If there’s one way to start a big five-month trip for your 30th birthday, I’d think that the best would be to dive right in with a month-long campervan trip around New Zealand. And that’s exactly what we did.
I had wanted to visit New Zealand for as long as I could remember, and this was only encouraged by my teenage (ok, and current) obsession with The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The film versions showcased jaw-dropping landscapes, from snow-covered mountains to the rolling green hills of The Shire. When it came to planning my first long-term travels, I knew that New Zealand had to be included in the list of destinations.
There are plenty of ways to experience New Zealand, but after weighing up our options, campervanning was the clear winner. We loved the freedom associated with this form of travel, where we could stop and go as we pleased, but it also suited our budget, as our transport and accommodation were sorted out in one go.
Over the course of a month, we explored both the North and South Islands, seeing some of the most beautiful sights the country has to offer. If you’re planning on doing a similar trip in the near future, this post outlines everything you need to know before starting your campervanning adventure in New Zealand.
– Why campervanning? –
I’ve already touched on this, but one of the biggest perks of campervanning is the freedom it allows. Campervanning meant that we got to explore New Zealand with our temporary new home in tow, stopping at any spots that took our interest.
There are plenty of different ways you can explore the country, whether it’s staying in hotels/backpackers and using public transport, or doing a road trip in a small car and staying in hotels/motels along the way. The options are endless but you need to decide what you want most out of a trip to New Zealand. For us, we wanted to see as much as possible but at our own pace. In the end, campervanning was the most cost-effective choice that allowed us to do both of these things.
– Choosing the right campervan –
Deciding to do a campervan trip in New Zealand is one thing, but we also dedicated a lot of thought when it came to choosing the campervan company we wanted to use.
There are several different campervan comparison websites out there, and these are good starting points to find the campervan company that best suits your budget. After comparing multiple options, we were drawn to Escape Rentals. This was partly due to word of mouth, as our friends had used their campervans before, but also due to the vehicles themselves.
I’m a sucker for anything colourful, so I’ll admit that this superficial factor may have held some sway in my decision. Each of Escape Rentals’ campervans are painted in a custom design, meaning that every brightly coloured Escape campervan you pass by on the road is completely unique. The whole booking process was extremely smooth and, before we knew it, we were picking up our campervan at Escape Rentals’ Auckland office.
Set aside some time to fill out paperwork and to join in on a vehicle inspection – you’ll want to take your time with this. Saying that, the Escape Rentals crew were really helpful when it came to explaining the fine print, and gave us great tips we could use while out on the road. One of the biggest advantages of using Escape Rentals was the fact that they had no limit on the amount of kilometres we could drive, meaning that our road trip could stretch as far as we wanted it to.
We were shown all of the features and equipment within our new home, and taught how to assemble our bed. Our two-berth campervan had simple but adequate items, from freshly laundered bedding and pillows, to a mini gas cooker, to some cookware and eating utensils to camping chairs for sunnier days. The interior of the campervan could switch between a table-and-chair setup during the day, to a queen-size bed for the nighttime.
Depending on what you’re comfortable driving, Escape Rentals has vehicles with manual or automatic transmission, and a handbook is included with every campervan.
Our first campervan (see the next section for why I had to say ‘first’) was a gorgeous yellow car with bees painted on the exterior. Since the first car I ever owned was a bright-yellow mini-mobile nicknamed Bumble, I felt like this campervan was the perfect choice. I immediately called her Honey and we packed in all of our belongings for the start of our month on the road.
– Vehicle insurance –
Ok, so it’s never fun to get into the paperwork side of an adventure, but if you’re going down the campervanning route, I’d really recommend taking a look through your insurance options. And I speak from experience, since insurance turned out to be really handy for us.
