12 Things You Should Probably Know Before Going to New Zealand

12 things you should know before going to New Zealand

The hubster and I just returned from our 16 day honeymoon in New Zealand and Australia. Lots of adventures, driving, wine and coffee and not a lot of Internet. I can’t wait to tell you more about all the crazy stuff we did, but in the meantime, I feel compelled to share a few things we learned about traveling New Zealand that I wish we’d known before we left.

Good stuff, bad stuff, useful stuff.

Keep in mind that we only did the south island, which is much more remote than the north island. At any rate, I think this info would help anyone planning to go there.

* * *

1. Customs

I’ve always ticked the “nothing to declare.” I only once got in trouble for brining an unopened package of gummy bears back home from Germany (I mean, really. I was supposed to declare those?). However, the customs people in New Zealand take this stuff super seriously.

For example, I saw one customs officer tear a lady a new one for not declaring a wood carving she bought at the Sydney airport. The same one aggressively shamed Josh for not declaring his hiking boots, pointing out that he had signed a legally binding contract where he lied about carrying outdoor gear. She then inspected his boots and said it’s a good thing they weren’t dirty because it’s a $400 fine.

Not the warm welcome we’d expected, but I guess we’ll know for next time and so will you!

2. Sandflies

My god, the sandflies.

As a Minnesotan, I am used to mosquito bites. Sandfly bites are a whole different thing. They are tiny and relentless. Josh and I each had about 30-40 bites on our ankles and nearly a week later, they still itched like crazy. Like can’t sleep at night crazy, I don’t know if I can even live one more second without cutting off my legs at the shin crazy.

What’s worse, we could only find “natural” repellent and “natural” anti-itch stuff. And we all know how well that stuff works. If you’re going to New Zealand, do yourself a favor and bring DEET repellent and real AfterBite.

3. Coffee!

Mark this one under pleasant surprises: Every bar, roadside stop, restaurant, hotel and many gas stations have a ridiculously nice espresso machine with amazing coffee beans. I had no idea Kiwis were so obsessed with coffee. Even in the most podunk of podunk towns, you can find a cup that outshines most hipster-filled urban coffee shops. It is great!

4. It’s So Remote

The country’s total population is about 4.5 million (though there are 70-some million sheep). In the south island, there were multiple times we drove for hours without seeing a gas station or a grocery store. So fill up on food and gas while you can.

5. Freedom Camping

Gillespie Beach, New Zealand.
Gillespie Beach, New Zealand.

Unless it’s posted otherwise, you can basically camp on any conservation land (which is almost everywhere) if you are in a self-contained unit aka campervan/RV. Which is a great thing when you’re driving through the alps and haven’t seen an open business for two hours. Plus, it allows you to stay in some stunning places, like the above Gillespie Beach, just outside Fox Glacier.

6. Rent a Campervan

A classy steak dinner while camping? We're in!
A classy steak dinner while camping? We’re in!

Before we booked our trip, I was intrigued by traveling via campervan. It seemed so convenient to not unpack every night and have our hotel and car be the same thing. Plus, freedom camping! But would we look like absolute tools driving around New Zealand in an RV? We decided to go for it.

Fret not, potential New Zealand campervan travelers! Basically 25 percent of the vehicles on the road are campervans. We didn’t stick out at all. Locals, tourists, everybody is into the car camping thing.

We went with Maui (fancier than we needed, but I am not complaining!) and lived in the lap of RV luxury for nine days. We could cook, eat, sleep, pee, brush our teeth, refrigerate food and drink wine out of real wine glasses. Barely camping, but still able to hang in the outdoors.

7. Take Kiwi Advice with a Grain of Salt

Before heading to New Zealand, a Kiwi warned Josh and I that we should avoid Greymouth, where we’d intended to spend a night or two, because it’s incredibly industrial and not scenic at all. Josh and I immediately thought of Gary, Indiana. No thanks!

Here’s what Greymouth looks like:

Greymouth: It's like New Zealand's Detroit! Photo by Kelsi
Greymouth: It’s like New Zealand’s Detroit! Photo by Kelsi

I guess if you live in the most stunning place on earth, this might seem like an eyesore.

