow Extra Time

It’s a common mistake to underestimate travelling times when driving in New Zealand. On the map it may look close, but narrow, hilly and winding roads can extend your driving time. There are also unsealed gravel roads and country roads are normally single lane (one lane in each direction).

5. Overtake with Caution

Most roads in New Zealand are single lane and although some have ‘passing lanes’ at regular intervals, you may need to be patient.

Only overtake another vehicle when you can see clearly what’s on the road ahead and the marked lines permit you to pass.

Overtake with caution

You must never cross a solid yellow line on your side of the centre line to overtake a vehicle, as this indicates it’s too dangerous to overtake. 

A double yellow centre line means that no traffic (on either side of the road) can overtake.

6. Understand Intersections

Traffic lights operate in the same way as most countries, with green for go and red for stop. But one thing that might be different to what you are used to is that when traffic signals are red, you can only turn if there is a green arrow for the direction you are going.

Stop signs and Give Way signs have familiar rules to most countries, but roundabouts often confuse people who come from areas where these are not commonplace – or especially if you’re not used to driving on the Left side of the road. Keep an eye on the traffic, stay in your lane and if you end up missing your exit you can go around again, but keep indicating right as you drive around and then left when you are about to exit the roundabout.

Understanding intersections

At roundabouts, you must give way to traffic from your right. You must always travel around the roundabout in a clockwise direction.

7. Signs for One-Lane Bridges

In New Zealand some bridges have one lane – this means vehicles must stop and give way to vehicles coming from the opposite direction. Road signs will warn you when there is a one-lane bridge ahead and also tell you which direction has priority.

Slow down on approach and check for traffic. The smaller red arrow shows which direction has to give way.

Signs for one lane bridges

These two signs show you must give way to traffic coming the other way across the bridge.

Sign for one lane right

This sign indicates that if no traffic is approaching, you can proceed across the bridge with caution.

8. Do Nots when Driving

Using a hand-held mobile phone while driving is illegal. This includes speaking and texting on the phone, so make sure you have a hands-free device or put it away!

Drivers under 20 years old must have a zero alcohol limit. Over 20 years old and the legal alcohol limit is 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood or 250 micrograms per litre of breath. Estimating the equivalent amount of drinks is risky, so in short, don’t drink and drive!

9. Look Out for Animals, People & Cyclists

Pedestrians and bike riders come first on New Zealand roads. Drivers must look out, slow down and give way where required. Same applies for animals and please avoid sounding your horn!

Take heed of these few tips and you’ll find that driving around New Zealand is a great way to slow down and enjoy the ride. If you’re sold on the idea, make sure you check out our self-drive holidays!

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