Each campervan company offers different insurance covers, usually from a cheaper option with higher liability fees in the event of an accident to the more expensive, but fully covered end of the spectrum. We were planning to go for a midway option, which Escape Rentals calls the ‘Middle Earth’ cover. In an uncharacteristic twist of fate involving forgotten credit card PINs (and I’m supposed to be the organised one), we had no choice but to take the full insurance option. Just note that, regardless of your insurance cover, your contract will more than likely list a number of roads in New Zealand that you’re not allowed to drive on, regardless of how high your cover goes; take note of these before you head off.
Fast forward to over a week into our trip, with us completely stopped at a red traffic light. Out of nowhere, we hear a huge bang and our car rolls forward, even though the handbrake is up. To be fair, the 18-year-old’s car looked way worse than the back of ours, but the back door was dented inwards, meaning that we had no access to our food or cooking equipment. The accident wasn’t our fault, but on any other insurance we would have had to pay out nonetheless.
Escape Rentals came to the rescue and offered us a new campervan, which we would pick up from their Christchurch office. Honey went in for some surgery, and we were introduced to Poppy, our new circus-themed campervan. While I’m not saying that anything like this will happen to you on your trip, if you’re an expert ‘worrier’ like I am, it’s so much better going into a road trip not having to worry if something does go wrong.
– Get acquainted with the basics of driving in New Zealand –
Before you head off for New Zealand, make sure that you have the correct driving licence documentation for your campervan rental. English-language licences from the UK, US, Australia and Canada are usually accepted, although people from other countries may need a International Driver’s Licence as well. If there’s going to be an additional driver, make sure that they have the right documents.
I learned to drive in South Africa, so the New Zealand road layouts looked reassuringly familiar. In New Zealand, you drive on the left and, while you can expect multi-lane roads in major hubs, this transforms into something entirely different once out of the city.
Away from the main cities, you’ll mostly find single-lane thoroughfares, and some of these will be extremely windy or feature some dramatic inclines. In the rural areas, you might find additional obstacles like sheep or cattle. In national parks, some roads turn into gravel ones, so make sure you’re A) allowed to drive on unpaved roads and B) not rushing, as some of these roads are rough. I’m a meticulous planner, but even I didn’t take into account that Google Maps did sometimes get the time between destinations wrong. Allow extra time for long drives and use common sense i.e. only stop for photos in car parks and designated viewpoints, don’t just stop on the road! Also, make sure to break up long journeys for coffee stops or, even better, to pick up a Cookie Time or one of New Zealand’s famous pies (we pretty much lived on these two items for the month that we were there).
One thing I can’t help but mention is that New Zealand drivers can be a bit impatient, especially if they see a campervan in front of them. Let them overtake; don’t break the speed limit just because people insist on driving almost bumper-to-bumper.
We visited New Zealand during Spring but if you’re planning to drive during Winter, make sure that you have snow chains for your campervan, and that you know how to use them before you set off.
DriveSafe is a really great resource for anyone planning a driving holiday in New Zealand, and has some extra tips on having a safe trip in the country.
If you get stuck for directions – or just need some inspiration on where to go – your best friend in New Zealand is the i-Site, a visitor information centre that can be found in most cities and towns.
– Do you need to book camping sites in advance? –
I think the answer to this question completely depends on the time of year you’re planning to visit or whether you’re flexible on where your campsite is. If your trip falls in peak summer, or in New Zealand’s school holidays, some of the best campsites are bound to be booked up.
If you’re travelling in quieter times, then you probably won’t need to book ahead, and some campsites allow you to park up and pay the next morning if the campsite office is closed when you arrive. There are also campsites (with or without toilet facilities) where you’re allowed to freedom camp – essentially this is parking in designated spots with no fees – although you will need the blue self-enclosed sticker on your camper and these campsites have very limited facilities compared to paid campsites and holiday parks.
We only had a month in New Zealand, so I wanted to make sure that we would see as much as possible. I chose to plan ahead and book most of our campsites along the way, as I didn’t want to do this while out on the road. I found the Escape Rentals’ campsite map extremely useful, as it not only lists all campsites according to location, but also all of the facilities available.