We were also told by Kiwis that Milford Sound, while beautiful, is terribly touristy. To me, that means a million trinket shops, a McDonald’s and at least one Bubba Gump Shrimp equivalent. Milford Sound, while full of tourists, has a lone airstrip, two restaurants (one where you order at a counter), two small hotels and a few boats that will take you out on the sound and literally nothing else. So when a Kiwi says tourist-y, they’re not talking Navy Pier.

Hot pools? More like Wet-n-Wild.
Hot pools? More like Wet-n-Wild.

Oh and Kiwis love to recommend the hot pools, but be warned: these are not the outdoor, nature-y oasis they seem. We drove an hour and a half out of our way to visit Hanmer Springs, which turned out to be a water park with screaming kids, a lazy river, water slides and crappy burgers. Lesson learned!

8. This Place is run by 20-something Backpackers

Almost everywhere was staffed largely by 20-somethings from places other than New Zealand. It’s pretty easy to apply for a year-long work visa and bum around the country, picking up odd jobs here and there. Restaurants, outdoorsy tours and hotels seem to employ a lot of college-aged kids who’ve only been working there for two weeks or a month and are probably moving on soon.

Why didn’t I know about this ten years ago?

9. Internet

The south island can be pretty remote. If it’s even available, it’s slow and it sucks. Just come to terms with that and you’ll be fine.

10. Beware of the Weather

It’ll be hot one moment, then raining, then freezing cold, then hot. Just bring lots of layers, a rain coat and socks that cover your ankles (not only for the cold– sandflies!).

11. Few Things are Oversold, Merit-wise

The entire kitchen at the Cray Pot

The entire kitchen at the Cray Pot


The best fish & chips.

The best fish & chips.

I’m always skeptical of any restaurant recommended by any tourism company. The New Zealand tourism folks would not STFU about the Cray Pot in Jackson Bay, reportedly the best fish and chips in the land. For whatever reason, we decided to check it out anyway.

After a 40-minute drive along…wait for it… a road with no businesses, we landed at this postage stamp-sized restaurant. Three ladies cooking up fish and chips and cray fish (also known as lobster). 18-seats in the joint and every single one was taken. We waited 20 minutes for a table, and with my first bite, I knew this excursion was worth every bit of time and money, and just one of many examples of things that lived up to and surpassed expectations.

12. Few Things are Oversold, Space-wise

We visited during high season and hardly booked anything in advance. Aside from Milford Sound (where we still got one of the last camping spots), most places had plenty of space if you arrived before 3pm. So don’t worry about plotting out your every move before you go. You will probably be just fine. And if all else fails, freedom camping!

* * *

Any other travel advice for folks heading to New Zealand? Comment away! Josh and I also went hang gliding (amazing!) and bungy jumping (scary!) here. And PS here’s another very different place I traveled recently and ADORE. Plus, 7 non-essential things that make travel better.



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Comments (52)

  • Tara Woodruff 5 years ago Reply

    Ahh Thanks for the heads up on the Quirks and Awesomeness of this trip!! I Think Id Love it!!

    molly mogren katt 5 years ago Reply

    It was so fun! Start saving now. 🙂

    Chloe 3 years ago Reply

    The first tip explains the customs, and how aggressive they are, but they’re really just doing their job? Who can blame them??

  • gab kent 5 years ago Reply

    Hi, Gabs here a kiwi btws thats a big generalisation about the internet. New Zealand like everywhere else not all backpacker and cafe places have the best wi-fi, but 99.9% of New Zealand has speedy wi-fi. So to people coming to nz I wanna say we like everywhere else in the world when it comes to wi-fi. It just matters where you are.
    ps- sorry if this sounded passive aggressive. thanks for coming in nz xoxo (: (;

    molly mogren katt 5 years ago Reply

    HA! Not passive aggressive at all. I’m sure wi-fi is great in a lot of places, but we were mostly in rural south island and it was brutal… much like you’d expect in rural areas everywhere. I kind of liked it– why be tied to your work and online life when you’re in one of the most beautiful places on earth?!

