It’s hard not to immediately fall in love with New Zealand the moment you walk off the plane. The country really knows how to charm its visitors with its vast and gorgeous landscapes and Kiwi friendliness. If you’re planning to make a trip to New Zealand, and the South Island specifically, read on for some tips!
#1 – Rent a Car
I can’t stress this one enough. After much thought around “are we going to die driving on the other side of the road?”, Adam and I decided renting a car and showing ourselves around the island was our best bet. The South Island is much more isolated than the North so there’s virtually no public transportation outside of the major cities. One thing I definitely recommend is checking out NZ’s “Visiting Drivers” materials here. There you can learn all the rules of the road (FYI, NZ loves their roundabouts) and can feel confident to get behind the wheel once you land in the country.
#2 – Don’t Speed
Along with renting a car, it’s important to remember not to speed. No, seriously. New Zealand takes speeding extremely seriously and I learned it the hard way. After a couple of days of driving and mega confidence that I indeed could drive on the other side of the road, I must have let it get to my head. Here I was, passing another car and got clocked at 31 km/hr over the speed limit by the police car that was coming right toward me. Talk about bad luck! I will say though, it sure makes a great story considering it was the first time in my life to get pulled over and receive a speeding ticket, all while honeymooning in New Zealand!
#3 – Book Accommodation & Overnight Boat Cruises Well In Advance
Being on the South Island, accommodation can be sparse, especially the more rural you go. I definitely recommend looking at accommodation at least 6 months before your trip. Along with that, we did an overnight cruise in the Doubtful Sound which only holds about 75 people, so make sure you reserve a spot the moment you decide to travel to New Zealand. We booked our cruise 10 months in advance and snagged the last private room aboard. The overnight cruise is something I highly, highly recommend.
#4 – Be Prepared To Spend $$$
New Zealand is not cheap. I guess that makes sense given it’s isolated from most of the world. It also has a population of only about 5 million people, which raises the prices of imported goods in particular. If you’re looking for a cost-efficient vacation, NZ probably isn’t it. Start saving!
#5 – Restaurants Operate A Bit Differently
Here in the U.S., we expect good service when we dine out at restaurants. We expect to have our servers check in with us a handful of times during the course of the meal. I wouldn’t say that restaurants in NZ don’t do this, but it’s just not as common. The best part about it though is when you’re finished with your meal, you can simply go to the register at the restaurant and pay. No waiting around for your server to deliver the check, take your payment, and bring the receipt back. This took a bit getting used to as Adam and I would sit there looking around for a few minutes to realize, hey, we can leave! Also, unlike the U.S., tipping is not expected but is appreciated! 10%-15% is standard if you had superb service.
#6 – Get Your Meat On
If you like meat, you’re in luck. It’s all over the restaurant menus and you’ll have your pick amongst beef, lamb, venison and the like. For my vegetarian friends out there, all restaurants offer vegetarian options and there are many vegan/gluten-free dining options, so don’t fret! Below is one of the meals I had while visiting Wanaka – likely the biggest plate of ribs I’ve ever seen!
#7 – Kiwis Love Their Māori Heritage
I was so ignorant to the fact that New Zealand had a native heritage and quickly recognized how much pride they have for it. We flew Air New Zealand from Auckland to Queenstown and their whole flight experience is dedicated to the Māori people. New Zealand’s national rugby team even does the “haka,” which is a traditional Māori war cry that they perform before games. So much of what New Zealand embodies is Māori. Most of the tours we took part in had some historical reference to their native people, which was super cool and interesting to learn more about.
#8 – You’ll See Lots and Lots of Sheep
For every New Zealander, there are seven sheep. Needless to say, we saw thousands upon thousands of sheep driving throughout the country. On our second to last day, we came across them in the road for the first time and were able to snap the below special pic of a mama and her babes!!
#9 – Leave Early For Milford Sound
If you’re self-driving into Fiordland, chances are you’ll be staying overnight in the town of Te Anau. I highly recommend leaving as early as possible from Te Anau to check out the sites along the road to Milford, without the mass amounts of tourists. It’s also advantageous to book an earlier day cruise at Milford Sound. We chose the 11:10am departure and it was perfect as we were able to beat the crowds and secure a parking spot.
#10 – Sand. Flies.
Speaking of Fiordland and Milford Sound specifically, sand flies are no joke. We had been forewarned before going, but I really didn’t know what to expect. When you see and hear the word “fly,” you don’t assume they’re as tiny as mosquitoes. Those little buggers truly don’t let up and let me tell you, their bites are 10x worse than mosquitoes. My bites showed up two days later and itched for almost two weeks. So, save yourself and avoid wearing black or white, as they’re most attracted to those colors, and get yourself some heavy duty bug spray upon landing in kiwi land.
#11 – Take It All In
New Zealand is by far one of, if not the most, picturesque and visual appealing countries in the world. Not only that, it’s truly some of the cleanest air you’ll ever breathe. There were times I was very aware of the air surrounding me and wished I could package it up in a jar and bring it home with me. Again, if you decide to drive yourself, make sure to allow time to pull your car over and take in the sights. I can’t even begin to count how many times we were driving and we saw a random field of lupin flowers or an ice blue lake that we pulled over to capture its beauty. On that note, don’t believe anything Google Maps says about timing because it will never take you the amount of time it says to get to a destination.
#12 – Don’t Put Off Going
New Zealand seems so far away and I’m not going to minimize the fact that the flight is very long. However, it’s SO WORTH IT. If you have the means and the wanderlust, make it happen. We only saw a small portion of the country and have already decided we’ll be going back to discover more of what New Zealand has to offer. If you’re interested in an itinerary, check ours out here.
Feel free to ask questions in the comments!
Kelly Nash is a Chicago-based writer, career coach, speaker and founder of Lipstick & Ink®. She also works full-time in technology as a Senior Employee Engagement Manager at Salesforce and has over 12 years of digital marketing experience. Kelly has been featured in Thrive Global, Chicago Tribune, International Association of Women, General Assembly, Salesforce, and SheFactor. She’s fueled by black coffee, sunshine, a good ink pen, and a bold lip.
Would love to see the itinerary and also recommendations for places to stay and best eats. I love New Zealand and can’t wait to return.
Hi Jennifer! I’m actually going live with a post on Monday in regards to a 10 day itinerary and shortly thereafter will have a post dedicated to Queenstown and Wanaka of things to do and places to eat! Stay tuned!