Whenever I get back to doing another road trip in New Zealand, I think I’d do a mix of pre-booking and allowing time for spontaneous finds, as there were a few places we stumbled upon on our trip where we would have loved to stay longer.
– What can you expect to find at a New Zealand campsite? –
Later in this post, I list some of our absolute favourite campsites from our trip but there are some things you can expect from most of the places where you’ll spend the night.
Most New Zealand campsites will offer powered or unpowered sites. To decide on whether you need a powered campsite or not, just ask yourself if you need additional power for things like lamps, heaters or to able to charge phones or camera batteries. We only stayed at powered sites for the duration of our trip, and we found it really easy to hook up to the electricity posts on these sites.
Other common amenities include a kitchen, washing machines and shared bathroom facilities. If you need to wash your clothes, most washing machines operate by coins or by tokens that you buy at the campsite reception. If you have time, you can dry clothes on provided washing lines, or put aside extra coins for the tumble dryer. Almost all of the campsites we stayed at featured coin-operated showers too, so keep that in mind when you head back to the campsite for the evening. Also, you will need to bring along your own towels and shampoo/soap.
Campsite kitchens can vary from large spaces with multiple hobs/microwaves to a tiny room with one stove, and these can get busy in the evening. If you’re lucky, campsites will include outdoor barbecues too, as well as communal dining areas and playgrounds for the kids.
The one thing I have to stress is that, 99% of the time, the Wi-Fi will not be good. With the exception of one campsite, most campsites only offered a voucher for 100-250MB, and even if you pay for additional data, this may not have a strong connection. If you’re planning on doing work at the campsite – like we were – you might have to give up some day-time exploring to hole up at a cafe instead.
– What you’ll need to bring –
I’ve already put together a packing guide for an adventurous holiday, but when it comes to campervanning, there are a few other essentials that you’ll need.
No matter what time of year you visit, I’d wholeheartedly recommend bringing layers. The campervan can get very cold in the evenings. In addition to warm clothes, I’d recommend bringing along a torch/head-torch, an extension lead and cable (Escape Rentals provides one of these, and you’ll need it to charge all of your devices), power adaptors, external powerbanks, a quick-drying microfibre towel, and flip flops for the showers.
It’s also worth bringing along some mosquito or bug repellent, and always remember to have some spare coins for the showers!
– What is it really like to live in a campervan for a month? –
Before you decide to go on a campervanning trip with someone, it’s a good idea to ask yourself whether you’d be happy sharing a small space with that person for an extended period of time. Luckily, Chris and I already lived together before the trip, so he was very used to being annoyed by me on a daily basis.
Campervanning with Chris was one of the best things I ever decided to do, and I know that I’d do another road trip like this in the future. There are many perks associated with campervanning, from the incredible sights we encountered every day to the activities to the campsites and even our fellow campers. It’s the most rewarding way to explore New Zealand, with the added benefit of you travelling around with your home for the night. Campervanning also allows you to save a lot on food and drink, as you’ll be able to prepare meals for yourself instead of eating out.
I could carry on painting a solely rosy picture of the campervanning experience, but, because we’re human, there were times when we were tired or irritated, thanks to seriously early mornings or long driving stints. These were fleeting moods, though, and there was nothing better than going to bed exhausted from driving and sightseeing, and then waking up not knowing exactly what we’d find on the next leg of the journey.
Campervan life might mean swapping crazy nightlife and bar hopping for quieter evenings in campsites, but we grew to love our time with the campervan, where we’d open up a bottle of wine after a long drive, cook a meal together and chat sitting in the camping chairs while the last of the day’s sunlight drained from the sky.
– How we planned our itinerary and our favourite campsites –
As mentioned, I put a lot of effort into our itinerary as I wanted to see absolutely everything that I could. Our pick-up and drop-off points for our Escape Rentals campervan was in Auckland (although you can arrange to pick up/drop off in Christchurch too). This meant that we planned accordingly, with our initial stops in the North Island, crossing over to the South Island, and then making our way back up the other side of the North Island before returning to Auckland.