  • Claire 5 years ago Reply

    Hi there, Haha yes we do have weather that changes seasons about 3 times a day! And too future visitors, watch out our stores(other than grocery stores) generally close around 5 and often are only open for a few hours on sat morning in the weekend, so don’t plan a day of shopping on Sunday!
    -Kiwi living in the southisland
    (p.s. 60 million sheep? more like <3million)

  • Jazz a 5 years ago Reply

    Thanks for the heads-up about the sandflies. Heading to NZ shortly, so handy advice!

  • Steffi 5 years ago Reply

    Hi, we just came back from a three week trip to NZ. Totally agree with coffee- Yeah! – and also with the horrible sandfly bites, luckily we saw (and bought) repellent with DEET in almost all kind of supermarkets, especially on the southisland.
    Steffi from Germany

  • Nomad'er How Far 5 years ago Reply

    I like the sound of the place being run by backpackers haha Good to know I will be able to find work! Sucks about the internet though, if you want to stay there long-term i bet it get’s super annoying!

    Hannah – nomaderhowfar.com

    Rebecca 5 years ago Reply

    The internet really varies depending on where you are! My internet at home is fine most of the time, a lot of accomodation I’ve stayed in have had free wifi and it usually works. Most McDonalds restaurants have free wifi too, not that great though. But the Internet in the centre of the bigger cities is pretty good

    molly mogren katt 5 years ago

    No idea about the McDonald’s. And I agree, it was better in the cities, but we spent a lot of time out in the wilderness. THanks for your feedback!

    molly mogren katt 5 years ago Reply

    You will DEFINITELY be able to find work! Like a lot of people have pointed out, it’s better in some areas than others. But in the more rural, tourist-y spots, it can be rough. Who cares though… you’re in NEW ZEALAND!

  • Jan 5 years ago Reply

    One important thing not mentioned. We drive on the left in NZ. Too many accidents occur here involving overseas tourists. See this website before you drive in NZ. https://www.nzta.govt.nz/safety/driving-safely/visiting-drivers/

    molly mogren katt 5 years ago Reply

    GREAT call! That is a big one.

  • Kris 4 years ago Reply

    What were your TOP 5 things you did/saw on the South island?

    molly mogren katt 4 years ago Reply

    In no particular order:

    1. Lake Wanaka– so beautiful, like Italy and colorado all in one! Great wine, food, people. We splurged and stayed at Riverrun B&B one night and it was perfect.

    2. That fish and chips place i wrote about. Amazing.

    3. Milford Sound. Loved kayaking there. Along the drive, we stopped at this waterfall thing called the Chasm. Only took 15 minutes to check out, but was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Not even worth explaining it, you just have to see it. You’ll see signs for it.

    4. Adventure sports in Queenstown. Especially hang gliding. Just pony up the $$$ and do it. We also did a star gazing thing at the top of the gondola in Queenstown. So cool.

    5. Hiking in general. One million places to do it, each more stunning than the next.

    When are you going?

  • Rob Dempster 4 years ago Reply

    Your stats are a bit out of date. There are 4.5M people and only about 38M sheep. However NZ is now better known as the biggest dairy exporter in the world so you may see a few dairy cows.

  • Rob Dempster 4 years ago Reply

    The other thing you must know is the sun can be vicious. The hole in the ozone layer means the UV rating is high and you can get fried in 20min. So use a good suntan lotion.

  • Rachael 4 years ago Reply

    In regards to the sandflies, Apple cider vinegar dabbed on the bites will take the itch out. Our sun is brutal so bring high spf sunscreen.

    molly mogren katt 4 years ago Reply

    Yes, for sure on the sunscreen. And noted on the vinegar.

  • Melanie 4 years ago Reply

    Really interesting post! We are planning to go in December. We want to rent a campervan but we are not sure about the self-contained… We did a 6 months trip in the USA with a C-Camper 25ft and I found it big to drive everywhere… but I like the idea of the free Camping in NZ, which was not possible in the USA… Having to book everywhere in July-August in the National Parks in the USA left me a bit traumatised! I’m affraid to have to live the same experience… What would you recommend self-contained or not?! Thanks

    molly mogren katt 4 years ago Reply

    I personally liked the option of a bathroom for #1 purposes (#2 didn’t seem like a good idea in the RV, but I’m sure people do it), but my husband didn’t really need it for obvious reasons. With Freedom Camping, it might be more important. I liked having the option.

