NZ: Getting here and around

Posted on in articles with tags nz, nz travel.

Assuming you’re coming from Europe, and whether or not you break your journey with a stopover, the jetlag will still be brutal. NZ is on UTC+12 or UTC+13; this means that, depending the time of year, the time difference from the UK is 11, 12 or 13 hours.


Whatever route you take, you’ll most likely arrive and clear customs at Auckland. There are a small number of alternatives: Christchurch is connected with Singapore and several Australian airports; Wellington, Dunedin and Queenstown have a handful of Australian routes.

Popular routes to fly include:

  • London-Dubai-Australia-NZ or Birmingham-Dubai-Aus-NZ (Emirates)
  • London-Bangkok-Sydney-NZ (OneWorld alliance)
  • London-Singapore-Auckland or London-Singapore-Christchurch (Singapore Airlines)
  • London-Hong Kong-Auckland (Star Alliance)
  • London-LAX-Auckland (Air New Zealand flagship route)
  • London-San Francisco-Auckland (Star Alliance)
  • London-Vancouver-Auckland (Star Alliance)

If you fly via Bangkok do beware of the notorious scams at Bangkok airport, including the Zig-zag scam and attempts by airport officials to steal valuables from your hand luggage which they’ve identified during the x-ray hand luggage scan.

Customs & Biosecurity

NZ biosecurity is pretty hardcore. Declare everything (you were going to anyway, weren’t you?), and you should be fine. Those of you used to flying through Heathrow will find this hard to believe, but NZ officials work hard to be friendly and helpful. Watch Border Patrol if you don’t believe us.

You will be given an arrival card to present at Customs. Take it for granted that, at a minimum, you’ll be ticking yes to foodstuffs (even travel sweets count), perhaps medicines, and probably outdoor sports equipment. Any animal and plant products need to be checked, particularly if home-made. Honey is completely forbidden and will be seized and destroyed.

Clean your walking boots and poles really, really well, as they will be checked. (Seriously. We recommend using an old toothbrush.) Pack all such gear at the top of your bag for inspection. They’re interested in anything that could have soil still attached. If your kit is not clean, Customs can arrange to have it cleaned for you – at a price, of course.

As long as you’ve declared them, you will not attract trouble for any goods which turn out to not be allowed into the country, or aren’t clean enough. If you don’t declare items which you should have, you’re likely to be hit with a fine of $400 or more. Your bags will most likely be X-rayed at the Customs checkpoint whether or not you’ve answered Yes to any of the questions.

Getting around

Airport shuttle

These are minibuses with luggage trailers. They serve most airports, and the major train stations. You can hire them without booking from the airport, though you’ll need to pre-book the pick-up to get to the airport.

They operate like a sort of shared taxi in that you’ll most likely be sharing the minibus with other people travelling in the same sort of direction as you. They are reliable and attentive; we have no complaints.


Assuming you’re getting out of whichever city you’ve flown to, your starter-for-ten option is probably a car. None of the other options will get you to all the places you probably want to go, and certainly not as quickly, cheaply and easily.

Do not plan to have a long drive immediately after a long-haul flight. Sadly all too many tourists have come a cropper from not heeding this advice. You might consider delaying picking up that hire car, or at the very least staying close to your arrival airport, for a day or two.

The nitty-gritty of getting around by car turned into its own article. Long story short, take it easy – you can’t drive fast on many of our roads, the speed limit is self-enforcing.


If you can’t hire a car or don’t want to, buses are another option. You’ll want to plan your routes carefully beforehand online, e.g. Intercity. Bus travel can be a great way to enjoy the scenery, particularly if you’ve just arrived and aren’t ready to face driving yet.


Package bus tours around NZ are a pretty good way to see many of the popular tourist sights that many people want to see - it can be a bit of a slog to drive to all of them yourself, and some are pretty much otherwise impossible to reach without a car.

Camper vans and motor homes

Combine your transport and accommodation, and wake up somewhere amazing every morning. Don’t expect to come out ahead on the cost though, this is not a cheap option – particularly if you want a self-contained van.

There are many campgrounds, holiday parks and Department of Conservation camp sites all around the country. Prices vary depending on the level of facilities provided.

Freedom camping is the practice of parking your van (or pitching your tent) on any public land you like. It has been under fire lately from campers littering and leaving toilet waste. Many local councils, particularly in tourist hotspots, have enacted by-laws declaring zones as “no camping” or “self-contained camper vans only”.

Self-contained (“responsible”) camper vans have on-board toilets and often showers. They have a sticker on the back proclaiming this. Be sure to only dump the waste water at an approved dump station. The rental company will usually supply a directory of all such stations.

Further reading: Where can I camp in New Zealand? :: Where can I park my camper van?


All taxi drivers have been vetted as being of good character, so NZ taxis – where they exist – are pretty safe. They are not always plentiful; in Christchurch you will often need to book a taxi at least an hour ahead. Nor are they cheap.

Uber is active in a few cities, but attracts controversy over their attitude to licensing drivers and vehicles. The situation is evolving.


There aren’t many passenger trains in NZ so you may not be able to make rail work as your sole method of transport, but it can play its part.

There are trains between Auckland and Wellington and – having crossed the Cook Strait on the Inter-Islander ferry – between Picton and Christchurch. There’s also the spectacular alpine rail journey between Christchurch and Greymouth. Check out KiwiRail Scenic for more. (Note: Due to damage caused by the Nov 2016 earthquake, the Coastal Pacific train between Picton and Christchurch was suspended for two years; as of late 2018, it is running once more.)

For fans of steam trains, the Weka Pass is a very enjoyable day out, and there is a similar heritage run up the Taieri Gorge from Dunedin.

Air travel

Fancy flying up to the Bay of Islands in a tiny 20-seater? Lots of destinations are connected by mostly-reasonably-priced flights in NZ, and regional domestic travel is currently free of many of the onerous security checks that we all know and hate so well everywhere else. It really is a fast way to get around – as ever, just make sure you understand the rules of the fare you’re booking.

There is generally no discount for a return fare on domestic air travel, so you can craft interesting multi-hop trips without financial penalty.

Travel between the main centres is the big market, of course, so enjoys the cheapest fares and widest range of options. Little airports may see only one or two flights a day.

It usually works out cheaper to build connecting flights into your international itinerary. This doesn’t always work if you book online; we’ve found that airline websites are bears of little brain and often baulk at putting three or four sectors back-to-back, but it is certainly worth trying. Otherwise, talk to your travel agent. Jetstar offer a cheaper alternative to Air NZ on certain routes, but are often derided for being a low-frills operator, with all that that entails.


If you’re a keen cyclist this is a wonderful way to see the country close up and personal. Keep in mind that NZ has a lot of interesting geography (there’s a lot of up) and that Kiwi drivers aren’t always the best.


It may not be the safest way to travel but people do hitchhike in NZ, particularly in the fruit-growing regions at the top of South Island.


The Inter-Islander ferry connects the Wellington and Picton railheads. It’s picturesque. While it does take vehicles as well as foot passengers, it’s not cheap to do so, and you have to pay again to take the car back to the depot. But there is good news! The hire companies have a neat arrangement whereby you return the hire car at one ferry terminal, take the Inter-Islander as foot passengers, and pick up a fresh hire car on the other side.

Cover image: Departure board at Auckland Airport, by Remko Tanis, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0