The key is to look at what you want to do in each destination and that should give you a good idea of how many nights you need to spend there. For example, we planned three nights in Auckland, three in Queenstown and two for Christchurch, whereas we only spent single nights in places like Franz Josef, Mt Cook and Waitomo. We only had day tours/activities planned for the latter destinations, so it made sense not to linger for multiple nights.
If your planned activities are weather dependent, you have to keep in mind that sometimes the itinerary will not go to plan, no matter how solid it may seem. We attempted to do the Tongariro Crossing twice on our trip but couldn’t go both times due to snowy, freezing temperatures. We were obviously devastated, but we were able to plan alternative activities and explore new places instead. Plus we found that campsite owners were generally understanding when things like this came up, and allowed us to rebook/cancel with no fuss.
I listed some of the standard features of New Zealand campsites above, but we fell head over heels for some of the campsites we encountered while on our trip. The main reason was that, in one way or another, these campsites went above and beyond the average campsite we stayed at. If you’re passing through any of the same areas, I’d really recommend checking out these campsites.
Waitangi Holiday Park, Bay of Islands
This was the very first campsite we stayed at for our New Zealand road trip, and it remained one of our favourites. With the very best Wi-Fi we would see anywhere in the country, this campsite is in a beautiful setting next to a mini-lake and within a short walk to the Waitangi Treaty Grounds and nearby Paihia, the launching point for Bay of Islands boat cruises.
You’ll need to drive into Taupo for the day or for its nightlife, but we loved this campsite for its lake view, resident rabbits (seriously, I was chasing after them for photos) and some of the best communal kitchen/bathroom facilities. I’d stay here again for any future Taupo adventures.
Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park, Wanaka
The following two parks are part of the same family, but we thought that they were brilliant. The Wanaka Lakeview Holiday Park was within quick walking distance to Lake Wanaka and the town, and had excellent facilities, including outdoor barbecues.
Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park, Queenstown
If you’re going to be camping out in Queenstown, I guarantee that you will want to be within easy walking distance. And this campsite is the perfect answer, with a quick stroll taking you into the centre as well as the Skyline Gondola. This campsite also had some of the most extensive bathroom facilities I’ve ever seen, so you won’t experience any shower hold up when you want to set off for your adrenaline-filled days in Queenstown.
Harbour Tourist Park Oamaru, Oamaru
We weren’t originally going to stay overnight in Oamaru, but I’m so glad that we did. This little campsite is right along the harbour-side promenade and, better yet, you’re in the perfect position to spot the tiny blue penguins that Oamaru is so famous for. There’s a rumour that a blue penguin has even made its nest within the campsite, so watch out for this mini family at night.
Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park, Rotorua
This campsite stands out in my memory for a few reasons. A) It was home to various animals, including an adorable cat that followed me around and B) because it featured its very own mini thermal pools. Only people staying the campsite are allowed to use these pools, but it’s a great place to soak and relax after a busy day of sightseeing.
Seabreeze Holiday Park, Coromandel
Coromandel was the very last stop before heading back to Auckland and, with this campsite, it almost felt like we had hit the jackpot. All of the amenities are within a central block (which features dorm rooms too) and, best of all, the property has a brewery located on site. Chris couldn’t have been happier, and we had our last road trip dinner and drink at the Hot Water Brewing Co.
This post may have been all about how to go on a campervanning trip around New Zealand but the most important thing is to actually get out there and start driving. Our campervan trip around the country is one of my all-time favourite travel moments, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.
Have you explored a country in a campervan? Or why would you want to hire a campervan in New Zealand? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
Note: Our campervan was partly sponsored by Escape Rentals in exchange for a review but, as always, all opinions and compulsive purchases of additional dashboard buddies are entirely my own.
* Pin it for later: *