14 Things to Know Before Going to New Zealand

New Zealand is absolutely the trip of a lifetime, and a fantastic place to go – but there are some things that are useful to know before you plan your trip. Learn from my mistakes – here are 15 things you should know before you go to New Zealand.

1. It’s worth it to spring for the fun, European rental car (at least in the summer) when visiting New Zealand

The roads in New Zealand are windy, cliffside, and absolutely stunning. If you’re into driving at all, get a car that’s fun to drive and one that feels like it’s simply hugging the road. For all the roads up and down mountains, you’ll be in driving heaven!

2. The “cancel” speed limit sign throughout New Zealand means 100 kph, not that there is no speed limit

When you’re on the back roads, it’s not uncommon to see a gray “cancel” sign that looks like a speed limit sign. It doesn’t mean there is no speed limit. (Which is easy to confuse because you find them in rural areas). It means the speed limit is 100 kph.

3. The yellow speed limit signs are suggestions, not requirements

When you’re on the windy mountain roads (or really any curve), you’ll regularly see a yellow speed limit sign. These are suggestions, and can be worth taking into account. If you’re a confident driver, and the speed limit is 80kph, and the yellow sign suggests 60kph – it’s really up to you how you’d like to manage it. If it’s an 80kph zone and it says 20 or 30kph – then it’s definitely worth slowing down because you have a very sharp turn ahead.

4. Sometimes, the roads can simply close, and there are no functional ways around

This is mostly in the South Island of New Zealand, but sometimes, when there’s a wreck, the entire road will close in both directions. If there’s a wreck with a fatality, then the road will be entirely closed until the authorities come and do a thorough investigation. This can mean hours. The lack of roads through the mountains regularly means that the better plan is to wait for the pass to clear rather than try to go around.

5. One-lane bridges are a real thing in New Zealand, and you should be prepared for them

The first time I came across a one-way bridge I was like “OMG is this how I die?” The thing to know – one side is the yield side. The other side is the right of way side. Generally speaking, the yield side is the side with more visibility of the bridge and oncoming traffic, so they can know when to yield. In the areas where it is, this system works shockingly well!

6. Some seemingly-small events can have outsized impacts on the smaller areas

Be aware of things happening in whatever town or area you’re going to. When I landed in Queenstown, I had no idea it was the day before the Queenstown Marathon. Queenstown was jam-packed! An Uber from the airport to downtown (normally about NZD$30) was up to $90+ with surge pricing. Especially in the South Island, because there are so few people overall, things that wouldn’t be showstoppers in other places are showstoppers in NZ.

7. New Zealand is very serious about drink-driving (drunk driving)

The legal limit for people over the age of 20 is 250mcg – which in human terms, is one standard drink for most people. Be VERY careful with this limit, because they do enforce it regularly and strictly. If you are a small woman, you get a strong pour, or you process alcohol slowly, one drink could put you over this limit. When I was returning my rental car, there was a drink-driving stop on the way into the airport, where you had to stop and pass a breathalyzer to proceed.

8. The beautiful lupines throughout New Zealand are actually a bit of a menace

Yes, you’ve seen the pictures of the lupines at Lake Tekapo and throughout New Zealand. They are absolutely spectacular! It turns out, they’re actually a somewhat aggressive species that will regularly clog up some of the rivers, causing them to reroute or impeding fish breeding grounds. Thus, the government is actively working to reduce them. Enjoy them where you find them!

9. Kiwis are incredibly friendly and welcoming

As a Floridian, where we can be somewhat unwelcoming to tourists, I will say – the Kiwis were an incredibly welcoming bunch! When I was trying to get to my hotel from Queenstown, because of the marathon, I asked a local about how to get there with Ubers being so expensive. A kiwi woman stopped, explained how the busses work, and warned me that they only accept cash or a transit card. I must have looked exhausted, because when I thanked her for her help and was turning to find an ATM in the airport, she simply handed me NZ$20 for the bus fare. I was blown away!

A few days later, when I got stopped because a pass was closed, I was talking to a lady at the gas station. Turned out, she had been on a bus from Queenstown, and got off because the bus had to turn around with the closure. She was waiting for her husband to drive 2.5 hours each way to pick her up! I offered to let her come with me and I’d drop her on the other side of the pass. She was so kind! (And worked for their interior department, which is how I found out about the Lupine information above!)

10. Plan to take extra time for road trip stops

There are numerous scenic lookouts, especially on the South Island. I must have stopped at almost all of them – and never had one I was sad to have stopped at! It’s worth it to plan extra time in your road trips to stop and enjoy the view.

11. The plane ride or renting a car are the best ways to get to and explore Milford Sound

If you want to see Milford Sound (and you should!), there are a few options. One is renting a car and driving – this is a great option, because you can go at your own pace and stop at all the beautiful sights along the way. You can also then take your time at the Sound itself, and find your way through all of the tour crowds.

The bus ride is long, and your time at Milford Sound is somewhat limited. So even though it’s cheaper, I wouldn’t recommend it. The plane ride from Queenstown to Milford Sound is absolutely spectacular, and worth doing. It’s also much faster!

12. Most things in New Zealand you really don’t need an organized tour for

If you’re going to spend money on a tour in New Zealand, make sure you know what you’re paying for and what you’re planning to get from it. Most hikes do not require a guide – they’re well-signed and easy to find. Most places are readily accessible and easy to navigate.

However, a few things you might consider:

1. A wine tour in Marlborough
If everyone in your party wants to drink and enjoy the wine, then it’s a good idea to book a wine tour through Marlborough or any New Zealand wine country. As mentioned above, they do enforce drink driving fairly aggressively, so you don’t want to be caught on the wrong side of that. It’s worth the tour for the safe driving!

2. A stargazing tour in Lake Tekapo
Yes, you can see the stars from almost anywhere in Lake Tekapo. But if you aren’t well-versed with the constellations, having someone point them out and tell you about them can be quite useful!

3. A Lord of the Rings Set Tour for Hobbiton
The tours for Lord of the Rings are ALL tours – you can’t do a self-guided option to simply wander Hobbiton. Also, if you have any interest in this – book it early. These fill up fast so can regularly be something you need to plan the rest of your trip around with availability.

13. Be careful with the mud baths near Rotorua

Yes, you see the pictures all over Instagram! The mud baths look awesome! However, just know what you’re getting into before you go! The mud has a high sulfur content and will likely ruin whatever swimsuit you’re wearing. Also – even if the swimsuit isn’t totally ruined, it’s going to smell terrible. So you won’t want it in your luggage. You will also smell like sulfur (farts) for a few days after the mud baths. Doesn’t sound as appealing? Maybe try the Polynesian spa! It’s absolutely beautiful, and you won’t leave with a ruined swimsuit or smelly.

14. It is totally normal to be overwhelmed with all the things to do in New Zealand

It’s also totally normal to have some FOMO for all the things you can’t do or don’t have time to do. However, just know – whatever you choose is likely to be amazing. Throughout New Zealand, all of the hikes are spectacular in their own way. The sky is huge, and the stars are bright. The scenery is amazing. No matter what you choose – trust that it’s going to be a great decision.

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