  • Tim 4 years ago Reply

    If you go to the North Island, you will get good internet in most spots, along with lots of beautiful shops, scenes, and more that is not crowded. Also, the whole reason that they are strict at airports is to make sure that no invasive species get in, which can wipe huge amounts of native species such as the Kiwi. New Zealand is a wonderful place and I recommend it to anybody.

    molly mogren katt 4 years ago Reply

    I understand why they’re strict. I just wish we’d understood that before we got there. It’s a great place 🙂

  • ROZZ 4 years ago Reply

    hI, I have travelled all through the North Island and I am about to go to the South Island this July…a few things I did notice in North Island was the ridiculous price of fuel $2.30+ litre, manic drivers who dont know how to use their indicators and also if you need Police assistance you have to call 000 even though it is not an emergency, no central number.

    Hope this healps all who are intending to travel soon

    molly mogren katt 4 years ago Reply

    Good tip on the gasoline. I feel like fuel is expensive all over the world, but especially inexpensive in the USA. I always forget to look up what "911" is in other countries.

    southislandkiwi 4 years ago Reply

    In NZ the emergency number is 111 not 000, pretty sure 000 is australia

  • Tom 4 years ago Reply

    Hi Eleanor! Loved this! Awesome insights!

  • Maria 4 years ago Reply

    I traveled around New Zealand for 3 months living out of a car, and am nodding along with all of these tips! I would definitely second your advice about going self contained – we were debating whether to do that or not, ended up with a car, and it definitely limited our choices. When we arrived in Picton late at night we had to drive till 1AM before we could find a place to stay, instead of just pulling over and set up camp.. We were also there in high season and apart from Abel Tasman park around Christmas/New Year where we really had trouble finding room, we could turn up to a campsite in the evening and easily find a spot.
    (Check out my blog post on my ‘Best of New Zealand’: http://momentumtravels.com/top-new-zealand-highlights/ )

  • Brittney 4 years ago Reply

    Thank you for your tips.
    We are going for our honeymoon in November, 7 days north island and 7 in south.
    1) is the sandfly issue year round?
    2) how was the drive from queenstown to Milford Sound? We are renting a car when we get to Qstn and then driving to Te Anu for a couple of days and deciding on whether to drive to Milford sound or take a coach?
    3) any restaurant recommendations in QTN or Wanaka?

    molly mogren katt 4 years ago Reply

    I am so excited for you!

    I have no idea if the sandflies are a year-round thing, but my guess is no– they can’t be, right?

    The drive from Queenstown to Milford Sound is absolutely stunning and I loved being able to pull over and stop whenever we wanted. Be sure to check out the Chasm. There will be signs for it. It’s a 15 minute walk/stop and unbelievably cool. Just go. The drive does take a few hours (maybe 2 or 3? Can’t remember). And be warned– I think the last grocery store and gas station are in Te Anu, so stock up and fuel up before you leave!

    Our favorite meal on the entire trip was at Rata (http://www.ratadining.co.nz/). It’s a little on the spendier side, but incredible! We sat at the bar and loved it. People go nuts over Fergburger– we didn’t go and instead ate at some other burger place nearby with no wait and a great patio. Wish I could remember the name! Also, dinner at At Thai was great (http://www.atthai.co.nz/). We ate at Francesca’s in Wanaka and felt so-so about it. Only spent one night there. If you are looking for a place to stay, we did splurge a little at Riverrun (http://www.riverrun.co.nz/) and it was my favorite hotel of the entire trip.

    Hope this helps!

    NZ Muse 4 years ago Reply

    We don’t really get sandflies in Auckland so I’m not an expert… but sandflies shouldn’t be much of a problem in the colder months.

    The drive is amazing but don’t bite off more than you can chew – leave lots and lots of time.

    Very scenic but also quite windy and challenging in parts.

    Rata is excellent and a must do!

    Aaron 4 years ago Reply

    Hi Brittney
    Sandflies will be around in November but they aren’t everywhere so don’t worry too much about those but pick up some repellent in NZ. The natural types with Calendula or similar are good. Sandflies like the Western areas of the South Island and around watery areas. Good restaurants in Queenstown. The Botswana Butchery is amazing you want something a little special, or Michelin Star Chef Josh Emmitts Rata restaurant. Voodoo Cafe does a good breakfast. Offset that with Fergs Burgers on another night. They’re a real hit. Wanaka restaurants, there’s a real mixture of choices but most down by the lake are sort of pub meal style. Francescas is good though. Have fun. I’m sure you’ll love it here. Aaron ☺

    Ashley 4 years ago Reply

    be sure to check out Kaikoura on the South Island! Best town there is.

  • Sharon 4 years ago Reply

    If you’re coming to NZ and are going to do freedom camping, make sure you hire a self-contained camper. NZ is getting sick and tired of the mess being left by tourists who leave rubbish behind and who use our beautiful countryside as a place to toilet. So the rules for freedom camping are tightening up. Only self contained campers can do it, and that means the campers where the toilet is accessible at all times.
    NZ is beautiful, the people are friendly, and it’s a great place to enjoy some open-space.

    molly mogren katt 4 years ago Reply

    Good tip, and also EWWW! What is wrong with people?

  • NZ Muse 4 years ago Reply

    Ha, awesome list! Also PLEASE use tons of sunscreen! (More of my tips here: http://nzmuse.com/2014/03/five-things-may-know-new-zealand/) Our UV is fierce.

  • natalie 4 years ago Reply

    im from new zealand and i think your review sucks ass. as for customs well its coz all u fuckers bring all the unwanted shit that stops our countey being pure. theres lots to do here and we take pride in our country . chances are all you foreign idiots cause half the deaths on our roads . i think maybe you should widely travel more before you decide to slam our country or maybe you just dont appreciate nature at its finest . dont come back you whinging dick

    Mél 4 years ago Reply

    I mean honestly with a language and attitude like you demonstrate Natalie, you don’t make the promotion of the nice hospitality we hear so much about your beautiful country… you are the living proof that there is bad people in even the nicest country… shame on you…

    plastiKIWI 3 years ago

    No worries with that one , most likely a kid with whose playstation broke and got nothing else to do. Cheers

  • R Jones 4 years ago Reply

    Welcome to the south island folks! It’s always interesting to here what people think of this wee dot in the big world! Wish you could of stayed longer as there is so much to enjoy and learn about! Sandflies aren’t a problem on the eastcoast, but when I visited the west coast. ..Oh my what a nuisance…well that and the long drop loo…but in saying that, it’s not a super common thing…the long drop loo that is.
    Beautiful landscape no matter where you are, surfing in the morning and skiing or hiking in the afternoon are just some of the highlights of visiting here. When you visit here you chill, slow down and relax and take in the local hospitality, sights, culture and food. Perfect honeymoon material! Come again and get off the tourist track as there’s more on offer if your open to it. Cheers!

  • R joned 4 years ago Reply

    Oh and just a little tip that us Kiwis follow. ..buy all of your food at the big supermarket chains in the cities. ‘Pack N Save’ is cheaper than ‘Countdown’ in my opinion and these two supermarkets are the most common in the south island. Smaller towns often have New World or Super value and they are more expensive. Dairys (or small food market stores/ shops) are super duper EXPENSIVE!! and petrol stations are ridiculous! My son ( unwittingly and desperately) just brought 100 grams of coffee for $9 when the same budget brand at pack N save is $3!! So shop wisely for your food…..even kiwis get ripped off if we can’t be bothered going to a supermarket like pack N save or countdown. Milk should be on average $3.20 for 2 liters, but some petrol stations and dairys can charge $5-7 for the same. So shop wisely our travelling friend a day make your money go further for your basic needs! 🙂

  • Andy M 4 years ago Reply

    That Natalie woman must be an inbreed,remote and feral,don’t take any notice of her,fair review I thought,except for the internet,ours is still do much quicker then Australias .The customs are strict,as you would expect, same everywhere,it has to be,whole species could be wiped out if not. But petrol in the bigger towns /cities when you can,can’t believe how expensive milk is down south; $2 up north, but the Fish n Chips is good,no matter where you go. You really need a longer stay,9 days is like a stop over between flight really,3 months would do it nicely. ☺

  • Annie 4 years ago Reply

    I lived in New zealand for a year backpacking amd freedom camping isn’t a good idea…as its against the law! I’m surprised you didn’t get fined by tje department for conservation. I had many friends that did!

