, , , , , ,

Car or Campervan for New Zealand? Which Rental Is Best

This website uses affiliate links which may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Updated: 4th July 2019


Hitting the open road in the alluring land of Aotearoa is a dream come true. New Zealand’s roads are set against backdrops of sapphire lakes, imposing glaciers, rolling hills, and towering forests, and each destination brings a new surprise.

But getting from A to B takes a little bit of planning, and while backpacker buses and commuter coaches ply the country, the schedules can be tiresome and restricting. Without a wide-reaching train network to rely on, those who want to explore this incredible country entirely are likely going to need four wheels. New Zealand, for most people, means one thing; the ultimate road trip.

Grab your mates, pick up a vehicle, and head off on an adventure into the real middle earth as you explore one of the world’s best islands to visit.

But how? This is a question I got asked a lot when I came back from my six-month stint living there. The dreamy-eyed asker would usually have a whimsical idea of vintage VW living, bathing in lakes, and cooking up basic dishes on a camper stove. So my advice would often crash them down to reality: hire a car!

But why? They would cry in disbelief. Surely New Zealand is the place to hire a campervan for your road trip, and trust me; I’m a lover of living in the back of a van. Cruising the Great Ocean Road in Australia, we hired our Big Berta and bunked up while mixing cocktails in our tiny kitchen on wheels. But in New Zealand, we always hired a car for our road trips, and let me tell you why.

Bulls Beach
Finding blissfully empty beaches on a New Zealand road-trip

Why hire a car, not a Campervan, in New Zealand?

Here are a few of the reasons we opted for (and are glad we did) a car on our New Zealand road trip.

1. Cost!

In nearly every way (other than the additional accommodation cost sometimes), hiring a car is cheaper than a camper. The fuel is less, the ferries usually less, the one-way fees less, you get the point. Due to a surge in the popularity of hiring campers and the limited numbers generally doing the same routes, the prices often eclipse car hire by a long shot. Sometimes, even when you include the budget for hostel accommodation, it’s still cheaper to hire a car than a camper due to simple supply and demand.

We hired ours through Hitch, as they were the cheapest at the time, but follow our lead and just search on Discover New Zealand Car Hire to find the best value and most suitable car for your journey. Obviously, in the peak season, all costs shoot up, but I’d really not recommend a camper in winter if you’re not used to driving them (see point 8). That said, if you are, then during the low season, you might find it more financially feasible.

2. Getting to the hidden gems

To put it mildly, some roads in New Zealand leave a lot to be desired for. Now, I’m not doubting your driving abilities here – I’m very much a passenger seat driver – but if you’re unfamiliar with driving on country roads, you may hit some problems. Many roads to some lesser visited spots are designed for tractors or 4WD, not for your fancy campervan to rock down.

Heading to Castlepoint – one of my FAVOURITE places in New Zealand – to watch the sunset and stay in an adorable Bach (a modest New Zealand holiday home) was one of the highlights of my time living here. That road was tough enough with our nifty car; the extra stress of a huge camper wouldn’t have been too much fun. Getting down narrow lanes and hard-to-access places will be easier with a car. Especially when you start throwing in places like the Whangamomona and the Forgotten Highway to your road trip itinerary.

3. Awesome accommodation and new friends

The few times we camped with our car in a tent (throw one in, as sometimes you will want to be in a beachside campsite), we struggled to meet other people, and I generally found the campsites and camper crews to be doing more their own thing. To be fair, these times were in more remote places, and often people went to bed early for sunrise hikes.

Still, while renting accommodation in New Zealand will push up the cost, there are plenty of backpackers (hostels) that are pretty affordable by New Zealand standards.

As many people will spend up to a month on their New Zealand road trip, there will likely come a time you want to network and make friends, whether that’s in a hostel with other travellers, or meeting locals in an inner-city bar, both of which are harder if you are in a camper site way out of town. In a hostel, it’s a lot easier – although I will say I found the hostel life in New Zealand way more enjoyable and a bit more mature than when I backpacked around Australia.

Tawhai Falls, Tongariro
Escape the crowds on the Tongariro crossing

4. New Zealand is not always an easy country to drive

The roads in New Zealand, as I may have mentioned, aren’t always plain sailing. There are sometimes sheer drops; other times, routes blend into a single file should-be-one-way streets with little warning.

The number of huge campervans I’ve seen getting stuck or into bad situations, simply because the drivers aren’t used to such big vehicles or these roads, reassured me we made the right choice. Of course, if you are confident driving a larger campervan, then you’ll be fine, but to me, focusing on the views and vibes would be more important than stressing about driving. If you have concerns but really want a camper, consider hiring a smaller vehicle (like a converted-style van).

