How difficult is it to drive in New Zealand?

Get info on what you need to know about driving in New Zealand with 10 tips to make it easier for you to drive and stay on the left side of the road.

In New Zealand, we drive on the left side of the road.

But I grew up and learned to drive on the right-hand side of the road.

So when I moved to New Zealand, I had to shift my thinking to driving on the left instead of the right. It is not a difficult thing to do, though.

If you are still not convinced that it is pretty easy to drive on the left, coming from driving on the right, here is more...

When I visited New Zealand alone for the first time as a tourist, I had only had my driver's license for less than 2 years. And since I had not driven much in the country where I used to live, you could consider me to be someone who was fresh out of driving school.

To top that, I had to do all of the navigation myself. With navigation I mean, read maps, read road signs, look for street names, etc. etc., to get from one place to the next. I did not have a GPS.

But I managed to drive in New Zealand, and so can you.

In this article, I'll make the process less scary by telling you which road rules to pay special attention to, and give you 10 tips you can use to keep yourself safe on the road.

Road rules in New Zealand

Before you come to New Zealand, read up on the New Zealand Road Code.

While you do not have to read the entire thing, because many of the rules are the same internationally, I would pay special attention to the following sections:

Pay close attention to the give way rules for intersections, since intersections can be deadly in New Zealand.

And perhaps also take a look at the section about one-lane bridges, especially if you will be visiting the South Island of New Zealand, since there are several one-lane bridges to cross rivers and creeks on that island.

Give way sign on a dirt road in New Zealand

Give way sign on a dirt road in New Zealand

Most roads in New Zealand have two lanes. Highways may have an extra passing lane in some sections.

Motorways, which are generally only around larger cities such as Auckland, Christchurch, and Wellington generally have more than two lanes.

So it is safe to assume that you'll be driving most of the time on roads with oncoming traffic.

Most roads in New Zealand are sealed or paved. The only roads that are unsealed are mostly rural roads and low usage roads. So you won't have to rent a four wheel drive vehicle or SUV to get around, unless you plan to drive on the dirt roads, which are mostly backcountry roads.

10 Tips for driving in New Zealand

The following driving tips are things that I figured out myself and which have worked well for me when driving in New Zealand, tips that I have received from other more experienced drivers, and tips that can help you overcome your "handicap" of going from driving on the right-hand side of the road to driving on the left-hand side of the road.

For winter driving tips, you can head over to the Winter in New Zealand page.

1. Choose an automatic car instead of a manual car
I rented a car with an automatic transmission when I first visited New Zealand, and I still do whenever I'm travelling around the country.

Because I learned to drive stick-shift using my right hand to shift gears, here in New Zealand I would have to use my left hand to do so, which would force me to concentrate more on the shifting of gears rather than on the driving itself.

One-lane bridge in New Zealand

One-lane bridge in New Zealand

While I've heard from similarly challenged people that it is easy to learn, I've never really tried it.

But if you are fortunate enough to have someone sitting next to you who can tell you which turn you should take next, so who is doing the navigation for you, you might want to rent a manual car, because they are generally cheaper than automatic cars.

Otherwise, I'd recommend going with an automatic.

2. Learn the NZ Road Code before you arrive in New Zealand
Learn the rules of the road before you arrive in New Zealand. Learn what the road signs mean and be prepared for differences with driving in your own country.

Most of the road signs and rules in New Zealand are the same internationally, so it is highly likely that you will see more similarities than differences in the road rules and signs.

Nonetheless, still brush up on the New Zealand Road Code before you come over.

3. Purchase a good set of road maps
Buy a good New Zealand road atlas. Although most car rental companies will provide you with maps, these maps do not have enough detail on them to help you find minor roads or streets in a big city like Auckland.

4. Map out your route before you start to drive
Before heading out or even starting to drive, map out the route you'll be taking, and then memorize it. This can get tricky when you're in a large city like Auckland where there are many roads, so many decisions to make.

