New Zealand – The Ultimate Guide For First Time Visitors

New Zealand is a natural wonder… No doubt about it. From the volcanic landscape of the North Island to the snow-capped mountains of the South Island.

The landscapes alone make it a stunning place to visit, and that is before you get into anything else that the island nation has to offer.

I’ve been very fortunate to have visited New Zealand on several occasions, both the north and the south islands, over the last few years. Over those trips, I’ve compiled a comprehensive list of advice to help first-time visitors to New Zealand hit the ground running and make the most of their trips.

With that in mind, here are my best tips and advice for travelling to New Zealand for the first time.

An Introduction to New Zealand

Did you know, that while New Zealand only appears to be a small country on the map, it’s actually larger than the UK and only marginally smaller than Japan? So it’s going to take you more than just a couple of days to discover all the country has to offer.

New Zealand is a very geographically diverse country with the two big islands distinctly different from each other. So if you a planning a quick trip, visiting just one of two main islands won’t get a full appreciation of all the country has to offer.

I would strongly recommend that you visit both the north and south islands of New Zealand over at least two weeks to really make sure you get the full experience. Especially if it’s likely the only time you’ll get to visit this stunning country. That said you could easily spend well over a month there.

Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Pools and Rotorua is only a couple of hours drive from Auckland

Internet/Mobile Phones/Data in New Zealand

I’ll kick this off with pro-tip straightway… Adding global roaming on your mobile phone is expensive. Often your local provider will charge $5-$10 per day to get a limited version of the services you get at home, especially data.

That’s money you don’t need to spend when visiting New Zealand. Instead, what I strongly recommend you do is pick up a local sim card when you arrive.

You’ll save yourself a tonne of money by simply picking up a prepaid travel sim from either Spark or Vodafone when you arrive in the country. And it’s much easier!

New Zealand is extremely well set up for international travellers wanting to pick up a local sim so they can use data straightaway (very important for navigating to your hotel, booking a ride-sharing service, etc when you first arrive).

Both Spark and Vodafone have booths in the duty-free arrivals areas at both Auckland and Queenstown International Airports to buy a prepaid sim ideal for travellers (you’ll even get them tax-free when you purchase them prior to going through immigration).

The staff are friendly and helpful, detailing your different options, and will even help you swap over your sim card and make sure it works before you leave.

While the prices change from time to time (check the links above for the most up-to-date pricing) I would recommend that you get at least 10Gb of data per week of travelling through New Zealand, all those Instagram posts are going to add up! These prepaid services also include all of your local calls and texts within New Zealand and also include some international calls and texts.

The other thing these services include is hotspotting at no extra charge, so you’ll be able to share the data on your phone across the rest of your devices. That will come in handy, because while WiFi is available in more touristy places (mainly Auckland, Rotorua and Queenstown), it’s not that common elsewhere. So if you need to keep connected to the internet, these prepaid sims a well worth purchasing.

For myself, a lot of what I do relies on internet access. So I tend to pick up one of the larger data packages. That way I can do what I need to do and even stream Netflix (New Zealand’s free-to-air TV offering is limited) while relaxing after a big day of exploring.

From my experience, there is no real difference between Spark and Vodafone if you plan to spend all your time in the big in the cities. It’s once you head out to some of the more rural/regional areas of New Zealand, especially if you are renting a campervan and road-tripping around, that is when Spark tends to have better coverage.

It’s also worth noting that even though some hotels (definitely not all) do offer WiFi, it can be horrendous slow in some places.

Rental Cars in New Zealand

New Zealand is a great place to explore, and while there are a couple of bus services that will get you between the cities and some of the key attractions, the best way to really explore the country is to have a car.

If you only take one piece of advice from this post, it is that you will absolutely need a car at some point during your travels through New Zealand. So plan to rent one, you’ll thank me later!

All the big-name rental car companies have a presence in New Zealand, but they tend to be somewhat expensive.

I’ve found that you can save a significant of money by renting a car through one of the companies that tend to use slightly older cars like Go Rental and Rent-A-Dent. I’ve used both of these in the past and never had any issues.

That said, always look around and check the pricing before you book. I have also seen special deals with more traditional rental car companies like Avis and Thrifty. Which also offer the added bonus of being located at the airport terminals.

Whereas, some of the cheaper rental companies don’t tend to have a presence at the airports. What they do instead is utilise an airport pickup service, which is straightforward with simple instructions sent to you when booking your rental cars in advance online through their websites.

If your New Zealand travels put you in Queenstown during the snow season, a very good reason to visit Queenstown by the way, then make sure to organise snow chains as part of your car rental. It’ll make it so much easier to visit the ski resorts without having to worry about the buses.

Another thing I should mention is that fuel (both petrol and diesel) is expensive in New Zealand. Petrol/Service stations can also be somewhat infrequent in some of the more regional areas of the country. If you plan on exploring all of the stunning landscapes that New Zealand has to offer, just make sure you fill the tank before leaving the cities. The fuel will be cheaper (comparatively) and will save you from unwanted surprises.

Please don’t let any of the information freak you out. New Zealand is really one of those countries best explored by car. In fact, its an enjoyable country to explore by road. I’ve just tried to give you all the information I can so that you can include it in your planning and budget.

