Much of what you want to see is the great scenery between cities and visit many of the smaller towns, so a rental car is the way to go – but be aware that they drive on the left, like England, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and many other countries. Rental car pick-up and drop-off in Auckland is just outside the international terminal – no bus ride required. Gas in New Zealand is over US$5 per US Gallon, but diesel is MUCH cheaper and widely available, so if you are offered a diesel rental car, I recommend it.
The North Island and South Island of New Zealand are a significant distance apart. The ferry is about 3 1/2 hours, and a couple hundred dollars for one car and one driver. Our rental car could not be taken between islands… but Avis would arrange for us to turn in one car at Wellington (North Island) and pick up a similar car in Picton (South Island), continuing on a related rental contract. We didn’t check out those logistics – this first trip was filled with just the North Island. Wellington was far enough south that we regrettably never got there. Having seen a portion of NZ in the North island, we want to go again to see the South Island, probably flying into Christchurch.
As usual we picked up 100 New Zealand Dollars from a bank ATM at the airport. Unlike Europe, but like the USA, there was a $3 ATM fee (total US$ 75.54 to get NZ$ 100). We only used NZ$ 70 cash in 11 days. Visa or Master Cards were readily accepted for most charges, even small purchases. The balance of our cash was used towards the final hotel bill.
Our suburban Auckland hotel was a block from a stop for a frequent express bus to the center of the city, for about the same cost as parking our car in the city. Over half of our cash was used on the NZ$ 5.50 bus fares for trips to and from for two of us on two days (total NZ$ 44).
Before we left home, we found several natives who had posted that they had never given anyone a tip in New Zealand. At many restaurants, you took your bill to the counter or bar to pay, and there was no provision for tipping. On a couple bills there was a blank to add a tip, and the natives were thrilled with 10%. At one place I had filled in 10% but the cashier said “that money goes into the til – who was your waiter? Can you give them a couple dollars cash?” I found her and gave her NZ$5, and thought she was going to kiss me – like she had never been tipped before. It appears the culture is changing to allow us tourists to leave more money.
Admission fees to museums and parks is far higher than I am used to paying in other countries. At one museum the admission was NZ$ 55 each (over US $40 each). We can afford it, and it was worth it, but we are certainly spoiled by the Smithsonian in Washington and the V&A in London and others with free admission. One park ranger, giving a talk, joked about how expensive park and museum admissions were in New Zealand.
No tourist visa is required by Americans for brief visits. New Zealand is very strict about what food may be brought in. They have the concept of an instant fine (often NZ$ 400, and if you pay it immediately – even by credit card – there are no court costs, and it does not go on your record.) If they find any food items that you did not declare, you get an instant fine, and may lose the food. We declared even the smallest thing, like a bag of trail mix with dried fruit and nuts, got to keep the food, and were admitted without hassle.
The emergency phone number for fire, police, and ambulance is 111
We found that there is too much to tell – this is just the logistics part of a great trip. Click here to start the travelogue, but more will be added over time.