5. Memorize the locations of large cities in New Zealand
Memorize the locations of large cities on the map of New Zealand and their proximity to other cities.

To get to your destination, most of the time you only need to know the names of larger cities, because those will be listed on the large green signs on the roads and highways. So by memorizing the map of New Zealand, you'll know in which direction to head.

6. Use landmarks, the sun, a compass, or a GPS to help you navigate
Know in which direction you're currently driving (North, East, South, or West), know in which direction you should be driving, look for roads (preferably main roads) that are travelling in the direction you want to go and hook onto them. Main roads generally lead to highways.

7. Know how long a drive will take before you hit the road
Know how long it can take approximately to get from point A to point B and plan your journey accordingly. Most good road atlases will list the approximate driving times and distances between the larger cities in New Zealand.

Highway in New Zealand

Highway in New Zealand

To get a rough idea of driving distances and times in New Zealand, you can check the North Island driving distances and the South Island driving distances maps.

In my own experience, the driving times calculated on the maps are generally too short. So add at least 30 minutes to the times listed.

If you're not used to driving 11 hours non-stop, I don't recommend coming to New Zealand and doing that over here.

Take your time while driving from city to city. And remember that while New Zealand is a small country compared to for example Canada or the United States, it can take up to 7 hours to drive from Christchurch to Queenstown for example.

Roads can be long, straight, and boring sometimes, but they can also be very hilly and winding, which can get you tired. And don't forget you'll be driving on roads that are completely unknown to you, so don't rush and take all the time you need.

8. Rest adequately before you hit the road and during long drives
If you're experiencing driver's fatigue, which you might if you haven't had enough sleep or have been driving for a long time, take a break.

It is recommended to take a 10-minute rest break every hour when driving. You can stop at picnic spots, a roadside café, or a lake to take a brief rest from driving before continuing your journey.

Driving tired is almost as bad as drinking and driving.

Low usage sealed road in New Zealand

Low usage sealed road in New Zealand

9. Don't panic if you get lost
While it is difficult to get lost in New Zealand, it can and does happen.

The best thing to do if you cannot figure out where you are on a map, is to stop and ask for directions.

Kiwis are some of the most helpful people in the world.

The only place I've gotten lost is while driving in Auckland. Other than that, even when I thought I was lost, I've always been able to find my way again just by following my instincts.

10. Don't drink and drive
Be courteous on the road and please have consideration with other road users (cyclists and farmers). If you know you're going to be drinking, let someone else drive.

Some car rental companies require you to provide them with a list of all of the people who are going to be driving the car. They usually ask for this information when you pick up the car.

So if you are travelling with more people and know you might drink, remember to assign a designated driver when you pick up the car.

11. Bonus tip to stay on the left side of the road
Whenever you're driving on a two-lane road, keep the center line on your side (the driver's side) of the car. This will automatically help you stay on the left side of the road.

Final words on driving in New Zealand

I'd like to share the biggest challenge I've encountered while driving for the first time on the left side of the road in New Zealand.

Road sign and driving on the left side of the road in New Zealand

Road sign on the left side of the road in New Zealand

The easy part will be following cars, that is, if there are cars ahead of you, you can just follow them and you'll be alright - it will be easy to stay on the left side of the road that way.

The difficult part will probably be getting back on the road after stopping somewhere. You must remind yourself to get in the left lane when you get back onto the road.

I can remember a comical situation near Whakapapa when I briefly stopped at the visitor's centre and got back onto the road, only to catch myself driving on the right side of the road. Luckily I became aware of this just after a few seconds of starting to drive.

Don't let the same thing happen to you, because you can get into an accident that way. Luckily the road was empty at the time it happened to me.

And last but not least, the following 2-minute video provides some general information about driving in New Zealand. For all of the New Zealand driving rules, please refer to the New Zealand Road Code web site.

Enjoy New Zealand when you come over, don't be afraid to drive in New Zealand, and please don't do anything you would not do in your own country of residence.

 

Note: This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm all details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.