5. Freedom camping needs to be self-contained

The dream of just parking anywhere and setting up camp is not always possible in New Zealand. Freedom camping is an option in places, but of course, there are restrictions, so be sure to do some research on where this is possible; in the city this gets harder.

It’s also worth noting only self-contained campervans – those with a toilet installed – can wild camp. Campers without their own toilet will legally still have to be in a campsite with facilities or a holiday park.

Campsites, usually with minimal facilities and sometimes missing charge points, are cheaper, with holiday parks racking up the cost. The reason we stopped camping in the tent and parking the car was it usually didn’t work out that much cheaper than staying in a hostel.

6. Stay in cities and enjoy the nightlife

It’s harder to find inner-city parking spots for campervans. This can mean you’ll miss out on evening events and the nightlife, especially in Queenstown, Wellington, and Auckland, where the majority of the traveler scene and local nightlife is.

Having a car and being able to park up in the city allowed us just to switch off and relax in the evening, not worrying about expensive taxis, not having a drink to drive the van back, or trying to book the closest campsite far in advance.

Walking amongst giants in Rotorua

7. You can car-pool and save money while making friends

Another great thing about traveling by car is filling the spare seats, and splitting the costs is super easy. There are countless Facebook groups and backpacker forums which you can use to find people heading in the same direction who want to jump in the ride, usually sharing fuel and bringing the banter. If you are staying in hostels, chances are someone else there will want to join you before you’ve even checked online.

8. The weather

For some reason, there is an assumption some people make that as New Zealand is ‘close’ to Australia, it’s a relatively warm country. I can confirm that in winter, it is certainly not the case. If you are planning to visit during the off-season to take advantage of the lower prices, you might prefer to be in a hotel or hostel than in a camper, especially in the colder south.

Brave souls can layer up and take on the chill, but for me personally, a heated room or pub fireplace with a glass of Hawke’s Bay red is a much better place to be. Even my apartment in Wellington would be kinda chilly in winter, so I can’t imagine what a windy campsite would be like. Drive the car, park up, and be warm, or at least make sure you have a well insulated camper.

9. The people of this beautiful country

Imagine trying to get to work and getting stuck behind a convoy of camper vans – sometimes being badly driven – and getting slowed down. Now imagine what New Zealand roads look like in summer. It’s a relatively small country, and while the big wide open roads with not much around are fair game, I’ve seen enough tailbacks form around cities as campervans struggle to get around that I know this is a problem.

Freedom campers have earned themselves a bad name in recent years, and in some cases, sadly deservedly. If you do decide to go this route and freedom camp, do follow all the laws and rules, do take all your trash with you, and do leave this pristine country exactly how you found it. Let’s not go annoying the welcoming nature of the Kiwis, please!

*This content was produced in partnership with Discovery Car Hire, the company we used to find one of our car rentals in New Zealand. All tips and travel ideas are, as always, my own. 

8 replies
  1. Maria Cantrell says:

    Hey Dan, lots of good info here. I live in New Zealand and was interested in doing another road trip. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to take the car or campervan so it was a great article for me. However, I ask that you check/edit your articles better please. You refer to Queensland more than once, and that’s not in New Zealand. It’s a rather big error and one Kiwis don’t take lightly…

  2. jim says:

    hi Dan
    great to read your blog, rekindles many memories of our trips.
    We have been to New Zealand twice in the winter and have hired camper vans both times. We were able to freedom camp for two weeks both times with amazing views to watch the sunset with a nice glass of red or have your coffee and chocolate croissant overlooking a deserted beach.
    Our last trip was last August, we had two weeks in the South Island, the camper van was super cosy with the heater on even though we had huge snowfall in Mount Cook region.
    Enjoy your travels

  3. Chris Mills says:

    Hi Dan

    Thank you so much for including the beautiful photo of Castlepoint. What an undiscovered gem it is! As a boy growing up, that was our favourite beach to visit and my Mum’s family in particular had a special affinity with it. So much so in fact, my Grandad’s ashes were scattered just below the Lighthouse. The whole region has a lot to offer, especially these days with wonderful boutique wineries, olive groves and specialty cheeses. It has always been a treasured destination for trampers (hikers) as well who make the most of the wonderful Tararua Range. And all this is only an hour from Wellington! Just love reading about your travels – keep up the good work.

  4. Raffaele Cappiello says:

    Great post Dan!
    New Zealand is on my wish list. I’m not planning to go there soon, but I added this post in ‘My Favorites’. If I would like to add the South Island how many days more I need? Do you think 20-22 days would be enough?


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *