Whether you call it a campervan, a motorhome or an RV, a home on wheels is one of the best ways to travel New Zealand. Here's what you need to know.
Clearly, the biggest benefit to renting a motorhome or campervan in New Zealand is the freedom. But there is a practical side to it as well. Here’s everything you need to know if you’re planning to campervan around New Zealand.
When it comes to public transport, New Zealand doesn’t quite stack up to the train systems of Europe, or the bus networks of the United States. Travelling around New Zealand can be difficult if you don’t have a vehicle and are relying on public transport. Train options are limited outside of the major cities, and the publilc bus system will only work if you're sticking to the busier areas, and don't want to stop at the many scenic view points between each New Zealand destination (unless you're on a Hop On, Hop Off Backpacker Bus). And don't kid yourself, stopping to take photos and admire the view is many (most!) people's highlights of a New Zealand adventure.
For this reason, most visitors to New Zealand will hire a vehicle of some description to see the sights. A campervan or larger motorhome can potentially make life a whole lot easier for your New Zealand holiday.
Here are some of our top tips for planning a campervan trip in New Zealand.
Should I freedom camp or stay at a holiday park?
You’ll find holiday parks and camping grounds everywhere around New Zealand, including spectacular settings like beachfronts, in the bush or remote mountain locations. Holiday parks in NZ offer a range of options including tent sites, cabins, motel units and powered motorhome sites. If you’re feeling tired and smelly, the benefits of staying in a holiday park will bring untold rewards like big, hot showers, big kitchens and the chance to take a break from your travelling companions.
There are also cheaper Department of Conservation campsites, these are more remote and have very limited facilities - often only a basic toilet.
It is possible to freedom camp around New Zealand but you’ll need to check the rules. Each district has different laws so make sure you check with the local information centre or council on where you can camp, or you may end up with a fine.
Campervan, Motorhome or Car?
There is really no correct answer to this question, as it will come down to budget, your driving ability and how many people you are travelling with. It will also largely depend on what type of New Zealand experience you're looking for! Nevertheless there are some pros and cons to consider.
A motorhome (or RV or campervan) is much larger and so offers all the mod cons like a proper bed, a kitchenette, internal shower and toilet and plenty of legroom. The downside of a motorhome is its size and the challenges this brings when driving narrow roads, busy roads or parking. Driving a campervan is quite a challenge, so you’ll need to be a confident driver before you take it on.
The most popular vehicle for those on a budget in New Zealand is a campervan (and even these are expensive in the height of the summer season). These offer many of the luxuries of a motorhome but just a more compact version. The smallest models are converted minivans, and have a bed in the back and basic cooking facilities and a fridge. The larger campervans might have some internal space to relax, and a kitchen inside too.
If you don’t mind the squeeze, a campervan is an excellent option, and its size is more manageable than a large campervan or RV.
But if you want to keep things super simple, you can rent a car and pack the tent. Tents come in all shapes and sizes, and for most people, the joy of camping is sleeping in the elements. Whether it’s in the rain, the sun or sleeping in a beautiful remote bush location, it’s a unique experience. On the downside, a tent will not offer the same protection from the elements as a van or motorhome.
Self Contained or Non Self Contained?
When looking for either a campervan or a motorhome for your New Zealand vacation, you need to consider whether or not you want it to be self contained. A certified Self Contained campervan or motorhome will have a toilet meaning you can freedom camp without worrying about where you ... leave your own personal waste! A Self Contained camper will also have an internal kitchen and room to sleep between 2 and 6 people. A basic minivan style camper will be a converted minivan with bed in the back, and generally basic cooking facilities that you access from the rear trunk of the van.
You can get a smaller self contained campervan, but often these will just have a portable cassette toilet. The larger motorhomes will have a real internal flushing toilet, just like you'd know from home!
How much will my car or campervan cost?
You'll pay less initially to rent a car, but then will pay more for accommodation along the way - there's a huge range of accommodation on offer in NZ from hostels to AirBnBs to fancy hotels! With a campervan, you'll pay significantly more on your rental but will then have the option to save on nightly accommodation costs along the way. How much will you save? This depends on which type of campervan you rent - a self contained van with toilet or a basic minivan style camper, as previously described!
In most cases, campervans are available on a daily rental basis (minimum hire periods apply) and include unlimited kilometres and 24 hour roadside assistance. Prices will go up drastically during the peak summer and somewhat during the winter ski season, and the closer to your travel dates that you're booking. Additional costs to consider are insurance and a refundable bond that is taken at the time of booking. You can rent campervans from Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown and Christchurch.
Before you book your campervan, you’ll need to make sure you have a valid licence to drive in New Zealand. If you hold a licence in a language other than English, you’ll need to show that the licence is current, is not a restricted licence and provide an accredited English translation. The rental company will be able to provide further help with this.
Sticking to the budget
Having a mobile kitchen in your campervan or van makes whipping up a homemade breakfast or dinner super easy. Being frugal and avoiding eating out all the time is a great way to save money and ensure you can afford to do the fun stuff. Sure, it may be a bit cramped in the miniature kitchenette or using the gas stove, but it will be worth it when you’re doing that Queenstown jet boat trip or Milford Sound Cruise.
Some things to expect when driving in New Zealand
One-lane bridges. Make sure you know what to do when you come across a single lane bridge.
Single-lane highways. Do you know the etiquette if you’re driving slower than other vehicles? This is especially important if you're in a slow-moving campervan.
Stay left. Driving on the left may be different to what comes naturally. Make sure you don't lose concentration and always stay on the correct side of the road
Deceiving maps. Yes, the distance may not look very far on the map but often New Zealand’s roads are windy, hilly and single lane. Travel may take longer than you think, especially in the South Island.
Hazardous conditions. Sometimes in the South Island, and the centre of the North Island, roads are closed due to snow or ice in winter and into early spring. If you’re in a large vehicle like a campervan, this can make things dangerous, so you’re probably best to take a break from driving until conditions improve. Websites like NZTA and the New Zealand AA are great places to keep up-to-date on the road conditions.