  • Lkin 4 years ago Reply

    Sandflies are only bad on the west coast of the South Island. You make it sound like our whole country is infested. Everywhere else in NZ you won’t have any issues.

  • Alyssa 4 years ago Reply

    This post was so helpful! Especially since I caught the Gary Indiana reference 🙂

  • Pens 3 years ago Reply

    I’m from the middle of the South Island and have travelled round this great nation and the world. So here is my advice for aotearoa

    Freedom Camping is so awesome just make sure you are in an approved spot, DOC can be on your arse so fast. You should ask for a map when you pick up a camper van they will usually site the best places to camp. Sandflies are a bitch but good repellent does work to a point there are burn sticks available for outside and taking B vitamins about a month before is a good preventive, and a daily dose of marmite if you find that they just love your blood, my dad just rubs it into his legs with his sunblock they don’t like the smell.
    And if you go to Cities if you book a hotel/motel in advance and inform them on what you have planed they usually will either recommend somewhere to park close by or sort something out for you.
    As for customs it’s best just to declare anything you have brought in, we have such a delicate echo system here MAF will not take any chances and btw they are harder on us locals. So if you have been walking around in “whatever shoes” just give the soles a decent scrub and pop them in a plastic bag and it won’t be a problem.

    Also I must say whoever this Natalie is she does not speak for New Zealand we love having people here it is the backbone of our economy. All that is asked is that you respect the land (a lesson us kiwis could do with a refresher in) so again basic common sense wins the day anytime.
    So in my very long winded spiel.

    Be Kind
    Be Respectful
    Take nothing but photographs,and leave nothing but footprints
    Keep left
    And most importantly

  • […] this constant connection is not present throughout the majority of New Zealand. Tourists complain about the expensive and ineffective internet connections and lack of Wifi even within the […]

  • Margaret 3 years ago Reply

    NZ is a lovely friendly place have lived here for 43 years & love it.
    Wellington on a good day makes up for lost time & is absolutely beautiful. Up top of the North Island, Auckland, Whangarei etc have rain then sun, then rain, colder & hotter down the Island, sometimes gets snow nothing like America though, gorgeous friendly country to live in, 98% safe though just be on your guard wherever you go use common sense even I do

  • Erik 3 years ago Reply

    Hi. Just wondering about RVs. Would you recommend that over all? Does it cost less than hotels and stuff? Is it like killing 2 birds with 1 stone when it comes to car rental and places to stay?

  • Mansi 3 years ago Reply

    Surely an interesting post ! I visited New Zealand last year and i agree with you in almost all the aspects. You’ve described the country in and out. The thing i enjoyed the most in New Zealand was the hikes. They are Damn good! Hiking/walking/tramping is the best way to experience this dynamic country. New Zealand’s walking and hiking offering includes world heritage sites and the Sub-Antarctic Islands – and nine Great Walks across the North and South Islands, as well as many one-day options. These tracks are the perfect way to see NZ’s beautiful backcountry – they capture everything from the long golden beaches to untouched forests and rugged mountains.
    i’ve loved my stay in NZ and written about the same. You can check it out if you plan to visit NZ and spend your days hiking like i did.
    http://blog.untravel.com/best-walks-new-zealand/ .

    Happy travelling 🙂

  • st.gaia33@gmail.com 3 years ago Reply

    A friend and I did a bus tour of Australia, N. and S. NewZealand 1990. 30days ending at Fiji.
    Your trip sounds wonderful.
    Our bus drivers were all encyclopedias of local information, and steered us to perfect spots
    for our free time, I recommend New Zealand to this day. Thank you for sharing your trip. BNSTJ

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