NZ Road Trip Surprises

With a fully stocked van, a route map, and a full tank of gas I was ready to hit the road for the great vanlife experience. But little did I know New Zealand had a lot of surprises in store for me outside of beautiful vistas.  So Americans listen up since I think its our misfortune that I was not prepared for any of the below…

  • Credit Cards – Unless something is cash only, I always use my American Chase Sapphire credit card when traveling as it has great exchange rates and rewards. But as I have previously discovered, not all international machines are happy with the lack of pin associated with US credit cards. For the most part it’s not a problem, you just sign and go (other than a flustered clerk trying to find a pen), but I have been rudely surprised at Pac N Save gas stations where the machine declines my card entirely. Always be prepared with a debit card or cash – no one wants to run out of gas thanks to the US banks not staying current with the rest of the world.
  • Cost of Gas – On the subject of gas, this is literally the worst thing hands down about a road trip in New Zealand, especially when you are flying solo and have no one to split the bill with. At the time of writing, gas prices ranged from 1.90 to 2.19 a liter. US peeps – that works out to over $5.50 USD a gallon! Also old car= not great mpg. So be prepared to whip out your card every few days to fill up your tank and have a mini heart attack as your wallet noticeably depreciates.
    • *Note- diesel is cheaper, but there is a road user charge for diesel vehicles. read here and here for more info when choosing the right type of van for you.
  • Lack of Gas – I’m not a risk taker when it comes to gas. Even at home, where there is a gas station every few miles, I rarely let my tank dip below the halfway mark. In New Zealand, ya’ll should make sure you make this habit too.  More than once I’ve thought, hmm I should probably top up, only to find the nearest gas station is 30 miles away (…I honestly don’t know how the rural folks tolerate the lack of connection, communication, and basic supplies). If you enjoy the gamble of riding on an empty tank all the time, please make sure you keep an eye for signs warning you that the next gas station is another 130 Kms away (true story on the pass between Napier and Taupo and then again between Haast and Fox Glacier). Otherwise, my suggestion is to always top up when approaching half a tank.

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  • Curvy roads – Everywhere you go and everyone you talk to warns you that NZ roads are “different” so plan more time. This is the first time I have driven extensively outside the US, usually when I’m traveling its public transport for me. And if you are anything like me, you will quickly find that daylight driving is the only way you want to traverse New Zealand. The roads are narrow, curvy, and frequently hugging the side of a cliff. A local friend said New Zealand saves the environment (cough saves money) by going around mountains instead of through them. So, if you prone to carsickness, probably best to bring along some anti-nausea medicine.
You can't escape the winding roads in New Zealand.
  • Passing – NZ is made up of single lane highways. Even in the major “cities” car traffic is a joke, with only a few highways exceeding more than 2 lanes. There simply is no need in the rest of the country to have more than one lane going in each direction. This does become problematic though when you are tourist driving on the wrong side of the road in a van you don’t fully trust and are trying to follow google maps – the locals do not take well to your tortoise like pace. Luckily, NZ did have the smarts to build passing lanes at regularly intervals. Unless you are a speed junkie, make sure you always stay to the left when a passing lane appears so locals can zip off at their regular heart stopping speeds. Note that there are two types of passing lanes in addition to the traditional overtaking method.
    • Passing Lane – Every few kilometers on busy and/or curvy highways, these long stretches of twin lanes allow vehicles to safely pass on the right (ie. without veering into opposite traffic) Always stay on the left during these stretches unless you are *actively* passing someone. You should be able to maintain speed.

Road rules INP1

  • Slow Vehicle Bay – Different than a passing lane, as these bays are usually extremely short (you will most likely need to to break slow down enough to let someone pass on your right); but unlike passing lanes, you do not need pull into a slow bay whenever it appears. Only pull into a slow bay if someone is actively trying to pass.

Road rules INP3

    • Read here if you are still confused.
  • Bridges – NZ is also a country of one way bridges. Nothing like hurtling towards a bridge at 80 kms an hour only to find as you round the corner that the person driving the opposite way at 80 kms has right of way! Always be cautious when approaching bridges, and double, triple check who has right of way before crossing a bridge.

    Image result for one lane bridge new zealand
    If you don’t know who has right of way in the scenario, time to pick up a NZ rules of the road pamphlet and start studying
  • Cell Phone Coverage – I decided to splurge on an unlimited data plan here in NZ with one of their largest providers, Spark (though it actually worked out to the same price as my Verizon bill back home so it didn’t feel like a big deal). However, what I did not take into consideration was the fact that it takes only a tree, a small hill,, maybe some large sheep, while you’re cruising and suddenly you have lost all cell service – aka I would need to stream video constantly on my phone while in service to make a dent in my data usage. As such, know that for vast quantities of time during your road trip you will be out of range from the rest of the world. Download offline maps, music, audio books, and whatever else you can think of to stay sane.  *On the positive side, my Spark plan include Spotify premium


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