Jet-boating just outside of Queenstown

Getting Around New Zealand

As I just mentioned, having a car will make your life so much easier getting around New Zealand.

I’m sure that even the locals will admit that mass transit (public transport) has been a bit of an afterthought in the small country, in fact, boats were one of the primary forms of transport for a long time in New Zealand.

That said, they are trying to play catch up, and nowadays infrastructure like motorways and trains are slowly being built up, particularly around Auckland as the city continues to grow. As for the other cities tend around New Zealand, they rely on the good network of bus services they’ve developed over the years.

Taxi and ridesharing services like Uber are also available but are usually limited to within the bigger cities.

Outside of the cities, there really isn’t any other option than having a car. And as I’ve said before driving around New Zealand really is the best way to explore the country properly.

Once you start driving around, you will be awestruck by the picturesque landscapes. And if you are anything like me, you’ll want to keep stopping to take photographs.

Just another tip about driving in New Zealand, navigation can be a little tricky. Especially once you get off the main roads. So I find it handy to use a service like Google Maps on my phone to guide me along my route and save myself from getting lost.

I’ve found in the past what appeared to be a major road from looking at maps and route numbers turned out to be small single-lane tracks, and as a result, I’ve missed many turnoffs before.

Money in New Zealand – Credit Cards/Cash

You might already know that New Zealand uses the New Zealand Dollar, which is typically worth just a bit less than the Australian Dollar.

Depending on the exchange rate at the time, $1AUD (Australian Dollar) will buy you somewhere between $1.20NZD and $1.01NZD. But don’t rely on me, definitely look up the most recent exchange rate while planning your trip.

As for spending money in New Zealand. You should know a couple of things to keep you out of trouble.

I would highly recommend that you carry a small amount of cash with you while you are exploring New Zealand. While the pandemic really sped up the adoption of contactless payment systems across the country (prior to 2020 you really needed to have cash on you at all times), you might still find that some stores, more so in the regional areas, still only accept cash.

That said, it’s been a swift change in the cities. I actually found on my most recent trip to Queenstown and Auckland that most places only accepted payment by card.

So just keep that in mind before you head on over, I’d make sure you have $100NZD on you in cash when you arrive. But you’ll probably find that you don’t even use it (and change it back to your local currency) when you return home.

ATMs are readily available in cities and larger towns if you need more cash at any point. Just check the process for withdrawing international money with your local bank before you leave. Also, make sure you let them know your planned dates for travel to New Zealand, so they don’t lock your cards for odd international transactions. A locked credit card will cause you a lot of issues in places where you can only pay by card.

Tipping: Another thing to note is that tipping is not a common occurrence in New Zealand nor is it expected. That said, if you feel the staff have done an exceptional job, they will undoubtedly appreciate it.

New Zealand has so many stunning landscapes to explore

Keeping Healthy in New Zealand

For New Zealand, specifically, treat it like any modern country you might travel to.

Tap water in New Zealand is generally fine to drink, and you’ll find that pharmacies and medical services are fairly easy to locate throughout the country.

One thing key thing I would recommend, particularly if you are looking to enjoy some of the adventure sports that New Zealand is famous for, especially around Queenstown and Rotorua, is to invest in some travel insurance.

Getting hurt overseas can be expensive, and while the medical system in New Zealand is very good, if you plan to mountain bike, snowboard/ski or even just zorb, it’s better not to end up with a horrendous bill.

I typically use Cover-More for my travel insurance on every one of my trips, and while I haven’t needed to make a claim that much, the odd times I have, the process has been simple, and I haven’t had any issues.

Just watch out for things like jet lag when you arrive. If you are looking for more generalised advice, my keeping healthy while travelling overseas post will be useful to make sure you are best prepared regardless of where you are travelling to.

New Zealand’s Immigration and Customs

Much like Australia, New Zealand takes its customs and immigration process very seriously.

Customs officials have definitely held me up at the airport for wearing shoes that looked like hiking boots just in case they were carrying dirt from anywhere else I had been.

They are very protective of their local flora and fauna, and understandably so, so just make sure that your shoes are clean before you leave home. Also don’t pack any food, animal or wood items when you are making the trip to New Zealand, the same as Australia. 

For more of the latest up-to-date information about New Zealand’s Visa, Immigration and Customs head on over to New Zealand’s official tourism website – https://www.newzealand.com/au/visas-and-immigration/

Conclusion

All in all, New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful country to visit. You’ll find that it won’t matter how much time you give yourself to explore it, it just won’t be enough. However, hopefully, these tips will allow you to hit the ground running so you can really make the most of your time there.

If you’d like to get more information to help plan your trip to and around New Zealand… Check out the rest of my blog posts.

Also, make sure you check out the travel tools that I use the most to help you save some money when booking your next trip.

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And if you have a travel-related question, you would like me to answer, head on over to my contact page to get in touch and let me know.

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About the author

Rhys Vandersyde

Traveller, Photographer, Content Creator - I've spent the last 20 years actively seeking out new destinations and new adventures. Find out more about me here: vandersyde.com.au

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